Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notes on Sanskrit Drama

The Birth of Sanskrit Drama

Classical theatre in India began to emerge sometime after the golden age of Athenian drama in the fifth century BCE, but scholars dispute exactly when the Indian tradition first took root. The oldest fragments of Indian drama probably date from around the first century of the current era (possibly earlier), but we have nothing complete until about another hundred years after that. The plays are written primarily in Sanskrit, so they are frequently referred to as Sanskrit drama. However, these plays can use multiple languages and dialects, sometimes having characters speak in Prakrit, a term for a number of dialects closely akin to Sanskrit.

The sacred Indian text The Natyashastra begins with a mythological account of the birth of theatre. According to the opening of The Natyashastra, the gods approached the mighty god Brahma and asked him that in addition to the four sacred texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas, he create a fifth Veda that would be accessible to all castes, since lower-caste individuals were not allowed to study the Vedas. Brahma took words from one of the Vedas, music from another, movements and make-up from a third, and emotional acting from the fourth. The gods pondered this, but decided none of them would be able to put this new Veda into practice, because none of them had all of the skills necessary to do so.

Brahma then took the new Veda and brought it to the great scholar Bharata Muni, who had many sons. Bharata practiced the new Veda with his sons, assigning roles to each of them, telling them where to stand and how to move, and training them in words, emotions, and poise. Bharata then told Brahma that the performance would be more graceful if it included women in beautiful costumes and if musical accompaniment were added. He created dancers, singers, and musicians with various instruments. Once the preparations were complete, Bharata presented a performance to the gods commemorating the victory of the god Indra over the demons.

The Natyashastra describes the performance like this:

I commenced the performance with an interesting Nandi--benedictory singing of eight sentences from the Vedas. After that, the play started, involving (personal) fights, fights with weapons, destruction, angry roars etc. and ended with the defeat of the demons by the gods. Brahma and other gods were so pleased with the performance that they showered presents on the actors....
(translated by Adya Rangacharya)

However, when the first dramatic performance in the history of the universe ended with the defeat of the demons, the demons became enraged. Some rowdy demons charged the stage, while others cast evil spells on the performers. Indra took a flagpole and chased the demons away, saving the show. To prevent such occurrences in the future, Brahma directed a celestial architect to build a theatre building. He then assigned different gods to protect various parts of the theatre, placing himself at the center of the stage.

Brahma later had a meeting with the demons to ask them why they objected so strenuously to the drama. The demons responded that drama glorified the gods at the expense of the demons. To placate the demons, Brahma explained that drama would show both good and bad actions, and that it would represent everything: humor, fighting, greed, righteousness, pleasure, restraint, in fact everything that exists. No art, no knowledge, no action would not be found in this new form. After appeasing the demons in this way, Brahma asked the gods to perform a sacrifice and instructed men never to begin a performance without first worshipping the stage.

While this is not the sort of account a historian is likely to write, it does provide some fascinating clues as to how Indian theatre might have begun. Examining the first chapter of The Natyashastra, we can make a number of inferences: (1) Indian drama began as a ritual closely tied to pleasing the gods. (2) It brought together a number of art forms, including poetry, music, dance, and impersonation. (3) From very early on it employed a director or stage manager who was in charge of the performance. (4) Women performed on stage. (5) Actors were rewarded for giving fine performances. (6) Early audiences frequently interrupted plays they did not like. (7) Though drama was originally performed outside, it later moved to specially built theatres. (8) Gods were seen as patrons and protectors of the theatre. (9) Nearly any subject could be explored on stage. (10) Religious ritual continued to be an essential part of Indian drama.

Though we cannot know for certain how theatre first developed in India, these reasonable guesses provide a picture of what it might have been like.

The Little Clay Cart

One of the earliest Sanskrit dramas (perhaps the earliest) is The Little Clay Cart, a long play attributed to King Shudraka. No other extant work is attributed to Shudraka, and according to the play's prologue (presumably written by a later author) he lived to be a hundred years and ten days old. His style of verse is considered simple and direct. However, like other Sanskrit dramatists, he alternates among prose and a variety of verse forms and utilizes numerous dialects for his characters.

The play begins with a benediction invoking the god Shiva. A stage-director then introduces the play and praises the now deceased author. An actress arrives and banters with the stage-director. After she leaves, the stage director converses with one of the characters, who remains hidden, probably behind some sort of screen. At last, the character emerges and the play proper begins. Such extended prologues are typical in Sanskrit drama.

The Little Clay Cart has ten acts, each of which are somewhat self-contained, yet they all link together into a single story. The central plot involves a wealthy and beautiful courtesan, Vasantasena, who falls in love with an impoverished high-caste Brahmin named Charudatta. Charudatta repeatedly shows his worth by offering to give up for the sake of honor some of the few valuables he has left. At the end of the fifth act, Vasantasena goes to his house just as a storm is about to break and declares her love. The play places much emphasis on establishing the mood of each act, so while a scene with a gambling hairdresser is mostly comic, the storm scene is charged with eroticism.

