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Bharata Muni, Panini shape Classical Theatre

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By Akash Shukla

Classical Sanskrit theatre reached its boom during the first nine centuries (BCE). It was Sanskrit grammarian Panini who brought to fore the aphorisms on acting. Kautilya’s book on statesmanship the Artha-shastra (4th century bce) depicted allusions to actors, dancers, theatrical companies and academies.

Beyond this, the form, style and classical structure of aesthetic acting were consolidated in Bharata Muni’s treatise on dramaturgy, Natya-shastra.

Bharata defined drama as…

Mimicry of the actions and conduct of people, rich in various emotions, and depicting different situations; this relates to actions of men as good, bad and indifferent and gives courage, amusement, happiness, and advice to all of them.

Bharata slotted drama in 10 types.

The two most important ones are are: nataka (heroic) and prakarana (social).

Nataka deals with eulogy and gallant themes of gods and kings and draws its roots from epical history or mythology, namely, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacharita.

Unlike Nataka, Prakarana creates a plot that deals with ordinary mortals, such as a courtesan; one such important work is Shudraka’s Mrichchakatika.

Most of the then plays unfolded between 1 and 10 acts. There were many one-act plays. Monologous in nature, a single character carries on a dialogue with an invisible one. Prahasana is classified into two categories—superior and inferior, both dealing with courtesans and crooks.

Two prominent works under Prahasana are King Mahendravikramavarman’s 7th-century-ce Bhagavad-Ajjukiya (The Harlot and the Monk) and Mattavilasa (Drunken Revelry).

Classical theatre is in three structural types–

oblong, square, and triangular.

According to the Natya-shastra, the playhouse was shaped as a mountain cave. It had small windows to obstruct the noise and wind. All this was managed so that nothing should interfere with the acoustics and a backstage for actors was managed for costumes and offstage noise and special effects.

Hindu theatre Vs Greek counterpart

Hindu theatre varied from its Greek avatar in mood and method of production.

To begin with, less time was consumed by a Greek program of three tragedies and a farce than by a single Sanskrit drama.

The Greeks emphasised on plot and speech while the Hindus underpinned the relevance of four types of acting and visual demonstration.

People were audiences to the Greeks and spectators to the Hindus.

Aristotle’s theory of catharsis (pent-up release of emotions) has no resemblance to Bharata’s understanding of rasa.

The Greek belief of tragedy is totally missing in Sanskrit dramas. In the latter, it is the aesthetic principle that prohibits any death or defeat of the hero on stage.

Interestingly, there were two Hindu production types: Lokadharmi (realistic theatre) and Natyadharmi (stylized drama). Lokdharmi depicted natural presentation of human behaviour.

Natyadharmi or stylised drama employed gestures and symbols that were artistic.

While Indian audience still loves poetic characters and romances of ethereal nature like Shakuntala, the Western audiences find ‘The Little Clay Cart’ more in their tradition of realism. The Little Clay Cart depicts a departure from Sanskrit tradition, in which a prakarana was generally named after its hero and heroine.

‘The little Clay Cart’ seemingly is better theatre while Shakuntala is a better piece of poetry…

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Ninasam: The melting pot of Kannada Intellect and Culture is also a source of inspiration to Heggodu village

Its finest annual event the ‘Samskrutik Shibira’ till date remains the most loved programme and centres around a socio-political theme

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Theatre troupe performing in Ninasam. Image Source: thebetterindia.com
  • Established by Kannada writer in 1949, Ninasam is credited with some remarkable contributions in the field of theatres, publishing and movies
  • With a greater influx on intellectuals, a full-fledged theatre building called Shivaram Karanth (a prominent Kannada literary) was built for the troupe
  • Ninasam offers a 10-month training course to aspiring theatre practitioners

Have you ever imagined a villager engaged in a literary discourse or a cart driver conversing about the literary geniuses? Well if you haven’t, you must visit Heggodu- a quaint village in Shimoga, nestled 350 km from Bangalore, to experience the same.

The village owes this unbelievable cultural life to the ‘Nilakanteshwara Natyaseva Samgha,’ a world-renowned culture institute famously known as ‘Ninasam.’

Established by Kannada writer, Kuntagodu Vibhuthi Subbanna (KV Subbanna), in 1949, Ninasam is credited with some remarkable contributions in the field of theatres, publishing and movies. Started off as an amateur project under a thatched roof in the green village, Ninasam has evolved into a melting pot of Kannada intellect and culture.

Bridging the gap between urban and rural populace, the institute focuses on socio-cultural work. Even earlier Ninasam would organise theatre and workshops along with publishing texts related to theatres. As a result, interested groups from the nearby areas started flocking to the institute to discuss contemporary issues and other forms of art.

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With a greater influx of intellectuals, a full-fledged theatre building named Shivarama Karanth (a prominent Kannada literary) was built for the troupe that slowly started performing outside the village as well. After the construction, the theatre started administering residential training programmes as well.

Ninasam buliding. Image Source: The Quint
Ninasam building. Image Source: The Quint

To tackle the language barrier for the people who only understood Kannada, KV Subbanna would write the entire script in the dialect and would distribute them to the locals before the play. The effort taken by Subbanna is evident even today when the villagers talk at length about various classic movies being their favourite films.

Its finest annual event the ‘Samskrutik Shibira’ till date remains the most loved programme and centres around a socio-political theme. Renowned figures of Indian culture such as B V Karanth, U R Ananthmurthy, Sammik Bandhopadhyay, and Shiv Vishwanathan have delivered lectures at this renowned culture course, reports thebetterindia.com.

Following the guru-shishya tradition, Ninasam is totally managed by its staff and students who take up the daily chores turn by turn. At times even the villagers drop by to give them a hand.

The institute also trains children from the nearby villages for Yakshagana performances. “Yakshagana is a folk theatre form that combines dance, music, dialogue and costumes in a unique theatre that is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn. It is predominantly seen in the coastal districts of Karnataka, especially the Malnad region,” quoted thebetterindia.com as saying.

Ninasam offers a 10-month training course to aspiring theatre practitioners. Blending traditional with contemporary makes the institute stand out.

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The insightful discussions at Ninasam are something that has developed the villagers’ fondness for the work of writers like Shakespeare, Mohan Rakesh, Bernard Shaw and Kalidasa among others.

A theatrical performance in Ninasam. Image Source: thebetterindia.com
A theatrical performance in Ninasam. Image Source: thebetterindia.com

After six decades of dedicated working, Ninasam has transformed into a multi-faceted organisation with several arms like Ninasam Theatre Institute, Ninasam Tirugata, Ninasam Foundation, and the Akshara Prakashana Publishing House.

The institute has also earned widespread recognition both at national and global level. Its founder late KV Subbanna has been awarded with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Creative Arts, Communication and Journalism in 1991.

Continuing to set a benchmark in evolving cultural literary, Ninasam has undoubtedly made literature and theatre as the part and parcel of village life in Heggodu.

– prepared by Bulbul Sharma, a staff-writer at NewsGram. Twitter handle: iBulbul_

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