22 Theatre Styles and Group Theatre Movement, Mitra, Alkazi, Panikkar Subbanna, Alekar, Elkunchwar, Padamsee

Mr. Surajit Maity



“Art is not a mirror held up to reality

But a hammer with which to shape”

…Berlolt Brecht


The need for a kind of theatre that was not just to serve the commercial gains of the Jamaindars, Babus or Bourgeon owners of theatre, but the shape the society, was at its zenith. Several initiatives were taken by various keen theatre personalities, theatre group and other organizations in different pockets of India between 1930s-1950s and so on. An urge to take theatre to wider audience and to address the issues and problems of the then society was being seen in every cultural hubs of the country. The theatre started coming out of the opportunist theatre owners and started spreading to reflect their own ideas, view and comments on the society in a more open and liberal approach. Subjects and themes of the play started changing rapidly from their mere historical and mythological theme to themes like contemporary, realistic, abstract, absurd, and many others. Theatre remained not just a medium of aesthetic satisfaction of elite class. It turned more and more political in its tone and stared to become propaganda to address social issues. The formation of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association, 1942) was a burning example to this approach.It was the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. Its primary aim was the cultural reawakening among the people of India. Many famous theatre persons(Prithviraj Kapoor, Bijon Bhattacharya, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak, Utpal Dutt, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Salil Chowdhury, Pandit Ravi Shankar) joint this movement to take the theatre to mass to speak about the contemporary problems and issues. But apart from organizations like this many persons with their theatre groups joined the movements with an approach to bring a new theatre tradition.


Sombhu Mitra


Sombhu Mitra was born in Calcutta on August 22, 1915. The sixth child of the Geological Survey of India employee Sarat Kumar Mitra, he lost his mother Shatadalbashini Mitra at the tender age of twelve. Mitra’s penchant for the dramatic arts was invoked when he was a student at the Ballygunge Government High School & later the St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta. He joined the Rangmahal Theatre in North Calcutta in 1939, followed by stints at the Minerva, Natya-niketan and Srirangam respectively. The lack of contentment with the quality of dramatic art that was being practised was the prime reason why Mitra turned away from Commercial theatre and ultimately joined the IPTA.


While profits had been the driving force behind the functioning of the ‘commercial theatre’ scene that controlled the majority of the prosceniums in the city, left-bound artistic endeavours began to put politics and their ensuing agenda on top, steadily pushing away stalwart artistes such as Salil Choudhury, Ritwik Ghatak, Debebrata Biswas and of course, Sombhu Mitra away from their stringent fold that never prioritised theatre as an art form nor believe in any form of art that failed to uphold and glorify purely red ideals.


He would also feature, along with wife Tripti Mitra, in the 1946 film ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (Directed by fellow IPTA member Khwaja Ahmad Abbas), which was a contemptuous analysis of the great Bengal famine of 1943. Despite these well-known successful stories, Mitra had eventually become exhausted of the set of compromises he had to make in his art due to the assorted political doctrines. The makeshift stages, the lack of resources to sustain a proper ‘travelling troupe’, the sheer restrictions imposed on the content of the productions; were weighing hard on the sole thing that truly mattered to Mitra.


Sombhu Mitra’s quest for a perfect state of the auspicious high in his adopted medium of art, inspired him to break off from the communist theatre fold in 1948, seven days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, along with Ahindra Chaudhuri &Tripti Mitra and establish ‘Bohurupee’ – a theatre troupe that would go on to initiate a theatre movement whose primary objective would be to create art for the elusive ‘art’s sake’.

‘Bohurupee’ (literally: Multi-faceted) officially marked the beginning of the ‘Group Theatre’ movement in Bengal, which characterised theatre that did not wish to capture the fancy of audiences by billing names that would attract colossal crowds but tried to become the ideal form of ‘Gananatya’ (Theatre of and by the people) by introducing novelty in theme, content and execution, primarily with the aid of non-professional actors who had grouped together for the collective love of the art form.





1944 – Nabanna (Written and Co-directed by Bijan Bhattacharya).


1950(?) – Ulukhagra (Written by SombhuMitra)


1950 – Chhenra Taar (Written by TulsiLahiri)


1951 – Char Adhyay (Based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore)


1952 – Dasachakra (Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People)


1954 – Rakta Karabi (Written by Rabindranath Tagore)


1958 – Putul Khela (Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House)


1961 – Visarjan (Written by Rabindranath Tagore)


1964 – Raja (Written by Rabindranath Tagore)


1964 – Raja Oedipus (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex)


1965 – Evam Indrajit (Written by BadalSircar)


1967 – Baki Itihas (Written by BadalSircar)


1971 – PaglaGhoda (Written by BadalSircar)


1971 – Chop! Adalat Cholchhe (Vijay Tendulkar, Shantata! AdalatChaluahe)

Ebrahim Alkazi:


Amid much political upheaval, Alkazi became one of the most prominent theatre artists in Mumbai during the ’40s and ’50s. Then, at 37, he left it all, moved to Delhi, and served as the director of National School of Drama (NSD) for the next 15 years (1962 to 1977).