Charudatta's son is the owner of the titular toy clay cart, but he is jealous of a neighbor's child who has a toy cart made out of gold. Vasantasena fills the clay cart with her jewels, telling the boy he should take them and have a gold cart made for himself. The same act also features a mix-up with real carts, in which Vasantasena accidentally gets into a cart that belongs to the play's villain while a fugitive gets in the cart meant to take her to Charudatta. The next two acts show Charudatta aiding the fugitive and the villain strangling Vasantasena and leaving her for dead. The hairdresser, who has renounced gambling and become a Buddhist monk, rescues her, but the villain plots to pin her supposed death on Charudatta.

The final two acts show the trial and Charudatta's near execution for murder. Vasantasena arrives just in time to save her lover, and the fugitive, who has now become king, rewards the just. Charudatta, ever merciful, pardons the villain, and a brief epilogue asks for blessings from heaven. While The Little Clay Cart is a delightful romp, it also contains some biting social commentary. The play has numerous opportunities for displaying beautiful and costly objects on stage, but the good characters are indifferent to wealth, easily giving it away and focusing their attentions on more important values such as love, honor, and friendship.

Both its positive, upbeat message and its clever, tight-knit plot have made The Little Clay Cart a popular play in the international repertoire. The first major production of the piece in the United States was in 1924 at the Neighborhood Playhouse off-Broadway, and it has been periodically revived since then. There are also multiple film adaptations of the play, the most famous being the 1984 Bollywood musical extravaganza Utsav.

Sanskrit Dramatic Theory

Around the same time The Little Clay Cart was written, probably sometime in the second century of the current era, India produced the first truly comprehensive piece of dramatic theory, The Natyashastra. Aristotle's The Poetics deals almost exclusively with the writing of tragedy, and Horace similarly is interested only in the playwright's art, ignoring the actor, the designer, the dancer, and the musician. The Natyashastra by contrast is concerned with every aspect of dramatic production. It views theatre as a spiritual enterprise. It is the domain of gods, humans, demons, indeed, of everything that exists.

Bharata Muni the legendary figure credited with writing The Natyashastra, lays out the physical structure of the Sanskrit theatre in the second chapter of the opus. The auditorium was divided in half, with equal parts of the building devoted to audience and performers. The performer's half was divided into half again, with a stage and backstage area. The Natyashastra also describes how the walls, pillars, and woodworking in the theatre should be constructed. Sanctification of the theatre was a serious business, involving various prayers, offerings, lamps, and even bringing cows inside the theatre for a period of seven days.

The Natyashastra describes 108 different dance postures known as karanas. Several karanas can be combined to create a series of movements known as an angahara. Along with the angaharas, Bharata describes special movements called recakas and pindi-bandhas. Some movements of the body were meant to connote meaning, but others simply added beauty to a performance. In all cases, however, performers were expected to keep the gods in mind.

Perhaps the most important concept in The Natyashastra is the idea of rasas. These are flavors or colorings conveyed by the performance. Bharata is clear that the emotions, or bhavas, give rise to rasas, and not vice versa. However, it is in perceiving the rasas that the audience is moved to certain emotions. The pleasure of theatre arises out of the skilled mixing of the rasas, just as someone enjoying a fine meal appreciates the mixing together of different ingredients.

Bharata identifies eight rasas. Each one is identified with a different color and a different deity. Each also comes from a different emotion. The eight rases are: eroticism (green, associated with Vishnu, comes from love), humor (white, associated with Pramata, comes from mirth), fury (red, associated with Rudra, comes from anger), compassion (gray, associated with Yama, comes from grief), heroics (light yellow, associated with Indra, comes from courage), wonder (yellow, associated with Brahma, comes from astonishment), aversion (blue, associated with Shiva, comes from disgust), and horror (black, associated with Kali, comes from fear).

Later theorists added a ninth rasa representing peace or tranquility. Subsequent scholars proposed rasas for parental love and spiritual devotion, but authorities do not always agree on which colors or deities to assign to these later-day rasas. In any case, each scene of a play is supposed to have one predominant rasa, with lesser rasas present as well. Similarly, the entire play will be dominated by a single rasa, but with undertones of different rasas making it more distinct. A play might be primarily heroic, but also have eroticism, fury, and wonder, each mixed in with varying amounts. The Little Clay Cart displays each of the rasas at different times.


In 1912, a Sanskrit scholar uncovered 13 previously unknown plays that are usually attributed to the playwright Bhasa. Though the plays appear to come from sometime around or after the writing of The Natyashastra, these plays do not follow many of the rules laid out by Bharata. They tend to be fairly short, and most of them dramatize scenes from the great Indian national epics The Mahabharata and The Ramayana. Since their rediscovery, they have been revived in India, and some of the plays have proven to be quite popular, including The Broken Thigh and Karna's Burden.

Bhasa's plays are notable for their use of onstage violence, something shunned in later Sanskrit drama. He also gives sympathetic portrayals of traditional villains, as is the case with The Broken Thigh, which gives a touching death scene to Duryodhana, the villain of The Mahabharata. The Broken Thigh is one of the few Sanskrit dramas to be considered a tragedy (though Karna's Burden also has tragic elements). It portrays Duryodhana fallen and repentant, and it evokes pathos for his family.

