Project Topics

INTERPRETING THEATRE AS A COMMUNICATION MEDIUM

Abstract

Communication as a social tool includes a wide range of functions such as instruction, persuasion,

education, entertainment, development and so on. Over the ages, all the communication mediums

have evolved themselves to accommodate the various functions of communication and this is true of

the theatre as well. This paper is a humble endeavour towards interpreting the theatre as a

communication medium that can significantly contribute towards ably performing the various

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communication functions. It also seeks to deliberate upon the need for approaching the study of

communication in the Indian perspective drawing comparisons between Aristotle’s Poetics and

Rhetoric and Bharata’s Nātyasāstra.

Key Words: Theatre, Communication, Nātyasāstra, Poetics, Rhetoric

Introduction

“In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a

stranger. His is an irremediable exile…. This divorce between man and his life,

the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.”

– Albert Camus

Thus writes Albert Camus in his seminal work, “The Myth of Sisyphus”. However, the universe that

Camus talks of is representative not only of one physical world as a whole but a number of small

mini worlds that individuals create of their own. Perhaps it is only fair then that in context of theatre,

the stage is representative of the audience’s world and the actor represents the individuals viewing

the act as theatre, essentially, refers to performing a drama on stage. A drama is considered to be allinclusive.

It embraces all types of topics and represents all kinds of natures, as it is intended for all

classes of people. Thus, it is a mirror of human existence intended to be presented on the stage. But

as Victor Hugo says, ‘If the mirror is an ordinary one, it produces a poor, faithful but colourless

image; it must therefore be a focusing mirror.’ Thus, drama must provide a physical semblance to

human existence on the stage. (Ramamurti, 1964)

Drama occupies a significant place in Indian culture. India has always been a paradise for art lovers,

be it music, dance or drama. However, perhaps it would be fair to place drama a notch above music

and dance because drama essentially incorporates both the forms. The various aspects of drama have

been comprehensively discussed in a particular text composed in ancient India known as the

Nātyasāstra. The Nātyasāstra ascribed to the Indian sage Bharata is generally considered to be the

earliest treatise on dramaturgy. The Sanskrit term for ‘Drama’ is Nātya. Nātya, says, Bharata Muni,

is an imitation of the various emotions and situations of the people through abhinaya (acting). The

word Abhinaya is a combination of two words, ‘abhi’1 meaning ‘towards’ and ‘ni’ meaning ‘to

1 abhi—towards (Srimad Bhagavad Gita 1.14.12)

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carry’. Thus, abhinaya literally means carrying the performance of a play to the point of direct

ascertainment of its meaning towards the audience. (Pandya, 1990)

But then, the question emerges as to how the actor shall carry the meaning towards the audience.

Herein comes the role and importance of communication. Communication refers to the act of

transmission of ideas between individuals through the use of significant symbols. It is a process by

which a person or a group of persons attempts to make another person or a group of person aware of

its ideas on a particular subject. It is of paramount importance to social living as social life can exist

only when meaningful symbols are transmitted from one individual to another. Thus, communication

essentially refers to the process of establishing commonness among the participants involved in the

act of communication through the act of information sharing. When any communication process

continues for a considerable period of time, particular attitudes and values are inculcated in the

minds of the audience which ultimately leads to building of social relationships. Emphasizing the

importance of communication in building up of relationships, Raymond Williams asserts that men

and societies are tied together to relationships in describing, learning, persuading and exchanging

experiences. This exchange of experience is facilitated by communication. (Mukhopadhyay, 1999)

Thus, it is only fair that theatre is seen as a medium of establishing a relationship of commonness

between the actor (communicator) and the audience (communicated) that hinges on the art of

communication.

Communication as a human function is multi-dimensional in nature. While communication has

primarily been regarded as an information sharing process, the scope of communication is vast

indeed. It includes a wide range of functions such as instruction, persuasion, education,

entertainment, development and so on. Over the ages, all the communication mediums have evolved

themselves to accommodate the various functions of communication and this is true of the theatre as

well. We shall now discuss how the theatre as a communication medium can significantly contribute

towards performing the various communication functions.

