Folk Theatre is a composite art form in India with a fusion of elements from music, dance, pantomime, versification, epic and ballad recitation, graphic and plastic arts, religion and festival peasantry. The Folk theatre having roots in native culture is embedded in local identity and social values. Besides providing mass entertainment, it helps Indian society as indigenous tools of interpersonal, inter-group and inter-village communication for ages.. When we watch folk theatre, we acquire a familiarity with Folk Media, the particular people, their culture. For instance when we watch Tamasha, the folk theatre of Maharashtra, we come to know more about the Maratha heroism, the Peshwas, their optimistic approach to life. Folk theatre, like all other folk media, is highly spontaneous and participative. It is the traditional theatre — the dance-drama, the operatic ballads and folk plays which continue to entertain audiences of seven hundred thousand villages of India.

While most of these theatrical styles have their own unique form dependent on their local customs, they differ from one another in execution, staging, costume, make-up and acting style. The south Indian forms emphasize on dance forms like Kathakali and Krishnattam of Kerala and actually qualify as dance dramas, while the north Indian forms emphasize on songs, like the Khyal of Rajasthan, the Maach of Madhya Pradesh, the Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh and the Swang of Punjab. The Jatra of Bengal, Tamasha of Maharashtra and the Bhavai of Gujarat stress on dialogues in their execution, the latter two emphasize on comedy and satire. Puppet theatre also flourished at many places in India-Shadow (Gombeyatta of Karnataka, Ravana Chhaya of Orissa), Glove (Gopalila of Orissa, Pavai Koothu of Tamil Nadu), Doll (Bommalattam of Tamil Nadu and the Mysore State and Putul Naach of Bengal) and String puppets (Kathputli of Rajasthan and Sakhi Kundhei of Orissa) are some of the popular forms in vogue

Folk theatre helps us to understand the culture of region. This can be best depicted with the help of two examples of folk theatre forms-


The jatra is a popular folk theatre tradition originating from Bengal. Jatra originated from the religious rituals of songs and dances, popular in the Bengal village festivals. In the songs and dances composed for the Jatras, the most important element in them were the conversations among the different characters taken from Hindu epics, which were given melodramatic interpretations by the actors, and were loved by the audiences.

Towards the 19th century the jatra underwent changes and its repertoire got enriched with love sagas, and with social and political issues. Folk Theatre Jatra comprises melodramatic delivery of emotionally accentuated dialogues, gestures and orations. Music and singing is mostly based on folk tunes. The representation of the singing chorus on the stage is done by the bibek (conscience), who can appear at any moment in the play. He comments on the action, philosophises, and tells of possible dangers. Another character, niyati (fate), is also present, and is often played by a woman. Niyati also has the role of warning the characters of the impending dangers. An interesting distinction of the jatra is that the performance, in order to captivate the audience, begins with the climax. Traditionally, jatra used to have only male actors who would also dress up as females. By the 20th century women began to appear in the performances of jatra.

Like all the folk theatre performances, jatra too is associated with special seasons and occasions. The jatra season begins around Durga Puja – roughly in September – and goes on till the advent of the monsoon season in June. On the occasion of festivities and special occasions, both personal as well as public, it is a common practice to organize a jatra as part of the celebrations. Jatra is an excellent example of how the elements of folk get appropriated in the theatre. During the 19th century, jatra was secularised and it became a composite representation of people’s aspirations in its journey thereafter. With the advent of the 20th century, contemporary politics and social issues also found their way in. Jatra became a strong social institution during the pre-Independence period as swadeshi-jatra was used to mobilise and protest against the British regime. The jatra of this period focussed on eulogizing the freedom fighters and inculcating patriotism among the masses.

The survival of the form over such a vast period of rapidly changing social milieu, while catering to a heterogeneous audience, has been credited to its innate malleability and ways of adapting to changing social dynamics, and thus staying not just relevant and alive, but also thriving.


Tamasha originated in the early 18th century in Maharashtra as an option to entertain the Mughal armies that would camp while on their war-expeditions in the Deccan region. Tamasha is a Persian word which means a spectacle, or display. The first identity that the tamasha tradition has is through its mass-oriented name which displays a sense of belonging to the people. Tamasha emerged through a combination of singing girls and dancers from North India and the local traditional singing and acrobatic performances of some of the so called lower-castes like Kolhati, Mang, Dombari, Mahar and Bhatu. The most important form associated with tamasha is lavni, but other traditional forms like kaveli, ghazals, kathak, dashavatara, lalit, kirtan, gondhal, and waghya-murali; parts of the Khandoba bhakti geet are also influenced by tamasha.

Tamasha, like most folk theatre forms, is a highly energetic performance with powerful drumming and loud gestures, sometimes with suggestive lyrics. Tamasha is an essential folk tradition; it does not need a specific performance structure and can be performed anywhere. Song and dance are the soul of the performance and the success of the performance depends on the connect established between the dancer and the audience. The audience have a significant role in the tamasha performance for the jeering and applauding are innately required to make the performance complete. Tamasha performance concludes with a message of victory of good over bad. The end of the narrative is followed by the arti, as a mark of ritual.

With the emergence of Bombay (now Mumbai) as a textile industry, the labourers and workers of the industry from the rural areas of Maharashtra settled in Bombay and its suburbs. These people brought along with them their love for tamasha and this is the reason that tamasha flourished and became a popular folk theatre form in the commercial capital of India. The other aspect of the tamasha’s journey as a folk tradition is the reformist appropriation of tamasha by social reformers like Jyotirao Phule under the Satyashodhak Samaj founded by him in the late 19th century. He used tamasha to resist the caste system. The reformist and political use of tamasha in “satyashodhak jalsas” inspired by Phule led to the inclusion of elements of proscenium and street theatre in tamasha. Tamasha thus kept evolving with time, addressing the entertainment needs of the masses, and concurrently tweaking it with the social, political and reformist themes.

Various traditions, customs, rituals, doctrines, values and principles occupy a significant place in it. It is a livwe expression of the lifestyle and culture of people evolved through the years. In other words, through the representation of culture, it is easy to comprehend the social structure of contemporary society.


We can conclude that the traditional folk theatrical forms have kept alive the diversities and the specificities of India’s socio-cultural life. These forms have still a lot to offer to the Indian theatre in terms of the methods, conventions and the traditions followed.

As Kidd (1984) observed: The plays grew out of the situations, experiences, and analysis of the actors who are themselves villagers…They create their own dramas out of their own collective analysis of their immediate situation and the deeper structures in which they are embedded. This is a genuine expression of the people.

The folk is both a static and a dynamic entity. Folk theatre is shown to be continuously evolving, yet retaining a part of its original features. Folk, in essence, deals with the choices and tastes of the masses, and also with the demands of the time, space and the audience that it responds to. Therefore, the constructs of the folk evolve over time in order to appeal to and include most of the people.


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