Theatre & Performance

July 2022

This summary comprises two studies: one is a recollection of an earliest experience of theatre or performance and the second is a short research on performances unique to one’s region or community. Both are intended to help participants deliberate on the nature, forms and contexts of performances while retaining a personal focus in the study. 

Recollection of an Earliest Experience of Performance

Photo: Courtesy Prachi

Prachi’s recollection of a bandar aur madari ka khel (an entertainer with a trained monkey) carries some wonderful aspects. She has photographs of this experience, which present the memory with such vividness that it becomes immediately relatable. Unlike photographs which have been posed for, this candid documentation of the event is saturated with information and animated with life.  In one very moving picture, Prachi’s father has one monkey in his lap and another on his right shoulder, which is a brilliant example of participation: beyond the garnish of showmanship, not only is Prachi’s father transgressing the ‘fourth wall’ and engaging in the performance, but he is also demonstrating to Prachi and her sibling a way of loving these animals – with touch; animals that have otherwise been domesticated and trained for amusement.

It is noteworthy as to how informal these performances were. The word of their arrival into the neighbourhood, with little effort, would spread like fire. There was neither ticketing, nor standard pricing. Those who wanted to, world pay and according to their capacity of wish. The performers carried on regardless of whether someone in the spectators wasn’t paying.

It’s also insightful to compare the colloquial terminology for these road-side or street performances, whether with trained animals (monkeys, bears, snakes etc. which have now all been abolished in the name of animal welfare) or child and adult acrobats. They are usually referred to as khel in Hindi (or other related dialects that predate it), which translates to ‘play’ and has a participatory connotation to it even when used as, “chal khel dekhne jaate hain” (let’s go watch the play) compared to ‘show’, which is primarily spectatorial. There is a colloquial term for ‘show’ as well, tamasha. Notwithstanding its reference to a popular form of theatre in Maharashtra, it is usually used with a slight derogatory connotation, “Yahaan koi tamasha nahin chal rahaa!” (There’s no spectacle being put up here!) I particularly remember how, during my childhood in our Bhojpuri household, my grandmother, grand-aunts and aunts would use these terms: “khela dekhe jaay ke ha…” (I/ we have to go watch the film) with an undertone of excitement and “tamaasaa baa!” (What a spectacle!) with a pronounced tone of disdain.

Mugdha’s rendered recollection of her earliest experience of performance

Mugdha’s recollection is equally fascinating for another reason. Her earliest experience of theatre is from her days in primary school. One can imagine the aspirations of a small town institution from the fact that they had an auditorium with a balcony. Mugdha was led in a queue to this balcony along with all her other little friends and batchmates. For a long duration after the performance had started, Mugdha kept gazing at the billowing shadows on the wall that she could see below from her seat in the balcony. It was much later that Mugdha was made to realise that the shadows were not the performance; instead they were cast by the actors on stage who were supposed to be the actual focus of attention. The institution’s high aspirations framed in the formal architecture of a proscenium auditorium were at odds with the realities of their little inhabitants. Besides this irony, the proverbial ‘child’s imagination’ is the high point of this story. To see a performance in the shadows is as poetic as it is expressive of conditions imposed on a child. 

Photo: Courtesy Charvi

Charvi recollected her annual participation as an audience and later on as a volunteer in the Diwali Pahaat of her neighbourhood in Pune during her teens. I pondered upon two things from the photographs she presented. The photograph of the group of 12 performers and organisers for one of the events had only two women. I wondered if this cultural arena was still male-dominated, at least with regards to the performances, while women largely remained in the background.

The other context I am concerned about is the industrialization of culture with the urban network of music schools, their graduates, musicians, NGOs, cultural bodies and housing societies, the event managers and decorators. I wonder what is the sense of community that such an aesthetic enterprise fosters.

Performance Unique to Community or Region

Dhunuchi & Dhaak 

This performance chosen by Ketki makes for a complete and immersive experience. The swaying bodies in white attires with red accents, mystified with smoke-filled air from the Dhunuchi, which is burning essence saturating the atmosphere with a distinct aroma and the resounding rhythms of the drums – the Dhaak.


Personally, I have only recently experienced this traditional form of sacro-sensuous performance. I was, of course, a secular spectator at the venue, separated from the performers by, besides other things, a fence, which only the qualified could enter and occupy. I would like to believe that this intransgressible boundary between the performers and audience is only a recent phenomenon – perhaps a few decades old. A crowd management strategy necessitated by the surge of funding which attracted a large number of people to these fiercely competitive events. Traditionally perhaps anyone who fell into the trance could join the dancers’ revelry. It is in fact so difficult to keep oneself from swaying as you watch the dancers and feel the drums beating within your heart.

This evokes a very fascinating thought: I can very well dance to an explicitly inaudible rhythm. Someone watching me could perhaps also gather the rhythm from my moving body. Which means that the role of the dhaaki (drummer) is to make explicit the rhythm that the performer and the observer implicitly share. This is not to take anything away from that dhaaki; his/her creation is undeniable and beautiful. However, the idea of the dhaaki as a mediator between the audience and the dancers seems wonderful! The idea of dancing to an inherent and inaudible rhythm and watching a dancer resonate this inaudible rhythm perhaps belong to contemplative and meditative experience where one’s senses and mind are not inundated in noise. However, such a space isn’t usually available to us unless created with considerable effort. The dhaaki seems to sear through the noise and wake us up to our rhythms rather effortlessly; making palpable the latent conversations between apparently distant individuals.



