(Searching for a new vocabulary in the contemporary theatre through the discipline of  Natyashastra and other Indian Tradition)

Sometimes I wonder how much Indian I am? How much I know my country; its custom, tradition, philosophy, culture and literature? And I claim to be an Indian!!! Here in London while teaching Indian theatre to the European students, I am searching for my identity, my root. Is it not looking bit funny that in a Western Country I am in quest of Indian culture? I am becoming more Indian than I was in India!!! Why this thought never come in our own soil to most of us and all on a sudden it stood before as a question of survival!!!!


Today is Sunday and here in Europe no one works in holidays. They enjoy… and wake up late. But as an early riser I got up at 4.30 morning. It was going to be dawn and the south end of the sea in England where I live was waking up to a clear morning after a nightlong rain and severing cold. All the houses in the lane were still in dark and sea was calm…. Utter silence engulfed the hamlet. In this calm atmosphere I opened my Bhagwat Gita (the book I always kept with me while on travel) and started reading some slokas as a usual practice. At one point in Karma Yoga my reading stopped… It was at the point when Lord Krishna narrates to the depressed Arjuna about the Karma; deeds:

“sva-dharme nidhanam sreyah… 
para-dharmo bhayavahah…”

Which means:

It is always better to adopt and stay constant in your self-prescribed duties (Karma) and die for that rather to adopt others’ deeds; however good and noble it is!

From the outer boundary, it has nothing to do with theatre but somehow I stopped at this point. I have been never rigid to adopt any creative ideology and issues…. But not blindly…


It seems to me that this sloka has a great link with our contemporary theatre practice. In India we have almost forgotten the value of our Swadharma; especially in the field of art, literature and culture. Most of our theatre practitioners have nothing to do with Indian theatre and its discipline and what to say about our academicians!!! In every step of action, we the so-called authority of theatre look at the west, which reflects in every inch of our gesture. Slowly it became a fashion in the theatre world now. We have nothing to do with our root and yet we call ourselves Indian!!! We have a great treasure of theatre discipline; Natyashastra and we have forgotten it!! Why don’t we create our contemporary theatre based on the treaties of Natyashastra and other deeply rooted cultural discipline? Why are we looking every time to west like Paradharma as narrated by Krishna in Geeta?


Indian culture and philosophy always attracts the scholars over the world and history witnesses how people from various walks of life came to India in different phases of time in the quest of knowledge and wisdom! I am not going to touch that issue… the area is too big to understand. But I must say about our Indian theatre. Forget about past, in the recent years, in 20th century, theatre practitioners, scholars, theoreticians and academicians used to come to India to study our discipline and performance culture, which sometimes remain alien to us! Brecht, Perter Brook, Barba, Schechner, Tadashi Suzuki, Grotowski and many scholars over the world have adopted Oriental training system which is mainly based on Bharata’s Natyashastra and Ziami’s aesthetic principles.

What is there in Natyashastra that attracts the scholars over the world to reinterpret, redefine and exploring in many ways? While experimenting on the training system from this Indian treatise with a group of western actors, I felt the necessity to share some of my experiences and techniques we are adopting from Indian theatre discipline. I want to put forth the basic fundamental issues that made our Indian training system more viable among all the disciplines over the world.


Contemporary theatre over the world is undergoing an identity crisis after globalization. Be it western or Indian the problem remains the same everywhere. World theatre has already reached its maturity as far as technology is concerned. But is the application of technology in various ways and meaning, theatre? Is it ever remained as a major demand of presentation? Off course it has helped to project our-self better, to communicate more meaningfully. But that is not the final goal of theatre. The final goal lies somewhere else. From the beginning of humanity, man tries to search his self-identity through theatre. The communion and human bond is none other than the theatre activity. Theatre taught us sharing… emotion, feeling, and knowledge. In this way it contributes towards the age-old wisdom of mankind. But somehow our contemporary practice lacks all these essential elements that theatre offers. Either we have been trapped into the dark chamber of the show world or we have fallen into the pit of consumerism. The spirituality of theatre art has been faded away from our mind, which was once the driving force of Indian theatre (Satvika).


Nowhere in the world performance culture, priority has been given to the spiritual performance except in Asian theatre, whose main stream of knowledge is based on Natyashastra. Natyashastra never talks of acting; that we know in a general sense. It speaks of the Natyam; performance. Here we perform the characters but not portray it in a representational form, as is a common practice in the western theatre. We portray the characters; not as an incarnation, not as a representation of life… rather in a presentational style, which is abstract, symbolic, metaphorical and poetic. According to Natyashastra theatre is called Drishya-Kavyam, which means visual-poetry; a verse, which can be visible and audible in a given space and time. This discipline of knowledge can never be achieved through compartmental education system derived by western method for which a tree is a tree, a bird is a bird and a house is a house. The system in west has been developed within their framework and it has its own aesthetics. But for Indian theatre where is the tree and where is the house? In an empty space, we perform. We never carry with us any external elements; set…props…mask…, etc. Even no real character! We metaphorically create them as a part of performance with the help of our physical and vocal expressions. In a way we create and we break everything according to the need and demand of the poetry. It has a great philosophical value, which can only be realised through an Indian sensibility. As Indian philosophy visualises everything as Maya; illusion, presentation itself is a great illusion. Sometimes it becomes visible and in a fraction of second it vanishes and in the next moment it is realised in the imagination… in thoughts and becomes a concept. This concept of performance travels in many layers and in any many planes at a single moment of time and space. It can’t follow a linear journey; it is bound to be non-linear and is destined to cross all the barriers of logical human experiences. Finally it elevates the performers and the spectators in to the state of bliss where the spectator able to test of the rasa of the performance and enjoy.

The Training:

To achieve that blissful moment of spirituality the performer has to undergo a rigorous training process. The actors’ training in Natyashastra is related to four different disciplines; Angika: performance through physical behaviour, Vachika: performance of voice, Aharya: performance through external elements such as costume, makeup etc. satwika: the spiritual performance.

As a contemporary theatre trainer my aim is not to pull one again to the convention of classical theatre but to develop a modern theatre training system which passes through the strong discipline of Natyashastra tradition and brings the flavours and fragrance of spiritualism, which can connect the fragmented performances of body, voice, and scenography with the soul of the performer and views. Then only it would become a happening, which celebrates life in its full content.


To enter into the discipline theatre one has to completely surrender him to the training, which in India we call Samarpana. It is an offering of our body, mind and soul to the karma; our deed; i. e theatre. Once a student enters into this activity, which is like a yagyanan, he has to obey and follow all the rituals without any kind of resistance from his side. In the extreme conditions, he even not allowed to ask any question to the master, his guru until the teacher asks him to say. All the activities are the rituals, which has to be performed by the disciple without hesitation and the student has to pass through this rigorous process through his body, voice, mind and soul. Theatre, art is practiced through the physical expressions over the world, which we termed as Shariranubhuti; experience of the physical being. In this art form everything is indicated for the physical being of the actor. Until and unless he passes through the bodily experience, how can he be able to express the truth of life? That is the reason why in India Gurukul training system was developed. The disciple has to spend the entire time with the teacher not only to be educated but to learn life as well.


 969063_10151733706704881_1423566374_nSatyabrata Rout, Associate Professor at University of Hyderabad has sent this article for UoH Herald who is currently

teaching Indian Theatre to the students of East 15 Acting School,  University of Essex, UK

e-mail: satya00191@yahoo.co.in