Information Function

The first and foremost function of any communication endeavour remains information. It is from the

information function of communication that all the other functions find application. The primary

function of any form of media, thus, is to collect, store, process and disseminate information in order

to help the receivers understand and react to their existing environment. (Andal, 2004) This is true of

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the theatre as well. Since ancient times, the main function of the theatre has been to disseminate

some form of information, either directly or indirectly to the audience which fulfils the basic need of

communication process. As a matter of fact, in the ancient times, it was widely regarded that the duty

of the dramatist was to equally entertain the masses and to provide men with information which

gives ample opportunities to flourish him.

The relevance of theatre as an important medium of informing the masses was brought to the fore

when this medium was utilized in states like Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to apprise the rural

population of the Kargil conflict. At a time when there has been an exponential growth in broadcast

media and means of transport and travel are within the reach of the common man; the theatre

emerged as perhaps one of the few successful channels to inform the rural people of the various

aspects of the conflict as also the valour and sacrifices made by the Indian soldiers. The plays were

equally successful in instilling a feeling of patriotism in the audience. (Vir Bala Aggarwal, 2002)

Command or instructive function

The second important function of communication is command or instructive function.

Communication as a command or instructive function posits that the primary purpose of

communication is telling the recipients of the information what to do, how to do when to do etc.

Theatre has always been a chosen medium of instruction since the ancient times. In the words of

Bertolt Brecht, “Oil, inflation, war, social struggle, the family, religion, the meat market, all became

subjects for theatrical representation. Choruses enlightened the spectator about facts unknown to

him….Right and Wrong courses of action were shown. People were shown who knew what they

were doing, and others who did not. The theatre became an affair for philosophers, but only for such

philosophers as wished not just to explain the world but also to change it. So we had philosophy, we

had instruction.” (Mukhopadhyay, 1999)

Persuasive function

The third important function of communication is the persuasive function. According to David Berlo

(1960), the sole purpose of communication is to influence people and persuade them into any

particular way of thinking or acting. The persuasive function of communication is extremely

important for inducing people into changing their behaviour in any particular desirable direction.

Theatre, through repeated use of messages over long period of time, can persuade its audience in the

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formation of certain attitudes and behaviour patterns. History has shown us how the theatre has often

acted as a vehicle for agitation and propaganda.

The first significant drama of social protest in India was Nildarpana (The Mirror of Indigo Planters)

by Dinabandhu Mitra, published in 1860. The play dramatizes incidents drawn from the revolution of

1858 in which Bengali indigo cultivators were mercilessly persecuted by the British planters for

refusing to sow their crops. The play aroused considerable public sentiment in Bengal against British

rule and paved the way for a host of patriotic works written along similar lines elsewhere in the

country. (Richmond, 1973)

Education function

Education has always been one of the most important functions of communication throughout ages.

However, communication for education has been generally limited to formal communication

practices and has rarely been experimental in nature. However, theatre can be effectively used as a

medium of education. In Chapter I of the Nātyasāstra, the great sage Bharata narrates to us the

educational purpose of drama as declared by Lord Brahma. Thus says Bharata, “This (Nātya/

Drama) teaches duty to those bent on doing their duty, love to those who are eager for its fulfilment,

and it chastises those who are ill-bred or unruly, promotes self-restraint in those who are

disciplined, gives courage to cowards, energy to heroic persons, enlightens men of poor intellect and

gives wisdom to the learned… It will [also] give relief to unlucky persons who are afflicted with

sorrow and grief or [over]-work, and will be conducive to observance of duty (dharma) as well as to

fame, long life, intellect and general good and will educate people.” (Ghosh, 1950)

