INDIAN ENGLISH DRAMA

 

Models and Techniques

 

Dr. S. KRISHNA BHATTA

 

Among the various forms of Indian writing in English, drama seems to lag far behind poetry and fiction However, ever since the English language firmly established its roots in the country, there has been writing of plays in English in spite of their generally poor stage-worthiness. Though it is rather difficult to keep track of all the plays and playlets published in book-form and in periodicals so far, some 400 plays have been included in the latest Bibliography compiled by the present writer and published in Perspectives on Indian Drama in English (OUP 1977) under the auspices of Karnatak University, Dharwar.

 

Regarding the models and techniques employed by the play­wrights of both the pre-Independence and the post-Independence phases, it is clear that some playwrights like Sri Aurobindo rather unnecessarily allowed themselves to be influenced by the Elizabe­than drama and did not make use of the traditional Sanskrit theatre and folk-stage of our country; while there are also examples like the plays of Girish Karnad, Arati Nagarwalla, Partap Sharma and others where some techniques of our ancient dramatic tradition are employed with advantage.

 

In Perseus, The Viziers and other plays, Sri Aurobindo strictly resorts to the Elizabethan model – particularly the five-plot structure, sub-plots and lengthy speeches in verse.

 

Though Kailasam shows a better stage sense than Sri Aurobido, he too does not evince much technical innovatio. He does not demonstrate the same liking towards the models and techniques of our classical drama and folk-stage as he has for drawing his themes from our ancient lore. Though he does not fully follow Sri Aurobindo in adopting Elizabethan models and techniques, he is not completely free from their influence. In fact, he tries, though unsuccessfully, to cast the lives of his heoes like Karna into the Elizabethan mould of a tragic hero; and, while the portrayal of Karna fails for want of a major tragic flaw of his own, that of Keechaka suffers from excessive idealisation. Further, the five-set structure employed in The Curse bears little relevance to the development of the plot. Even in the playwright’s much-admired piece. The Purpose, he ignores the utility of our dramatic tradition: for example, a Sutradhara would well introduce the powerful theme to the audience, and folk-motifs could have been effectively employed to present Ekalavya’s forest abode in a natural setting.

 

Compared to Sri Aurobindo and Kailasam, other major play­wrights like Harindranath Chattopadhyaya and Bharati Sarabhai are less influenced by Elizabethan drama. Chattopadhyaya presents the lives of the Indian saints in an almost traditional manner, though he does not directly follow the models and techniques of our classical as well as folk-stage; at times we see a shadow of the Sutradhara in the form of a Preface (as in Jayadeva). There are also examples like Siddhartha where he overdoes the use of the Prologue, the Epilogue, the chorus and modern stage-techniques like light and sound effects. Sarabhai too shows a greater inclination to Indian techniques than the Western. In fact, though the chorus in her, The Well of the people (employed for indicating change of scene) reminds us of the similar technique in Greek plays, she is obviously influenced by the folk-stage of our country: and in her Two Women, she brings out the tragic effect without resorting to the use of typically Elizabethan lengthy speeches and sub-plots. As regards Asif Currimbhoy, the success of his one-act plays is mainly due to Western influence. But, most of his plays may fail on the stage on account of his excessive dependence on cinematographic techniques and other stage gimmicks.

 

So far as the minor playwrights of both phases are concerned, it is rather difficult to trace the influences regarding the models and techniques employed except in the cases of a few; but many do not seem to have taken the problem seriously at all.

 

Of the Western influence, the compact one-act play form appears to have been a more dominant influence than Elizabethan drama. Regarding the latter, the five-act structure is employed in only some plays like V. V. S. Aiyangar’s Ramarajya, Sadar-Joshi’s Acharya Drona, Prabhu’s Apes in the Parlour and Gaffor’s Dr. Lover. But, the mere division into “five acts” is deceptive for the “Acts” are only scenes. There are also examples of a few plays like Krishnaswami’s The Flute of Krishna wherein the Elizabethan lengthy speeches and verse-form are employed (of course, marring the stage effect) in addition to the five-act structure. On the other hand, the Western one-act play form serves as a model to many playwrights, but it is rather difficult to trace the influence of short compact plays by Sanskrit dramatists like Bhasa in this regard. Anyway the compactness of the form must have been a major attraction to these playwrights in their attempts to dramatise an episode or focus light on a particular aspect of one’s life. This can be observed in some of the plays already considered: Abbas’s Invitation to Immortality, Borgsonkar’s Bhasmasura, Currimbhoy’s The Refugee and The Miracle Seed.

