top of page

Theatre and Performing Arts in Modern India: A Public Policy Perspective

The creative industry has mostly survived either on individual effort or through self-sustained community networks. Independent theatre groups and performing arts centres in Delhi such as Janam theatre, Akshara theatre, Black Box Okhla, Asmita Theatre and Little Theatre Group, all emerged from the desire to make theatre accessible to audiences and performers in a country where the conversation around performing arts stops at the mention of funding. Many of these spaces, though privately run, are quite affordable and almost single handedly sustain the rich culture of theatre in Delhi. However, the cost at which an art as expensive and time consuming as theatre is made accessible to audiences is also huge. Akshara Theatre, a non-profit cultural society that is known for providing space to college festivals, was on the verge of shutting down in 2016. Having hardly any government aid to help them recover from the mounting cost of unpaid bills, Akshara had to resort to a crowdfunding campaign. Given the crisis that is Covid, Akshara Theatre has also started a petition addressed to the Ministry of Culture to Save The Stage. It lists a number of suggestions to facilitate a healthy cultural ecosystem via tax exemptions, increased funding and timely grants release.

Unsurprisingly, this is only one of the many times that independent (and often not for profit) cultural hubs like Akshara have been on the verge of a collapse.

In comparison, the National School of Drama thrives on government funds, as a result of which it has produced some of the most talented artists in the country. Public funding of the arts is necessary but the model of funding in India is highly centralized, so much so that the NSD, despite being an autonomous body, often operates within state constraints. Germany, a country that boasts itself as one of the premier hubs of cultural activity in the world has a robust public funded system of art and theatre. While most of the top institutions of arts in India are centrally controlled, the funding model in Germany is rather localised. This ensures that the needs of the local artists are catered to and minimizes dependence on only one mode of funding. Although the cultural economy in Germany has managed to keep central control at bay and rid itself of political interference for the most part, the threat of censorship looms in the system as it derives most of its funds from the government. Hence, sustaining a bright cultural sector, though solely possible through robust public funded systems, requires smart ways of dodging bureaucratic indolence.

Political interference is particularly stark when it comes to the folk arts in India. Folk theatre has merely been used to disseminate information about government schemes like family planning and such, as a result of which it has been detached from its original context and meaning. The romanticization of these art forms as harbingers of social change despite lacking actual government support allows us to settle for policies that treat adivasi and folk art as showpieces in a museum.

Not only is public funding for the arts abysmal but qualifying performing arts as a field worthy of rigid CSR donations (Corporate Social Responsibility) is also difficult. Our cultural ecosystem is highly inept- unreleased grants with the Ministry of Culture since 2017 and government schemes such as the NCEP (National Cultural Exchange Programme) and Guru Shishya Parampara (that aims to facilitate new talents under the guidance of eminent Gurus well versed in folk and tribal arts in each of the 7 Zonal Cultural Centres set up across India with a meagre monthly remuneration of Rs.7500 for the Guru and Rs.1500 for the pupils), often rob folk arts of their creative autonomy and reduce them to some sort of cultural exchange festival without structurally aiding them and bringing them to a wider audience.

One can learn a lot from the success story of the Manganiars, a community of folk musicians from West Rajasthan who were the original but uncredited creators of the popular Bollywood song, Nimbooda. While the community continues to be impoverished, few members gained a global stage when folk maestro Komal Kothari pioneered the task of documenting folk music from the deserts of Rajasthan. The emergence of the Manganiars as the face of Rajasthani folk music worldwide, can be attributed to individuals like Komal Kothari who aided their art in constructive ways, much unlike the state government that is yet to implement the Barmer Charter that they had prepared in 2008 after holding a conference to study the plight of the Manganiars. Instead of treating folk artists as diversity tokens, Kothari brought them international acclaim and encouraged them to copyright their music. He even went so far as to sue music directors in Bollywood for infringement of copyrights when the community and their musical heritage was appropriated by the Hindi film industry.

