Author

Rashma

Rashma

Research Associate | VIF

Theater in Ancient India and Greece – In Comparison with the Modern Times

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In ancient Bharat, theater promoted the values upheld by the society. De-linking sacred from theater has done much harm to the art form. When temples were seats of art and music, there was an assured patronage to the arts.

As much as society loves art, it ignores its artists. Ask any artist and here I use the word artist in a wider sense, and she’ll tell you how impossible it is to pay bills doing art. For theater/filmmakers, there is an additional problem of finding money to create their art. Making theater is an expensive affair. It contains within its ambit many art forms. I will deal with theater here because I work in that medium and we may extrapolate the assumptions to the cinema.

Theater-makers depend on state patronage, private sponsors, ticket sales, philanthropy, funding from independent arts funding bodies, or crowd-funding to produce shows. It may seem there are many options but state patronage is usually politically motivated and private sponsorship is commercially driven. Theater-makers cannot depend on the box-office collection to meet the entire cost of the production. Besides the box-office collection is unpredictable and depends on the day of the week. To make matters complicated, the theater makers have to find the initial capital to kick-start a production. Finding a producer or investor is not easy. Most producers or even theater companies prefer to invest in the tried and tested plays or extravagant musicals. Experimental, intelligent ‘straight’ (not-musical) plays struggle to find funds. As a result, good art and fresh ideas are pushed to the fringes. Independent art funding bodies are more welcoming of fresh and groundbreaking works, but we don’t have them in India. Philanthropists prefer to donate to more urgent causes like poverty eradication and education – art is lower down on their priority list. Many artists are turning to crowd-funding campaigns – but that has its own challenges.

Let’s go back a few thousand years to ancient India and Greece. Going by the number of surviving plays, we can safely presume a vast body of dramatic works was created in ancient India and Greece. While in ancient Greece dramatic productions were spectacular; in India, a play like ‘Abhijanasakuntalam’ ran for 40 days. Typically, ancient Indian and Greek plays had a huge cast and crew size. Dancers, vocalists, musicians, and accompanying artists were an integral part of the show. Greek plays were performed in colossal amphitheaters while Indian plays were performed in theater halls as well in open spaces. The stage, costumes, backdrop curtain, and the very theater house were ornate and beautiful. These were, in every sense of the word, what we refer to as the OML (Oh My Lord!) shows. So how did these societies sustain the arts and the performing communities? How was the art funded? How was the standard of art so high? What led to excellence? Was theater funded by the government or did the philanthropists sponsor the shows? To answer these questions we need to understand the ancient societies, the role of theater and their functioning in ancient times.

In ancient Greece, theater was part of a festive ritual. But the purpose of drama was not religious. The drama was meant to entertain human beings as well as the deities. It is common knowledge that Greek plays were performed at the ‘City Dionysia Festival’ to honour Dinonysus. Theatrons/theater halls were close to the temple of Dionysus and the dramatic productions were just one ritual in the entire festival. Not only was the festival a sacred affair, it was also a time of festivity for the society. The highlight of the festival was the competition of new plays. Great playwrights like Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides were said to have competed in this festival. If you take the sacred out, ‘City Dionysia Festival’, was much like today’s ‘theater festivals for new works’. It’s no small wonder that incredible classic plays were written in that era – after all there was a whole system to promote arts and theater. Plato has written in his works that the festival was attended by at least 18,000 people. Foreigners, dignitaries of other states, and ordinary citizens watched the dramatic productions together. Even the prisoners were permitted to watch the shows. We can only imagine the scale of such performances and the cultural superiority of the two ancient civilizations. These festivals were sponsored by the state but the state had no control over the content of dramatic productions. Playwrights and directors had creative freedom to write and stage new works of drama.

Dramatic productions in ancient India were just as spectacular, with emphasis on nrtta, music, embellishments, and spectacle. Even though it was not mandatory, the whole town turned up to watch. Natyagrhas/theater houses had a huge space to hold the audience. The natyagrhas were designed to suit the genre. Some genres like prahasana needed intimate small space while genres like dima needed a bigger stage because of action scenes. Prahasana was a satire with little movement on stage and dima was a play with battle scenes. These days we struggle to fit all kinds of plays in a standard-sized hall.

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