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Ancient and varied as the country that produced it, Indian theater had its beginnings centuries before the Christian era. How it turned from performances of wandering singers, magicians, puppeteers, and dancers into formal theater remains uncertain. There is a myth telling how the gods invented drama, the highest of the arts, and at first kept it only for themselves. Then one day during a celestial performance, the talented actress Urvasi allowed her thoughts to dwell on her earthly lover and stumbled in her dialogue. Expelled from Paradise for her misbehavior and destined to wander on Earth, Urvasi taught the theatrical arts to mortals. Thus it is said that drama, as a fully realized artistic form, came to the ancient Indians as an accidental gift from the gods.
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Although dramatic dialogues appear in the Rigveda, composed around 1500 b.c.e., the oldest complete plays extant are attributed to Bhsa a dramatist thought to have lived in the second or third century c.e. Even though later Sanskrit playwrights and critics referred to him and quoted his work, the plays vanished at some point. In 1917, an Indian scholar discovered in a South Indian library a manuscript, now called the Trivandrum plays, which contained thirteen intact works written in Sanskrit. Admitting that the authorship may be subject to dispute, most scholars agree that Bhsa wrote the plays and that they remain unchanged from their original form. Six of the pieces, all short, take their subject matter from an Indian epic, the Mahbhrata (c. 400 b.c.e.-400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896; also known as The Mahabharata). Although lacking continuity, these plays still may have been performed together as a cluster of stories from the epic. Pratim-Nṭaka (second or third century c.e.; English translation, 1930-1931), one of the most fully realized, recounts much of another epic, the Rmyana (c. 500 b.c.e.; English translation, 1870-1889). The best known and the most advanced in dramatic structure is Svapna-vsava-datta (second or third century c.e.; English translation, 1930-1931), which tells the story of two women who are potential rivals, yet through their goodness they overcome the temptation to act in the evil way that such a situation warrants. The king completes the triangle, married to the one, still haunted by the other, whom he believes dead. Tangled court intrigue brings about the ironic circumstance in which the former queen becomes the lady-in-waiting to her successor. One of the most noted episodes in the drama occurs when the king believes that he beholds his former wife in a vision, while in actuality, he has unknowingly met her in the flesh.
In addition to their theatrical soundness, the Trivandrum plays hold a significant place in the history of Indian drama. They did not spring fully developed in the second or third century but obviously represent several hundred years of dramatic tradition, therefore establishing how advanced the theater was when Bhsa began to write. Unfortunately, those works preceding the Trivandrum plays have been lost.
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Bhsa’s writing, sophisticated and courtly, foreshadowed the golden age of drama written in Sanskrit. The Classic Period, as it is generally called, lasted from about 300 c.e. to 800 c.e. Considered the highest achievement of Indian literature, the Sanskrit drama drew its support and audience from the courts that flourished until the Muslim invasions eventually destroyed them between 1000 and 1300.
Because the plays aim to be both pleasing and instructive, they contain a mixture of the worldly and the unworldly, an approach that characterizes much of Hindu art. Further, the drama reflects, specifically, Hindu thought. The loftiest plays, called ntaka (heroic drama), draw from the same repositories of Hindu mythology as Bhsa’s work does. Devotional stories, in one sense, their action often revolves around the exploits of the gods Vishnu and iva. Suffering or disaster never befalls these heroic characters, be they gods or kings, because it was unthinkable that such personages could meet defeat and death. This requirement, to which playwrights adhered faithfully, explains the absence of tragedy in Indian theater. Other plays, equally popular, are those called prakarana (social or bourgeois drama), which re-create domestic life and stress the ideal of family. A subtle eroticism pervades these works to heighten the Hindu emphasis on fertility and reproduction.
Considering their twofold aim, to delight and to instruct, both kinds of plays employ a mixture of comedy, pathos, spectacle, and elegant language to make the lesson palatable. Whereas the comedy usually focuses on human foibles, the pathos most often arises from sentimental scenes, such as a great favorite among audiences: the reunion of long-separated family members, friends, or lovers. Music, an essential part of the play’s structure, adds to the spectacle provided by elaborate costumes, set pieces, and, sometimes, the design of the theater itself, which was treated as an important element. Although decorative, Sanskrit staging prefers to permit unhampered movement of time and place. Above all, the language reigns, with poetry assigned to the gods and kings, prose to the women and lesser male characters.