 

As this study reveals, only a few authors have attempted employing the full-fledged play form with some success. Apart from the plays of Sri Aurobindo and Kailasam, Ramaswami Sastri’s Droupadi, Mrinalini Sarabhaj’s Captive Soil, Mrs. Ghosal’s Princess Kalyani, Fyzee-Rahamin’s Daughter of Ind are some examples worth mentioning. As regards two-act and three-act play models, there are quite a good number in both the pre-Independence and the post-Independence phases. There are cases where these structures are suited to the requirements of the plot; to illustrate, Kailasam’s The Purpose, Chattopadhyaya’s The Coffin, Bharati Sarabhai’s Two Women, Currimbhoy’s Inquilab, Gurcharan Das’s Larins Sahib. But, in some cases like Lakhan Deb’s Tigerclaw, the compact one-act play structure would have been more suitable than the three-act structure.

 

Even in employing Western techniques such as the Prologue, the Epilogue, etc., there is a marked difference between playwright and playwright. While Sri Aurobindo employs the Prologue in Perseus to introduce a conversation between the goddess Athene and the god Poseidon and thereby indicate the future conflict between the good and the evil, Chattopadhyaya’s Prologue in his Siddhartha presents the image of the present crisis caused by the nuclear race. The Prologue and the Epilogue serve as two terminal props to the sequences of the plot in Mrinalini’s Captive Soil, while Shanti Jhaveri makes these techniques useful in linking the past and the future with the present in Deluge; and, in Fyzee­Rahamin’s Daughter of Ind, they are used to expound the love-theme. There is a praytr to the Goddess of Learning in Mrs. Ghosal’s prologue, which partly performs the function of the Sutradhara (who could have been directly introduced with advantage in many such plays). Also, the flashback technique has been occasionally employed by some playwrights. The flashback employed in Swami Sivananda’s Radha’s Prem to present an episode in Lord Krishna’s life infuses some dramatic effect into a prolonged discussion about the Lord.

 

Some playwrights like Sri Aurobindo do not seem to rest content with adopting the Elizabethan model and technique; and they make their theatre reverberate with numerous echoes of the Elizabethan drama also. In the case of Sri Aurobindo, the selection of titles like The Viziers of Bassora (similar to Timon of Athens), the sequence of raising the dagger and lowering it by Aslaugh in Eric (like Macbeth), Cleopatra’s mistaking her son Timocles’ flattery for real love in Rodogune (like King Lear)–are some of the Shakespearian echoes heard. Kailasam makes a deliberate attempt to impart the colour of Shakespearian tragic heroes to his Karna and Keechaka. Moreover, Lobo Prabhu makes his character Benny (in Apes in the Parlour) repeat Mark Antony’s words. The effect of all such echoes is to emphasie the derivative nature of these plays.

 

There are many instances where our classical and folk-stage techniques would have been more useful to the playwright than the Western ones. One can imagine the stage effect in The Beggar Princess, had Dilip Kumar Roy and Indira Devi employed an Indian setting and a Sutradhara (instead of the Prologue and the Epilogue) to dramatise the life of the Indian princess-saint Mira; and the employment of a few folk-songs and dances indicative of her popularity among the masses would have made the present­ation far more realistic. There are plays like Smt. Thakur’s Mother and Child where the Pravesaka (reporting) technique would have filled the wide gap existing between the first two acts: Act 1 presenting the maiden Kunti’s curiosity to test the effect of the sage’s boon and the consequent birth of Karna; and Act 2 showing Kunti as the mother of the Pandavas.

 

Instances are not totally lacking where playwrights have looked to our classical and folk-stage techniques. The reportage ­technique of the classical Sanskrit drama comes to the help of Arati Nagarwalla in her attempt at making the audience know the particulars about the killing of the tiger in her The Bait. While Gurcharan Das resorts to the “voices” technique (different voices behind the stage) to depict the troubled mind of Lawrence in Larins Sahib, the technique of an obscure figure’s speech (a sort of Asariravani, a voice of the invisible) solves Sadar-Joshi’s problem of presenting Drona’s mental conflict (in Acharya Drona) between his ideal and the practical worlds. To show the reaction in the minds of his characters in The Professor has a Warcry, Partap Sharma employs a mimic demon of our Indian folk-dance Kathakali but its connection with the situation is so loose that one gets confused about the symbol.

 

It is in the authors’ translations of their own plays that we can find better instances where the Indian folk and classical stage-techniques have been successfully employed. Dalal employs the Sutradhara-Nati technique of the classical Sanskrit drama in Victory. Karnad leaves many playwrights far behind by making a dexterous use of our folk-stage conventions and techniques like the Bhagavatar, prayer to Lord Ganesha, masks, curtains, dolls and story-within-a-story in his Hayavadana and the comic pair of Akara and Makara type in his Tughlaq.

 

Thus it is clear from the survey that the playwrights in both the phases have by and large ignored our ancient dramatic tradition comprising both the classical Sanskrit stage and folk­ theatre (though here and there we find a few experiments in this regard). This is perhaps an important reason why Indian drama in English has remained mostly derivative and imitative.

 

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