The Natyashastra

by Bharata-muni | 1951 | 240,273 words | ISBN-13: 9789385005831

The English translation of the Natyashastra, a Sanskrit work on drama, performing arts, theater, dance, music and various other topics. The word natyashastra also refers to a global category of literature encompassing this ancient Indian tradition of dramatic performance. The authorship of this work dates back to as far as at least the 1st millenn...

Part 4 - The Ancient Indian Drama in Practice

1. Occasions for Dramatic Performance

The Hindu drama like similar other forms of ancient art and poetry seems to have been of religious origin, and it developed probably out of dances and songs in honour of a deity like Siva who in later times came to be styled the great dancer-actor (naṭarāja). As time passed, the dance with songs gradually assumed the form of regular dramatic spectacles, and the range of subjects treated was extended beyond the legends connected with the exploits of a particular deity. It is just possible that this development of the religious aspect came in course of time to be partially arrested, and plays began to be composed more with a purely secular character. And this change considerably loosened its original connexion with the popular deities. Possibly due to this the Hindu drama in the historic period of its career, is found to be acted sometimes for moral edification as in the case of the Buddhist plays, sometimes for the aesthetic enjoyment of the elite as in the case of Kālidāsa’s works, and sometimes (in?) hononr of a deity as in case of one of Bhavabhūti’s plays. In spite of (?) various uses, the Hindu drama unlike its modern counterparts did possibly never become an ordinary amusement of everyday life. It was??stly on special occasions like a religious festival, a marriage ceremony,??ing’s coronation, a friend’s visit that dramatic performances were held??.269; AD. 12-14). But among all these occasions religious festivals were the most common for the performance of drama. It was natural that on such occasions the drama was a popular entertainment as well, the public being then in a holiday mood.

Another fact about the dramatic performances of the Hindus was that these were sometimes held in the form of contests (XXVII.21-22, 71, 77-79). Different groups of actors vied with one another for the popular appreciation, and reward for their skill in the particular art. This drama, however does not seem to have been a regular feature of the Hindu, as was the case with that of the Greeks, and theatrical troups gave, however, performance usually for money without any spirit of rivalry towards others, and were paid by the rich people or the different guilds.


2. The Time of Performance

Except in the midnight or at noon or at the time of the Sandhyā prayers, the Hindu dramas could be performed almost at any part of the day or of the night. But this does not mean that any play could be produced at any allowable time during the twentyfour hours. Though at the command of the patron the Director of a theatrical party could overlook strict rules in this regard, the time of performance was to be regulated according to the nature of the subject-matter of the individual play. For example, a play based on a talc of virtue was to be performed in the forenoon; a performance which was rich in instrumental music, and told a story of strength and energy, was to be held in the afternoon, and a play which related to the Graceful Style, the Erotic Sentiment, and required vocal and instrumental music for its production, was to be performed in the evening; but in case of plays which related to the magnanimity of the Hero and contained mostly the Pathetic Sentiment, performance was to be held in the morning (XXVII.88-99).

Though in the modern times dramatic performance is mostly held in the evening, the ancient Indian rules regarding the assignment of a play of a particular type to a particular part of the day or of the night need not be considered queer in any way. On the other hand, they appear very much to have been based on a proper understanding of the ever-changeable nature of human personalities. Even if a play based on a tale of virtue or of woe, when properly presented on the stage, could be appreciated at any time, it had better chance of impressing the spectator in the forenoon or in the morning, when after the night’s sleep and rest, he could be the most receptive in regard to these Sentiments That a play including a story of energy and strength can better bo assigned to the after-noon is to be explained on the assumption that on taking rest after meals at the completion the morning’s activities, one becomes psychologically more competent to appreciate stories of strength and energy presented on the stage. In a similar manner, a play with love as its principal theme (i.e. with the Erotic Sentiment) may be more effectively presented on the stage in the evening, when after the day’s work, one is naturally inclined to enjoy the company of his dear woman, be she his wife or the hetaera.