The dramas also follow a strict code of decorum; for example, eating or kissing never takes place onstage, because such actions are considered not only vulgar but also offensive to the gods. Neither do the plays rely heavily on conflict or suspense, but more on an unfolding of events that appears endless, the past melding into the present, the present into the future. As Western critics familiar with Sanskrit drama often point out, the plays resemble their Western counterparts to the point that they can be understood and appreciated by Westerners, even in translation, but only on one level—for the dramas remain firmly rooted in the Hindu view of the world, a view dominated by a concept of reality and unreality rarely grasped by the Western mind. No matter how worldly, how farcical, or how political the play’s action, the intent is ultimately metaphysical and religious. It is noteworthy that each performance begins and closes with a prayer to the gods.
The Little Clay Cart
Numerous Sanskrit plays are extant; in fact, they far outnumber those surviving from the golden age of Greek drama. Several of these dramas have established themselves in theatrical repertory, being performed currently both in India and in the West. The resurgence after independence in 1947 of Indian culture at home and abroad accounts for the renewed interest in Sanskrit theater. Two of the most widely read and performed dramas are Mṛcchakaṭik (c. 300-600 c.e.; Mrchhakatika, 1898, also known as The Little Clay Cart) and Abhijn̄nakuntala (c. 45 b.c.e. or c. 395 c.e.; akuntal: Or, The Lost Ring, 1789).
Although attributed to King draka, the authorship of The Little Clay Cartremains unknown. For that matter, so does historical evidence to prove the existence of an actual King draka. The real author, it is generally assumed, hid behind the probably fictitious king to maintain his anonymity. The play’s date, too, is speculative; sources vary widely. Regardless of such uncertainties, the play is indisputably the work of a master and stands as one of the classics of world theater. India at its most exotic emerges through the author’s evocation of the atmosphere of a large fifth century Indian city. The manners, customs, sights, smells, and sounds come to life, delineating not only the India of the past but also the timeless aspects of modern India. More important, the characters in their human struggle spark a recognition that makes them and their actions universal.
The plot revolves around Crudata, who belongs to the highest of the castes, the Brahman. Noted for his goodness, Crudata long ago gave away his riches to the poor and now lives, almost friendless, in a kind of genteel poverty. As the play opens, he has unknowingly become the object of the courtesan Vasanthasen’s affections. “Lovely as the springtide,” the director of the theater describes her in the customary prologue; Vasanthasen so admires Crudata’s character that she sets out to gain his attention. This exposition established, the scenes unfold in a leisurely manner. Melodramatic devices such as mistaken identity, a false murder, court intrigue, lust, a woman in distress at the hands of a villain, and a last-minute reprieve before an execution carry the plot to its denouement. Comedy, directed for the most part toward human weakness and pretensions, gives relief to these grim devices and sets a mood to assure the audience that the near catastrophes will be avoided and that all will be resolved as it should in an orderly universe. Still, even when Vasanthasen makes her love for Crudata known and he responds, they do not live happily ever after in the Western sense, for Sanskrit drama shies away from such conclusiveness in human matters. That Crudata already has a wife presents no problems or conflicts: The wife represents the ideal of home, the courtesan the erotic side of sexual nature.
The Little Clay Cart, while abundant in action, suspense, and comedy—elements that many Sanskrit plays lack—still takes seriously its instructive purposes. A look at the significance of the title will help to explain the intended message. Crudata’s son has but a single toy, a little clay cart. Once he receives from the wealthy courtesan his great wish, a little cart made of gold, he still owns only a toy. The cart, made first of the humblest material, then of the richest, represents the Hindu attitude toward poverty and wealth. Both are toys, hence only playthings in true reality, where substance—be it clay or gold, the street or the palace, fine garments or rags—plays no valid part in human experience. This sense of a higher order is expressed by Crudata in the speech that concludes the ten-act play:May the cows never cease to give abundance of milk; may the earth bring forth rich harvests; may Indra’s rain seasonably descend upon the fields; may the breath of the pure winds refresh the hearts of men; may all living things enjoy unchanging happiness; may the Brahmanas be worthy of the veneration that is accorded them; may the kings, vanquishing their enemies and always mindful of their duties, rule gloriously over the world.
