History of Elocution

The performer sits under a spotlight surrounded by books on performance. She touches, smells, and tastes some of the books. She holds one of the books up to her ear. She notices you are there. She looks up to speak.

D. Soyini Madison, “Performing Theory/Embodied Writing”

The history of elocution starts with the oratory skills of people who used to tell stories and share experiences describing places, incidences and emotions. In ancient India, of the 64 forms of art, Sampathya and Manasi Kabyakriya were two important ones. Sampathya refers to a topic to be read with detailed description, may be in presence of audience. Mansai kabyakriya is defined as reading of text in clear voice with correct intonation, diction and rhythm. In other words, it refers to the ‘art of spoken words’. In fact, the art of reading was present all over the world for millennia. Michel de Certaue wrote in The Practice of Everyday Life, “To read without uttering the words aloud or at least mumbling them is a ‘modern’ experience, unknown for millennia. In earlier times, the reader interiorized the text; he made his voice the body of the other; he was its actor”.

In ancient and medieval times, elocution was practiced in every places of India – right from the royal palaces to the temples and monasteries. Baitalik, Bandi, Bhat, Nakib were some of the posts in the royal courtyards meant for proper announcement, oration and dissemination of information. There are evidences of holding literary sessions in the royal courtyards. The practice existed till 18th century. Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah and Raja Krishna Chandra of Bengal are acclaimed for patronizing such activities. Both the oratory proficiency and the writing skill were important to make the sessions successful. Elocution was also practiced, though not with formal training, in the rural Bengal, where the Kathaks used to describe and enact religious stories to villagers. Reading aloud religious poems was a part and parcel of some rituals in Bengal. And who can forget the lullabies!

In western classical rhetoric, which refers to the skill of using language to influence or entertain people, elocution held the centre stage. Elocution, which originally means the art of speaking correctly and clearly, was important to reach the mass. An uncultivated voice is like the smudged printer’s error. In the smudged portion, instead of getting clear distinct letters on white pages, readers get a blur of half-shades. Just like that listeners get blurred words in an uncultivated voice instead of having them distinct and clear.

Elocution Movement in England, Europe and America

The modern form of elocution developed in England in the 17th century with an effort to speak the language clearly. Even more significant and sincere attempts were made in the 18th century leading to the elocution movement when the first large-scale systematic effort was made to teach the art of ‘reading aloud’. Schools came up and people started providing lessons for reading aloud, giving oral presentations and even singing. Elocutionist was the name given to those who either performed orations or teach others the art.

The spread of elocution might have started with flourishing activities of churches in this period. It may be noted that Protestantism originated in the 16th century and numerous Christian cults came up in the 17th and 18th centuries. The sectarian frenzies held different activities in churches, church camps, town halls and lyceums. The activities included lectures, debates, group discussion, reading, entertainment, sermons by religious people and so on.

Apart from the religious practices, industrial capitalism played a significant role in spreading interest in elocution in common people. Industrial revolution took place in the 18th and 19th century with simultaneous advancement of science and engineering, development of logical thoughts and commitment to progress. According to experts, industries moved people toward discipline and order, generated in the factories but extended to every aspects of life including leisure, manners and speech. As a result, elocution automatically flowed in to the life of common people. There was a need too. The middle and working class required the oratory skill to put up their demands and arguments; clear voice uttered with correct intonation was a better way to reach the upper tire of the society. Thus elocution, which was once practiced only by the elites, became a subject of mass-interest.

Modern concept of elocution in Indian context

The modern concept of elocution came in India with the British education system during the period of Renaissance in the 19th century. The oratory skill became an important tool to inspire people to explore new ideas and new philosophy and also, to rise voices against the British. Bengal produced great orators in this period, who took lead roles in the freedom fighting and social reforms. The newly founded colleges and universities became centres of learning and practicing elocution. Henry Louis Vivian Derozio of the Presidency College, Kolkata, can be cited as an example whose oratory skill inspired a large number of youngsters.

From the pure literary point of view, Michael Madhusudan Dutta was a great recitalist and an admirer of oral performance of poems. He believed that a successful communication of poetry can be made only in a combination of cultivated voice and trained ears. According to him, there are two steps for communicating poetry. The first step is to read, read and read and the second one is to teach the ears the new tunes. The works of Rangalal Bandyopadhyay, Hemchnadra Sen and Nabin Chandra Sen, mostly patriotic ones, were often recited from memories. They played a key role in creating a sense of patriotism and inspired the freedom fighters. Later the works of Rabindra Nath Tagore, D L Ray, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Atul Prasad Sen, Rajani Kanta Sen, Swami Vivekananda and others played similar roles. Nazrul was famous for inspiring people with recitation of his own work.

University Institute was established in Kolkata in the beginning of the 20th century. Professor Binayendra Sen of the Presidency College, Kolkata, and one of the key persons of the institute, had keen interest in acting and elocution. Recitation of poems in English, Bengali and Sanskrit was a regular practice in the institute. Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, a great theatre personality and a recitalist of Bengali and English poems, became a member of the institute in 1908. Kalidas Ray wrote, “He [Sisir Kumar] used to recite poems off and on, even while walking through the gate of the institute.” Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay was famous for his recitation in Sanskrit. There were few professional elocutionists like Malina Devi, Santosh Singha, Jaynarayan Mukhopdhyay, Prabhabati Devi, to name a few.

After independence, IPTA and similar other organizations used poems and songs to create mass-awareness and mass-motivation. Sukanta Bhattachrayya was famous for reciting poems written then and there on a particular occasion. Thus elocution took a new shape and recitation of poems took gained a new importance.

The new course

Gradually elocution took a new course of development in both western world and India. As described by Wallace Bacon in his flagship essay Dangerous shores: from elocution to interpretation, elocution developed from “just and graceful management of the voice, countenance and gesture,” to “a modern view of interpretation as the study of literature through the medium of oral performance”.

Let us finish with a memoir of Nirendra Nath Chakraborty from his book Baire Dure. The poet went to a poetry festival In Paris in 1982. While discussing the session beforehand, the French translator asked the poet how many poems he would like to be recited by girls. The poet exclaimed, “Are you not going to read the translations?” The translator said, “No. recitation is an independent form of art. We need trained voices to bring poems in life.” Ten well-trained girls and boys recited the translations. Spotlights were used on stage to draw complete attention of the audience toward the recitalists. A dramatic ambience was created. But it was not a drama. It was presentation of poems; it represented the new definition of elocution: interpretation of literature through the medium of oral performance.

Text by Dr. Srabanti Basu


Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling . . .. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too— but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling. - Muriel Rukeyser


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