3. The Playhouse or the Theatre

The Nāṭyaśāstra describes various types of playhouse, and their different parts have been mentioned to some extent in detail. But in the absence of evidence the like of which has been copiously available in case of the Greek theatre, it cannot be said how far the ancient Indian plays were performed in specially constructed theatres. It may be possible that only the kings and very wealthy people owned playhouses constructed according to the Nāṭyaśāstra, while dramatic spectacles meant for the common people were held in the open halls called the Nāṭ-mandir (Nāṭya-mandira) in front of the temples, or in a temporarily devised theatre under the cover a canopy, as in the case of the modern Bengali Yātrās which seem to have some resemblance and connexion with the ancient Indian Nāṭya described in the Śāstra. One remarkable feature of the playhouses described in the Nāṭya-śāstra is that they are of a very moderate size, the largest among them (meant for mortals) being only thirtytwo yards long and sixteen yards board, capable of accommodating about four hundred (400) spectators. This is in sharp contrast with the Athenian theatre which sometimes held as many as fifteen thousand (15,000) people.

The comparative smallness of the ancient Indian theatre was a necessary consequence of the pecular technique of the dramatic production. For in a larger playhouse the spectators could not all have heard delicate points on which depended in no small measure the success of a performance. The inordinately large Athenian theatre was not much handicapped in this respect, for the Greek drama depended on a considerably different technique.

The Nāṭyaśāstra describes three main types of playhouse: oblong (vikṛṣṭa), square (caturasra) and triangular (tryasra). These again might be the large, medium or small, with their length respectively as one hundred and eight, sixtyfour, and thirtytwo cubits. This gives altogether nine different varities of theatres, viz. (i) the large oblong, (ii) the large-square, (iii) the large triangular, (iv) the medium oblong, (v) the medium square (vi) the medium triangular, (vii) the small oblong, (viii) the small square and (ix) the small triangular. Those nine types can also be measured in terms of daṇḍas instead of that of cubits. This will give us eighteen different dimensions of playhouse. But the Nāṭyaśāstra is silent about the use of the playhouse measured in terms of daṇḍas, and the playhouse of the largest type measuring 108 cubits in length have been prohibited by the Śāstra for the mortals. And it has been mentioned before that a playhouse more in area than thirtytwo yards long and sixteen yards broad has been prescribed for them. This should be divided into three parts: (i) the tiring room (nepathya) (ii) the stage (raṅgapīṭha or raṅgaśīrṣa) and (iii) the auditorium (raṅgamaṇḍala). Of these the tiringroom would be at one end of the theatre and would measure sixteen yards by four yards. On the two sides of the stage there should be two Mattavāraṇīs each occupying an area of four yards by four yards and having four pillars. Thus the area to be occupied by the seats of spectators would be twentyfour yards by sixteen yards.

The tiring room (nepathya) was the place in which the actors and the actresses put on the costumes suited to the different roles, and from this place, the tumults, divine voices (daiva-vāṇī) and similar other acts proceeded. This part of the theatre was separated from the stage by two screens over its two doors, Between these two doors the members of the orchestra (kutapa) were to sit and the direction facing them was to be considered conventionally the east.


4. The Representation

To understand the technique of representation of the Hindu drama one must remember that it avoided stark realism and gave utmost scope to imagination and fancy. The one unmistakable evidence of this is the total absence of any painted scenery from the stage. This is but negative side of it. If the Hindus avoided bringing in any kind of artificial scenery, they made positive efforts in communicating the meaning of the drama and calling forth the Sentiment (rasa) in the spectators through suggestive use of colour in the costume and make up of the actors and rhythmic movements of many kinds which have been summed up in their theory of four representations (abhinaya) such as aṅgika, vācika, āhārya, and sattvika (VI.23).

(a) The Physical Representation

Among these, the āṅgika should be discussed first. This consists of the use of various gestures and postures of which the Nāṭyaśāstra gives elaborate descriptions. Different limbs have been named and their manifold gestures and movements described, with various significance attached to each one of them (VIII-XII). For example, the head has thirteen different gestures which are as follows:

Ākampita: Moving the head slowly up and down.

