|The emergence of Sanskrit drama|
It's difficult to determine the precise origins of Sanskrit drama. Fragments of the earliest known plays have been traced to the 1st century AD. However, gauging from the sophistication of those fragments, scholars believe that a living theatre tradition must have existed in India at an earlier date. Unfortunately, although the Indus Valley people left behind an enormous wealth of archaeological evidence, they give no signs of any theatrical activity. Dance and music seems to have been their mainstay, perhaps as part of their religious celebrations. A search of the Vedas, dating from approximately 1500-1000 BC yields no trace either, although a few texts are composed in short, elementary dialogue. And though rituals of the Vedic tradition have the potential of developing into theatre, once again, it's a dead end.
Ramayana and The Mahabharata
The compositions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana changed things. Written between 1000 BC and 100 BC, these Hindu magnum opus', unarguably the most comprehensive documentations of ancient Indian life, have inspired numerous dramatic compositions. The Puranas, a collection of stories dealing with the life and exploits of Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, also found their way into these narratives. Although these texts do refer to a class of performers who may have been actors, once again, no clear-cut references to a theatrical tradition exists.
Could the Sanskrit dramatists have been inspired by Greek theatre? That's a question that seems to have puzzled many scholars. Though some do conjecture that Alexander the Great, whose interest in the theatre was well-known, may have taken troupes along with him on his campaigns in north-east India in 327 BC, nothing conclusive has emerged.
The earliest references to what may have been the seeds of Sanskrit drama were by Patanjali in The Mahabhasya, his text on grammar written in 140 BC. In order to emphasize a point, Patanjali states that action may be determined in several ways; through Pantomime, Recitation, Song and Dance. Natya or theatre is not specifically mentioned, but there is a mention made to people who recite and sing (natas).
This evidence, coupled with the existence of dramatic rituals, epic stories which were later interpreted in dramatic form, almost establishes the fact that it was this time that Sanskrit drama came into being.
Unfortunately, we have no physical evidence to substantiate these performances. Unlike the Greek and Roman theatre, whose ancient ruins leave behind some tangible evidence, there are no surviving Indian theatre structures - all we have are plays, dramaturgical texts (surviving on palm leaf manuscripts) and descriptions through other sources for information.
Bharata's Natyashastra (roughly translated as the "science of drama") laid down the foundation for classical Sanskrit drama. It's difficult to put an exact date to it, and scholars believe it may have been written anywhere between 200 BC to 200 AD. Traditionally, its authorship has been attributed to sage Bharata, but due to the unevenness in writing styles, some critics believe it to be the work of several hands.
In terms of its scope, it's wider than Aristotle's Poetics. It takes into account every aspect of theatrical relevance, including theatre architecture, costumes, make-up, properties, dance, music, play construction, poetic compositions, grammar, formation of theatre companies, the audience, dramatic competitions, actor communities and ritual observances, to name a few.
from its relevance to the theatre, The Natyashastra almost entirely shapes
our understanding of music in ancient India, as well as a great deal of
dance. Both forms have derived a great deal from the guidelines laid down
by this text; dance for instance has taken its language of gestures, steps
and moves from it. In addition to that, the guidelines for critique that
Bharata developed are said to have influenced dramatic criticism till
of Sanskrit Drama
Bharata's Natyashastra is the most important source for establishing the characteristics of Sanskrit drama (natya, meaning drama or theatre; shastra, a generic term referring to any authoritative text). Its date of publication hasn't yet been agreed on, and currently lies between 200 BC and AD 200.
The mythological origin of theatre is related in the Natyashastra (The Birth of Theatre, The Natyashastra, Chapter 1). Theatre is said to have been the inspiration of Brahma as a means to distract people from their sensual pursuits, and author Bharata figures prominently in its origin.
Bharata's narrative at the opening of the text reveals certain characteristics of Sanskrit drama:
The Natyashastra is much broader in scope than the other surviving masterpieces of ancient theatre, including Aristotle's Poetics. Covering all aspects of drama, including acting, stage architecture, costumes, make-up, properties (props), dance, music, even ritual practices, the organization of theatre companies, the audience, dramatic competitions and the community of actors, it is possible to form a rough picture of ancient Indian theatre. (see The birth of theatre)
Classical Playrights (1st -- 10th Century AD)
From the 1st century to the 10th century AD, the high point of Sanskrit drama, a great number of plays were written, although few have survived. One of the earliest writers, Asvaghosa, whose work (in fragmented form) came to the attention of scholars early this century, wrote about Buddhist teachings and followed the rules laid down by the Natyashastra.
