Published:  02:05 AM, 18 May 2017

Asian theater: Tradition and trend

Asian theater: Tradition and trend The Tempest in Bangla by Dhaka Theatre played on Slovakian stage

Asian theater is not only extraordinarily rich and diverse but also quintessentially different from the Western performance genre, especially when it comes to considering theater cultures of the South Asian Countries like India, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Traditional link of Hindu and Buddhist religions between these countries played a dynamic role in creating an undercurrent affinity in this respect. As Rubin (1998) said: . . . theater in Asia . . . is a far more complex entity than many from other parts of the world might anticipate or appreciate. It is, as perhaps no other, a brilliant mosaic mixing old and new, east and west, indigenous and colonial, rooted and technological, communal and individuated. It is at once connected to traditions that date back 5,000 years and as avant-garde as any in the world in the 1990s. (p. 10)

While identifying the uniqueness of Chinese plays as back as in 1964 Wells commented that drama in China is a separate stylistic genre and 'has comparatively small literary value', whereas in the West it is more for reading than performing, or perhaps for both. He compared Chinese drama with Japanese Noh plays and Sanskrit 'masterpieces', and held that though both Noh and Sanskrit plays have arresting literary excellence, 'the Chinese drama has been more or less equated with the Kabuki and held to be exotic spectacle rather than drama, to represent in other words, an art transferable neither to foreign words nor foreign stages' (p. 3).

On the other hand we have Nicoll (1951) who opined, 'Within the Sanskrit theater there could be no tragedy, since the very concept of the tragic, as interpreted in the West, would have been utterly alien to the philosophic and metaphysical beliefs [of the Sanskrit playwrights] (p. 631). But then again if philosophically and metaphysically the concept of tragedy as defined by the West was not traceable in Sanskrit plays, there existed a viraha tradition to depict the recurrent theme of 'longing' 'love' and 'separation', which of course is not to be paralleled with 'tragedy', yet viraha, though was initially an  exclusively female feeling (as seen in Shakuntala), it later came to be identified with high Bhakti and Sufi traditions, creating a secular performing culture.

For example, in the fifteenth century Sri Chaitanyadeva added a new dimension to the performing form (dance) of Bengal by glorious fusion of bhakti and rasa, as we know in Indian cultural tradition rasa is 'an ancient concept about the aesthetic flavor of any visual, literary or musical work, that evokes an emotion or feeling in the reader or audience, but that cannot be described.' (Barua, 2015)

Apparently, my endeavor so far has been to show how rich, diverse and exclusive the Asian theater is and how difficult it is to draw a clear synchronic and diachronic data to analyze and pinpoint the features of the theater of the Asian region. Experts say though the aesthetic arrays of the vast areas of Asia are recognizable and discernible, there has been a long process of evolution and even re-establishment of the performing genres for thousands of years. History endorses that songs and dance forms emerged very early in this expanse of the world some of which were linked with religion and others patronized by feudal lords.

Thus theater in the region essentially grew from India and China and spread almost throughout Asia exploiting the tales of Mahabharata and Ramayana blended with many indigenous stories and anecdotes. The trading contacts and the colonial rules later saw the introduction of western methods of theater practice starting from the nineteenth century. That helped emerge new theatrical groups and by the twentieth century two distinct genres of theater developed: old-style performances ingrained with musical and movement skills, and the modern one involving texts that were spoken rather than sung, (Rubin, 1998)

From this perspective, one can easily apprehend an encounter between tradition and the western styles in Asian modern theaters. Gunawardana (1997) rightly observed, 'Within the Asian framework [of theater], the term modernization generally glosses the ongoing transformation' (p. 17). To me this unique co-existence of the traditional and the modern is not at all perceptible anywhere in the world. Perhaps the reason is best explained by Gunawardana himself:

'For western scholars, Asia's pre-modern theaters are a storehouse of dramaturgical and performance resources that either are totally unknown to their own cultures or have vanished from their theatrical landscape. . . . Asia's pre-modern theaters have been happy hunting grounds for practitioners seeking new acting techniques and presentational modes.'

It can be noted here that many Asian countries in the twentieth century experienced a period of clash of opinions between traditional and modern forms, which immensely affected the theater communities of those countries. 'Traditional forms changed, some modestly, some significantly and spoken forms adapted' (Rubin, 1998). There were a number of meaningful and admirable undertakings to easternize western aesthetics, especially of the plays of Shakespeare, Artaud, Brecht, Moliere, and many others.

Rubin (1998) also mentioned that the fundamental structures of modern theater are similar all over Asia: enclosed auditorium, proscenium stages, admission fees, reserved seats, specified time-frames, advertising, reviews (though this part is both weak and neglected in Bangladesh). It is also true that 'the modern theaters of Asia have firmly adopted the 'realistic' aesthetic of verbal meaning and formal signification that is integral to the modern dramaturgy of the west' (p.19). But the convergence of modernism can also be found in traditional theaters where in innovative experiments are being done in many parts of Asia. Globalization, one of the most crucial ultimates of modernization is inevitably merged with traditional values of life and society with its good and evil effects.

Thus theater in Asia has, in many ways, created a meeting ground of pre-modern as well as modern aesthetics, and subsequently deliberating on reaching a workable resolution. For example, Ramayana and Mahabharata still inspire the theater of this vast subcontinent 'Ramayana tales still run as a main nerve for theatrical activities not only in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, but also into Thailand, Indonesia and other countries across Southeast Asia' (Chaturvedi, 1998).

Contemporary themes like coups, riots, wars and war crimes, gender discrimination, and specially, status of women dominate in Bangladesh, Burma, Afghanistan and Iran. As Chaturvedi (1998) said, 'The theater [of these countries], passing through such diversity, has reflected this chaos while successfully projecting instant images of the community's unifying ideas as well as helping to maintain its unique identity.'

Though I do not intend to chronicle individual country's theatrical traditions comprehensively in this paper, I would very much like to talk about their overall traditions and present-day trends to argue in favor of my thesis statement that Asian theater is different from the Western performance genre. (2nd part of the article will appear in next issue)


The writer teaches English at  Central Women's University



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