Folk Theatre in India

Bharata’s Natyashastra was the earliest and most elaborate treatise on dramaturgy written anywhere in the world. India has a longest and richest tradition in theatre going back to at least 5000 years. The origin of Indian theatre is closely related to ancient rituals and seasonal festivities of the country. Hindu theorists from the earliest days conceived of plays in terms of two types of production:

  • Lokadharmi (realistic), which involved the reproduction of human behaviour on the stage and the natural presentation of objects
  • Natyadharmi (conventional), which is the presentation of a play through the use of stylized gestures and symbolism and was considered more artistic than realistic

Theatre in India has encompassed all the other forms of literature and fine arts into its physical presentation: literature, mime, music, dance, movement, painting, sculpture and architecture – all mixed into one and being called ‘Natya’ or Theatre in English.

Important Theatrical Forms of India

Bhand Pather: Jammu & Kashmir

This is a traditional satirical theatre form of Kashmir with unique combination of dance, music and acting. Biting satire, wit and parody characterize the form.

The actors of Bhand Pather are mainly from the farming community and the impact of their way of living, ideals and sensitivity in the drama is discernible.

Swang : Rajasthan, Haryana, UP and Malwa

Swang is a folk dance drama of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. It incorporates suitable theatrics and mimicry accompanied by song and dialogue. It is dialogue-oriented rather than movement-oriented.

Religious stories and folk tales are enacted by a group of ten or twelve persons in an open area or an open air theatre surrounded by the audience. The themes draw variously from themes of morality, folk tales, lives of inspiring personalities, stories from Indian mythology and in recent times, more current themes like health and hygiene, literacy, etc.

The two important styles of Swang are from Rohtak and Haathras. In the style belonging to Rohtak, the language used is Haryanvi (Bangru) and in Haathras, it is Brajbhasha.

Nautanki: Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab etc.

In entire north India, it was the most popular entertainment art before arrival of Cinema. The most popular centres of this traditional theatre form are Kanpur, Lucknow and Haathras. This popular art from has now dwindled and its existence is in threat. In contemporary times, the street plays resemble to the Nautankis.

Generally, there is an intense melodic exchange between two or three performers; a chorus is also used sometimes. The Storyline of traditional Nautankis range from mythological and folk tales to stories of contemporary heroes.

Raasleela : Uttar Pradesh

Rāsleela is a theatre form of Uttar Pradesh. It is based exclusively on Lord Krishna legends. It is believed that Nand Das wrote the initial plays based on the life of Krishna. The dialogues in prose combined beautifully with songs and scenes from Krishna’s pranks.

Maach, Madhya Pradesh

Maach is a traditional theatre form of Madhya Pradesh. The term Maach is used for the stage itself as also for the play. In this theatre form songs are given prominence in between the dialogues. The term for dialogue in this form is bol and rhyme in narration is termed vanag. The tunes of this theatre form are known as rangat.

Ramman, Uttarakhand

Ramman is a folk theatre of Uttarakhand. It is a multiform cultural event combining theatre, music, historical reconstructions, and traditional oral and written tales. It is celebrated every year in Baisakh month (april) in the courtyard of the temple of Bhumiyal Devta situated in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand.Mask dance performed exclusively by the Bhandaris (Ksatriya caste). Ramman has been also included in the UNESCO Representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Jatra, Bengal

Jatra refers to the musical plays performed at fairs in honour of gods, or religious rituals and ceremonies. This dance-drama born and flourished in Bengal. Krishna Jatra became popular due to Chaitanya’s influence. Later, however, worldly love stories too, found a place in Jatra. The earlier form of Jatra has been musical. Dialogues were added at later stage.The actors themselves describe the change of scene, the place of action, etc.


Bhaona is a traditional form of musical theatre with religious messages. It is performed in Assam and one can see the glimpses of culture of Assam, Bengal Orissa, Mathura and Brindavan in this folk dance drama. In this form, the narrator called Sutradhār begins the story, first in Sanskrit and then in either Brajboli or Assamese. The actors are called Bhaoriya.

Ankiya Nat

It is a single act drama, in which several characters get involved giving active role to only one of the performers. This dance is a classic mixture of music & words, which were interspersed by small dialogues and descriptive matter by a sutradhara for each time. The Sutradhara of an Ankiya Nat plays an important role, since he recites slokas, sings dances and explains every act of the play in prose.


Bhavai is a traditional theatre form of northern Gujarat and southern Rajasthan. Bhavai is partly entertainment and partly a ritual offering made to Goddess Amba. In the courtyard of the Ambaji temple near Mount Abu the Navratri festival is celebrated with Bhavai performances. Amba is the presiding deity of Bhavai.


