Hinduism Hindi Theatre
Diana Dimitrova
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0205


The prevalent view in Indian literary criticism from the 20th century is that during the 19th century and up to Independence, there existed no professional Hindi theatre. Western theatre, Parsi theatre, and the reinvented neo-Sanskritic theatrical tradition are important sources for the growth of Hindi theatre. In the period from 1880 to the 1960s, there appeared a number of accomplished Hindi playwrights, such as Bharatendu Harishcandra, Jayshankar Prasad, Lakshminarayan Mishra, Bhuvaneshvar, Jagdishcandra Mathur, Upendranath Ashk, and Mohan Rakesh, who experimented with historical plays, social-problem dramas, comedies, epic theatre, and psychological plays. In the history of modern Hindi theatre, we can distinguish Prasad’s neo-Sanskritic plays; Bhuvaneshvar’s, Mathur’s, Rakesh’s, and Ashk’s pro-Western naturalistic dramas; and nativistic dramas after the 1960s. The birth of deśī (nativistic) theatre after the 1960s is of great significance for the development of Hindi theatre. Nativistic playwrights follow the idiom of Indian folk theatre, employing folk songs and actors from villages who speak in their own dialects, and reworking folk legends and myths from the Hindu epics in their plays—some with great success. An important trend in the 1990s and 2000s is street and community-engaged theatre which stages improvised performances and in which questions related to social justice, caste, and women’s rights are discussed. Noteworthy is also the emergence of female playwrights and female stage directors who reinterpret traditional Hindu images of the feminine. The representation of Hindu traditions in Hindi theatre is very complex and versatile. The reworking of issues pertaining to caste and the socio-religious ordering of life as well as the interpretation of Hinduism and nationalism in Hindi theatre are not uniform. We find various religious others in the plays, such as Buddhists, Muslims, Huns, Greeks, and the British. The playwrights introduce those others in order to promote and assert a distinct and morally superior Hindu identity of their dramatis personae. They eulogize Hinduism and interpret positively the Hindu identity of their main dramatic figures, depicting them as superior to their Buddhist, Muslim, Greek, or British enemies. An exception here is the work of Upendranath Ashk. Rather than remythologizing Hinduism’s “others,” we find demythologizing and critique of the creation of religious boundaries between Hindus and Muslims. The representation of Hinduism in Hindi theatre is important for the construction of cultural identity, and is essential to constructing and defining the “narrative of the Indian nation.” It is also a means of inventing the Hindu-Indian tradition of the imagined Hindu-Indian community. Women play a central role in such plays, and Hindu images of the feminine have been invoked and implied throughout most dramas in order to reinforce traditional notions of womanhood. Bharatendu Harishcandra, Jayshankar Prasad, Lakshminarayan Mishra, and Mohan Rakesh introduce female characters who appear to have agency, but use their agency to assert the ideals of sati, widowhood, dependence on male authority, and passive acceptance of the patriarchal order. By contrast, authors such as Bhuvaneshvar, Jagdishcandra Mathur, and Upendranath Ashk question these orthodox roles for women and reimagine Hindu womanhood in harmony with liberating Hindu images of the feminine, in harmony with Arya Samajist and other Hindu reformist ideals of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in harmony with Henrik Ibsen’s progressive interpretation of women’s issues, as revealed in the drama A Doll’s House. In the 1990s and 2000s, the emergence of street theatre and of female playwrights and women stage directors reinforces the prevalence of liberating images of the feminine on Hindi stage, the feminist re-enacting of the beloved epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the increasingly progressive interpretation of women’s issues.

General Overviews

There are several important general overviews of the history of Hindi theatre. Jain 1992, Dimitrova 2004, Dalmia 2005, and Dharwadker 2005 present in-depth studies of major theatrical schools and playwrights of Hindi theatre from the 1850s to the present day. Some of the dramatists discussed are Bharatendu Harishcandra, Jayshankar Prasad, Lakshminarayan Mishra, Jagdishcandra Mathur, Bhuvaneshvar, Mohan Rakesh, and Upendranath Ashk. Babu 1997 focuses on gender, political, and social issues in the work of several contemporary playwrights, such as Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar, and Badal Sircar. Hansen 1992 explores one of the precursors of Hindi theatre, namely the regional form of the nauṭaṅkī theatre. The author focuses on the contribution of nauṭaṅkī to the growth of Hindi theatre and also explores the reasons for the demise of this regional folk form today. Bhatia 2004 and Bhatia 2010 study the important questions of theatrical politics in independent India, the importance of female directors, community activists, and street theatre after the 1990s and in the 2000s. Dimitrova 2008 and Dimitrova 2016 explore issues related to gender, nationalism, mythologizing, and otherness in Hindi theatre from the 1880s to the 1960s.