Kampita: when the movements in the Ākampita head are quick and copious. (Uses): The Ākampita head is to be applied in giving a hint, teaching questioning, addressing in an ordinary way (lit. naturally), and giving an order.

The Kampita head is applicable (lit. desired) in anger argument understanding, asserting, threatening, sickness and intolerence.

Dhuta and Vidhuta: A slow movement of the head is called the Dhuta and when this movement is quick it is called Vidhuta. (Uses): The Dhuta head is applicable in unwillingness, sadness, astonishment, confidence, looking side ways, emptiness and forbidding.

The Vidhuta head is applied in an attack of cold, terror, panic, fever and the first stage of drinking (i.e. intoxication).

Parivāhita and Udvāhita: when the head is alternately turned to two sides it is called the Parivāhita, and when it is once turned upwards it is known as the Udvāhita. (Uses): The Parivāhita head is applicable in demonstration, surprise, joy, remembering, intolerence, cogitation, concealment and [amorous] sporting.

The Udvāhita head is to be applied in pride, showing height, looking high up, self-esteem and the like.

Avadhuta: When the head is once turned down it is called the Avadhuta. (Uses): it is to be applied in [communicating] a message involking a deity, conversation and beckoning [one to come near].

Añcita: When the neck is slightly bent on one side the Añcita head is the result. (Uses): It is applicable in sickness, swoon, intoxication anxiety and sorrow.

Nihañcita: when two shoulders are raised up with the nock bent on one side the Nihañcita head is produced. (Uses): It is to be used by women in pride, Amorousness (vilāsa), Light-heartedness (lalita). Affected Indifffírence (bibboka), Hysterical Mood (kilakiñcita). Silent Expression of Affection (moṭṭāyita), Pretented Anger (kuṭṭamita)[1]; Paralysis (stambha) and Jealous Anger (māna).

Parāvṛtta: when the face is turned round, the Parāvṛtta head is the result. (Uses): It is to be used in turning away the face, and looking back and the like.

Utkṣipta: when the face is raised up the Utkṣipta head is the result. (Uses): It is used indicating lofty objects, and application of divine weapons.

Adhogata: The head with the face looking downwards is called the Adhogata. (Uses): It is used in shame, bowing [in salutation] and sorrow.

Parilolita: when the head is moving on all sides, it is called Parilolita. (Uses): It is used in fanting, sickness, power of intoxication, possession by an evil spirit, drowsiness and the like.

The eyes are similarly to have different kinds of glances according to the States (bhāva) and Sentiments (rasa) they are to express. The eyeballs too are liable to similar changes to create impressions of different feelings and emotions, and so have the eyebrows, the nose, the cheeks, the chin, and the neck. The hands, however, are the most important limbs in the making of gestures. Gestures and movements of hands fall into three classes, viz. single (asaṃyuta), combined (saṃyuta) and dance hands (nṛtta-hasta). Single-hand gestures and movements relate to one hand only, while combined hands to both the hands. The following are examples of the three kinds of hand gestures:—Pataka (single hand): The fingers extended and close to one another and the thumb bent. Añjali (combined hand) Putting together of the two Patāka hands is called the Añjali. Caturasra (dance-hand): The Kaṭakāmukha hands held forward eight Aṅgulis apart [from each other] on one’s breast, the two shoulders and elbows on the same level. Besides these gestures, the hands have varied movements which are characterised by the following acts: drawing upwards, dragging, drawing out, accepting, killing, beckoning, urging, bringing together, separating, protecting, releasing, throwing, shaking, giving away, threatening, cutting, piercing, squeezing and beating (IX.161-163).

