Indian English Drama Before Independence

Read this article to know about the history of Indian English Drama, its characteristics and the main playwrights.

Also read: Characteristics of Modern Drama in English Literature

Also read: Characteristics of Neoclassical Drama

Introduction to Indian English Drama

indian englosh drama

In simple words, Drama is a genre of English Literature, which is normally in prose and which tells a story and is intended to be represented by actors impersonating the characters and speaking the dialogue.

It involves the playwright, the actor, the audience, plot-construction, characterisation, dialogues, music, dance, posture, stage setting etc.

Indian Drama is the broad concept comprising entire Indian myths and culture. Drama in India is older than in Western Literature, as when Indian Drama was at its zenith, the Western countries were in chaos. Indian drama came 2000 years before Aristotle’s monumental work ‘Poetics’.

Journey of Indian Drama begins with the Sanskrit plays, among which Natyashastra is the oldest text of the theory of the Drama. Thus the origin of Indian drama is found in the Vedic Period.

Most celebrated dramatists of ancient era are Ashwagosh, Bhasa, Shudraka, Kalidasa, Harsha, Bhavbhuti, Vishakhadatta etc. Literature in Sanskrit is classified into two categories—

  1. Drishya:- that can be seen; and
  2. Sravya-:- that can be heard

Drama falls in the category of Drishya

Historical Background

Indian English Drama dates back to 18th century when the British Rule became stable in India. British brought with them, the theatre. But during the initial decades of their rule, they could not present English Drama due to the unawareness of Indians regarding the English Language.

Hence, a lot of English plays, like those of Shakespeare were translated into Indian Languages and then presented before the Indians.

Gradually, Western education made its way to India. As a result, Indian English Drama came into existence.

English Drama in India was started by Krishna Mohan Banerji with his work The Perscecuted (1837). It was a social play dealing with the conflicts between East and West.

The real beginning of the English Drama in India was with Is This Called Civilization by Michael Madhu Sudan Dutt in 1871. Indian English Drama could not progress for two decades after M.M.S. Dutt due to some plausible reasons.

e.g. English is not the mother tongue of Indians, hence it was difficult to make a dialogue between Indians in English sound look natural and convincing.

This difficulty was overcome by eminent playwrights like R.N. Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. Indian English Drama made quite progress after R.N. Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.

Also read: Summary of Hayavadana by Girish Karnad

Characteristics

  • Most of the playwrights preferred to write short plays as compared to full length plays.
  • As far as themes are concerned, social problems were the main focus of this era. Plays dealing with legendary and historical themes occupied next place to the social ones.
    • Playwrights like the Sri Aurobindo, Bharati Sarabhai drew their themes from the ancient myths and legends and interpret them in terms of a contemporary social problem.
    • Playwrights like Kailasam and Ramaswami Shastri focussed on highlighting the greatness of epic heroes and heroines.
    • Playwrights like Chattopapadhaya, Ayyar and Narayanan made contemporary issues the theme of their plays.
    • S.P., Annayya, Ayyar etc took interest in history and current politics.
  • Coming to models and techniques, most of the playwrights opted for Elizabethan model.
  • Many playwrights did not adhere to the Classical Sanskrit Drama and Ancient Techniques.

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Main Playwrights

  • RABINDRANATH TAGORE: – He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and was entitled as “the epitome of Indian Spiritual Heritage”. He wrote primarily in Bengali, but most of his plays were translated into English. His best known works are Chitra, Sacrifice, The Post Office, The Cycle of Spring etc. Tagore was first to use symbolism and allegorical significance as a prime technique in his plays. He presented a synthesis of East and West in his plays.
  • SRI AUROBINDO: – He wrote five complete and six incomplete verse plays. There is a variety of periods and places in his plays. He dealt with human evolution and love in his drama. His famous plays are-Perseus the Deliverer, Prime of Edur, Eric etc.
  • HARINDRANATH CHATTOPADHAYA: – His plays fell under four groups- Devotional, Social, Historical, Social and Devotional. In his social plays, he presents social evils and problems through symbolism. He is deeply influenced by Progressive Writer’s Movement.
  • S.P AYYAR:- He was a social reformer who exposed ills of contemporary Indian society. His main grounds were widowhood, religious orthodoxy, superstition and hypocrisy.
  • P. KAILASAM:-He wrote both in English and Kannada. His dramatic genius is fully expressed in his plays:- The Burden, Fulfilment, The Purpose etc. He was regarded as father of modern Kannada Drama.
  • BHARATI SARABHAI:- She gave touch to Gandhian Touch to Indian Drama. Her two famous plays-The Well of the People and The Women are based on Gandhian Philosophy.
  • N. LOBO PRABHU: – It was the last great name in Pre-independence Indian English Drama. Out of his dozen plays, only two were published before independence-Mother of New India and Death Abdicates.

Problems

  • There is a lack of understanding, in case of a few playwrights regarding the structure of the plays, as the so called ‘acts’ of their plays were not acts in real but scenes.
  • Language has remained a major obstacle to almost all the playwrights of this era. Many playwrights had tried to overcome this problem but could not succeed.
    • Sri Aurobindo’s long speeches trouble the action of his plays.
    • Kailasam enhances the beauty of his language with his excessive rhetoric and archaism.
    • There is artificiality of dialogues in the plays of Ayyar and Chattopadhaya.
    • English Drama in India was not stage worthy drama but read only drama
  • There was lack of interest among the audience.

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