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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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Kalidasa’s Shakuntala enthralled Goethe, Herder, Schiller

India is superior in everything – intellectually, religiously…, even Greek heritage seems pale in comparison

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Kalidasa’s Shakuntala enthralled Goethe, Herder, Schiller
Kalidasa’s Shakuntala enthralled Goethe, Herder, Schiller.

By Salil Gewali

It is no less interesting, nor is it too surprising that a world-acclaimed president and artistic director of Vienna Boys Choir –  Gerald Writh of Austria is going to a guide our proud Shillong Chamber Choir (SCC), Meghalaya. But what is another proud fact is that their new project this time is the performance of an opera based on Shakuntala. Needless to say, this play proclaims itself to be one of the literary brilliance of the East. Probably authored between 4th century to 5th century CE by Mahakavi Kalidasa, this Sanskrit drama, soon after its translation into Latin by Sir William Jones in 1789, had won the fascination of the most of the top European scholars. Based on the story of a fraction part of Mahabharata it bears the rare attributes less known to the western world. So much so that many critics stood up challenging Aristotelian dramatic theory as they discovered the eastern literature with more literary adornments and philosophy.

That to what extent Sir William Jones had been able to render this play from the language which he had just learned from a person who did not know abc of English is quite astonishing fact. But, however, a very scholarly linguist, Sir Jones learned the oldest language of the world. And, many believed this snap opened the doorway to hitherto less known Eastern wisdom.

Sir William Jones.
Sir William Jones.

True, when he had first begun to study this play by Kalidasa it had occurred to Sir William Jones that this drama might dwarf other literary work of the European scholars. The conviction instantaneously inspired the British linguist to translate the work first into Latin. Without further ado, he had taken it upon himself the challenge of the translation.   Not very long after the publication the book captivated the imagination of many front-ranking scholars of Germany, Britain, Italy and French. The rational romantic thinkers who had not been fettered by the shackles of the prejudice and prevailing dogmas had burst out their passionate applause.  Immediately after two years, in 1791, another noted scholar George Forster translated this play again into the German language. Forster hastened himself to present his translation to a prominent philosopher and critic of the time Johann Gottfried Herder. After having immersed in the play Herder finally concluded that the philosophy of the West seems “narrow and cold” in comparison to the India literature. He quipped in praise of Shakuntala “I cannot easily find a product of the human mind more pleasant than this, a real blossom of the Orient, the first and the most beautiful of its kind…, something like that, of course, appears once every two thousand years…”. So, Herder got much impelled to introduce the book to the literary giant of the era – Johann Goethe. The father of the German literature was deeply enthralled by this Sanskrit drama that he decided to learn the language himself. Jone’s English edition of the Shakuntala became household name among the literary figure that it got reprinted five times between 1791 to 1807. The story of Shakuntala was adapted for plays, operas and ballets across the Europe.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Well, there is a very significant disclosure made by the father of German literature when another French Scholar Antoine Leonard de Chezy presented Goethe with his French edition of Shakuntala. In a letter of gratitude to Antoine Chezy, Johann Goethe opened up himself before European world : “The first time I came upon this inexhaustible work, [Shakuntala] it aroused such enthusiasm in me and so held me that I could not stop studying it. I even felt impelled to make the impossible attempt to bring it in some form to the German stage. These efforts were fruitless but they made me so thoroughly acquainted with this most valuable work, it represented such an “epoch in my life”, I so absorbed it, that for thirty years I did not look at either the English or the German version. It is only now that I understand the enormous impression that work made on me at an earlier age.”

While the intellectuals like Goethe, Herder, Heinrich Heine, Schiller, Habbel,… passionately lauded Indian drama, even by writing poems,  Friedrich Schlegel exclaimed with conviction “ India is superior in everything – intellectually, religiously…, even Greek heritage seems pale in comparison”.

Best of luck to Shillong Chamber Choir of Meghalaya! Hope this musical project will be instrumental in inspiring the people across the country to shed their past prejudices and seriously go deeper into the literature of the home country too as they study Odyssey, Iliad, Macbeth, Paradise Lost, David Copperfield, Harry Potter,…

Salil Gewali is a well-known writer and author of ‘Great minds on India’. Twitter: @SGewali.