His legendary skills—as a painter, poet, actor, stage designer and director—were channelized towards ushering in modernism into Indian theatre.


He successfully steered or created many institutions—the Theatre Group, Theatre Unit, the Repertory Company, Art Heritage, Centre for International Contemporary Arts, Sepia International in New York, the Living Theatre and The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.


Alkazi was always at the epicentre of the arts scene, whether in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the early 50s, or later in the 60s and 70s, when he ran the National School of Drama for 16 years. His startling and meticulously researched productions were unique and breathtakingly beautiful in the manner in which music, text, costume and choreography were effortlessly conjoined. It included practically the entire pantheon of dramatic literature “from the Greeks to Beckett”, as he put it.


As a director, his handling of complex themes was revealed in his sensitive moulding of the visual aspects of the production, especially the scenography and the lighting, both of which were designed by him. Combined with the power of casting ensemble, it uncovered new dimensions of performance, giving a new thrust and shape to Indian modernity as it was evolving.


Kavalam Narayana Panikkar:


Shri Kavalam Narayana Panikkar has carved out a niche for himself in the evolution of a regional theatre movement, which is one of the major components constituting the national theatre in modern India. In a career spanning over four decades, Shri Panikkar has given a new lease of life for the age-old Sanskrit drama tradition on one hand and on the other, he identified the interrelations between the evolved art forms and folk arts, successfully creating a fusion that has enthralled the contemporary audience since then.


Shri Panikkar was born on the 28th April 1928 in the picturesque village of Kavalam, part of Kuttanad, once famed as the granary of Kerala. The rustic lifestyle of the agricultural community, closely identified with Mother Nature, the scenic beauty of the area where the sacred River Pampa ends its journey by merging into Vembanad lake-all provided an ideal background for the young Narayanan to develop his inborn artistic talents and vision.


A turning point in his theatre experiments, especially as a playwright came with the production of “Daivathar”. However, Shri Panikkar did not direct the drama, but tried to actively collaborate with directors like Kumara Varma, interpreting his textual inputs to the director


The structure of this play and its presentation were truly path breaking. The theme demanded an open auditorium with trees in the background having hanging lamps. The concept of proscenium and picture frame stage with roll curtain divide was broken. The acting area started growing beyond its prescribed limits, creating a sense of involvement and participation among the audience.


A major breakthrough in Shri.Kavalam’s career as a director came when he was offered a chance to produce and present a Sanskrit drama at the prestigious Kalidas Samaroh in Ujjain. He selected Bhasa’s ‘MadhyamaVyayogam’, which was his first directorial attempt.


And on November 2, 1978, ‘Madhyama Vyayogam’ was presented in Ujjain and received with a standing ovation. The culturally sound audience could feel the strength of the Sanskrit presentation, the usage of body dynamics by the actors and their ability to combine the “Satvika” and “Vachika” acting and above all, the directorial contribution of Shri Kavalam.


While dabbling with Sanskrit theatre, Shri Panikkar also wrote and directed a number of Malayalam plays. His first Malayalam play was Sakshi and Kalivesham being the latest.


Shri Panikkar’s creations, though experimental and non-conformist feature using non-realistic tools, have themes in close proximity to real life, its anxieties, struggles and confusion. This gives a durablenature and make them suitable for Lokdharmi / Natyadharmi treatment. Another salient feature of his plays is the absence of exhaustive use of language as a medium of communication. Instead, the “bhava” or expression is utilized as a powerful vehicle to provide ample space for improvisation as well as interpretation. All the plays are part of the author’s experiments to develop the structural patterns and explore its possibilities in the Indian context. He still continues to do the same.


This Playwright – Director prefers to call his Kalari, “Sopanam”, consisting of 20 artists, as his “Theatre laboratory”. His wife Saradamani has been a perennial source of strength and inspiration to him. His two sons Harikrishnan and Sreekumar are also assisting him in his creative ventures, taking time off from their official responsibilities.


He lives in Thrikkannapuram on the banks of Karamana River, away from dust and din of the state capital, yet near to the city. He has another house at his native village on the banks of river Pampa an abode he considers as a great source of nostalgic inspiration.


K V Subbanna:


K.V. Subbanna is one of the most acclaimed dramatists from the state of Karnataka who’s known in a national level.


