17 Impact of Marxism and Freudian Psychoanalysis

Mr. Subhadeep Kumar

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The early 20th century was an age of assertion for Indian theatre. The proscenium theatre had been firmly established as the dominant mode of theatrical expression in urban India. If any ideology is to be identified with the general trend of the period, it would be nationalism. Huge numbers of historical and mythological themes were present, but still a nationalist reading of most of these plays is possible. In the late 19th century drama was constantly attempted to be censored and sanitized by the colonial state, but the practitioners constantly devised ingenuous methods of scuttling sedition laws and presenting their content. European playwrights were also looked up as models and European ideas were often borrowed. Shakespeare remained a model and numerous renderings of Shakespearean plays were staged in both English and regional Indian languages. Early 20th century European realism of Ibsen was well known and Strindberg and Meterlink’s symbolism became influential through Tagore’s later plays. However, this was the period when the very function of art in social life was being questioned. Whether art is for art’s sake alone or art has some other broader transformative social function. The Indian proscenium stage was peopled by socially conscious nationalist workers from its formative period and the votaries of the social role of art had a clear majority in this sector. Marxism as a philosophy with its stress on praxis was thus enthusiastically embraced by thespians in this period.


Austrian Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was analyzing the domain of unconscious in the human mind. His theory, which stressed the importance of the repressive element in formation of the human social being, took the world by storm. Psychology had never been so popular before. The world witnessed one Great War for 4 years and another one was generally anticipated. In this milieu the figure of the rational Human being working by ‘normal’ utilitarian impulses were becoming untenable and Freud’s conception of Human beings deeply scarred by repressions, especially the psychosexual libidinal aspects of it seemed credible – these two forces would significantly transform mimetic practices of India in the following decades.


Impact of Marxism on Indian Theatre


Marxism in Indian theatre was inserted logically within the spate of nationalist theatre of the 1930s and 40s. The nationalist emphasis on a theatre in support of the struggle against the foreign colonizers and the socialist stress on a theatre depicting the oppression of the working people in a deeply unequal socio-economic structure were kindred concerns, at least in this nascent phase of socialist cultural activism before independence. The first consolidation of Indian left leaning writers – Indian Progressive Writers Association, were anti-imperialists and on that score strongly supported the cause of an independent India. Men and women like Mulk Raj Anand, Krishan Chander, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ismat Chughtai, Dr. Joshi Parshad; some of them got exposed to Marxism while they were students in Britain.


In 1942, the Indian People’s Theatre Association was formed in the background of World War 2. The young members of the group, all of whom would later be stalwarts by their own right in the annals of Indian drama were committed to an ideology of interventionist art. Most of them were members of the Anti-Fascist Writers and Artists’ Association of Calcutta. They were influenced by Russian Socialist Realism. For a model they looked towards the productions of the Moscow Art Theater in 1930s and the reproductions of Odets’ plays in the Group Theatre of New York. With the onset of the Bengal famine of 1943, the members engaged in full time aid work in cooperation with the Communist Party of India. In 1944, Bijon Bhattacharya’s Nabanna (New Harvest) was staged, directed by the young Shambhu Mitra. It depicts the gravity of the tragedy in which 2 million people died in less than a year. Centred on the destitution of a single peasant family, its depiction of the relationship between rural moneylenders and a perfectly apathetic colonial government compounding the food shortage, especially in a season of surplus harvest, is almost uncanny. The play was a major success and gathered lakhs of rupees for famine relief.


IPTA in its formation was more of a local Calcutta consolidation, though the issues brought forth in their work had universal appeals and the members enjoyed camaraderie with left leaning cultural workers from other parts of the country. It was Nabanna’s success that led to the impetus of founding IPTA branches across India. A host of young talents started to be drawn towards IPTA in this phase – Ravi Shankar, Mulk Raj Anand, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas to name a few.


One of IPTA’s major innovation was in synthesizing indigenous dramatic practices with novel political content. This led to salient transformations in the dictions of a host of regional dramatic traditions. The strategy was effective as the novelty of the moral-political message did not strike the regional audience as alien when framed in their familiar theatrical dictions. In Andhra Pradesh, the IPTA workers utilized the form of Burrakatha, where a narrator strums the Burra, (string instrument, resembling tanpura, but smaller in size), accompanied by drum, singing and narrating historical tales. In the IPTA avatar of burrakatha , modern themes and issues with high content of social critique were inserted into historical and mythological plots with masterful aptness. In Maharastra, they used the prevalent form of Tamasha, generally considered a bawdy form of entertainment with suggestive lewd references. In the able hand of Shahir Annabhav Sathe, the form was used to launch pervasive attacks on the continuing exploitation of the peasantry by rural moneylenders in newly independent India.


Kalicharan Pattanaik experimented with socialist realism in Odia theatre. His drama – Bhata (rice), written in early 1940s and later Raktamati were the first Odia plays with explicit political content. In Kerala, K. Damodaran was writing plays concerned with the issue of control of economic resources. His play – Pattabaki delved into the exploitative relationship between landlord and tenant.


