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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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