Kantugodu Vibhuthi Subbanna or K.V.Subbanna was born into a Vibhuthi family in 1932, in the Shimoga District of Karnataka. He was born in a family that appreciated all forms of arts and his father set up a small dramatic society called Neelanakantheshwara Natya Sangha in 1949, in the village of Heggodu, in Sagar Taluk. This society was later turned into a world renowned institution by Subbanna.


K.V. Subbanna has adapted the plays of many of the world’s greatest dramatists like Shakespeare, Moliere, Brecht and Kalidasa to Kannada Theatre. He has also translated some works like ‘An Actor Prepares’ by Stanislavsky and the Sanskrit play ‘Dasarupaka’ by Dhananjaya.


He has written many plays for children, like Kadinalli Kathe (A Forest Story), Anchemane (Post Office), Bettakke Chaliyadare (If the Mountain Shakes). Many of Subbanna’s own plays draw from Indian epics and stories, and he fits them in a modern context.


The small dramatic society, Neelakantheshwara Natya Sangha, set up by his father in 1949, was turned into a cultural movement by K.V.Subbanna. It works to revive traditional and folk arts, conducts theatre workshops in remote corners of Karnataka, runs a theatre training school that offers a one year diploma course, and conducts cultural seminars and training programs among other activities.


K.V.Subbanna received world recognition in 1991 when he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. He won the Sangeet  Natak Academy Award in 1994, the Sahitya Academy Award in 2003, and the Padma Shri in 2004.


K.V.Subbanna passed away on the 16th of July, 2005. He has left an indelible mark in Karnataka’s literary and theatrical circles. His NINASAM continues his work, serving to create an appreciation for the fine arts and encouraging artistic talent throughout Karnataka.


Satish Alekar:


Satish Alekar was born in New Delhi but raised in City of Pune, Maharashtra. He is known as a playwright, director and stage actor since 1973. He is one of the founder members of Theatre Academy, Pune. He writes in his native language Marathi. Satish Alekar, author of Marathi plays like Mahanirvan (1974), Micky ani Memsahib (1973), Mahapoor (The deluge-1975), Doosra Samana(1989), Begum Barve (1979), Shaniwar – Raviwar (1980) etc. is practicing theatre in Maharashtra since 1971. He is one of the founder members of India’s best-known theatre group Theatre Academy, Pune that he administered from 1973 to 92. Many of his plays have been translated and produced in several regional languages all over India. With his plays like Mahanirvan (1974) and Begum Barve (1979) he created new idiom in Marathi theatre by his unique use of black humor, language and absurdity to convey the oblique sense of reality. He also authored several short plays that are extensively staged by the experimental theatre groups all over Maharashtra for past thirty years. He recently completed his new full-length play “Pidhijat” (Dynasts) which was staged in Bengali in Calcutta (April 2003) and in Marathi in Pune, (May 2003.)


Satish Alekar conceived and successfully implemented programmes like Playwrights Development Scheme and Regional Theater Group Development, which were supported, by the Ford Foundation for Theatre Academy, Pune since 1985 to 1994. He has extensively traveled abroad and during January-May 2003 he was adjunct professor at Performance Studies, Tisch School of Arts, New York University as a Fulbright Scholar. He also was at the Duke University, N.C., U.S.A. on adjunct teaching assignment during spring 1995 semester. He lectured on Contemporary Indian Theatre at the several universities in U.S.


His published plays are available with Neelkanth Prakashan, Pune (in Marathi) and Seagull Book, Calcutta (in English). Many of his plays have been translated, produced and published in several Indian regional languages like: Hindi, Tamil, Dogri, Kannada, Gujarati, Rajasthani, Punjabi, and Konkni. His plays also included in the National Anthologies published by the National School of Drama and Sahitya Akademi, Delhi published in 2000-01.


Satish Alekar has also collaborated in several international translation projects. He freely translated and directed short plays by German Playwright Tankred Dorst (for Goethe Institute, Pune) in 1980; play “The Flood” by Gunter Grass in 1980 (for Goethe Institute, Pune), Two short plays by Egyptian playwright Dr. Alfred Farag, Cairo (in association with American University in Cairo) in 2001.


Prof. Alekar served many cultural organizations, institutes and universities like Bharat Bhavan, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi, National School of Drama, University Grants Commission, Delhi, S.N.D.T. University, Shivaji University as advisor member of the committees. He is Govt. of India nominee on the society for the National School of Drama, Delhi and also nominated as the Vice Chairman, NSD. (2001-5). He is also a member of the Theatre Advisory committee of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi since 2001.


Satish Alekar is working as Professor and Head of the Centre for Performing Arts (Lalit Kala Kendra) at University of Pune since July 1996. He also worked as Research Officer at B.J. Medical College, Pune being a trained Biochemist. Satish Alekar M.Sc. (Biochemistry), Poona University (1972), lives in Pune with his wife Anita and their son Mikin.