Tamāsha is a traditional folk theatre form of Maharashtra. It has evolved from the folk forms such as Gondhal, Jagran and Kirtan. Unlike other theatre forms, in Tamaasha the female actress is the chief exponent of dance movements in the play. She is known as Murki. Classical music, footwork at lightning-speed, and vivid gestures make it possible to portray all the emotions through dance.

The themes of Tamasha have been used in some Marathi films also.

Dashavatar, Goa and Konkan

Dashavatar is a popular theatre form of the Konkan and Goa regions. The performers personify the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu-the god of preservation and creativity. Apart from stylized make-up, the Dashavatar performers wear masks of wood and papier mache.

Krishnattam, Kerala

Krishanattam is the folk theatre of Kerala. It came into existence in 17th century under the patronage of King Manavada of Calicut.  Krishnattam is a cycle of eight plays performed for eight consecutive days, presenting the story of lord Krishna. The plays are Avataram, Kaliamandana, Rasa krida, kamasavadha, Swayamvaram, Bana Yudham, Vivida Vadham, and Swargarohana.


Mudiyettu is a traditional ritual theatre and folk dance drama from Kerala that enacts the mythological tale of a battle between the goddess Kali and the demon Darika. The ritual is a part of the Bhagavathi or bhadrakali cult.  It is performed in Kerala’s Bhagvati Kavus, the temples of the Mother Goddess, between February and May after the harvesting season. In 2010 Mudiyettu was inscribed in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, becoming the second art form from Kerala after Koodiyattam. The seven characters in Mudiyettu: Shiva, Narada, Darika, Danavendra, Bhadrakali, Kooli and Koimbidar (Nandikeshvara) are all heavily made-up.


Theyyam is a traditional and extremely popular folk theatre form of Kerala. The word ‘Theyyam’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Daivam’ meaning God. Hence it is called God’s dance. Theyyam is performed by various castes to appease and worship spirits of ancestors, folk heroes. One of the distinguishing features of Theyyam is the colourful costume and awe-inspiring headgears (mudi) nearly 5 to 6 feet high made of arecanut splices, bamboos, leaf sheaths of arecanut and wooden planks and dyed into different strong colours using turmeric, wax and arac.

Koodiyaattam/ Kuttiyaattam

Koodiyattam is one of the oldest traditional theatre forms of Kerala and is based on Sanskrit theatre traditions. The characters of this theatre form are: Chakyaar or actor, Naambiyaar, the instrumentalists and Naangyaar, those taking on women’s roles. The Sutradhar or narrator and the Vidushak or jesters are the protagonists.  It is the Vidushak alone who delivers the dialogues. Emphasis on hand gestures and eye movements makes this dance and theatre form unique. It was UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


Yakshagana is the traditional theatre form of Karnataka. It is based on mythological stories and Puranas. The most popular episodes are from the Mahabharata i.e. Draupadi swayamvar, Subhadra vivah, Abhimanyu vadh, Karna-Arjun yuddh and from Ramayana i.e. Raajyaabhishek, Lav-kush Yuddh, Baali-Sugreeva yuddha and Panchavati.


Theukoothu, literally meaning street play, is the most popular form of folk drama of Tamil Nadu. It is mostly performed at the time of annual temple festivals of Mariamman (Rain goddess) to achieve rich harvest. At the core of the extensive repertoire of Therukoothu there is a cycle of eight plays based on the life of Draupadi. Kattiakaran, the Sutradhara of the Therukoothu performance, gives the gist of the play to the audience and Komali entertains the audience with his buffoonery.

Veedhi Natakam

In Telugu, ‘Veedhi’ means ‘street or an open place’. Since the plays on Bhagavan were performed in an open place, therefore, they were called Veedhi Natakam. The plays were performed by Bhagathas, who were devotees of Bhagwan, so they were sometimes also referred as Veedhi Bhagavathams. It is the most popular folk theatre form of Andhra Pradesh.

Burrakatha/ Harikatha

Harikatha is a storytelling play used in villages of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The term ‘burra’ is used for tambura, a musical string instrument with a hollow shell and ‘katha’ means story. It is a narrative entertainment that consists of prayers, solo drama, dance, songs, poems and jokes. Burrakatha tellers are called as budagajangalu. The topic will be either a Hindu mythological story or a contemporary social problem. It played an effective role in conveying message to people and awakening them during Indian Independence Movement.

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