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Sanskrit Drama: Theory and Performance1 V. Raghavan The word natya means and comprises both dance and drama. The dual meaning signifies also the fact that drama, as conceived by Bharata, is an integrated art of music, dance, action and poetry.2 Bharata natya (classical Indian dance) is as glorious an achievement of the ancient Indian genius as the sculpture of Sanchi or the paint­ ing of Ajanta, nay, as the Vishnudharmottara says, it is the very basis of the latter arts.3 The highest literary creations of ancient India, the works of Kalidasa and Sudraka, lie in it; an understanding of its technique is necessary to appreciate the several regional and popular dance-drama traditions surviving in the country. What a wonderful medium it was cannot be better demonstrated than by the sway its technique and theme gained throughout both East and South-East Asia, which it helped to consolidate into a cultural homogeneity still happily undestroyed. The antiquity and indigenous growth of this art are clear from early literary evidences. The Rig-veda has many references to it; the most noteworthy is the beautiful description of dawn as a brightattired danseuse. We know that by the fifth century B.C., the art of actors had become sufficiently developed, for the great grammarian Panini informs us that two authors, Silalin and Krisasva, had by that time codified the art into aphoristic texts, the Nata Sutras. The epics, known to Kautilya in the fourth century B.C., and Buddhistic literature bear out the popularity of this art. Further, we have fragments of a peculiar kind of play called Vasavadatta-natyadhara , surviving in quotations, which Subandhu, a poet and minister of the Mauryan court wrote during this period and in which he developed, in a series of plays-within-plays, his theme of court intrigues using the story of King Udayana and Vasavadatta. In the middle of the second century, B.G., Patanjali, the grammarian, speaks of many elements pertaining to the art: the ranga or stage, the music, the verses, the actors, the themes of binding Bali and killing Kamsa and even the concept of rasa or sentiment and emotional response.^ A rectangular terra cotta tablet dug up at the Bhir Mount site at Taxila, Editors note: Though usual and desirable, it has not been typographically possible to indicate a number of contrasts in Sanskrit phonology, e.g., between the velar nasals and other nasals, long and short vowels, retroflex and dental consonants, and between the three sibilants. 36 considered pre-Mauryan, already depicts one of the poses described by Bharata among the hundred and eight karanas (postures) of his Natya-sastra. If we follow Johnson, who has re-edited the poems of Asvaghosha, this Buddhist poet flourished in the first century B.C., and the fragments of his plays, which have been discovered in the Central Asian excavations, show that the degree of development and perfection seen in them warrants a long period of growth for Sanskrit drama extending to some centuries in the pre-Christian era. After the Nata-sutras mentioned by Panini, there arose more detailed texts dealing with the art of the actors. This we know from the earliest available work dealing with the Indian theatre arts, the Natya-sastra of sage Bharata. This text, usually placed between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., incorporates within itself portions of earlier texts, aphoristic and longer prose passages, and memorized verses handed down in the line of actors. Also, the development of the actors’ art described in this text presupposes many centuries of growth. There are several stages and strands in the formation of this art. In the Natya-sastra, Bharata tells that natya was extracted from the Vedas: the spoken or recited word from the Rig-veda, the song from the Sama-veda, the action from the Yajur-veda and the sentiments from the Atharva-veda. Modern historians like Arthur Berridale Keith would also see for Indian drama a religious origin in the Vedic sacri­ ficial ritual where the performer puts on a specific dress, recites a specified hymn, and goes through a specified course of action or enacts an incident. When an original myth is thus...


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