Bureaucratic red tapism, as seen in the case of the Manganiars, also prevents folk groups from availing certificates to access welfare benefits. An article in The Hindu substantiates this precedent by analysing the experiences of Kalbelia performers who approached the Collectorate’s office in Jaisalmer for certificates. The troupe was repeatedly asked to prove that they were indeed Kalbelia performers despite the only proof of their identity being their art. When the troupe returned the next day to put up a performance with wind instruments and snakes to prove their musical heritage, the officers relented by saying that they couldn’t gauge whether the performers were truly Kalbelias who are Scheduled Tribes and therefore entitled to the benefits or whether they were Nath Jogis, another community who have snakes but come under the category of Other Backward Classes.

The power of mobile troupes of folk artists to reach mass audiences has been tapped by political parties and state governments for long. As of 2016, the Odisha government had registered as many as 84,000 folk artists belonging to over 7500 folk art groups to engage them in spreading awareness about various social welfare and development schemes. Similarly, the Maharashtra government hires troupes of Tamasha performers (a form of folk theatre) to gauge the public’s interest in welfare policies. Understanding the backdrop against which this practise has become normalised is important in order to engage with the flaws of the system.

In the 1940s, when socialist and communist philosophies began to take shape in India, theatre came to be used as a force to propel political ideologies. Before that, most stage performances were dominated by nationalist or patriotic themes. Theatre had a strong anti-colonial ardour to it but more importantly, it was used to assert nationalist fervour. Subject to constant censorship, plays by the likes of Girish Chandra Ghosh and Probhakar Khadilkar often held public figures like Lokmanya Tilak analogous to important historical characters like Bhima from the Mahabharata to capture the public's nationalist imagination. Similarly, the fight between Ravana and Rama and Krishna and Kansa were often reclaimed through theatre to symbolise the fight against colonial oppression.

As rich as the history of anti-colonial theatre is, the trend soon changed and political ideologies, specifically those pertaining to the left, came to be championed through performing arts. The 1940s marked this shift from anti-colonial and patriotic works like ‘Nil Darpan’ [The Mirror of Indigo Planters] to communist Wags (the dramatic portion in a Tamasha performance) like ‘Aklechi Goshte’ [A Tale of Wisdom].

Inspired by the global artistic movement of progressive forces in Western countries and the successful rise of Socialist Realism in Russian Art and Literature, Indian theatre artists soon came together to form the I.P.T.A (Indian People’s Theatre Association) in 1942. I.P.T.A went on to become one of the most significant organisations of its time that soon came to be affiliated with left parties. Radical and anti-fascist in its approach, the playwrights and actors at I.P.T.A produced plays that would deal with issues of economic exploitation, social backwardness and political bigotry. While they initially tried to disassociate themselves from any political party, their work largely came to be used by the CPI (Communist Party of India) to spread its message. Interestingly, the I.P.T.A also exploited the power of traditional folk arts like Burrakatha in Andhra Pradesh and Tamasha in Maharashtra to make their political message palatable to the common people.

However, like all good things, the organisation started to disintegrate in the late 1940s-50s due to a number of factors. Disenfranchisement among artists over the increasingly bureaucratic approach of the CPI toward the arts led to many of them leaving the I.P.T.A to start their independent cultural groups. The long association of the left with the cultural movement began to wither away with a change in leadership among the top ranks of the CPI at the time. There was also criticism of the fact that the I.P.T.A was controlled by the middle class Bhadralok intelligentsia in its birthplace, Bengal and that very few folk arts were promoted as a result of this cultural elitism. It was only in the regional pockets of the I.P.T.A in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra that folk performances were actively used to spread the message of the progressive coalition of artists. In Bengal, some folk artists such as Nibran Pandit were influential as was Annabhau Sathe in Maharashtra for popularising the indigenous theatrical tradition of Tamasha through his play Aklechi Ghoshte, however their style and politics often came in opposition with that of the metropolitan artists of I.P.T.A. This constant tug between folk and urban left important members contesting whether empowering local arts was more important than embodying western influences in the metropolitan artistic tradition to achieve international solidarity.

These contrasting trends in the I.P.T.A may have thus deterred the wider participation and representation of non-elite, non-urban arts in the cultural movement of the left. As imminent I.P.T.A activist, Sudhi Pradhan writes in Marxist Cultural Movement in India VI, “Genuine politicization, a necessary precondition to the continuity of a movement of this kind, was never systematically attempted and seldom achieved.”