From the foregoing discussion about the gestures it is apparent that their uses fall into two different categories, viz. realistic and conventional. Of these two types, the gestures used conventionally far outnumber those of the other kind. But this should not appear strange. For the ancient Indian dramatists and theatrical producers were fully conscious of the limited scope of realism in arts of various kinds, and hence they conceived action as something very closely allied to dance. This demanded that while moving on the stage with or without uttering any word, the actors should gesticulate rhythmically, to impart grace and decorative effect to their figure. For this very purpose another set of gestures called Dance-hands (nṛttahasta) are also to be used. As their name implies these hands were exclusively to be used in dance, but for reasons mentioned above they were sometimes utilized at the time of declamation or recitation. The lower parts of the body down to the feet are also to be similarly used. Among these, the feet are the most important. On them depend the different movements of the entire body as well as the various standing postures. The movements of the feet are of three kinds, viz. ordinary gait, Cārī and Maṇḍala, Of these, the Cāri is a simple movement of the feet (XI.) while Maṇḍala, is a series of such movements considered together (XII.) During the stage fighting the two combatants are to move with Cārīs and Maṇḍalas in accompaniment with suitable music. And the gait is very valuable for the representation of different roles. In this matter too convention plays a very considerable part. The Nātyaśāstra lays down elaborate rules about the width of footsteps and the tempo of the gait for different characters according to their social position, age, sex, health and feeling as well as the peculiar environments in which they might be placed (XIII.1-157).

(b) The Vocal Representation

The second means of theatrical representation consists of the use of speech. It relates to the proper musical notes (svara) voice registers (sthāna), pitch of vowels (varṇa), intonation (kāku), speech-tempo (laya) to be used in reciting or declaiming a passage for the purpose of evoking different Sentiments (rasa) in the spectators. For example to call forth the Comic and The Erotic Sentiments a passage should be recited with the Madhyama and the Pañcama notes, and for the Heroic and the Marvellous Sentiments the Ṣaḍja and the Ṛṣabha would be the suitable notes.

To call a person staying at a distance the voice should proceed from the head register (śiras) and when he is at a short distance it should be from the chest (uras), and for calling a man at one’s side the voice from the throat register (kaṇṭha) would be proper (XIX.43).

For any speech with the Comic and the Erotic Sentiments the prevailing pitch would be Udātta (acute) and Svarita (circumflex) while in the Heroic, the Furious and the Mervellous Sentiments it should be Udātta and Kampita.

In the Comic and the Erotic Sentiments the speech-tempo should be medium, in the Pathetic slow, and in the other Sentiments a quick tempo is appropriate (XIX.59).

Besides the above aspects of speech, close attention was to be given in observing rhythm and cadence. And the metrical character of any passage in verse was to be fully expressed in its recitation or declamation. For this propose the Nāṭyaśāstra devotes nearly two full chapters (XV, XVI) which discuss prosody and allied topics.

(c) The Costumes and Make-up

One important element in theatrical representation now-a-days is the various stage appliances such as, painted scenery, costumes and make-up However able the actors and actresses might be in delivering the speeches assigned to their roles, without being placed against properly painted scenery and without having proper costumes and make-up, by their acting and delivery alone they cannot create that kind of stage-illusion which is necessary for the success of a dramatic production. But in the ancient Indian stage there was no painted scenery. Hence the actors had to depend a great deal upon costumes and make-up. By the term Āhāryābhinaya the Hindu theorists understood these two items (XXIII).

Though painted scenery is considered indispensable in the modern, theatre, the ancient. Indians having a considerably different conception of the drama, did not require its aid for the production of a play. The wall that separated the tiring room (nepathya) and the stage (raṅgapīṭha) together with the screens covering the two doors connecting the stage aud the tiring room, served as the back-ground to show off to advantage the figures of the performers. And these, the wall and the screens, possibly did not contain anything other than the usual decorative designs. This simplicity in the character of the scenic apparatus was a necessery concomitant of the peculiar technique of the Hindu drama, and its cause may be looked for in its early history. The introduction of magnificent scenery appears to be a later development in the history of drama. Similarly the back scene of the Shakaspearean stage consisted of a bare wall, and anything in the way of spectacular effect was created by the movements and grouping of actors