akuntal, another of the major Sanskrit plays, contains a finely wrought language and a level of thought characteristic of its author, Klidsa known not only for his three extant dramas but for his sublime elegiac poems as well. Less grounded in the real world than the author of The Little Clay Cart, Klidsa in akuntal relies on myth and symbol to set forth a philosophy in which people and nature exist in harmony, equating as he does seasons in nature and fertility in human life. Through his exquisite language, he celebrates nature and its beauty as it moves from one season to another, from life to death to life, endlessly. In the same spirit, he praises human sexuality, which he treats both biologically as the source of life and idealistically as the erotic impetus of love.
While drawing his plot from The Mahabharata, Klidsa takes some liberties with his source in tracing the trials and triumphs of the lovely akuntal, reared in the forest by a hermit and discovered by the powerful and handsome King Dushyanta, who falls in love with her. She in turn pledges her love to him. Dushyanta promises to return and leaves his ring as a symbol of his fidelity. Soon after his departure, misfortune strikes akuntal when she falls under a curse, which will cause her beloved Dushyanta to be unable to recognize her unless he sees the ring. The pregnant akuntal loses the ring on her way to meet her lover, and only after extended uncertainty and agony on the part of the separated pair does a fisherman finally find the ring inside a fish. Once returned and identified, the ring unleashes in the king recollections of akuntal, whom he had earlier denied and who now lives in exile with their son. Before long the two reunite; order is reestablished, family idealized, and love triumphant.
Throughout the unraveling of this preposterous but charming story, Klidsa provides magnificent evocation of nature’s beauty, celebrates the physical and idealistic realms of love, and comments on the frailty and absurdity of the human condition; indeed, he interweaves into the narrative all the strands that form the tapestry of the Hindu worldview.
From 800 to 1000, Sanskrit drama continued to flourish but never again reached the heights of the Classic Period. A period of decline set in from 1000 to 1300, with the plays patterned after those of the golden age but increasingly marred by their artificiality, sterility, tedium, pretentious language, and threadbare plots. This decline coincided with the Muslim invasions, which changed the face of the country and destroyed the Hindu courts that had supported the theater. Even though the conquerors could have inherited such a rich theatrical tradition, drama was not among Muslim artistic pursuits, which lay more in painting, music, nondramatic literature, and architecture. To an extent, the invaders absorbed the other Hindu arts into their own, but the glorious Sanskrit theater died for lack of interest and support, its grandeur lost until its rebirth in the twentieth century.
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By the seventeenth century another invader had arrived: the Europeans. Far more foreign and subtle than the Muslims, the new conquerors tended to superimpose their own culture on things Indian instead of absorbing them. Although the Europeans launched their struggle to gain supremacy in India during the 1600’s, not until the nineteenth century did the Europeans, especially the British, fully accomplish their goals. Between 1853 and 1919, most of William Shakespeare’s plays were translated into Indian languages—The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597) alone appeared in nine different languages, and by the mid-1900’s, Shakespeare had begun to occupy the stage long left dark by the Sanskrit dramatists.
Another kind of theater prevalent in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s grew from melodramatic renditions of thrilling episodes lifted out of English novels, which had been translated into Indian languages and made available in the bookstalls. Adapted to the tastes and languages of their Indian audiences, these plays, written by hack writers, bore no resemblance to the elegant Sanskrit drama of the Classic Period.
Under the new foreign rulers, Calcutta, the cosmopolitan city on the eastern coast, developed into the major cultural center. By the mid-1800’s, attempts to rebuild an authentic Indian theater were under way, with dramatists such as Pandit Ramnarayan, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Dinabandhu Mitra, Girish Chandra Ghosh, and Dwijendra Lal Roy writing plays for the next half century but failing to strike the right chord. Not until Rabindranath Tagore ppeared did modern drama come to India. Better known for his poetry, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1913, Tagore wrote about forty plays, among which Chitrngad (pb. 1892; Chitra, 1913), Rj (pb. 1910; The King of the Dark Chamber, 1914), and Dakghar (pb. 1912; The Post Office, 1914) are the most widely known and performed. Lyric, symbolic, and static, Tagore’s plays often rely on dreams, ancient myth, and the mystical.
