On World Theatre Day, a look at Indian plays that explore corruption and power

March 27 marks World Theatre Day, a celebration initiated by the International Theatre Institute, a UNESCO-affiliated organisation, in 1961. The Federal reflects on the works of Indian playwrights who have fearlessly tackled the theme of corruption in their plays

Indian playwrights
The diverse forms of theatre in India reflect the country's cultural diversity and artistic richness.

In his play Tughlaq (1964), Girish Karnad portrays Muhammad-bin Tughlaq, the 18th Sultan of Delhi who ascended to the throne upon his father’s death in 1325, as a man who is hungry for power and willing to do whatever it takes to retain it. 

Tughlaq makes several questionable decisions during his reign, including moving his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad, which results in the death of many of his subjects. He also creates a system of currency that ultimately fails, leading to the impoverishment of his kingdom.

Through his portrayal of Tughlaq, Karnad highlights the dangers of unchecked power and the corrupt practices that can arise when individuals are given too much authority. He also critiques the political climate of his time, drawing parallels between Tughlaq’s rule and the political climate of post-independence India.

Parallels with today’s India 

Karnad’s play serves as a warning against the dangers of authoritarianism and a call for greater accountability and transparency in politics. 

Despite being set in the 14th century, Karnad’s play is relevant to contemporary India. Tughlaq’s character serves as a warning against the dangers of unchecked power. 

In the India of the 21st century, where corruption continues to be a rampant, and those in power are often accused of abuse of power and authoritarianism.

Indian playwrights like Karnad have dealt with power and corruption in their plays extensively. These plays have been mounted across the country, and translated into several languages.

Also read
: Salem’s Modern Theatres is back in the news, and so is actor Kali Ratnam

In Ghasiram Kotwal, legendary Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar explores the corrupt practices of the Peshwa regime in 19th-century Pune, when power was abused and the common man was oppressed. 

Mahesh Elkunchwar, in his play Holi, deals with the theme of corruption and how it affects the lives of people at different levels of society. Along with Tendulkar, he is credited as one of the most influential and progressive playwrights in Marathi theatre.

Theatre in South India

Like Marathi theatre, South Indian theatre has a rich history and cultural significance. It is an integral part of the region’s cultural heritage, reflecting the unique customs, traditions, and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.

One of the most significant aspects of South Indian theatre is its diversity. The region is home to several distinct theatrical traditions, each with its own style, narrative, and performance techniques. For example, the Koodiyattam of Kerala, Yakshagana of Karnataka, and Kattaikkuttu of Tamil Nadu are just a few examples of the rich and varied theatre traditions of South India.

South Indian theatre is often characterized by its colourful costumes, intricate makeup, and elaborate set designs. The performances are usually accompanied by live music, which adds to the immersive experience. The narratives often revolve around mythological and religious themes, and they are told through music, dance, and drama.

One of the most significant contributions of South Indian theatre to the performing arts is its emphasis on physical and emotional expression. Actors in South Indian theatre are trained to express a wide range of emotions and moods, often through intricate hand gestures and body movements. 

The performances are a combination of physicality, music, and storytelling, creating a mesmerizing and immersive experience for the audience. Another significant aspect of South Indian theatre is its role in promoting social change and addressing social issues. Many theatre companies in the region use their performances to raise awareness about social and political issues such as gender inequality, caste discrimination, and environmental degradation. They also use theatre as a tool for education, outreach, and community building.

Legendary figures of South Indian theatre 

Kavalam Narayana Panicker made significant contributions to the development of modern theatre in Kerala. His plays, such as “Avanavan Kadamba,” “Ooruvaran,” and “Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam,” are considered classics of Malayalam theatre. Similarly, B. V. Karanth revolutionized Indian theatre with his innovative techniques and modern approach. He directed over 300 plays in various languages, including Kannada, Hindi, and Malayalam.

C. N. Annadurai, the celebrated Tamil playwright, film director, and politician, was  known for his contributions to the development of Tamil theatre and cinema. He wrote and directed several plays, including “Velaikari,” “Kuttrapathirikai,” and “Ratha Kanneer.”

K. Balachander, too, contribited greatly to the development of Tamil theatre and cinema. He wrote and directed several plays, including “Server Sundaram,” “Neerkumizhi,” and “Naanal.”

Malayalam writer and filmmaker M. T. Vasudevan Nair is also known for his contributions to the development of modern theatre and cinema in Kerala. He wrote several plays, including “Nalukettu,” Asuravithu,” and “Kaalam.”

Contemporary scene

Today, theatre in India continues to evolve and thrive. Experimental theatre, street theatre, and puppetry are popular forms of theatre in India. Regional theatre is also gaining prominence, with the emergence of new playwrights and directors in different parts of the country.

One of the most significant aspects of Indian theatre is its diversity. India is a country of many languages, cultures, and traditions, and each region has its own unique theatre forms and styles. From the folk theatre of Rajasthan and Maharashtra to the Sanskrit dramas of Kerala and Karnataka, Indian theatre offers a vast array of performances that reflect the diversity of the country.

The Indian theatre scene today is rich and varied, with a growing number of theatre companies and venues. The metropolitan cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai are home to some of the most renowned theatre companies, such as the Prithvi Theatre, the National School of Drama (NSD), and the Rangashankara Theatre (Bengaluru). These venues not only showcase traditional and contemporary Indian theatre but also host international productions and collaborations.

Despite the growth of the industry, Indian theatre faces significant challenges. Funding remains a significant issue, with many theatre companies struggling to secure resources for productions and training programs. Censorship is another challenge, with some productions facing restrictions and limitations on their content.

However, Indian theatre practitioners remain committed to the art form, and many are using innovative approaches to overcome these challenges. Some companies have turned to crowdfunding to finance their productions, while others are experimenting with digital platforms to reach a wider audience.

Additionally, the growing interest in theatre education has led to the establishment of several theatre schools and training programmes, providing opportunities for aspiring theatre professionals to develop their skills. 

As the theatre community continues to innovate and push boundaries, Indian theatre promises to be bright.