Bhasa, who probably wrote between the 4th and 5th century, is the one author whose work has survived in abundance -- 13 plays. Swapnavasavadatta, or The Vision of Vasavadatta, is among his best known works.
Bhasa composed plays from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas, as well as other semi-historical tales. He also made up his own tales.
Although Bhasa's work follows the rules from the Natyashastra, in order to maintain a dramatic integrity, he often violates them. The outstanding results, as critics assert, only proves that he was a man of the theatre, way ahead of his times.
Perhaps one of the most popular works of classical Indian theatre is Mrcchakatika, The Little Clay Cart, attributed to playwright Sudraka who, in the preface to the play, describes himself as "a king, a mathematician, knowledgeable in love and skilled in the training of elephants".
So far, scholars have not been able to locate any more of his writing, and considering the brilliance of this one work, it seems almost impossible that he hasn't written anything else.
The play's unique storyline, in a nutshell, is a triangle of sorts -- involving a hapless brahmin, Charudatta, a faithful courtesan, Vasantsena, and a jealous royal Samstanaka. Blending both the serious and humourous, it remains one of the most popular staged pieces of classical Indian drama.
A mention of classical playwrights would never be complete without a look at Kalidasa, unarguably one of the greatest playwrights of his time. Attempts to place him chronologically remain vague - some say he may have been a court poet during the time of Chandragupta II of Ujjain in the mid-5th century AD. Plays Malavikagnimitra and Vikramorvasiya, the dramatic poem Meghduta and the epic poems Kamarasambhava and Raghuvamsa were written by him. But more than all these, it's for his undisputed classic Abhijnanasakuntala, Sakuntala and the Ring of Recognition, for which he is best remembered today.
His adherence to classical rules without sacrificing his artistic integrity is what Kalidasa is best remembered for. With Sakuntala, the story of King Dusyanta's love, marriage, separation and reunion with Sakuntala, the daughter of a heavenly nymph and sage, Kalidasa took liberties with the epic story (which can be found in the Mahabharata) to suit his needs.
Among the major playwrights of later Sanskrit drama, Bhavabhuti stands out above the others. Placed around the AD 700, probably a member of a north Indian king's court, his Uttarramacharita, The Latter History of Rama, is among the best known plays of Sanskrit drama. Adapting incidents from the epic Ramayana, it takes considerable creative liberties with the text, leaning more towards lengthy poetic expressions that the later Sanskrit dramatists favoured.
While there were many other Sanskrit dramatists who wrote up to the 10th century, none measured up to the success of Bhasa, Sudraka, Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti. Post the 10th century, very little work worth critical attention was produced. Slowly, Sanskrit drama was fading from the scenario.
The Decline of Sankrit Theatre
What could have wiped it out? Scholars blame several forces, both internal and external. Some believe it was the successive invasions of Mohammed of Gazni that weakened the kingdoms of north India and, therefore, their way of life. It may also have been the exclusivity of Sanskrit theatre that weakened its ability to survive -- it was too elite.
Then, Sanskrit, the language of the courts and temples, had begun to be replaced by various regional literary traditions that were fast emerging in rural areas.
Perhaps it was the Natyashastra's stringent rules that ultimately did it in. Few later artists would be able to make use of them without strangling their creativity. Other changes in the creative process may have contributed to it in some way. As early as Bhasa and Kalidasa, the emphasis on lyrics and poetry (as opposed to dramatic dialogue) was becoming apparent and later playwrights like Bhavabhuti only consolidated this practice.
Between the 10th and 15th centuries, major political changes took place in India that went on to influence its cultural growth, particularly in north India. The Mughal invasions that were taking place from the 10th century eventually led to their consolidation of power and the formation of the Great Mughal empire of the 15th century. In areas where Islam became the state religion, theatre declined because the religion did not condone it. Only in south India did a form of Sanskrit drama manage to survive - Koothiyattam in Kerala.
little is known about this dark period in Sanskrit drama. For instance,
did the actors, once patronized by the courts of the Hindu kings, then
take to the road, abandon Sanskrit and perform in the regional languages
of the rural areas in order to cater to the tastes of the less
sophisticated villagers? The references to jugglers, acrobats,
storytellers and singers in various texts of the time lead us to believe
that this was entirely possible, given the performers' will to survive.