Indian Classical Theatre


The term Indian classical drama refers to the ancient Indian tradition of dramatic literature and performance. The Indian subcontinent's roots in drama can be traced back to the Rigveda (1200-1500 BCE), which contains several hymns in the form of dialogues or even scenes, as well as hymns that use other literary forms such as animal fables. However, the classical stage of Indian drama begins in the 3rd-4th centuries BCE with the composition of the Natyashastra (lit. The Science of Drama). The highest achievement of Sanskrit literature is considered to be Indian classical drama.

Natya Shastra

The Natya Shastra is an ancient Indian treatise on dramaturgy, composed in Sanskrit sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE. It is widely regarded as the oldest surviving work on stagecraft, music, and dance in the history of the Indian classical theatre tradition. The text contains details of various aspects of performance, such as theatrical designs, music notation and sound effects; descriptions of various types of costumes; plots and staging instructions; meanings behind gestures and facial expressions; recommendations for physical movement and emotionality; acting advice for performers; instruction on vocal delivery styles; rules governing scenic environments and acting areas; conventions concerning metaphors, similes, and riddles used during performances; definitions of roles and characters within a story or play; etiquette related to performing arts competitions and scholarly public discussions. In addition to its significant historical value, the Natya Shastra remains influential today due to its comprehensive approach to aesthetics as it pertains to the theatre.

What was the theatre of classical India called?

The theatre of classical India has a long and diverse history. It is often called Sanskrit theatre or Bharata Natya, in honour of the second-century sage Bharata, who wrote the Natya Shastra. This text is a comprehensive manual that outlines the elements of Sanskrit theatre.

  • In ancient Sanskrit drama, performers interacted with the audience and utilised fast-paced dialogue as well as song and dance. Classical Indian theatre used both spoken words and song to tell stories, invoking emotions and inspiring intellectual thought. Actors and actresses used body language and stylized gestures to communicate complex messages. The use of costumes and masks was also common, with the performers often wearing elaborate attire to indicate their character’s role.

  • The staging of classical Indian theatre was usually outdoors, usually on a raised platform with the audience facing it. The actors made use of the open air and frescoes of murals, often placed in the background, to tell the stories. There were no curtains or wing doors to block people's view of the stage, nor use of a spotlight. The stage was relatively plain, with few props and typically no backdrop. Costume on the other hand was frilly and even imposing, with its bold fabrics and majestic adornments.

  • Spectators enjoyed the spectacle of classical Indian theatre in all its forms, from the staged narratives to sutradhari performances, which combined story-telling with song and dance, to jatras, ballads sung and recited along with drumming and dancing, and the all-singing, all-dancing, puppet shows.

  • Although the popularity of classical Indian theatre has declined over the past century, its influence is still widely seen in Indian cinema today. Many contemporary filmmakers and actors incorporate elements of classical Indian theatre into their work, from narrative structures to costuming and make-up.

  • The theatre of classical India is a document of an age long gone, but its influence and beauty are still felt in the art forms and culture of modern-day India. The culture of this theatre has been woven into the fabric of Indian performing arts and will surely continue to influence generations to come.

What are the characteristics of Classical Indian theatre?

Classical Indian theatre is a highly stylized, poeticized form of theatrical performance that is built around the concept of emotion. It is characterised by its reliance on music, its intricate use of gestures, and its elaborate costumes and stage sets. It is an important part of Indian artistic and cultural heritage, and its influence can be seen in numerous theatrical forms, both modern and classical.


Classical Indian theatre emphasizes aesthetics in its performances. Costumes are often vibrant and ornamented, while the scenery is often symbolic, featuring painted backdrops of temples or forests. Music and dance are used to add to the storytelling, creating the atmosphere of the play. All of these elements together create a captivating experience for audiences.

Theatre Techniques

Classical Indian theatre incorporates a variety of theatrical approaches to bring its stories to life. Mime is used to express characters’ emotions without words, while the gesture is used to indicate the presence of other characters and to convey a character's thoughts and feelings. Dialogue is used to move the plot forward and to create dramatic tension between characters.


Classical Indian theatre is renowned for its storytelling. Drawing from Hindu mythology, these stories typically feature deities, divine figures and brave warriors. Storytelling is typically enhanced with song, dance and dialogue, creating an immersive experience.

Audience Participation

Classical Indian theatre encourages spectators to be active participants in the performance. Singing along with the performers, clapping in rhythm with the music, and providing feedback to the actors are all encouraged ways of engaging with the show. This type of audience participation contributes to a sense of unity and helps to keep the spectators involved in the show.


Classical Indian theatre is a unique art form that has captivated audiences for centuries. It combines elements of dance, music, and storytelling to create an immersive experience of drama and emotion. Originating from the Natya Shastra – one of the oldest surviving forms of classical Indian literature – and reaching its peak during mediaeval times, it was regarded as both a form of entertainment and a means to convey spiritual ideas and beliefs. Today, modern versions still exist in various places across India, helping to keep vibrant traditions alive despite the changes in society’s tastes over time. All in all, classical Indian theatre provides an engaging escape for those looking for something different and entertaining.


Q1. How has Indian classical theatre been influenced by other cultures?

Ans. Indian classical theatre has been influenced by other cultures through the incorporation of regional folk tales, stories, and music from different parts of India as well as from Muslim and Persian influences.

Q2. Why is solo singing so important in Indian classical theatre?

Ans. Solo singing is essential in Indian classical theatre, as it allows the vocalist to express their emotions in nuanced ways and provide a heightened level of aesthetic pleasure. It is also the most effective way to narrate the story with the help of raga, tala, and lyrics.

Q3. What are the different types of dances used in Indian classical theatre?

Ans. The main types of dances used in Indian classical theatre are Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Odissi and Manipuri. These are all classical Indian dance forms that have been passed down through generations.