Different Theatre Forms of India

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Context: Tiny Padmanur village, about 30 km away from Mangaluru, is abuzz with excitement ahead of its 60th annual Yakshagana performance.

Prelims: Current events of national and international importance.
Mains: GS I –

  • Indian culture will cover the salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature, and Architecture from ancient to modern times.

Theater in India:

  • The Indian theater has a tradition going back to at least 5000 years.  Theater in India started as a narrative form, i.e., reciting, singing and dancing becoming integral elements of the theater.
  • This emphasis on narrative elements made our theater essentially theatrical right from the beginning.
  • That is why the theater in India has encompassed all the other forms of literature and fine arts into its physical presentation: Literature, Mime, Music, Dance, Movement, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Theater in India can be broadly divided into three distinctive kinds viz:
    • Classical or the Sanskrit theater
    • Traditional or the folk theater
    • Modern theater


Sanskrit theater 
  • Traced to the 1st century AD
  • An amalgamation of the religious, educational and entertaining elements
Folk theater
  • Traced to the 1st century AD
  • An amalgamation of the religious, educational and entertaining elements
Modern theater
  • Traced with the coming of British in India.
  • They introduced their brand of theater in Bombay, Calcutta & Madras


Folk Theater (Drama):

Bhand Pather (Kashmir):

  • Unique combination of dance, music and acting.
  • Satire, wit and parody are preferred for inducing laughter.
  • Music is provided with surnai, nagaara, and dhol.
  • Since the actors are mainly from the farming community, the impact of their way of living, ideals, and sensitivity is noticeable.

Karyala (Himachal Pradesh)

  • Deals with the serious questions of life & death with simplistic expression; enveloped in humor.
  • The audience is given the essence of our cultural heritage of viewing the world as a stage and as an unsubstantial pageant which is to be negotiated and lived by rising above it.
  • There is often stylistic diversity, which strengthens their identity from Swang, Nautanki, Bhagat, etc.

Swang (Haryana):

  • Mainly music-based – Gradually, prose too, played its role in the dialogues.
  • Softness of emotions, accomplishment of rasa along with the development of character can be seen
  • Two important styles are from Rohtak (Haryanvi language) and Haathras (Brajbhasha language).
  • Ektara, Harmonium, Sarangi, Dholak, and Kharta are the instruments used in it.

Nautanki (Uttar Pradesh)

  • Nautanki is popular in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is an offshoot of Swang.
  • It is mentioned in Abu Fazl's Ain-e-Akbari.
  • Dialogues are delivered in a lyrical fashion accompanied by drum beats called Nagara
  • The theme is based on historical, social and folk tales, delivered through dance and music.
  • Most popular centres – Kanpur, Lucknow and Haathras
  • Verses form: Doha, Chaubola, Chhappai, Behar-e-tablet
  • Nowadays, women have also started taking part

Rasleela (Uttar Pradesh):

  • Based exclusively on the pranks of Lord Krishna
  • It is believed that Nand Das wrote the initial plays based on the life of Krishna.
  • Dialogues in prose combined beautifully with songs and scenes from Krishna’s pranks.

 Bhaona (Ankia Naat) – Assam

  • It was started by Shankaradeva and his disciple Mahadeva in the 16th century A.D.
  • Creation of Great Assamese saint and social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva
  • Written in an language called Brajavali (mixture of Assamese-Maithili)
  • Primarily centered on the acts of Lord Krishna
  • Shows cultural glimpses of Assam, Bengal Orissa, Mathura and Brindavan.
  • The Sutradhaar or narrator begins the story, first in Sanskrit and then in either Brajboli or Assamese
  • The narrator called Suthradhar is accompanied by a group of musicians known as Gayan-Bayan Mandali who play the 'Khol' and cymbals.
  • Use of Masks to depict special expression is one of the unique features of this theatre form.

Bhavai (Gujrat):

  • It is a traditional theatre form of Gujarat and Rajasthan.
  • It is a synthesis of devotional and romantic sentiments.
  • It consists of dance to narrate series of small plays known as Vesha or Swanga.
  • Rare synthesis of devotional and romantic sentiments
  • Instruments → Bhungal, tabla, flute, pakhaawaj, rabaab, sarangi, manjeera, etc.
  • Main centers → Kutch and Kathiawar


Jatra (West Bengal)

  • Fairs & ceremonies in honor of gods, or religious along with musical plays
  • Earlier form of Jatra has been musical; dialogues were added at a later stage.
  • The actors themselves describe the change of scene, the place of action, etc.
  • Krishna Jatra became popular due to Chaitanya prabhu’s influence.

Maach (Madhya Pradesh):

  • Songs are given prominence in between the dialogues.
  • The term for dialogue in this form is bol and rhyme in narration is termed vanag
  • The tunes of this theater form are known as rangat
  • he term Maach is used for the stage as well as the play.
  • It is based on mythological themes and later romantic folks tales were also included.
  • Songs are given importance between the dialogues in this theatre form.