  • Babu, Manchi Sarat. Indian Drama Today: A Study in the Theme of Cultural Deformity. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1997.

    A very interesting study of the theme of cultural deformity, as revealed in the plays of several Indian playwrights, including Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh. The other authors discussed are Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar, and Badal Sircar. The focus is on six cultural deformities, among them gender, social, political, and mental deformities.

  • Bhatia, Nandi. Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.17085

    An excellent exploration of colonial politics and Hindi theatre. The author argues that Indian theatre was a significant force in the struggle against oppressive colonial and postcolonial structures, as it sought to undo various schemes of political and cultural power through the interpretation of subjects related to mythology and history. There is a fascinating chapter on street and community-engaged women’s theatre.

  • Bhatia, Nandi. Performing Women/Performing Womanhood: Theatre, Politics and Dissent in North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198066934.001.0001

    An important work that deals with women directors and women’s issues. The work challenges the norms set by Indian literary criticism, as it deals with issues that have been marginalized and deliberately subdued by Indian literary criticism. This book discusses the work of women who performed on the margins of dominant theatrical activity and questioned middle-class codes of female propriety. Also addresses issues of social reform and social protest.

  • Dalmia, Vasudha. Poetics, Plays and Performances: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    The first part follows closely Dimitrova 2004 in the choice of dramas, playwrights, and issues discussed. The second part, which deals with Hindi theatre after the 1960s and epic and Brechtian theatre, is truly original and very important, as it shows that it is possible to have “theatre of the roots” also by reinventing Western models of dramaturgy.

  • Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava. Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory and Urban Performance in India since 1947. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005.

    Focuses on the new dramatic canon that emerged after 1950 and on the production, translation, and reception of the plays in a multilingual national culture. It also discusses the formation of postcolonial dramatic genres from their origins in myth, history, and folk narrative. The book does not question the canon and mostly discusses authors who have received critical acclaim by the literary establishment in India.

  • Dimitrova, Diana. Western Tradition and Naturalistic Hindi Theatre. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

    A critical study of the work of naturalistic Hindi playwright Upendranath Ashk, who was influenced by Western dramatics. Because of political controversies with the British, Western influence came to be understood as non-Indian. This resulted in a negative stance toward the naturalistic plays in Hindi and those dramatists who adhered to it. Thus, this book is a contribution to the present-day cultural dialogue between East and West.

  • Dimitrova, Diana. Gender, Religion and Modern Hindi Drama. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

    Studies the representation of gender and religion in Hindi drama from its beginnings until the 1960s. The focus is on how different religious and mythological models pertaining to women have been reworked in Hindi drama and whether the dramatists discussed portray conservative or liberating Hindu images of the feminine. The author examines how the intersections of gender, religion, and ideology account for the creation of the canon of modern Hindi drama.

  • Dimitrova, Diana. Hinduism and Hindi Theatre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-59923-0

    Analyzes the representation of Hinduism through myth and discourse in urban Hindi theatre, and explores the ways they have “imagined” and “reimagined” Hindu traditions. Includes an extensive discussion of the interpretation of women’s issues in the plays. The author concludes that Hindi theatre is in intimate dialogue with Hindu traditions, as playwrights seek to interpret and reinterpret Hinduism.

  • Hansen, Kathryn. Grounds for Play: The Nautanki Theatre of North India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

    A very important book for all those who are interested in the regional theatre of nauṭaṅkī, which is one of the precursors of urban Hindi theatre. The author gives attention to the issues of gender, ideology, and politics. As Hindi playwrights have often been criticized for not engaging enough with the traditional or folk theatre of nauṭaṅkī, it is worth studying these questions seriously.

  • Jain, Nemicandra. Indian Theatre: Tradition, Continuity and Change. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1992.

    Written by a prominent literary critic and one of the most powerful figures of the literary establishment in India. It discusses some general tendencies in the canon of Indian theatre and foregrounds several authors who are held in high esteem by mainstream Indian criticism. An important resource for all scholars who seek to engage critically with the perspectives outlined by Indian literary criticism.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.