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date: 27 March 2023

Theatre Traditions in Bangladeshlocked

Theatre Traditions in Bangladeshlocked

  • Syed Jamil AhmedSyed Jamil AhmedUniversity of Dhaka, Theatre and Performance Studies


Theatre in Bangladesh is best understood in the plural form of “traditions,” since it is a quadruple intertwining of four distinct streams: Sanskrit, indigenous, modern, and applied. Both the Sanskrit and the indigenous traditions employ narration, dialogue, song, dance and music, and eschew “conflict” as the driver of action. Traceable to sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries ce, from which period the earliest textual evidence of a primary form of Sanskrit play is available in ancient Bangladesh, the tradition continues in early-21st-century Bangladesh, albeit only in the academic milieu. More importantly, the secondary forms of Sanskrit plays, which are almost entirely rendered in music and/or dance, serve as a link between the ancient Sanskrit tradition and the indigenous forms of theatre seen in globalizing Bangladesh. Prevalent at least since the 9th century ce, the indigenous theatre tradition is widely prevalent in early-21st-century rural Bangladesh. It displays a wide array of forms such as masked dances suggestive of Buddhist masked dances and festivals of the Himalayan belt; illustrated sung narratives evocative of similar performances in China and Tibet; and song-and-dance performances such as the rās nŗtya of the Manipuri ethnic community, members of which migrated to Bangladesh from the erstwhile independent state of Manipur from the mid-18th century. However, the dominant forms are religious sung-narratives eulogizing Hindu deities, Muslim holy men, Buddhist spiritual teachers, and Christian saints, such as Manasā, Gāzī Pīr, Mādār Pīr, Siddhartha Gautama, and Saint Anthony. Secular sung-narratives, some devised around the renowned collection of ballads titled Maimansimha-gītikā, are also very popular. A second cluster of dominant forms, known by the generic term jātrā appended to a specific name, emerged by adapting European dramaturgy through various acculturations in the 18th century. The tradition of modern theatre emerged out of the conflict-driven notion of European dramaturgy in the mid-19th century—a time when colonial Bengal was negotiating cultural disjuncture ushered in by colonial modernity. Remaining mostly in cultural backwaters till 1971, the modern theatre tradition of Bangladesh emerged with vigor after the War of Liberation, engineered most energetically by about 250 nonprofit city-based ensembles of Group Theatre practitioners. Although amateurs, the groups have successfully striven for artistic excellence, producing memorable plays on the following themes: the liberation war, political protest articulated by Marxist class struggle, machinations of hegemonic masculinity, remonstration against the oppression of the ethnic communities, and cultural-nationalist agendas (most significantly articulated by Rabindranath Tagore). The last-named thematic gave rise to Theatre of the Roots in the 1980s, most memorably enunciated in plays by Selim Al Deen, who rejected European dramaturgy to craft his unique narrative mode of playwriting that evokes the techniques of the sung-narratives of the indigenous theatre tradition of Bangladesh. The tradition of applied theatre is the youngest inclusion in the quadruple intertwining, having emerged in the fervent yearnings of freedom from the internal colonization of the state of Pakistan, as voiced in street theatre plays produced during the years immediately before the liberation war. In the late 1970s, it reemerged as applied theatre brands, popularized as Popular Theatre and Mukta Natak. By the early 1990s, numerous nongovernmental organizations, drawing on the culture and ideology of “development” deployed by the Global North, began to co-opt applied theatre, feeding on rural poverty like vultures in the air.


  • South Asia

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