Tamasha (Maharashtra):

  • Evolved from the folk forms such as Gondhal, Jagran and Kirtan
  • Female actress (known as Murki) → Chief exponent of dance movements in the play.
  • Prominent Features → Classical music, footwork at lightning-speed, and vivid gestures

Dashavatar (Konkan-Goa):

  • Personifies the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu – the god of preservation and creativity.
  • Ten incarnations → Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narsimha (lion-man), Vaman (dwarf), Parashuram, Rama, Krishna (or Balram), Buddha and Kalki.
  • Apart from stylized make-up, the Dashavatar performers wear masks of wood and papier mache

Krishanattam (Kerala):

  • Came into existence in the mid-17th century under the patronage of King Manavada of Calicut.
  • Krishnattam is a cycle of eight plays performed for eight consecutive days
  • Eight plays → Avataram, Kaliamandana, Rasa krida, kamasavadha, Swayamvaram, Bana Yudham, Vivida Vadham, and Swargarohana.
  • Episodes are based on the theme of Lord Krishna – his birth, childhood pranks and various deeds depicting victory of good over evil.

Mudiyettu (Kerala):

  • Celebrated in the month of Vrischikam (November-December).
  • Performed only in the Kali temples of Kerala, as an oblation to the Goddess.
  • Depicts the triumph of goddess Bhadrakali over the asura Darika.
  • Seven characters in Mudiyettu → Shiva, Narada, Darika, Danavendra, Bhadrakali, Kooli and Koimbidar (Nandikeshvara).
  • It is a part of Bhadrakali cult. It depicts the triumph of Goddess Bhadrakali over the asura Darika.
  • Mudiyettu is performed by Marar and Karuppu community.
  • Shiva, Narada, Darika, Danavendra, Bhadrakali, Kooli, and Koimbidar are the seven charaters of Mudiyettu.
  • In 2010, Mudiyettu was inscribed in the UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity after Koodiyattam


Theyyam (Kerala):

  • ‘Theyyam’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Daivam’ meaning God – Hence called God’s dance.
  • Performed by various castes to appease and worship spirits.
  • Distinguishing features – Colourful costume and awe-inspiring headgears (mudi) nearly 5 to 6 feet high; dyed into different strong colors


Koodiyettam (Kerala):

  • Based on Sanskrit theater traditions
  • Characters → Chakyaar or actor, Naambiyaar, the instrumentalists and Naangyaar, those taking on women’s roles.
  • The Sutradhar or narrator and the Vidushak or jesters are the protagonists
  • Vidushak alone delivers the dialogues.
  • Emphasis on hand gestures and eye movements makes this dance and theater form unique.

Yakshagana (Karnataka) 

  • Based on mythological stories and Puranas – performed at twilight hours
  • Most episodes are taken from Mahabharata and Ramayana
  • Yakshagana is basically a traditional Indian theatre form, which was developed in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Uttara Kannada, Shimoga and western parts of Chikmagalur districts, in the state of Karnataka and in Kasaragod district in Kerala that put forward a combination of dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques with a unique style and form. 
  • It is believed to have evolved from pre-classical music and theatre during the period of the Bhakti movement. Sometimes simply called “Aata” or āṭa (“the play” in Tulu Language), Yakshagana is strongly influenced by the Vaishnava Bhakti movement. 
  • This theatre style is mainly found in most parts of Karnataka in various forms. Yakshagana is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn. 
  • Its stories are drawn from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata and other epics from both Hindu and Jain and other ancient Indic traditions.
  • This year, Christians and Muslims are mandatory members of the committee, which has been hosting the annual Yakshagana performance in the village for the last 59 years.



Therukoottu (Tamil Nadu) 

  • Literally means “street play”- mostly performed by males dancers
  • Mostly performed at the time of annual temple festivals of Mariamman (Rain goddess) to achieve rich harvest.
  • Theme being a cycle of eight plays based on the life of Draupadi.
  • It plays various themes and one the theme is based on Draupathi in Hindu epic Mahabharata.
  • It is a combination of song, music, dance, and drama.


 Villu Paatu (Tamil Nadu and Kerala):

  • It is a musical theatre popular in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
  • Villu Paatu means bow-song.
  • In this, using a bow-shaped instrument, the stories of Ramayana are narrated.


Some of the other important theatre forms are:

  • Kala of Vaishnaite tradition,
  • Bhuta in Karnataka,
  • Daskathia in Odisha,
  • Garodas in Gujarat,
  • Jatras in Eastern India,
  • Kariyila in Himachal Pradesh,
  • Powda in Maharashtra,
  • Burra Katha in Andhra Pradesh,
  • Bayalata in Karnataka and Kuruvanji in Tamil Nadu.

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