Professor and playwright says Indian theater still traditional

Professor Sonjoy Dutta Roy held a lecture on traditional Indian theater on Wednesday at Homer D. Babbidge. The poster promotes a lecture from earlier in March. (Photo courtesy of Cal-Berkley)

Professor Sonjoy Dutta-Roy said in a lecture Wednesday afternoon titled “Experimental and Traditional Theater in India,” that tradition continues to thrive in the contemporary world of Indian theater.  

Dutta-Roy stood at the podium, leaning toward a small audience of professors, graduate students and undergraduates. He did not click through many slides and instead told the audience about the stories, themes and metaphors imbedded in the rich culture of Indian society as portrayed in theater.

“Theater is perhaps the only art form that can’t be categorized. Whenever someone writes a thesis on theater, I find it very difficult to find people who are experts on that thesis,” Dutta-Roy said. “It’s difficult to find people who are involved in both performance and academics.”

While Dutta-Roy is a professor at the University of Allahabad in India, he is also a director. His productions include Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana, Mahesh Dattani’s Tara, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Autobiography, Mohan Rakesh’s One Day in Ashadha and Rabindranath Tagore’s Dak Ghar. He said his interests are very much focused on performance, aesthetics, folk traditions, story telling and politics in India.

He talked about contemporary theater’s focus on traditional rituals and themes. One work includes “Agnivarsha [The Fire and the Rain]” by one of India’s most popular playwrights, Girish Karnad. Within the play, there is an ego clash between brothers that results in fratricide. The play, like others, embodies central Indian themes, Dutta-Roy said.

One theme deals with demons. In “Agnivarsha,” the release of a demon brings rain and fertility back to the Indian land. In “Jokumaraswami” by another popular Indian playwright, Chandrashekhara Kambara, the spilling of a folk god’s blood brings fertility to the land as well.

Themes like these have been adopted from traditional Indian theater and while they may change to fit the modern audience, they are ultimately preserved in contemporary Indian theater, Carlos Gardeazabal, a fourth-year doctoral student, said.

“Turning traditional theater into contemporary theater is hard when you don’t want to destroy those traditions,” Gardeazabal said. “Sometimes you have to deconstruct the original play and turn it into something different to make it understandable.”

He added that Dutta-Roy’s talk relates to theater in Latin America as well. The lecture touched on the subject of political propaganda infiltrating theater as governments increasingly control the arts. Like India, Latin America has struggled with the tension between art and politics as traditional theater is turned into modern theater, Gardeazabal said.

Dutta-Roy’s productions are part of the Theater for Peace at the University of Allahabad in India. Shivangi Jain, a doctorate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, acted in many of Dutta-Roy’s plays, she said.

In one particular play, “Hayavadana,” Jain played the role of Padmini, a clever and beautiful woman who woos the hearts of two friends. She is ultimately married to one friend, Devadatta, but she ends up falling for the other friend, Kapila. Later in the play, the two friends behead themselves and Padmini threatens to kill herself too. As a folk god offers to bring the friends back to life, Padmini rearranges their heads and bodies so that Devadatta’s head is on Kapila’s body and vice versa.

“Who is her husband?” Dutta-Roy said. “The one with the head or the one with the body?”


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.