One of the primary concerns related to education today is the excessive workload upon the students

that threatens to have a de-humanising effect upon them where they increasingly find themselves cutoff

from the mainstream society. The theatre can come to our rescue in this regard. Techniques of

drama blur many boundaries by transforming the formal space of the classroom through the use of

games and conversations, sometimes even actually breaking down its physical order. Some

minimising of the social distance between the teacher and the taught infuses trust in the latter and

makes conversation possible. More than interaction, the regard and respect of community practices

that honour children’s out-of school skills in storytelling can go a long way in making children

communicative. (Singh, 2004)

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Entertainment Function

Entertainment has emerged as an important function of communication. The entertainment function

of communication was first proposed by Charles Wright. Prior to him, the utility of communication

in Harold Laswell’s opinion was limited to three functions – surveillance, correlation and

transmission. While entertainment media are much more concerned with likeability and physical

attractiveness, it is these characteristics that attract people to entertainment shows and can create

attitude change via a peripheral route in entertainment settings. Generally speaking, the broadcast

media such as TV and films best reflect this function. (Xiaoli Nan, (2004 However, the entertainment

function of communication is by no means limited to the broadcast media. It is worth mentioning

here that the theatre started as a medium of entertaining the masses. Entertainment, however, here is

to be seen as an expression that addresses the broader canvas of providing relief to the people from

the mundane concerns of life that includes multiple aspects of diversion such as delight, recreation,

pastime or mere distraction from the problems of real life even if momentarily.

Development function

The importance of communication in mobilizing people and seeking their willing participation in the

development of a country is well recognized. In India, this concern above reaching people,

communicating with them and equipping them with new skills has been emphasized over and again

in successive five year plans which provide the blue print of the country’s planned development.

(Kumar, 2006) While communication for development has generally been ascribed to the usage of

the modern mass media forms, the latter half of the last millennium has shown us that the modern

mass media forms have not been able to live up to the expectations of development communication

planners in the developing nations. This is primarily owing to the fact that people still cannot connect

themselves with the modern mass media forms as comfortable as with the traditional media forms of

communication.

In this regard, the MacBride Commission in its report titled ‘Many Voices One World’ asserted,

“Even when modern media have penetrated isolated areas, the older forms maintain their validity,

particularly when used to influence attitudes, instigate action and promote change. Extensive

experience shown that traditional forms of communication can be effective in dispelling the

superstitions, archaic perceptions and unscientific that people have inherited as part of traditions and

which are difficult to modify if the benefits of change are hard to demonstrate. Practitioners of the

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traditional media use a subtle form of persuasion by presenting the required message in locally

popular artistic forms. This cannot be rivalled by any other means of communication.” (Kumar,

2006)

Theatre can be used as important mode of communication for development primarily owing to its

certain qualities. It is one of the cheapest media available, it does not rely on literacy, it can be more

flexible and topical than other media, and above all the audience can participate in the play making

the theatre a genuine two-way medium for communicating information. (Kasoma, 1974) The theatre

holds more relevance in Indian perspective primarily owing to the fact that the Indian folk theatre is

a composite form of containing songs, music, dance, and drama that seeks to fulfil all the intellectual,

emotional, and aesthetic needs of its spectators. It is more than entertainment, a complete emotional

experience and creates a state of receptivity in which messages can be most effectively transmitted.

Folk theatre has functioned as an instrument of social awareness, protest, and change. Regional rural

drama performance is known to be dependable and persuasive change agents, acting as a bridge

between different rural areas, and between rural and urban areas. Unlike in western theatre, folk

performance is a composite art in India. It is a total art with fusion elements from music, dance,

pantomime, versification, epic ballad recitation, religion and festival peasantry. It imbibes

ceremonials, rituals, belief and social system. It has deep religious and ritualistic overtones and then

again, it can surely project social life, secular themes and universal values. (Kumar S. , 2012)

Conclusion

The theatre by its very nature and particularly because of its communality and its fictionalized

situations provides a forum, whereby communication can easily take place without the attending

antagonisms which would normally occur in a directly realistic situation. As part of an educational

and organizational process, theatre can play a range of roles: bringing people together and creating

contexts for collective reflection and action; drawing out participation and expression of popular

concerns, and analysis; overcoming people’s fears and rationalizations and building confidence and

identity; stimulating discussion and a critical understanding of problems, contradictions, and

structures underlining everyday reality; clarifying the possibilities and strategies for action; stirring

people’s emotions and mobilizing people for action. (Warritay, 1988)

It is worth mentioning here that the great Greek philosopher Aristotle who wrote the first Western

treatise on drama, the Poetics, is also credited with the earliest model of human communication.

