Published:  01:26 AM, 25 May 2017

Asian theater: Tradition and trend

Source: Indian Theatre - Traditions of Performance (1993).

To begin with let me talk about Indian theatre which expands from rural festivals to contemporary urban theatre, from dramatic rituals and devotional performances to dance-dramas, and classical Sanskrit plays comprising a colorful and often an amazing world. The following diagram can give an abstract picture of the traditional as well as present-day sphere of performance genre of Indian drama-

Sphere of performance genre:
Bangladesh also inherited a similar tradition being a significant part of the subcontinent. The origin of theatre in Bangladesh can be traced in the 4th century AD in the form of Sanskrit drama. Many evidences supporting the existence of dance forms in ancient Bengal can be found in its literature, temple sculptures, history, paintings, daily rural life, and narratives, just as seen in any other parts of India. We see references to Charyapada Nritya (dance) in Charyagiti of the 9th century, and performance genres in Gita Govinda of the 12th century, and Shreekrishna Kirtana by Boru Chandidas of the 14th century.

Another segment of Bangla literature happens to be Mangal-Kavya, a group of Bengali Hindu religious texts, composed more or less between the 13th Century and the 18th Century, filled with the description of dance and acting. At this juncture of Mangal- Kavya Sri Chaitanyadeva appeared with his unique dance forms accompanied by his remarkable musical instruments.

His philosophy of Achintya-Bheda-Abheda is a school of Vedanta representing the philosophy of inconceivable one-ness and difference has been reincarnated as dayta-odyatabad blended with folk narrative style in the late 20th and early 21st centuries on Bangladeshi stage. Maimansingha Gitika, a collection of folk ballads of most secular nature that existed in the land from late 16th century still contributes to the theatre performances of Bangladesh. Being part of Indian subcontinent traditional forms like folk, narrative, song-and-dance and processionals still persist in Bangladeshi theatre along with European forms that came with the British between late 18th and mid-20th century.

Though music and dance accompanied by narratives (often through solo performances) are integral part of Bangladeshi culture, Rabindranath Thakur added a novel dimension to it by composing several musical dance dramas. Not only that he also heightened the aesthetics of Bengali theatre with his symbolic, allegorical and metaphoric plays that are still extraordinarily contemporary. But unfortunately there is no tradition of theatre specifically for children. People's Little Theatre, Bangladesh, the lone group, is found to be active recently.

Last but not the least, in Bangladesh almost all theatre groups are amateur professionals. The exclusive trend of Bangladeshi theatre surfaced after its independence in 1971, and according to me, until now it can be classified under six broad heads: i) theatre of folk tradition inclusive of jatra; ii) dance and music drama; iii) modern historic and socio-political plays in proscenium form; iv) new interpretation of traditional folk stories, ballads and religious myths; v) adaptations and translations of Western and plays written in other languages; vi) plays based on 1971 Liberation War and its aftermath.

Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka have an intense practice of dance and music, which is tinged with Indian tradition of performance genre. In Bhutan throughout the year people celebrate masked dance festivals. These performances are religiously and spiritually attached with Buddhist culture. The northern part of the country is intensely influenced by Tibet while the southern part is more culturally influenced by Nepal.

There exist three broad categories of dances: didactic dances with morals; dances that purify and protect from demonic/evil spirits; and dances that pronounce the victory of Buddhism. It is remarkable to note that in Bhutan European style theatre does not exist. In Nepal Hinduism, Buddhism and Lamaism exist side by side though officially it is a Hindu state. Dances and festivals are very much prevalent in Nepal the way it is in Bhutan but by the end of nineteenth century Hindi, Urdu and Nepalese plays started to be performed.

Remarkably enough folk, classical songs, and dances from Gita Govinda were performed at that time which was also a Bangladeshi culture. At present there are several theatre groups performing and experimenting with both locally written and translated/adapted scripts. As for Sri Lanka, it too has a folk play tradition depicting Buddhism's unique sense of rituals. Western-style plays started to be produced since 1950s and modern playwrights regularly contribute both Tamil and Singhalese language original/translated/adapted plays for Sri Lankan stages.

Let's now turn to Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. The traditional Indonesian theatre forms are close to ritual origins. Interestingly enough many traditional dramatic works had been drawn from classical epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. Though most modern playwrights follow a more western style forsaking indigenous forms, three distinct theatre practices still exist in Indonesia-indigenous traditional, national and markedly western. Classical Thai art and literature is profoundly based on Hindu epic Ramayana.