Mahesh Elkunchwar:


Mahesh Elkunchwar was born in 1939 into a landowning family in the small village of Parwa in the Vidarbha region, northern Maharashtra. He took his postgraduate degree in English from Nagpur University and taught the subject at Dharampeth Arts, Commerce and M. P. Deo Memorial Science College, Nagpur, retiring as Head in 1999.


Mahesh Elkunchwar became interested in writing for theatre after he got chance to see Vijay Tendulkar’s Mijinkalo mi haralo i.e. ‘I Won, I Lost’ in 1965. The prestigious literary magazine Satyakatha published his first one-act play, Sultan, in 1967. Vijaya Mehta directed both Sultan and Holi, also published in Satyakatha in 1969, for Rangayan in 1970. Elkunchwar wrote eight one-act plays over the next five years, presenting a wide range of dramatic situations, theatrical devices, and speech rhythms. They revealed a preoccupation with death, loneliness, creativity, the illusion of wealth, and the apparent purposelessness of choice or action while the ultimate goal of life remained unknown. With the exception of Holi and Raktapushp i.e. ‘Flower of Blood’ published in 1972 and performed in 1981. They use symbols schematically and are composed in an expressionistic mode. This is also true of Elkunchwar’s early full-length dramas, Rudravarsha i.e. ‘Angry Rain’ in 1968, Garbo in 1973, and Vasanakand i.e. ‘Period of Desire’ in 1974. Much later, in the philosophical comedy Pratibimb i.e. ‘Reflection’ in 1987, the symbols acquire a life beyond the schema. The discussion play Party in 1976 was followed by a fallow period, during which time Elkunchwar acted in GovindNihalani’s first film Akrosh i.e. ‘Cry of the Wounded’ in 1980. He also adapted the scenarios for Ketan Mehta’s Holt in 1983 and Nihalani’s Party in 1984 from his own plays.


In Wada chirebandi or ‘Old Stone Mansion’ in 1985, Elkunchwar returned to the culture he had grown up with, that of Brahman zamindars in the Vidarbha countryside. It records the invasion of urban values and corrupt business practices into this feudal culture, destroying everything that resists change. Magna talyakathi i.e. ‘Pensive by the Pond’ in 1994 and Yuganta i.e. ‘End of an Age’ in 1994 continued the story of these inhabitants of the ‘Stone Mansion’ and, through them, of contemporary society. The Wada trilogy, as the three plays came to be called, was performed over eight hours on 11 April 1994 in Mumbai. Acclaimed and criticized in equal measure, it constituted a brave experiment and a challenge to Marathi theatre as well. Elkunchwar’s later plays include Atmakatha in 1988, which delves into the nature of reality and fiction and their interrelationship. Vasansijirnani was published in 1996 and performed in 2000. This play was based on death. Dharmaputra i.e. ‘Godson’ was published in 1997, and Sonata is premiered in English translation, 2001 on the friendship of three women.


Elkunchwar is one of the finest Marathi writers with more than 20 plays to his name, in addition to his theoretical writings, critical works, and his active work in India’s Parallel Cinema as actor and screenwriter. He is, today, along with Vijay Tendulkar, one of the most influential and progressive playwrights in Marathi theatre. He has been honored in India with the Homi Bhabha Fellowship during the year 1976-78. He also got the Sangeet Natak.

Akademi annual award for best playwright. It was given by the National Academy of the Performing Arts, 1989. He was also awarded with Nandika in 1989. The National Academy of Letters in 2002, and the Saraswathi Samman gave that. That was one of India’s highest literary awards in 2003, and internationally with the Brittingham Fellowship in 2005.


In fact, Mahesh Elkunchwar owes it in some way to Vijay Tendulkar to start his journey in writing plays. It happened by chance when, almost 50 years ago, he could not get a ticket for a film and landed up seeing a play by Tendulkar.It soon becomes a vocation, leading to a prolific output like Garbo, Raktapushp, Party, Pratibimb, Atmakatha, amongst others. Apart from Tendulkar, he has also been influenced by a number of Western authors like Anton Chekov, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.


Elkunchwar is a self-conscious modernist, not a hoary traditionalist. A strong votary of urban Marathi theatre, he looks upon all forms of folk theatre as, in his own words, ‘instances of artistic kleptomania’. Elkunchwar came into the picture when bold experimentation was becoming popular and many plays like Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, Mohan Rakesh’s Ashad Ka Ek Din and Adhe Adhure continued to push the boundaries of Hindi theatre. It was also the time Vijay Tendulkar’s plays were hitting the Marathi middle class and its hypocrisies where it hurt the most. His plays, while being socially relevant, spoke against the middle-class ennui in grappling with its own hypocrisies. Unlike Tendulkar, Elkunchwar did not use violence; his was a more suppressed attack, but it hurts more.



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