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In some respects, a history of Indian theater could begin and conclude with a study of Sanskrit drama, which started its decline around 800 and eventually lay dormant for several centuries. Although rediscovered in the twentieth century, partly through the efforts of British and German scholars, it has failed to regain its supremacy. The Sanskrit language alone sets up barriers, so that even many Indians must see their classic plays performed in translation, either in English or in one of the many other official Indian languages. After a hundred or more years of European plays, including ones by Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and George Bernard Shaw, Indian theatergoers have become so accustomed to tragedy, conclusive endings, specific characterization, and other conventions of Western drama that the form of a Sanskrit drama might seem foreign even to them.
The revival of the classic drama actually remains somewhat limited in its scope, confined often to the studies of scholars and to the provinces of those devoted to the restoration of a pure Indian culture divorced from Western influences. The promotion of the latter attitude, some Indian critics argue, hampers the establishment of a vital modern theater that would combine that which is typically Indian with the inevitable inheritance from the West.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, Indian playwrights, often against heavy odds, have attempted to meld the two traditions and thereby establish a drama that honestly could be called modern Indian theater. Though not altogether rejecting the unworldly quality of their Sanskrit heritage, the dramatists have still focused on worldly matters, for the major thrust in modern drama has been in the realm of protest theater. At times naturalistic, even brutal, in their depiction of social ills, these playwrights often turn to myth and mysticism for solutions, the essence of the Indian apprehension of the universe.
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Protest in Indian theater is not a twentieth century invention. For example, Mitra’s Nil Darpan (pr. 1860; English translation, 1861) exposed the atrocities carried out against Indian workers by British indigo planters. At the end of the century, a strong theater of purpose, especially in the Marathi and Bengali languages, had risen, taking up such social concerns as child marriage practices, the consequences of alcoholism, purdah, and the treatment of widows
Although none of these plays was exceptional, they did foreshadow the first wave of twentieth century drama, which found its voice in expressing the anti-British feeling engendered by Mahatma Gandhi’s successful efforts to raise the consciousness of his fellow Indians living under the inequities and humiliation of imperialism. Once the national movement had gained strength, the playwrights added their voices to the protests. Some of them retold episodes from The Mahabharata, but their allegorical satires were so thinly disguised that even the British understood them and took legal steps to quell this new enemy of the empire. At the height of the Gandhian years in the 1930’s, the British had silenced the playwrights, along with novelists and poets, who criticized foreign rule. Therefore, purpose in theater vanished and only escapist drama survived. During this time, yet another blow from the West struck the stage—that is, the cinema. Before long, live theaters were transformed into motion picture houses, and the most talented of the writers and performers deserted the stage for the more lucrative film business. The cinema currently remains immensely popular in India and stands as a major hindrance to the establishment of a vital and widespread living theater. Another problem stems from the multiplicity of official Indian languages, ten or so, including English.
Yet even in the face of these difficulties, modern playwrights have never despaired altogether. Just before independence in 1947, the protest theater reemerged again, and it has continued its growth steadily. When World War II ended, the British finally realized that they must leave India; thus they set into motion the machinery to grant independence to the country they had long ruled. However, soon the machinery threatened to cut the country into parts. That India might be carved up to create Pakistan affected many Indians deeply, especially in view of their mystical idea of a Mother India. One such person, Prithviraj Kapoor, a wealthy film actor, believed so strongly that the theater could help prevent the tragedy that he formed the Prithvi Theatre a company of able performers that crisscrossed India to perform plays against partition. Two of the most popular, written by Kapoor and Inder Raj Anand, are Deewar (pr. 1945), which told of a wall built between two brothers by a foreign seductress, and Pathan (pr. 1945), which showed how unity between Hindus and Muslims might be brought about by blood sacrifice. Melodramatic and propagandistic, the Prithvi plays never pretended to be great theater, and soon after 1947 they were forgotten. While they failed to prevent partition, the plays, however poor, helped to revive the theater of purpose, which was to thrive in the years to come.