Marxism after Independence


With India becoming independent, the old consensus between nationalists and people with more socialist inclinations became strained. The issue now was, whether achieving independence itself would provide the proper conditions for equitable distribution and control of resources or the new native ruling class need to be pressurized relentlessly and if needed overthrown for the creation of a socialist state. The situation was not helped by the Communist Party of India’s attempt at running its writ on the day to day functioning of IPTA.


The Communist Party rightly realized the tremendous potential of the organization for propaganda purposes. In Kerala, The Kerala People’s Art Club of Trivundrum, staged the play –

Ningalenne Communistakki (You made me a communist). The play was performed more than 600 times all over Kerala and is recalled as a reason for the victory of CPI in 1957, Kerala State Assembly elections.


Socialism in Theatre beyond IPTA


In Bengal, Utpal Dutt a former member of IPTA, launched the People’s Little Theatre Group in 1947. The group concentrated on staging improvisational, almost impromptu street corner performances, which they called ‘Pathanatika’ or Street Theatre. The form worked as an incubation for the later flowering of Street Theater from the 70s, which would attract such legendary talents as Badal Sircar and Safdar Hasmi.


Dutt’s most significant early play was Angar (ember), it dealt with the exploitation of coal miners in the hand of an inhuman managerial structure in cahoots with the avaricious profit making impulse of the owners. In 1960s, Dutt along with a number of his cultural comrades shifted allegiance from the CPI to the recently formed Communist Party of India (Marxist). By the 60s, the grand old CPI started to be perceived as less radical and giving away to an exclusive electoral logic in league with the other bourgeois parties of India. Dutt propounded his idea of a political theatre as a “revolutionary theatre [which] must preach revolution; it must not only expose the system, but also call for the violent smashing of the state machine”. After his shift to the CPI (M) he produced Teer (arrow), Din Bodoler Pala (play of Changing Times). In these plays, his constant theme was the raging atrocities of state security establishments against dissenters. It gave moral approval to the people’s right to resist the repression and defend themselves, if needed by violent means. He took on the popular Bengali traditional theatrical form of Jatra, and the old form was vitalized with novel themes that general jatra audience were rarely exposed to – Lenin, Fall of Berlin, Vietnam, Indigo Revolution. Another person from the People’s Little Theatre Group of Calcutta – Anal Gupta, wrote the play Rakter Rang (colour of Blood) about the peasant struggle and the resultant atrocity meted out by Indian security forces in Naxalbari.


Dutt and his comrades’ example of dissenting from reductive party dictats perhaps influenced the women of Miranda House College to stage India 69. Influence of socialist realism exists with formative elements of absurd, a characteristic of Dutt’s later plays. Openly irreverent of all political parties, including both the Communist Parties, the play ran with the announcement – “not merely to understand the world, but to change it”. It is a reference to Marx’s famous Thesis on Feuerbach – “Philosophers had only interpreted the world in different ways, the point is to change it”.


From the Proscenium to the Streets


It was during this time, that Badal Sircar staged his first play – Evam Indrajit (And Indrajit). The play was an enigma from day one of its production and continues to influence major directors both in theatre and films till this day. The play was Brechtian in its motive of breaking down the barrier between the theatrical space of the proscenium stage and the audience below. At the same time it has absurdist concerns regarding the modern individual’s forlornness and lack of meaning in life. At a point in the drama, the ‘author’ (on stage) chooses three members from the audience as characters for his work. The characters’ garb and identities are continuously shifted and the author gets fixated on Indrajit. The play still continues to be regularly performed by various theatrical troupes all over the country and abroad. Badal Sircar was a committed Marxist and the material bearings of the individual’s subjecthood is always stressed, unlike a number of Badal Sircar’s contemporary absurdist directors in Europe or North America. At least in formal innovations, Badal Sircar’s move from the proscenium to the ‘anganmanch’ (courtyard stage) was salient. In 1967, he formed the ‘Shatabdi’ theatre group, which produced his old proscenium productions like Evam Indrajit, Tringsha Shatabdi (thirtieth century), Pagla Ghoda (Mad Horse) Sesh Nai (No End) in street corner settings. This was a fitting evolution of the formal experiments started by Utpal Dutt.


Indeed, the formulation of a coherent practice of street theatre, which Badal Sircar would call Free Theatre at one point, influenced by similar experiments by Grotowski in US and later ‘Third Theatre’ came out of an explicit ideological motive – to break down the priority of the actors in the actor-audience relationship of traditional drama. Conventional dramatic practice assumes the audience to be a receiver of theatrical signs and effects and is supposed to accept them unconditionally, at least till the duration of the drama. The Third theatre movement sought to challenge these assumptions from the Marxist conviction that art should be a dialogic process of persuasion for a certain preferred politics and should not be preached from a pulpit. Badal Sircar’s ‘Shatabdi’ focused on the tumultuous situation of late 60s/early 70s Eastern India in the grip of a de facto political war between the Naxalites on one side and the ruling Congress party which had unleashed a brutal wave of repression against the insurgents and even neutral people. We should remember that a lot of productions mentioned here, along with the directors and troupe were routinely harassed by state authorities, at times by censorship, cancellation of productions due to perceived threat of public disturbance and often direct assault on the performers.