The JNM (Jana Natya Mandali), established as the cultural wing of the People’s War Group [CPI (ML)] (Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist) in 1972 was more radical in its approach. With the rise of important Dalit revolutionary singers such as Gaddar and the creation of a cultural phenomenon around folk arts in the Naxalite movement of Andhra Pradesh, came a widespread acknowledgement of revolutionary poems, songs, literature and performances. The inclusion of marginalised folk artists was thus proven to be important for any cultural movement to be successful. This is the reason that Gaddar and the JNM continued to remain relevant to the masses. As Professor P Kevasa Kumar writes in his paper ‘Popular Culture and Ideology: The Phenomenon of Gaddar’, “Over the years Gaddar and his JNM found that the principles of success of their songs are: Prajala Baani (folk tune), Prajala Palukubadi (people's vocabulary) and Prajala Jeevitam (people's life). When the song fulfils all these, automatically people will own it.”

YouTube compilations of their songs and performances, produced and revered to date are testament to Gaddar and JNM's revolutionary work.

What then, have folk arts lacked so far? What is the reason that they continue to remain marginalised, underfunded and exploited? Simply put, folk arts, much like any other artistic tradition, require political will to be sustained. Bringing folk traditions to a wider audience through public funded initiatives that don't just reduce them to diversity projects but treat them as legitimate art forms worthy of copyright protections, infrastructural aid etc is the need of the hour. Cultural movements such as the JNM and I.P.T.A can only do so much, but beyond a certain point, funding for an art form has to come through state institutions keeping in mind that sustenance of folk art cannot be contingent on goodwill projects that demand troupes to tour from village to village to spread awareness. Folk arts and folk theatre need to be prioritized as much as urban artistic traditions in policy decisions rather than treating them as social welfare projects that only hold relevance for their wide reach among rural audiences.

Be it the Maharashtra state government or the Song and Drama Division of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, the folk art of Tamasha has constantly been exploited to spread government propaganda over the years. Their wider outreach was exploited to the state's benefit to propagate information about Five Year Plans, Family Planning Programmes and the like. In 1971, the State Directorate of Publicity employed 40 entertainment troupes over a 12 month period to cover 400 villages and about 1 million audience members. As of today, Tamasha troupes that perform for political parties or governments do so despite strict rules that often ruin the art and rob it of its originality. Routine abuse faced by the artists almost becomes a necessary evil in the pursuit of seeking state support. As the famous Tamasgir Mangala Bansode puts it, “We have to keep everybody happy in this line [of tamasha], and I have been tolerating these people since I was nine. I just smile at them and get away.”

Given the lack of constructive government funding and the appropriation of the true folk art by Bollywood, the number of artists have declined from 12000 to 3500 and troupes from 450 to 150 in the last 10 years (1). Today, the ‘real’ Tamasha is lost. Bollywood and private Sangeet/Jalsa organizers recruit ‘fair skinned models’ to perform Tamasha while the real artists suffer. An unstable income and the ever-declining audience essentially merits these art forms to fend for themselves. Without a global stage, Tamasha either continues to be looked at as a mode of entertainment for the lower classes or a token of diversity in government programmes, basically everything but not the rich art form that it is.

The stereotype that non-elite arts are 'vulgar' runs deep in Indian society. The fetishization and sexualisation of Dalit folk artists is a dark reality, one that forces them to cater to the brahmanical male gaze ever so often. Often dismissed for its 'vulgarity', Tamasha continues to be eroticized by those in power even as it lends itself to a rich history of unceasing protest.

As the famous Dalit Tamasgir Vithabai Narayangavkar sang,

"Do not make sexual gestures by winking your left eye at me.

You are actually mocking me.

I provide you a remembrance of your youth.

I am dancing for my everyday living. I do not care for anybody else."


1.Documentary filmmaker Dhnanjay Khairnar notes that, “The number came down from 450 to under 150 in overall Maharashtra and the artists have reduced to mere 3500 from 12000 in the last 10 years.” Published in an article from 2018 for the Indus Scrolls-

2.Richmond, Farley. The Political Role of Theatre in India. Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 25, no.3, 1973

3.Abrams, Tevia. Folk Theatre in Maharashtrian Social Development Programs. Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, 1975

By- Tanya Yadav


bottom of page