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Raj Rekha Shukla*
Abstract : Indian Folk Theatre is reckoned as just not a theatre
form but is now-a-days a lot more. It unfurls the saga of the
voyage of Indian drama from the eposes to the modish theatre
pattern. It is the chronicle of Indian drama where for the very
first time theatre broke the barrier of orchestra and pits and
reached the mask in a whole new way through the exotic
brilliance of music, song and folklores.The use of folk theatre
strategies, the contours of fresh, innovative and flexible
dramatic form have gradually emerged, enabling Karnad and
his contemporaries to telescope different points in time and
space, to bring in many levels of reality simultaneously, or to
negotiate them freely in any order. The new form promises to
restore the essential imaginative character of drama suitable
for presenting complex human experience. Karnad employs in
his plays the techniques of classical and folk theatre of India.
He makes use of the devices of culture to expose its retrogressive
Keywords: Emergence, Kinds, Forms, Types, Natyasastra,
Influence, Conventions, Motifs, Technique
Folk plays provide a valuable insight into the local dialect,
dress, attitude, humour and wit of the regions in which they
are staged. Although mythological and medieval romances are
their main thrust, folk theatre acquires a timeless appeal by
improvising with symbolic relevance to the current socio-
political happenings.
- Amrita Gupta
Folk Theatre plays a significant role in educating and
entertaining the audience. It had been a vital means of
communication during ancient times owing to its interpersonal
Vol.III.5-6 Jan-Dec,2011
and interactive appeal. The role of Folk Theatre is a widely
acclaimed fact today. Literary campaigns and several issues such
as adult education, environment, child labour, population control,
women abuse and the problemof dowry have been skillfully dealt
with through the mediumof Folk theatre. It represents traditional
theme enacted in the formof dramatic representation of the myths,
legends, beliefs and tradition of a particular community. Various
forms of this distinct theatrical mediumexists in the world
representing various cultures and nationalities and their rich heritage.
Themost traditional and popular theatreof Czechoslovakia, Russia,
Turkey etc. are a pivotal document of 20
Century theory of
Puppet Theatre.
India has the longest and richest tradition in theatre going
back to atleast 5000 years. The emergence of Indian Folk theatre
is basically fromBharata Munis Natya Shastra (2000 BC to 4th
Century AD), theearliest and most elaboratetreatiseon dramaturgy
written anywhere in the world. The Indian theatre can be divided
into threekinds: the Classical or the Sanskrit theatre, theTraditional
or theFolk theatre and theModern theatre. The Sanskrit language
splintered into vernaculars and took root in the formof regional
languages after the tenth century. In other word, it was replaced
by the growing folk theatre which emerged forcefully in different
regions, using the language of the region where it emerged during
thefifteenth -sixteenth century . For themes, it looked at theSanskrit
epics and thePuranas, historical tales, folk stories of romance,
valour and biographical accounts of local heroes.
The various Folk theatre forms are Nautanki ,Ramlila
and Raslila fromUttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab, Swang
fromHaryana, Jatra from Bengal, West Bengal and Orissa,
Therukuttu fromTamilnadu, Bayalata fromKarnataka, Kalapam
fromAndhra Pradesh, Teyyam, Kakkarissi NatakamfromKerala,
Tamasha fromMaharashtra, Bhavai fromGujarat and Rajasthan,
Nupipaalaa fromManipur, Chhau fromSikkim, Siamsa Tire from
Ireland, and Cheo fromVietnamfeature a wide range of make-up,
Vol.III.5-6 Jan-Dec,2011
song, dance, mime, improvised repartee, slapstick or stylized acting
and even acrobatics.
The Bayalata of Karnataka is based on mythological plays.
The themes arereligious and begin with an invocation of thedivine.
The five types of Bayalata are - Dasarata, Sannatas, Doddates,
Parijata and Yakshagana. The Dasarata is performed by a group
of dasas (mela) men and women. Every mela has atleast one
leading lady who is a highly talented singer and dancer. She
interprets the emotions with vivid gestures providing the audience
immense entertainment, information and humour by enacting the
themes of Radha and Krishna.
Sannata or the small play has a full length story that lasts
for about six hours. The troupes performin villages on weddings,
birth of a male child, religious festivals and even to tempt the rain
gods in times of drought. The Sannata is divided into three kinds
- the Vaishnava (in which Radha and Krishna are invocated); the
Shaiva (Shiva and Parvati are invocated); and the social plays that
begin with the Kathabija (the core of the story), being outlined,
and the story is then woven around it.
