The Arrival of Western Spoken Drama

Very few Asian countries originally had their own indigenous forms of spoken drama. Of course, the storytelling tradition may be regarded as a form of spoken theatre, but besides that most forms of Asian theatre, in India particularly, also involve music as well as dance or, at least, a highly stylised movement technique.

Even as early as the 18th century, visiting Western theatre groups toured India to entertain Western colonial administrators and their families. Furthermore, Western plays, particularly those of Shakespeare, were staged by Indian Western-educated students and amateur groups in various university halls in Colcata (Calkutta) and other colonial centres.

Western spoken drama, with its proscenium-type theatre hall, was, however, brought to India by a Russian adventurer, linguist, and musician, Gerasim Lebedev (1749–1817). He joined a British military band and ended up in India, first in Chennai (Madras) in 1785 and finally in Colcata.

There he established his theatre house specialising in Western dramas in the Bengali language. The group consisted of only local actors and actresses. The opening of his theatre in 1795 has later been regarded as the moment of the birth of “modern” theatre in India.

However, Lebedev’s sympathy towards Indians annoyed the British colonial administrators. Soon two envious British men burnt down his theatre and in 1797 Lebedev was expelled from India.

The Spread of Spoken Drama

As can be seen in the case of Lebedev and his Bengali Theatre, the arrival of Western spoken drama in India was already overshadowed by political issues. The first spoken drama in the Bengali language, written by an Indian writer, continued this line. It was Kulin Kulasarvasva by Pandit Ramnarayan Tarkaratnan. Although it was not aimed at criticising the British, it nonetheless criticised a certain Indian caste.

The gradual birth of Indian nationalism, first among the Western-educated Bengali intellectuals, also gave birth to dramas that directly criticised colonial rule. The premiere of Nil Darpa by Dinabadhu Mitra in 1860 created a controversy and a sensation, as it revealed the repressed Indians’ feelings.

Gradually, spoken drama spread among the urban, university-trained, Western-educated classes around India, and dramas were written in many Indian languages. The basic aesthetics of these productions reflected the period’s Western, realistic, even naturalistic, trends. A touch of melodrama came from the growing Indian film industry, which employed hundreds of actors using the melodramatic, even expressionist style of acting. This style, on the other hand, was deeply influenced by the urban, Western-influenced Parsi theatre of Bombay.