Knowing Indian traditional theatre and its relevance

A performance of Yakshagaan in progress

All the parts of India have its own culture and traditions and have different performing arts. The Indian traditional theatre has preserved the identity, uniqueness as well as the history of the area. These art forms, from whichever area they belong to, have evolved with the times yet are deeply rooted in their past.

Generally they have survived due to their deliverance of values and newness of presentation to the society. They still exist because they have too much to tell to the society. The current generation, as well as governments in respective states, has revived these art forms which were losing their sheen two decades ago.

It is an indispensible part of societal structure. People draw inspiration from local heroes to the folklore and culture-specific stories to present them in a region’s known style of theatre.


Yakshgaan, Ankia Naat, Bhaona, Chhau, Turra Kalangi, Nautanki, Ram Leela, Aalha Udal, Raas Leela are all different styles of taditional theatre in India and they belong to different parts.

Local weather and season along with the culture and tradition prepare the base for traditional theatre. For example the ‘Bhangra’ dance form from Punjab has old actions and movements as it experiences better climate than Kashmir where ‘Bhand Pather’ has very limited movements due to the severe cold conditions.

Local heroes have enriched the traditional theatre. Heroic stories from past are presented with dance and music to the audience today. It not only reminds them of a glory but preserves the art form as well. The traditional theatres have evolved from the historical times, be it oral tradition of storytelling, written texts, mythologies or legends.

Stories they tell

The base of the traditional theatre is the stories they tell. Folktales, stories from epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas are prevalent but at the same time stories of local heroes and legends are also performed. Nowadays, modern day elements as well as achievements of Indians are also added as part of story to pay respect to them. One can easily spot the Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan, Kalpana Chawal and many other heroes from our past being presented on stage, in temples and mandaps across the nation.


The beauty and uniqueness of the traditional art form is they remain local in all aspects. Be it musical instruments, the songs, language or the materials used for stage, it is always the local-made and socially produced.

Bhand People ather
Kashmiri people enjoying ‘Bhand Pather’, a traditional theatre form from Kashmir

The stage is made of local and easily available things like bamboo sticks, planks, wooden cots etc. There are no closed spaces as in modern day proscenium theatre. The stage is made out in open area, be it inside temple premises or in a ground. All the decorations are indigenous and are prepared from natural product. The lighting aspect is not much sophisticated. It just solves the purpose of visibility and does not have much to do with ‘effects’ as such.

Make-up and costumes

The make-up of the artistes are very much rustic and earthen. Only natural and local things are used for makeup. Costumes are chosen as per the requirement of the characters. The colours of the costumes are generally gay and bright in the traditional theatre. Use of red, yellow, green can be observed almost everywhere in all the art or dance forms.


As the art form is traditional, the make rustic, and the music indigenous, the presentation is often dramatic, musical, poetic, and rustic. It carries a smell of the soil. However, the performance (of some art forms along with its preparation) can be highly codified as in strict classical sense, following Bharat Muni’s ‘Natya Shastra’ and its guidelines on stage structure, audience sitting arrangement etc.

At the same time, it can be very loose and semi classical in approach. The performers follow a routine and try to bring newness to the already known stories. As the story is generally known to the audience in traditional theatre so the innovation becomes very essential in presentation. The performance generally starts in nights and goes on till the dawn. There are no time limits and it is highly flexible.


The traditional theatre of India enjoys all the three kinds of patronage: Lokashray, which means dependent on people; Devashray or dependent on temples for funds; Rajyaashray which means the state gives grants to the art form and is the provider.

Different areas have survived on different patronage. Some places have survived without any help from the temple or state and people have kept the art form alive. Purulia Chhau is an example where the performance is ritualistic and rustic because it is performed in a destitute society with no funding from state or temples. At the same time, another variant of Chhau, Saraikela Chhau, is supported by the elite class of the region.


The language used in the performance has to be from the local area. It can’t even be a language rather a dialect of the village. The director adopts the script in the local dialect and artistes perform it in their mother tongue. Language is of the people and for the people. A single language or dialect prevails throughout the play.


The instruments used to create and perform music are local. Music is indispensible from any theatre form. Some of the instruments that are prevalent are: bansuri, manjira, idakkya, chendu, jhanjh, dhamsa, dholak, harmonium, veena, dafli, tabla among many others. The music can be classical or semi classical.

Generally the instrument are region specific and indigenous to that particular area. One interesting bit is the Harmonium, an instrument modified in India from the piano and other smaller versions of it, is integral to almost all the regional traditional theatres in India.

Audience-actor relationship

Actors are always from the village or locality itself. They do all their work in the day and rehearse in the evenings or during a decided time. Normally, the same person does the same part every year till the village or he himself decides to retire from it.

The audience and the actors, normally males even form female roles, are highly bound to each other. If the performer is getting loose at some place, the elder or the person who knows the art can point the mistakes out and correct the during the performance itself.


We mustn’t forget our traditions. These art forms have carried on our collective values and way of life since they took shape. They remind us of the inspirational people and stories which inspire us to achieve more and become ideal human beings.

Nowadays, government is making efforts to make people understand the policies and schemes through the traditional theatre. These art forms are used to educate people on various topics, issues of social importance. One can spot integration of ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’, ‘Beti Padhao’, ‘Sarva Shikha Abhiyaan’ etc during Ram Leelas and nautanki.

The advantage with these art forms is that one can easily make the audience understand what he/she wants to convey. These are easily associable and identifiable with almost all the people as all of us have either watched these performances or listened stories from our parents and grandparents.

Nowadays even advertisers are using these traditional art forms to put their views across. The message reaches to the audience in simpler ways and conveniently than from a TV set or radio. The reason is that these art forms are in their own language and the audience feel themselves to be a part of that larger picture.

With many scholars and government institutions pumping money and mind, the traditional theatre can only go ahead. It not only solves the aforesaid purpose but also takes us close to our roots and asks us to be more responsible towards our fellow beings and society as a whole.