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Though Aristotle himself never gave any model per se, the model has been derived by later thinkers

from his ideas given in another treatise written by him, the Rhetoric, which essentially deals with the

art of conversation. The model includes five essential elements of communication, i.e., the speaker,

the speech or message, the audience, the occasion and the effect. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle presents

his ideas on the art of speech construction by speakers for different audiences on different occasions

for producing different effects. However, it would not be out of place to assume that Aristotle’s idea

was based on his personal experience of the Greek theatre and shaped by his observations on the

same. As it appears, the speaker that Aristotle talks of, in all likelihood, refers to the actor while the

occasion refers to the act of theatrical presentation. The remaining elements are important

components of any dramatic act, that is, the speech by the actor, the audience experiencing the act

and the effect produced in the minds of the audience.

While Aristotle’s model does give us a basic idea on the communication process that apparently

takes place in our daily lives, it is found lacking in certain aspects of communication. Perhaps owing

to the fact that Aristotle was primarily addressing the subject of speech construction in the Rhetoric,

the importance of non-verbal communication in any act of communication seems to have been

completely overlooked by him. This aspect of non-verbal communication has been comprehensively

discussed and addressed in Bharata’s Nātyasāstra. Having said so, Bharata does not undermine the

importance of speech in communication. Thus says Bharata, “One should take care of words… In

this world, the Śāstras are made up of words and rest on words; hence there is nothing beyond

words, and words are the source of everything. The Verbal representation is related to [a knowledge

of] nouns (nāma), verbs (ākhyta), particle (nipāta), preposition (upasarga), nominal suffix

(taddhita), compound words (samāsa), euphonic combination (sandhi) and case-endings (vibhakti).”

(Ghosh, 1950) Speech, Bharata, terms as vācika. However, Bharata takes note of the other aspects as

well that play a vital role in deciding the outcome of any communication endeavour. These include:

1. Physical representation (Angikā)

2. Costumes and make-up (Āharya)

3. Temperament (Sattva)

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Thus, Bharata emphasizes on approaching communication in a four-fold manner of expression

comprising of vācika, angikā, sattva and āharya. While Bharata postulates the four-fold principle of

communication primarily in parlance of drama, it would not be out of place to assume that Bharata

also had in his mind the universe while laying down the tenets. As Bharata ascribes the following

words to Lord Brahma, “The drama as I have devised, is a mimicry of actions and conducts of

people, which is rich in various emotions, and which depicts different situations.” Besides, this fourfold

approach is indeed, a more, practical and hands on approach towards analysing and decoding the

process of communication.

Communication, after all, is not merely about expression of either words or actions. Rather, it

incorporates all the aspects of human expression that can play an effective part on conveying the

ultimate meaning to the recipient of the information. The absence or disproportionate representation

of any one of the given aspects necessarily results in confusion in the minds of the audience and that

is what gives rise to the feeling of absurdity. No wonder then, the Indian approach to communication

is referred to as sādhāranikarana which essentially means establishing a feeling of uniformity

between the participants involved in an act of communication. This, in turn, can be achieved only

when commonness is attained at the various intermediary levels of human interaction between the

communicator and the communicated through their respective abilities. It is this feeling of

commonness and uniformity that is the driving force of communication in this universe. The theatre

being a miniature representation of the same is no different.

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i The authors have chosen to insert in their work relevant extracts or quotations by individuals and

authorities with due attributions instead of trying to express the ideas in their own words.