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The protest theater that ensued no longer focused on British rule but on the corruption and ineptitude writers saw in their own government. A playwright in the forefront of this movement was Bidal Sircar, who wrote in Bengali and whose work was translated into English. In his plays, he explored the social, economic, and historical forces that affect and disrupt Indian society. One of the most powerful expressions of these concerns, Michhil (1978; Procession, 1983) contains a series of scenes that shows one man’s repeated death, each time the result of the social ills afflicting the individual citizen. Throughout the play, the actors stage processions into and out of the audience, and at the end they ask the audience to join them in a final procession of dreams that represents the hopes that endure despite the false processions ending only in death. Encouraged to join this procession, which promises “to show us a way, the way home,” one of the characters tiredly responds: “I’ve seen so many processions. They never show you a way.” Nevertheless, once convinced that the procession of “men’s dreams” is “real,” he joins. The play, in spite of its graphic portrayal of Calcutta, which Sircar called “a monster of a city,” ends on a mystical note. Significantly, to his description of Calcutta as a “monster,” Sircar added, “But a monster that is alive, throbbing with vitality and viciousness, maybe vision too.” Procession exemplifies how modern Indian drama at its best has wedded its own traditions to those inherited from the West.
One story that postindependence theater has largely ignored is that of Gandhi’s life and work, a subject that literally hundreds of poems, novels, and biographies have taken up in all of India’s languages. Perhaps portraying the Mahatma as a flesh-and-blood character on the stage offends many Indians. In Gandhi: A Play (1983), written in English, Indian humorist V. D. Trivadi treats his subject satirically, stressing what he sees as Gandhi’s thirst for martyrdom. At the time of the play’s publication, before it was performed, one reviewer hoped the play would escape censorship. A daring work, this play, more than anything else, questions the pompous way many writers have approached Gandhi. Trivadi’s treatment of so revered a subject does indicate the theater’s growing maturity after independence.
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Yet another kind of theater continues to flourish throughout India, both in the country and in the cities: the folk heater. It flourished centuries before the Christian era and continued to do so outside the courts where the elite watched Sanskrit plays. The folk theater outlived these works and carried on during the centuries in which the classic drama lay buried waiting for revival. Unaffected by the comings and goings of conquerors, even by the advent of film, the folk theater adapted and has survived.
Folk theater employs dance, song, mime, and improvisation. Dialogue, in the people’s dialect, is sometimes included but seldom written down, for the presentations rely less on language than they do on movement. Those forms that borrow from the religious epics relate the myths surrounding the multiple Hindu deities, and the productions often make up part of the temple activities during religious festivals. Other folk forms have no such high aims—their stories are bawdy and ribald, full of sexual innuendos.
In some performances, the entire village is involved. At times, a traveling troupe, even a single storyteller or mime, is engaged to entertain, perhaps at a celebration such as a wedding. Animals—namely, elephants and monkeys—well trained and often costumed, also take part. Usually transvestites play the women’s roles, because folk theater at its most vulgar is thought improper for women, either to act in or to see. Lively, varied, and enduring, the folk theater does have one threat: the spread of television. Yet it is not likely that television will destroy a tradition that has already withstood countless invasions, religious wars, natural disasters, famine, political upheavals, and partitioning of the land.
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In a country in which illiteracy still dominates, a strict class structure prevails, and rural people far outnumber urban, the formal, written theater continues to be restricted. Nor have contemporary Indian plays, even those written in English, made an impact internationally. The drama has never gained the enthusiastic reception given overseas to Indian fiction in English. This is not say, however, that live theater in India is a disappearing art, even though it must compete with the immensely popular cinema and the expansion of television. The theaters are located in the large cities, such as Bombay, Calcutta, and New Delhi; and like the ancient Sanskrit drama, contemporary theater presents to an audience consisting only of the elite.