In contrast to the other types of plays like Yakshagana,
Doddata Puppet plays and Sannata bring the folk theatre to the
social plane. It reflects the native intelligence, wit and sharp
response of the villagers. Like the Sannata the Parijata is also an
opera where the actor summarizes and explains the song. The
essential character in the Parijata is the Bhagavata who plays the
dual role of narrator and clown. But before the characters appear
on stage there is an invocation by the Bhagavata - an invocation of
Ganesha. This is followed by the prelude - the story of Radha and
Krishna. The main story is based on the myth of the romance of
Krishna and Rukmani-Satyabhama.
Like the Parijata, the Doddata begins with an invocation
to Ganesha. The Sarathi offers prayers to the deity before the
story begins. The composition of the play is a mixture of verse and
prose. The performances are on an elaborate scale with rich
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costumes, wide stage, a number of characters and a lot of sound
and fury with all the male characters shouting shabaash! The
Doddata does not have the facility for display of delicate emotion.
In Parijata and Yakashagana a single narrrator (Sutradhar)
controls the story whereas the other has a chorus of four or five
narrators - aided by a Vidhushaka or a clown who adds the local
The word Yakshagana derives fromYaksha, which means
demi-gods and gana, which means song. Texts are written in
Kannada, the language of Karnataka, prefaced by asung prologue,
often in Sanskrit, the high castelanguage of classical Indian theatre.
Throughout the evocation of rasa, the aesthetic flavour or
emotional quality derived fromthe performance by the audience
as specific to the episode being performed, is aimed at by the
performers. The rasa or moods of Yakshagana are often of a
passionate or violent kind.
Yakshagana begins with invocatory rituals to Ganesha, a
garlanded statue of whomis kept in the green room by the actors
throughout the performance followed by a sung prologue. After
the invocation a comic character known as the Hanumanyaka
arrives on the stage, and after a dialogue with the Bhagavata - the
music director, subsequently remains to irreverently quiz the other
characters as they arrive. The main characters are introduced with
an introductory dance called an Oddolaga and reveal themselves
gradually frombehind a curtain (originally known as a Yavanika)
held up by two stage hands, emphasizing the dramatic quality of
Folk theatres have existed since centuries and their
relevance has not dimmed in any way at this present age. This
continuing attraction and effectiveness is proven by the fact that
many of the contemporary dramatists make use of the style and
techniques of Folk Theatre in their plays. Karnad is the first Indian
dramatist to reflect really typical Indian characteristic in his plays,
as hehas consciously resisted the influence of the Western theatre,
Vol.III.5-6 Jan-Dec,2011
which fails to take cognizance of the Indian milieu in its entirety.
(Dhanavel 2000: 98)
Girish Karnad is a dramatist who has acknowledged the
influence of the Folk theatrical tradition of Indiain his various plays
to make themrelevant in the modern context. He tries to evolve a
symbolic formout of atension between thearchetypal and mythical
experience, and a living response to life and its values. Since his
childhood days he was greatly influenced by the native theatre
modes like Yakshagana, the folk theatre of Karnataka, Sutradhara,
Shallow and Deep scenes fromParsi theatre, comic scenes from
Company Natak Theatre and other Folk Formsand revived them
using their artistic ambiguity to comment on the current problems.
Infact, he has absorbed folk forms into the main streamdrama
and has used folk technique and folk philosophy to speak to the
contemporary audience. In hisThree Plays, Karnad says, the
mask merely presents in enlarged detail its essential moral
nature.And so a character represents not a complex
psychological entity but an ethical archetype. (Karnad 1994 : 13)
In relation to Girish Karnads worth it is important to
consider the prominence given by Bharata in theNatyasastra to
the role played by the Sutradhara. Though commonly translated as
stage manager, the Sutradhara fulfilled a very different role from
that conjured up by a contemporary understanding of this title.
The Sutradhara means literally the string holder, translated as
puppet master or manipulator, though he was almost certainly
an actor himself and played not merely an impresarios role. He
predates the Bhagavata of Yakshagana with whomhe bears many
similarities as controller of stageaction, orchestrator of themusicians,
director and choreographer of theactor-dancers and fundamentally,
during the performance itself a story-teller.
In many ways the Sutradhara is the story itself. It is also
important to remember the prevalence of stock characters in
Sanskrit drama to which theNatyasastra refers, like the king,
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queen, bride, bridegroom, sage, wise woman, clown and villain.
Such characters appear frequently in Karnads plays.
Karnad uses the conventions and motifs of folk theatre
like masks, mime, songs, dances, curtains, the commentator-
narrator, the actor-manager, puppets, dolls, horseman, the story-
within-a-story, facilitating amixtureof thehuman and thenon-human
to createa queer magical world, Kannada folktales, story of cobra,
a play within the play, the prologue, an epilogue, monologues and
the actor-manager, in all his plays to show the absurdity of lifewith
all its elemental passions and conflicts, and mans eternal struggle
to achieve perfection.