During 1960s emerged the actual western-style playwriting-from Shakespeare through Ibsen to the absurdists. Around 1970s students of universities staged plays that ventilated the inner struggles of their generations such as, freedom from cultural conditioning and from political controls. 'In the 1990s, Thai theatre was able to offer audiences a range of experiences from the most traditional dance-dramas to Broadway-style productions, from western-style experimental spoken drama to historical epics' (Saenkulsirisak, 1998).

The Philippines is rich in indigenous dramas which are drawn from nature and tribal life. But then the Spaniards from 1565 to 1896 colonized it and theatre went through a radical reorientation-dramatic themes shifted from life of the people and nature to the life of Christ and the saints. Later during the American dominance from 1900 to 1946 other new theatrical forms and styles were introduced. In the modern phase Philippines has been able to create original plays that have three-dimensional characterization and realistic sets and costumes.

I already referred to China and Japan and their traditions and trends, though not very elaborately. However, I do not intend to go into it anymore because this paper will not be able to do justice outlining their great contributions to the theatre aesthetics. Very briefly I would rather prefer to talk about theatre practices in Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and Vietnam and then conclude by indicating a few theatrical features of Pakistan and Iran.

About Singapore theatre Yeo (1982) said that Singapore theatrical activity is 'firmly compartmentalized' within three language streams: Malaya, Mandarin and Tamil. Moreover, the new generation, mostly English-educated, is 'struggling hard to cope with a sense of increasing isolation and deracinating within a still largely traditionalist socio-political matrix' (Blond, 1998). In fact the conflict is between Asian traditions and values and the forces of western modernization. That's what made Goh (1996) to comment, 'A nation which ignores and does not encourage its theatre is, if not culturally dead, culturally pitiable; . . ..' As for Malaysia, it has four main languages: Bhasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Tamil and English and theatre in many forms exists in all those four languages.

Malaysian theatre has traditional form dance-dramas influenced by Thailand, Malay and Indonesia. From mid-twentieth century adaptations and translations of foreign plays led to the writing of modern drama. In Malaya-theatre examples of experimental theatre can also be noticed now. Malaysia has both traditional theatre and refashioned modern theatre performed side by side. Theatre in Korea, like Bangladesh, is still not a professional affair, at least not in the western sense of the term. In Korea traditional drama was revived with the New Theatre movement during early 20th century.

Playwrights during Japanese occupation were divided between right and left ideologies. By 1960s a new generation of writers emerged whose main theme gyrated round tragic division of the country (North & South), separation of families or wartime experiences of starvation and depravity. (Key, 1998) Vietnam, officially divided into two territories in 1954, has dominant influences of Portuguese and French. Intriguingly, compared with other Southeast Asian countries Vietnam was one of the earliest countries to have founded and organized theatrical activities which involved religious rituals and formal performances. The first western-style drama came on stage in 1921 and until now Vietnam has 150 theatre groups.

In Pakistan presently four recognizable types of theatre exist in terms of style, content and audience. 'The folk tradition . . . goes far back into the history . . . while 'parallel' theatre with its socio-political agenda is the newest. In between are the Punjab commercial theatre and various attempts at creating a western-style drama' (Ahmed & Ahmed, 1998).

Though Iran is situated in western Asia it has a vital link with Indian subcontinent historically, religiously and culturally. After Islamic Revolution the country went through a phase of disinclination to performing art. However, from 1970s the traditional forms of Iranian performance got out of the recognition of retrograde art forms and began to be recognized by the state and theatre artists. Since then many playwrights and directors synthesized the traditional forms with European ones.

Though I have left out a few very formidable theatre endeavors of a few other Asian countries for lack of space and time, and most of all dearth of information, I would like to conclude by saying that my hypothesis that Asian theatre is so extraordinarily rich, diverse and exclusive can be decisively delineated from this presentation of mine. In fact, no other theatre-world has been able to admix so fruitfully and successfully the indigenous theatre practices that are rooted to the respective lands with the proscenium styles of the West like it has been done in the Asian countries-South Asian countries in particular. That definitely is essentially the potential of the Asian drama. (end)


The writer teaches English at  Central Women's University

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