The second insight during the 17th June session was around the formations created by group dancers. Charvi has earlier presented that the origins of Lezim perhaps lie in martial exercise. While she is still trying to find evidence to corroborate this information, I found a clear indication to Lezim’s martial moorings in a video Charvi presented to demonstrate the dance form. The group of women dancers moved in a grid of rank and file, just like soldiers marching. This formation is drastically different from the circular or semi circular formation of folk dancers in traditional/ rural/ tribal performances. It is fascinating that the folk dancers are creating a space among themselves or with the audience, which isn’t a concern for the martial dancers. The latter appear as an impervious monolith, perhaps to dissuade the threat lying outside. 

Most of us have grown up watching the cultural diversity of the country being paraded during the annual Republic Day event. Almost all folk dance group formations relent rather reluctantly and apologetically to this processional presentation. The militarised formation, however, appears to be a common strategy in today’s group performances – whether on stage or on the screens of TVs, films or OTT platforms. Even though the militarised formation is given many dynamic hues of symmetry, what remains common across the formats is that the audience remains behind ‘the fourth wall’ and the performance is a spectacle for the consumption of the entitled payer. There seems to be no opportunity to create space between or within, since the spectator is always already outside.

Bhaat Nyotna

This is a fascinating example of traditional rituals of transgression. It is the celebratory kick-off to the wedding preparations where the groom’s mother invites her brother to coax & cajole and tease & taunt him to help her in gathering necessary resources to carry out the wedding in a most wonderful way. The lyrics of most of the songs sung during this event, which is celebrated across many North Indian communities, would be an embarrassment in daily conversations. 

Screengrab Courtesy: Prachi

Although men are present during the event, it is mostly the women who are singing, dancing and playing the rhythm by clapping and beating the dholak: its stretched leather ends with bare hands and its wooden or metal body with a metal spoon. Prachi presented the documentation of such an event in her own household. One of the dancers was covered in a deep ghoonghat (part of the saree or an additional piece of cloth turned into a hood to veil the head and face). Out of curiosity Prachi asked her as to why is she covering her head while dancing amidst a room full of people who are obviously watching her. She replied that the veil made her oblivious to everyone’s gaze and she could dance in joyful abandonment. She seems to have been simultaneously fulfilling the contradictory desires of being seen and being invisible. 

This brings forth potent questions concerning the gaze in performance: 

  • Does any random act become a performance if people’s gaze is locked upon it?
  • Is an act not a performance if no one’s watching?

The performance of the swirling dervish is a curious case in point. I happened to witness a beautiful performance by dervishes in Turkey’s Hoja Pasha – an antique bath house beautifully restored into a performance space. I was present as an audience, but after the courtesy acknowledgment, the performers entered into a swirling trance and seemed concerned only with themselves and the divine being in their invocation. While I watched in mesmerised amazement, the dervishes swirled in abandonment, oblivious to my gaze, their gaze turned upward and inward. I can very well imagine a dervish swirling all alone, without anyone watching. 

Another instance is the act of people-watching. I presume most of us don’t mind, and perhaps even enjoy (I surely do) watching other people while waiting to catch a flight or a train or before and after a film or a play. During my architectural education it was termed ‘the theatre before and after a performance’, emphasising the significance of foyer spaces. I personally seem to enjoy the luck of witnessing short episodes of events such as a ball flying out over a boundary wall and landing in a bush, followed by a few players trickling out of the gate to search for it. Or, old but first time flyers trying to walk past a gate well before their boarding time and the attendants having to explain the procedure to them. The random flight, bounce and nesting of the ball, the excited scampering of the players, the anxious trudge of old new fliers and the mechanically intonated monologue of the attendants. These form for lovely little episodes rich in emotional streams if one is observing curiously. 

I believe that a performance is in the intent of either the performer or the observer or both.

Another cluster of intriguing issues emanates from this performance at Prachi’s home. While the women of the family participated in the performance, they were followers in the ensemble. The performance was anchored, prompted and sustained by the maid of the household and her friend and relative. This presents an incredibly complex condition of interdependent existence. The host family belongs to the middle class which has been considerably displaced from its socio-cultural roots to some degree due to modernisation, but mostly because of urbanisation. So, while they are familiar with the traditions, they only remember them sparsely since these cultural practices have also grown as sparse as the social fabric itself. The maid, on the other hand, belonging to a lower income class, seems culturally more rooted to her traditions and well connected to her social fabric. Allowing participation in these events more regularly and allowing her to practise the song, rhythm and dance more frequently. 

Besides demonstrating the proportionate relationship of a community’s economic growth to its cultural displacement, this situation also presents the essential urban condition of outsourcing services. The maid and her companions were offered payment for their role as anchors of the event.  Performances that were traditionally intrinsic to a community are now part of a cultural service that a sub-community can offer for a price. It is very interesting to observe how communities try to hold on to traditional rituals in spite of a transforming context; and in the process, traditional segregations of class and caste also get transgressed.