The production of an impression by means of painted scenery would have been alien to the taste of the ancient Hindus who were more or less conscious of the limitation of realism in their various arts. In order to make the spectators visualise the place and time of the dramatic story in hand, the Hindus had a different device. Numerous descriptions of place and time composed in rhythmic prose and verse, which are scattered over the classical Hindu plays, served very efficiently indeed the purpose of painted scenery. When properly read or sung, these passages very easily created an illusion of the place or the time described. The elaborate description of Vasantasenā’s magnificent reisdence in the Mṛcchakaṭika was calculated to call up vividly its picture before the mind’s eye. The same thing may be said of the grand description of the Daṇḍaka forest in the Uttararāmacarita. This device of making a scene lively, has been utilized by Shakespeare also. In appreciation of his very beautiful description of place and time, one critic says “The plays are full of such descriptive passages as can nullify the achievements of decorators and mechanics.” It has already been mentioned that in the Shakesperean stage too painted scenery was unknown.

There being no scenery of any kind in the Hindu theatre which made no effort at realism, the spectators were required to use their imagination to the utmost. The demand on the spectator’s imagination made by the ancient Indian producers of plays was further testified by their rules of conventional Zonal division (kakṣā-vibhāga) of the stage (XIV.1-15), Some of these are as follows:

A Zone might change with the actor walking a few steps over the stage.[2] Any ancient Hindu play will furnish numerous examples of this convention. For example in the first Act of the Śakuntalā the king appears for the first time at a distance from Kaṇva’s hermitage, but shortly afterwards he enters it by simply taking a few steps over the stage, looking around and saying. “This is the entrance of hermitage and let me enter it”.

By the same kind of convention the inside and outside of a house was simultaneously presented.[3] The rule relating to this was as follows: According to the Zonal division, those who entered the stage earlier should be taken as being inside [a house] while those entering it later are known to be as remaining outside it. He who enters the stage with the intention of seeing them (i.e. those entering earlier) should report himself after turning to the right. To indicate going to a distant locality one is to walk a good few steps over the stage and to indicate going to a place near by, a short walk only is needed, while a walk of medium duration will indicate going to a place of medium distance, But in case a person leaves one country and goes to a distant land, this is to bo indicated by closing the Act in which such an event occurs, and mentioning again the same fact in an Explanatory Scene at the beginning of the next Act.

An example of some of these conventional rules occurs in the ninth Act of the Mṛcchakaṭika where Śodhanaka appears first as being at the gate of the court of justice and enters it by making a pantomimic movement; then again he goes out to receive the judge and re-enters, the courtroom after him by simply walking over the same stage. And when the judge has started work, Śodhanaka again goes out to call for the complainants. This going out also consists of actually walking a few steps over the stage.

Though painted scenery was not in use in the Hindu theatre objects like hills, carriages, aerial cars, elephants etc, were represented on the stage by suggestive models (pusta) of these. According to the Nāṭyaśāstra the model works were of three kinds, viz. sandhima which was made up of mat, cloths or skins, wrapping cloth, or other materials wrapped round something, and vyājima which was a mechanical contrivance of some kind From Dhanika, the commentator of the Daśarūpa (II.67-58), we learn about a model-work of an elephant for the production of the Udayanacarita, and the Mṛcchakaṭika owes its name to the toy cart which plays an indispensable role in the story.

(d) The Temperament

The fourth or the most important means of representation is the Temperament (sattva) or the entire psychological resources of a man (XXIV), The actor or the actress must for the time being feel the States that he or she is to represent, and only then will the Sentiments [related to them follow. This kind of reprsentation was indispensable for giving expression to various delicate aspects of men’s and women’s emotional nature.

So far as is known, Hindu dramas have always been parted into acts; but never have they had scenes. It is somewhat to be wondered at, that the Hindus, with their?nordinate love for subdivision, should have left those univented. (Introduction to Daśarūpa, pp. 28-20.

Footnotes and references:


For the definition of all these terms together with the preceding ones see NŚ. XXLV.15, 18-22.


Due to this kind of convention, scenes of the Hindu plays were not clearly separated as they are in a modern drama. This puzzled F. Hall who says: “So far as is known, Hindu dramas have always been parted into acts; but never have they had scenes. It is somewhat to be wondered at, that the Hindus, with their ?nordinate love for subdivision, should have left those univented. (Introduction to Daśarūpa, pp. 28-20.”


See note 2 above.

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