In Yayati, Karnad uses the character of Sutradhara at the
beginning to informthe audiencethat it is amythical play, in Tughlaq,
he uses the announcer, who carries out numerous functions,
especially that of a narrator or commentator, to reformIndia
politically and socially. He has used the Company Natak
convention of thecomic pairs, Aziz and Azam. Theatre, as explained
by the actor-manager, in The Fire and the Rain is to get away
fromthe dreariness of reality, boredomof modern life; it is ameans
of entertainment. The actor-manager talks about the profession of
acting and also talks to Arvasu about the mask and says:
This is a mask of Vritra, the demon. Now,
surrender to the mask. Surrender and pour life
into it. But remember, once you bring a mask to
lifeyou haveto keep a tight control over it,otherwise
itll try to takeover. Itll begin to dictateterms to
you and you must never let that happen. (Karnad,
The Fire and the Rain: 52)
The Deep scene fromParsi theatre is used to show the
interiors of palaces in Yayati whereas both the Deep and Shallow
scenes are used in Tughlaq like interiors of palaces, royal parks,
other such visually opulent sets and theexterior of thestreet. Karnad
is aware of the importance of stage-lighting which has a style and
character of its own. Light paints multiple pictures and ebbs and
flows with the action of the drama. The use of dimmers, gently
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Karnad employs the ingenious folk device of masks which
is a typical feature of Yakshagana to project the personalities of
different characters. In the play, Yayati, Puru is shown wearing
the mask of Yayati accepting the old age of his father with a great
sense of responsibility, respect and sacrifice. Whereas, in Tughlaq,
Role-playing is a kind of mask. As a king, the Sultan has to play
many roles in his life. Tughlaq stabs Shihab-Ud-Din to his hearts
content and orders to behead the Amirs, stuff their bodies with
straw and hang themup in the palace-yard. (Karnad: Tughlaq:
43). When Barani spreads a silken cloth on Shihab-Ud-Dins
corpse, theSultan says villaineously, Dont cover him. I want my
people to see his wounds (Karnad: Tughlaq: 45). Muhammad
has already killed his father and brother while they were praying.
But when his step-mother accepts that she has killed Najib, Tughlaq
finds fault with her action. At thesame time, hejustifies his murders:
I killed them- Yes - but I killed themfor an ideal (Karnad:
Tughlaq: 65). The role that he plays is that of a visionary, a tyrant,
a forgiver, a self-realising person, and also a devotee. Thus, role-
playing and disguise are alternatives to mask.
In the beginning of the play, Hayavadana, Lord Ganesha
wears an elephant-headed mask. Lord Ganesha is considered a
mixture of human, animal and divine forms. He is a God who has
an elephants head with a human body. Though Lord Ganesha is
called Lord and Master of Success and Perfection, Image of
Purity and Holiness, and Mangalamoorthy. Heis, as Bhagavatha
says, the embodiment of imperfection (Karnad, Hayavadana:
1). Later on, Devadatta appears on the stage wearing a pale
coloured mask and Kapila a dark mask and Kali wearing a terrible
mask. The colour of the masks worn by Devadatta and Kapila
represent their basic trait. Since they live with One mind, One
heart (Karnad: Hayavadana: 2), the two friends make thepeople
of Dharamapura remember Lava and Kusha, Rama and
Lakshmana, Krishna and Balarama (Karnad, Hayavadana: 2).
Initially Hayavadana appears wearing the mask of horse-head. In
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fading the lights in or out, provides immense scope for magical
possibilities in Tughlaq. Half-curtains and painted curtains carried
by stage hands are used to convey some facts. For instance, when
Padmini performs sati, the curtain has a blazing fire painted on it
and as it is lifted, the flames seemto leap up. The front curtain is
totally absent and there is no elaborate set up in Hayavadana. He
has used an amalgamation of scenic and act divisions in Tale-Danda
which explores the Company Natak formbeyond the Deep and
Shallow scenes. In the Shallow scenes, a painted curtain depicting
a street - as the backdrop is used, while the Deep scenes shows
the interiors of palaces, the Brahmins quarter, the queens chamber,
the gods room, the inner chamber, the courtesans quarters and
the front yard of the palace. Music, mime and exotic imagery create
vast opportunities for colourful improvisation. Each scene has a
limited purpose with regard to the overall dramatic action.
Sometimes he uses chorus or song in order to suspend the flow of
dramatic action and provide multiplicity of themes in Tughlaq.