In the 1980s, another street theatre group emerged as a breakaway of the almost defunct Delhi chapter of IPTA – Jana Natya Manch or ‘Janam’, as was popularly called. ‘Janam’ was headed by the fitting successor of Badal Sircar’s tradition – Safdar Hasmi. Janam still performs plays all over India and in the 30 odd years of its existence it has staged more than 9000 single performances, often multiple performances in a single day with audiences, at times as large as 30000 – whopping figures for street theatre. Unfortunately, Safdar Hasmi was hacked to death in 1987 by Congress sponsored goons while a play was in progress.


The 90s were bad time for Marxism in India as it was all over the world. The dissolution of Soviet Union, the exposes of the repression prevalent in a number of erstwhile Communist countries, and constant sponsored assertions of the flaws inherent in Marxist ideology, muted the appeal of Marxism as an emancipator ideology among the younger generation of intellectuals and cultural workers. Added to that, criticisms were launched about the prevalent economic reductionism found in the work of a lot of Marxist authors, especially the absence of Caste as an issue of social exploitation.


Marxism as an ideology in Indian theatre is undergoing a comeback right now, mostly in street theatre or Third Theater which had by now become quite a mainstream form of Indian Theatre. However, we have to wait to fully grasp what forms and issues become the recurrent defining features of this phase.


Freudian Psychoanalysis in Indian Theatre


Unlike Marxism, as a political ideology which took the Indian stage and the street corner by storm and held it in its sway for half a century, Freud’s influence had been more muted, indirect and also more stable, when we consider that it had not fallen in and out of fashion like Marxism. Freud was popularized in India in the 1930s and 40s by the Indian psychoanalyst – Girindrasekhar Bose. Freud’s influence was telling in case of a lot of poetry and prose pieces written during this time in a host of Indian literary traditions. However in theatre Marxism and old time nationalist themes were the norm.


In case of theatre, Freud’s influence was more in the formal content. Especially in the absurdist strains of Badal Sircar and of ‘Padatik’. ‘Padatik’ was formed in 1972 by Shyamanand Jalan in Calcutta. Padatik’s impetus from the beginning was to move out of the proscenium stage, but unlike Third Theatre, they concentrated more on studio performances, as they called them – intimate spaces. Concerns of psychosexual unconscious determining actions and motives is a theme found in a lot of ‘Padatik’ productions like Antigone, Natun Bristite (In the New Rain), Gali Chahat Wali (The girl asking for slangs) and Beyond Freud.


Shambhu Mitra in his rendering of the plays of Oedipal cycle of Sophocles had created both an Indian Oedipus and at the same time indigenized Freud for the Indian theatre going public. His theatre group – Bohurupi (Many Formed) made a number of plays with Freud bearing in his influence upon popular Bengali works of fiction. His production of celebrated Tagore’s Drama Roktokorobi (red Oleanders) was markedly Freudian or more specifically Marcusian in its exploration of the relations between the Eros and commodity fetishism in a gold mining region.


Outside Hindi and Bengali language worlds, Freud had been influential in Assamese, Marathi and Malayali theatre. Anil Chaudhury’s Protibad (Protest) and Sironton (eternal) written in Assamese might be the earliest explorations of Freudian psychoanalysis in any Indian theatrical tradition. Mention might also be made of Amarenda Pathak’s Interview and Ram Goswami’s Jibonbrito (Dead while in life).


In Indian English drama, Freud had been highly influential, especially in Girish Karnad’s plays. Karnad’s Hayavadhana and Nagamandala explore the questions of selfhood and sexuality, especially in situations of flux. He brings in myth and history to highlight and comment on the absurd predicament of the present. His appraisals of Indian historical characters like Dreams of Tipu Sultan and Tughlaq, focuses on meaninglessness of historical human actions and conflicts. At the end the only explanation that remain plausible are sensual and libidinal impulses of human mind, which even if not sexual, sexuality is never out of the ambit.


Mahesh Dattani is another Indian English playwright deeply influenced by Freud. His settings are generally urban middle class homes, with characters mean, petty and unhappy in a libidinous drive disguised by consumerist spree or alcohol. At the end of his plays we realize that the new modern Indian individual subject that Dattani is depicting is intensely constituted by her/his sexuality.




Influence of Marx and Freud remains strong till this date. However, the phase of these philosophy’s espousal is over for the regular theatre going public, these are now identifiable issues, because they had existed for more than half a century on the Indian stage. Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis can now safely be considered to be constitutive markers of Modern Indian Theatre.

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