Classical and Traditional: A Contrast in Indian Performance

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India is a nation that has deep roots in the performing arts. It has been a part of Indian culture since time immemorial. Performance as an art has a multi-dimensional aspect, as it has been used to satiate various purposes and needs of the socio-political as well as economic arenas of the nation, such as imparting education, providing entertainment, and serving as a means of livelihood by being one of the most outreached professions. However, in the contemporary world, the art of performance has evolved in its outreach but has been reduced to mainly a mere screen. Performance has become the most accessible means of entertainment in both the “traditional” and the “classical.”

The performing arts in India vary in terms of concepts and can be classified as “traditional” or “classical” performances. According to me, they are largely opposing concepts with a dash of similarity. When we talk about how a performance should be enacted, there are a set of rules and regulations in India that need to be followed in both traditional and classical performances. This very characteristic of Indian performances makes them different from western art forms but creates a similarity between the “classical” and “traditional” performances.

In traditional performances, the rules and regulations are formed by the people involved in the performance. For instance, in Ankia Naat, which is a traditional art form of Assam, a north-east frontier state in India, there are certain obligatory rules that must be fulfilled by the performers. Ankia Naat starts with a benediction in Sanskrit, followed by eulogy to God in Brajavali. The play usually starts with the prelude, or Purvaranga. It usually starts with the playing of traditional percussion instruments accompanied by the big cymbal by the singer-musician duo (Gayan and Bayan) in a group. The instruments are played with exaggerated hand movements and in two paces called Saru Dhemali and Bor-Dhemali. After the prelude, the narrator, or Sutradhar, enters the stage and begins the actual performance. These are mandatory rules, which are further reinforced by the inclusion of exaggerated costumes. On the other hand, the rules for classical performance are heavily laid down in the Natyashastra, which has a sacred sanctity attached to it. The Natyashastra describes, defines, and prescribes every aspect of performances: acting, dance, music, dramatic construction, architecture, costuming, make-up, props, the organisation  of companies, the audience, and competitions are all included in this.

However, both concepts have a sense of intricate uniqueness. The classical  performances sketch out its lineage in the Buddhist texts, while the  performances in traditional art are stories taken up from texts such as,  Mahabharat, Ramayana, and puranic texts. The classical performances have  magnificence and relevance attached to them till date, so one can say that the classical performing arts defy time and are still relevant. The plays like  Abhijñānaśākuntalam have not lost their uniqueness and are still very much in action in our society, as it has been a part of the classical performances with a  universal approach. This classical play has been translated innumerable times  into English of which stands the most infamously famous Sir William Jones  ‘Sacontala’, and the text has also inspired the German writer Goethe who has  written Faust influenced by Shakuntala. On the contrary, when we speak about the traditional plays, they are not universal in nature but are created by people of the region. For example, ‘Jatra’, it is a style of performance which is  nomadic in nature. Jatra as an art originated in Bengal in the 15th century and traces its roots back to the Bhakti movement. It is a kind of play that is performed in an open space; it has monologues, songs, and dance routines based on folk tunes; however, unfortunately, it has lost its popularity over the years and has been reduced to extraordinarily small audiences.

The idea of traditional performance has been posited against the idea of classical in India. Therefore, it is assumed to be an art that cannot be classic in nature. For instance, a traditional performance needs to have an easy access to it and  should not be treated as an art form restricted to any certain audience or any  mythological beliefs about performance.

Another aspect in which these two vary is financial constraint. The traditional performances are economically viable whereas classical performances require  an economically extravagant budget. Since, in order to perform a classical performance, one needs to find the proper costume and the proper stage setting  whereas this is not the case with folk performances, they can be acculturated  according to financial restraints.

The traditional performances are derived from the stories, which are eccentric, but they still have a wide audience because of the religious sentiments attached to them and the devotion they create, which thereby lead to the spiritual values of the spectator.

The classical performances, however, are crafted with extensive knowledge and sophistication. It is impossible to perform without a guru. It is presumably a complex idea in terms of both performing and spectating. In performance, one cannot just stand and perform a classical; they need to be trained for it and should inculcate the relevant attributes of the performance to adjust into the character that they are supposed to play; they need to abide by the bodily activities, mannerisms, and glory of a given character. The spectator needs to be worthy of understanding such a performance, performed under the guidance of a guru. When we talk about “folk” or traditional performances, they are loose in this aspect and can be performed by any regular artist, they are free from this mandatory practice of being  performed under strict guidance by a guru and try to be loose and easy for the audiences as well.

The traditional theatre has a sense of morality attached to it; when we speak of morality, it means that this form of theater, since its origin and in contemporary times, has used itself as a medium to educate people, deliver a message, or put out a moralistic behaviour in humans. This theatre is mostly set up in rural  populations and serves as a means of entertainment for them while trying to  educate either about a puranic texts or a modern-day problem of dowry, early  marriage, etc. While classical theatre in contemporary times, which largely comprises Bollywood, has reduced itself to just mere entertainment and loud noises.

Another remarkably interesting aspect of performance is the texts that are performed; these texts are highly canonical in nature. Whether in “classical” or “traditional,” the text must be politically or religiously important. The question of why a canon is formed can be answered through the study of these performances. In its classical foundation, the Natya shastra is itself a canonical text. It is so because, at the time of its formation, it was seen as the  fourth Veda, a rebellious text that defied casteism in India and opened the space of performance for the ‘shudras’ too. Therefore, it held a certain religious  importance and was further glorified for the highly descriptive and prescriptive nature that it had. The traditional performances also see their origin from the  puranic texts, Mahabharat and the Ramayana which are the most canonical texts  in the history of India. They hold great religious importance and are part of people’s daily lives. Their stories have been the source of traditional  performances for the longest time, which in turn helps in the formation of a canon.

We can say that both the traditions are vastly different, but the basic formation is the same. Both have different rules, but there are rules to be followed. Both have  different traditions, but they have traditions. Both have financial aspects involved in them, but on a different level. Both have performers, but with different characteristics.


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Simrah Khan
Simrah Khan, a post graduate student in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. She has completed her graduation in German Language and Literature from Aligarh Muslim University. Her areas of interests are Canadian Literature, German Literature, and Migrant Literature. She has a keen interest in dialogue studies, rhetoric and writing and is perpetually working in the field of language and literatures of the world. Miss. Khan is an ardent reader and researcher; she has worked as a Content Writer and a Translator of the German language. She can be reached at


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