Andha Yug by Dharamvir Bharati (1953): Theatre of Roots

The story of the Kurukshetra war echoes the horrors of Partition in the play.

In Dharamvir Bharati’s pathbreaking Hindi play, Andha Yug (1953), the story of the Kurukshetra war echoes the horrors of Partition, both encapsulated in the cry, “What is this peace you have given us, god”. Andha Yug achieved iconic status: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru watched a production directed by Ibrahim Alkazi against the backdrop of the ruins of Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla in 1963. Combining Western dramatic traditions with an Indian epic, Andha Yug is an early example of the Theatre of Roots movement, which gained momentum in the 1960s and 70s, spearheaded by the likes of Ratan Thiyam, Girish Karnad, K. N. Panikar, Habib Tanvir, among others.

1959: Habib Tanvir establishes Naya Theatre

These playwrights attempted to decolonise Indian drama not by discarding Western models altogether but by synthesising them with folk traditions and Sanskrit aesthetic theory as codified in Natyashastra. The epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with their simple grandeur, also served as guides. Girish Karnad’s play, Hayavadana (1971), is based on both Kathasaritsagara and Thomas Mann’s novella, The Transposed Heads. It opens with the sutradhar addressing the audience, in a nod to Natyashastra, and yet its theme of loss and search for identity is universal.

The stress of Theatre of Roots on the local rather than the global resulted in the foregrounding of regional language theatre. Karnad wrote his plays in Kannada and translated them into English himself. The plays of Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar were translated into other Indian languages as well as in English, creating a national theatre movement. The establishment of Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953 helped matters as its troupes took folk performances to Delhi and the other metropolises.

India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1950s

C. N. Sreekantan Nair coined the term thanathunatakavedi, meaning ‘one’s own theatre’, to describe the phenomenon. The influence of Brecht is palpable, as is the presence of indigenous theatre forms, which tend to use non-linear narratives and a multiplicity of voices to look at a particular story from different perspectives. There’s a stress on spectacles, which break the illusion of realism. Another feature is the preference for closed and open spaces over proscenium theatre, so that actors are in close contact with the audience. The movement shaped Indian theatre as we know it today

Dharamvir Bharati: That day the world descended into the age of darkness which has no end, and repeats itself over and over again. Every moment the Lord dies somewhere or the other every moment the darkness grows deeper and deeper. The age of darkness has seeped into our very souls. There is darkness, and there is Ashwatthama, and there is Sanjaya and there are the two old guards with the mentality of slaves and there is blind doubt, and a shameful sense of defeat.

And yet it is also true that like a small seed buried somewhere in the mind of man there is courage and a longing for freedom and the imagination to create something new. That seed is buried without exception in each of us and it grows from day to day in our lives as duty as an honor as freedom as virtuous conduct. It is this small seed that makes us fear half-truths and great wars and always saves the future of mankind from blind doubt slavery and defeat.  Andha Yug (1953); Translated by Alok Bhalla (2005)

Beginnings and Endings