06 Asian Traditional Theatre
Unique, indigenous formats
Traditional theaters of China
Traditional theatrical art in China (often referred to as traditional Chinese opera) was originally made for the pleasure of the imperial family and aristocrats. Theaters were widely referred to by their various local names, including “opera stage,” “opera hall,” and “opera place.”
The opera stage originated in the era of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). The architecture of the traditional opera stage developed at first for court theaters, and then privately-run theaters prospered in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) and thereafter. During the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368), theater further diffused in relation to religion, and became one of the large categories within the architectural history.
The era of Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was the golden age for traditional Chinese opera, and the architecture for the opera stage also reached maturity. Emperors and empresses of Qing dynasty, especially Kangxi Emperor (1622 – 1722), Qianlong Emperor (1735 – 1796), and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) preferred Chinese opera, so many gorgeous opera stages for the Imperial Family were constructed. The typical court opera stages in the era of the Qing dynasty remaining now are the five stages built in the venue of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Changyinge01, one of them, is a three-storied open-air opera stage.
During the era of the Qing dynasty to the early days of the Republic of China (around 1912 – 1928), traditional Chinese opera including Jingju (Peking opera) became highly popular among the general public too, and many indoor theaters were built as a place for exchange and pleasure for commoners. Jingju and other regional operas usually did not require any special stage sets. They also rarely used large props, so most of the opera stages did not have curtains or other facilities. The space for audience seats was a flat floor without a slope. In this type of theater, the audience members took seats before tables that surrounded the stage from three sides and enjoyed not only the play but also meals and tea, so it had a function as a place for communication.
Text by 銭 強（Qian Qiang）
02 Guangdong Guild Hall
03 Quanjin Assembly Hall
Traditional theaters in India
Traditional drama in India was established in the form of Classical Sanskrit plays, which prospered under the Tamil dynasty for a few centuries B.C. and A.D. in the central to south India. Many dramas, including the two major Sanskrit epics, namely Mahabharata and Ramayana, which had already been established in those days, are recorded in Sanskrit and passed down to the present. According to Natya Sastra, which is a document on dramatic theory written from the 2nd century in B.C. to the 6th century A.D., such Sanskrit dramas featured religious allegories performed with music and dance, and it is said that they had both a religious role and entertaining factors, in other words included both the sacred and the profane. The only remaining format of such Sanskrit dramas is Koodiyattam, which has been handed down in Kerala, a state in southern India. It is told that Koodiyattam was completed in the current form by the end of the 10th century. It is believed to be the world’s oldest theatrical art remaining, older than noh theatre in Japan.
In Koodiyattam, the stories of gods are told with the rhythm of a pot-shaped drum called mizhavu, the chanting of the verses of Sanskrit poems, and mudra (gesture) by actors clad in gorgeous costumes and wearing vivid-colored makeup. Performers are limited to those belonging to the specialized subcaste of actors called Chakyars. According to one estimate, Chakyars are said to be a caste originating from children born between Brahmin (priestly class) and Kshatriya (warrior aristocracy) out of wedlock. Here, we can also see the two sides of performing arts, namely the sacred and the profane.
Koodiyattam is performed only in the exclusive theater called Koothambalam established inside the Sangharama of the Hindu temple. It is said that the origin of Koothambalam goes as far back as Koodiyattam, around the 11th century. However, most of those remaining now were constructed in the 18th century and after. You can find them in 16 temples in the state of Kerala.
Text by KIZ Junpei
04 Koothambalam of Vadakkumnathan Temple