Karnad has employed all other conventions of Yakshagana in
Hayavadana, like : songs, music, the Bhagavata, Ganesha pooja
at the opening, the Bhagavada Vakyamat the end, stylized actions
and others. For example, the Bhagavata, accompanied by
musicians, sings verses in praise of Ganesha and narrates the story
with a formalistic expression in the manner of a folk-tale. Karnad
depicts Padminis unrepressed nature and inner feelings through
theuseof a folk devicethat is thefemale chorus. In this play, Karnad
brings back poetry, music, a sense of gaiety and celebration
traditionally associated with a theatrical event. In Naga-Mandala,
theuseof chorus and music are the notable features in which all the
songs are sung by the Flames. The action of the play in
Hayavadana is mimed, for example, when the three characters
proceed to Ujjain, a cart does not appear on the stage, rather,
Kapila followed by Padmini and Devadatta enter miming a card
ride. Kapila is driving the cart (Karnad:Hayavadana: 25). The
play is replete with instances of miming. For all these techniques
Karnad owes a great deal to folk theatre.
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The Fire and The Rain, Arvasu wearing the mask of Vritra loses
control over himself. He attacks and chases the Actor-Manager
who plays Indra, saying, you can elude me, Indra. But you cant
escape me. Even if you fly like a falcon across ninety-nine rivers,
Ill find you. Ill destroy you. Ill raze your befouled sacrifice to
the ground (Karnad: The Fire and the Rain: 57). Hence, the
Actor-Manager shouts Its the mask, its the mask, come alive.
Restrain him-or therell be chaos (Karnad, The Fire and the
Rain: 57).
A play within the play begins with the Prologue in Naga-
Mandala. It is used to set the tone and mood of the play. He uses
the story to play the role of Bhagavata and Story is a woman
character in the play. She narrates certain incidents and conducts
the play, while the Man and the Flames are used very much like
the Hayavadana and the Dolls of Hayavadana. He has used cobra
with magical powers. The Naga summons his magical powers
and becomes as thin and small as the size of Ranis tresses. The
use of mask becomes a necessity for Rani to escape fromthe
reality. In The Fire and the Rain, the play-within-the play is an
attempt to link the ritual and theatre.Thus, through the use of folk
theatre strategies, the contours of fresh, innovative and flexible
dramatic formhave gradually emerged, enabling Karnad and his
contemporaries to telescope different points in time and space, to
bring in many levels of reality simultaneously, or to negotiate them
freely in any order. The new formpromises to restore the essential
imaginative character of drama suitable for presenting complex
human experiences.
Karnad does not merely borrow the character of the
Bhagavata fromatypical Yakshagana play. He increases thescope
of the role by making the Bhagavata not merely a commentator-
narrator but also by making himone of the characters. He has
used the Female Chorus which is absent in the Yakshagana play.
Karnads Bhagavata is different fromthe Bhagvata in the
Yakshagana. The Bhagvata of the Yakshagana sings, and male
Vol.III.5-6 Jan-Dec,2011
chorus is employed in Yakshagana whereas Karnad has used male
and female chorus. Karnads contribution is that he introduces a
relatively unknown and partly original story which a folk formwould
normally avoid.
Indian Folk Theatre is therefore reckoned as just not a
theatre formbut is now-a-days a lot more. It unfurls the saga of
the voyage of Indian drama fromthe eposes to the modish theatre
pattern. It is the chronicle of Indian drama where for the very first
time theatre broke the barrier of orchestra and pits and reached
the mask in a whole new way through the exotic brilliance of music,
song and folklores.
Karnad employs in his plays the techniques of classical
and folk theatre of India. He makes use of the devices of culture
to expose its retrogressive values. So he argues, the energy of
folk theatre comes fromthe fact that although it seems to uphold
traditional values, it also has themeans of questioning these values,
of making themliterally stand on their head (Karnad: Naga-
Mandala: Blurb).
Dhanavel, P. 2000.The Indian Imagination of Girish Karnad.
New Delhi: PrestigeBooks.
Gargi, Balwant.2008.FolkTheatreof India. http:// 27 Aug. 1.
Karnad, Girish.1994. Authors Introduction. Three Plays. New
Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp.1-18. (All parenthetical
references of thetext are to this edition.)
Karnad, Girish.1975.Tughlaq, New Delhi: Oxford University
Press, (All parenthetical references of thetext are to this edition.)
Karnad, Girish.1975. Hayavadana, Chennai: Oxford University
Press, (All parenthetical references of thetext are to this edition.)
Karnad, Girish.1998. The Fire and the Rain. New Delhi: Oxford
University Press, (All parenthetical references of thetext areto
this edition.)
Karnad, Girish. 1990.Back Cover. Naga-Mandala. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
*Assistant Professor,Department of English, Guru Ghasidas
Vishwavidyalaya, Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh)
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