Competing with indigenous plays are those from the Western world, especially English-language drama, which is performed either in the original or in translation. Plays by the classic British dramatists, Shakespeare in particular, continue to be popular. Because many of these dramatic works, as well as Greek tragedies and European dramas, have been translated into the major Indian languages, they have been absorbed into Indian culture and are probably more familiar and perhaps more accessible to the educated Indian than classical Sanskrit drama. Therefore it would not be surprising in modern India to find productions of Shaw’s plays, or those of Strindberg, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, and other Western playwrights. The well-traveled, English-speaking Indians would be especially at home with the staples of Western theater.
A survey of contemporary Indian plays shows that for the most part they have little relationship to traditional Indian drama but have become thoroughly Westernized, whether they are produced in English, Hindi, Gujarati, or Marathi—India’s four major languages. Many of the plays tend to fall into familiar categories: sophisticated comedy, satire, protest plays, and dramas of family conflict; adaptations from Hindu mythology and historical plays also appear.
The English-language theater displays a fondness for sophisticated comedies, which are produced by companies appealing to what one advertisement calls the “large, upmarket and hip crowd.” One such production, A Fly in the Pizza (pr. 2000), takes up the war between the sexes, and another, called I Do, I Don’t! (pr. 2000), explores the pitfalls of marriage. A play with a feminist theme, Once I Was Young . . . Now I Am Wonderful (pr. 2002), addresses a society obsessed with youth and beauty. On another note, It Happens Only in India (pr. 2000) takes a satiric look at India’s sociopolitical situation, castigating the country for its bumbling bureaucracy, corruption, and failure to live up to its ideals as “the world’s largest democracy.” Although these plays do not constitute great or lasting theater, they resemble much of what would be available at any given time on the London or Broadway stages.
The Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati theaters also produce light comedies full of sexual innuendoes, which could be described as sophisticated versions of the ribald folk plays. Generally, though, the dramatists appear to be more serious than their English-speaking counterparts. For one thing, they consistently dramatize typical family conflicts in Indian society. For example, the Hindi play Prayashchit, by Sukant Panda (pr. 2001), probes arranged marriages and the accompanying dowry system, which in many cases cause women enormous anguish. As the drama unfolds, a young, educated bride suffers at the hands of her husband and his parents, who accuse her of being unable to conceive a child. Although the abused bride triumphs—unlike many of the real women involved in such situations, the play presents a forthright exploration of a delicate subject in Indian life. These plays, whether serious or comic, are usually set in the milieu of their middle- or upper-class audiences.
There still remains an audience, even among the elite, for renditions and adaptations of Hindu mythology. The English theater, however, is less likely to produce such dramas. When modern playwrights draw from these ancient and rich sources, they understand that most of their audience will already know the story, so they must reshape the familiar tales and make them relevant for the modern world. This theater undoubtedly stays closest to Indian dramatic tradition. Another development is the production of historical plays recounting events that took place during British rule, such as the Great Mutiny of 1857. It has been noted that these plays serve to forge a postcolonial identity by reminding the modern audience of the heroism and sacrifices made by those who fought against the English.
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Bhatia, Nandi. “Staging the 1857 Mutiny as ‘The Great Rebellion.’” Theatre Arts 51 (May, 1999): 167-184. Examines how the contemporary staging of a historical event such as the 1857 mutiny against the British helps to foster an anticolonial identity in India.
Brandon, James R., and Rachel Van M. Baumer, eds. Sanskrit Drama in Performance. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981. Traces the development of Sanskrit drama and provides analytical criticism of the genre.
Chattopadhyay, Siddheswar. Theatre in Ancient India. New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1993. A thorough history of Sanskrit drama that includes material on staging, acting, and dramaturgy.
Garagi, Balawanti. Theatre in India. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1962. Although not contemporary, it remains an authoritative historical source on the development of drama in India.
Reddy, P. Bayapa. Studies in Indian Writing in English, with a Focus on Indian Drama. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1990. A helpful introduction to Indian fiction and poetry, along with a more detailed survey of Indian plays.
Richmond, Farley P., ed. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. A varied collection of articles that stresses performance of Sanskrit and folk theater.