The most famous play attributed to Bhasa is The Dream of Vasavadatta. It tells the story of King Udayana and his wife, Vasavadatta. In the play, a minister of the king wants him to marry Padmavati, a princess from another kingdom. He leads Udayana to believe his wife died in a fire, secretly entrusting her to the care of the princess. While Udayana is dreaming, Vasavadatta touches him in an attempt to relieve his headache, and the pair is reunited. 

According to The Natyashastra, superior women were not supposed to exhibit jealousy. In The Dream of Vasavadatta, both Vasavadatta and Padmavati show noble consideration for one another. Ultimately, Udayana keeps both women as his wives, creating a happy ending. The play is also notable for introducing a court jester, a figure that would appear repeatedly in later drama.

Bhasa's plays are short compared with those of many of his successors. They are also more likely to draw upon India's major epics, though they often take considerable liberties with the stories. They probably represent a more primitive form of Sanskrit drama, prior to the emergence of the greatest classical Indian playwright a few hundred years later.


The undisputed master of Sanskrit drama is Kalidasa, who seems to have flourished around the fifth century of the current era. In his romantic drama Malavika and Agnimitra, King Agnimitra falls in love with a portrait of the exiled servant Malavika and enlists the help of a jester to see her in person. The queen imprisons Malavika, but when it becomes known that the servant is actually of royal birth, she relents and accepts her rival as co-queen. Another play, Urvashi Won Through Valor, tells the story of King Pururavas who falls in love with a celestial nymph and after many trials is united with her.

Kalidasa's most famous play is The Recognition of Shakuntala. Based loosely on a minor episode in The Mahabharata, the play masterfully establishes the mood of each scene, drawing the audience into an enchanted world. After the conventional benediction invoking Shiva and a prologue between the stage-director and an actress, the play begins by showing King Dushyanta in his chariot hunting a deer. A holy man informs him that the deer is off limits, as it belongs to a hermitage, the same hermitage where a wise sage has been raising the beautiful young maiden Shakuntala. The hunt for the deer quickly turns to the king's hunt for Shakuntala's love.

The second act introduces the clown, whose cynical antics act as a foil for the romantic ideals of the king. The lovers meet in the third act, where Kalidasa displays his extraordinary gift for erotic poetry. One passage (in a translation by Arthur W. Ryder) reads:

Her face, adorned with soft eye-lashes,
Adorable with trembling flashes
Of half-denial, in memory lingers;
The sweet lips guarded by her fingers,
The head that drooped upon her shoulder--
Why was I not a little bolder?

The lovers are properly married, and in the fourth act Shakuntala departs the hermitage to live with the king.

The play dramatically shifts in the fifth act as the king falls under a curse and rejects Shakuntala, not recognizing her. The king later sees a signet ring he gave to Shakuntala and in the sixth act suddenly remembers his lost love. There is still one final seventh act, however, in which King Dushyanta fights a hoard of demons before returning to Shakuntala. The two are reconciled, and their joy is sweeter due to the pain they have experienced.

In addition to influencing later Indian drama, The Recognition of Shakuntala has had a profound impact on Western drama as well. Goethe wrote a famous poem in praise of Shakuntala and later used the play as one of the inspirations behind his own Faust. It is not a coincidence that the first part of Faust opens with a spiritual dedication and then a prelude featuring a director speaking with a performer and playwright. The shifting verse styles of the first part of Faust might also have been influenced by the mixed poetry and prose of Sanskrit drama.

Other Sanskrit Dramatists

An important successor of Kalidasa, Vishakhadatta, left only one complete surviving play, The Ring of Rakshasa. Though the play also features a ring, it is more concerned with military and political matters than romantic ones. Given Sanskrit drama's emphasis on the deeds of kings, it should not be surprising that kings sometimes turned their own attention to the drama. In the seventh century, two Indian kings also became playwrights of note. Harsha, the more refined of the two, reworked the story of Udayana and Vasavadatta in his play Ratnavali. Another king, Mahendravarman is known for his short, comic works A Farce of Drunken Sport and The Hermit and the Harlot.

The last great flowering of Sanskrit drama occurred in the eighth century with the playwright Bhavabhuti who depicted the divine hero Rama in his plays Exploits of the Hero and The Latter Story of Rama. He also wrote a romantic drama, Malati and Madhava. Also around the eighth century, the writer Nilakanthakavi composed Bhima in Search of the Celestial Flower. This Sanskrit play became the basis for the off-Broadway musical Queen Boulevard by Charles Mee.

In the twentieth century, many artists in India tried to revive Sanskrit drama. This included the writing of new plays in Sanskrit, which is still spoken in India, albeit infrequently. These modern Sanskrit plays are sometimes performed in India, though it is still classical literature that makes up the majority of the performance canon for traditional theatre companies. Most modern Indian playwrights, such as Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1912, have avoided writing in Sanskrit.