All the world’s a stage…

Sitting in the dark theater with bewildered eyes and my mouth wide open, I watched in awe Fairy Godmother transforming Cinderella with her magic wand.

This is my earliest memory of drama. Such is the power of theatre. One magic moment that gets ossified in your memory forever. A theatre person would term this as “willing suspension of belief” – a state where you believe what is presented before you, even though you know it is not real. You readily believe what is happening even though your logic tells you otherwise.

But ask a child who’s got her face painted to enact a role, or a seasoned critic to point out what drama is. Drama or theatre is the power of imagination – an element that lifts a person out of her mundane life and through role-playing gives one the power to overcome fears and believe in possibilities.

The history of theatre can be traced back to our earliest human memories of caveman donning masks of the hunted wild animals and dancing around a celebratory fire. All indications point to dance and sound and ritual being the early forms of our theatrical impulses. Drama by its nature acts out or takes control of some of the forces that govern us and the audience is led to a state of mind where it is purged of all its fears and desires. The aim of all great drama, whether in its religious form or in the more theatrical way of story telling through examples, is to lift the individual from his or her ordinary, everyday state to a heightened level of experiencing and, perhaps, even understanding the world.

Later on, as years passed by, I was to realise the different forms of theatre, their origin and the intensity of theatre’s impact. India has the richest and longest tradition of theatre dating back 5000 years. Bharata’s ‘Natya Shatra’ (2000 BC to 4th century AD) is regarded as the earliest known and most elaborate treatise of drama anywhere in the world. Various traditions of dance, mime and drama are codified in Natya Shastra. The treatise is addressed to playwright, director and actor considered to be inseparable parts of drama. The Sanskrit word ‘nataka‘ is derived from the word-meaning dance. This only goes to prove we have a long history of song, music, dance and acting going together.

Legend has it that the first play was performed in heaven with the gods enacting their victory over demons. There have two styles in the earliest forms which are followed even today – ‘lokdharmi‘ and ‘natyadharmi‘. The former is more realistic and believes in natural presentation of human behaviour and objects. The latter is considered more artistic with the use of stylised gestures and symbolism.

Indian theatre encompassing dance, music literature and fine arts, painting, sculpture and architecture is collectively called ‘natya‘ or ‘theatre’ in English. The Sanskrit theatre later adapted itself to changing times. This saw emergence of various forms of theatre including folk theatre from different parts of India, musicals, religious plays and so on.

From mere entertainment, theatre moved on to become a political tool and an instrument of social change. Theatre in India has come a long way though it still retains its different flavours and originality. The magic wand is still working.

About the author: This is a guest post by Tejaswini Patwardhan.

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