Natyashastra (English)

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 6 - The Nāṭyaśāstra: The Text and its Commentators

1. Its Author

The Nāṭyaśāstra is commonly attributed to Bharata Muni.[1] But Bharata cannot be taken as its author, for in the Nāṭyaśāstra itself his mythical character is very obvious, and the majority of the Purāṇas are silent about the so called author of the Nāṭyaśāstra[2], and there is not a single legend about him in any of the extant Purāṇas or the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. The word Bharata which originally meant ‘an actor’ seems to have given rise to an eponymous author of the Bharataśāstra or the Naṭaśāstra (the manual of actors).


2. Its Two Recensions

Whoever might be the author of the Nāṭyaśāstra it is certain that the work itself possesses undoubted signs of great antiquity, and one of these is that its text is available in two distinct recensions. In having two partly divergent recensions the Nāṭyaśāstra can well be compared with works like the Nirukta, the Bṛhaddevatā and the Śakuntalā. The editors of these works have differently settled the claims of their shorter and longer recensions. At first sight the tendency would be to accept the shorter recension, as representing the original better, because elaboration would seem in most cases to come later. But opinion is divided in this matter: Pischel regarded the longer recension as being nearer the orginal[3], Macodonell has also given his verdict in favour of the longer recesion[4] but he has not ventured to reject the shorter recension entirely as being late, and Lakshman Sarup has definitely suggested that the shorter recension is the earlier one.[5] All these go to show that the problem of the relation between two recensions of any ancient work is not so simple as to be solved off-hand. So in this case also we should not settle the issue with the idea that the longer recension owes its bulk to interpolations.

The text-history of the Nāṭyaśāstra shows that already in the tenth century the work was available in two recensions. Dhanañjaya the author of the Daśarūpa quotes from the shorter recension while Bhoja, who closely follows him, quoted from the longer one.[6] Abhinava in his commentry of the Nāṭyaśāstra, however, used the shorter recension as the basis of his work.[7] It is likely that the longtime which passed since then has witnessed at least minor changes, intentional as well as unintentional, in the text of both the roconsions. Hence the problem becomes still more difficult. But a careful examination of the rival recensions may give us some clue to their relative authenticity. Ramakrishna Kavi who has examined no less then forty Mss of the text, is of opinion that the longer recension (which he calls B.) seems to be ancient, although it contains some interpolation (pointed at by him) going back to a time prior to Abhinava.[8] Mr. Kavi, however, does not try to explain the origin of the shorter recension which he calls A. This view regarding the relative authenticity of the longer recension seems to possess justification. Reasons supporting it are to be found in the tests differentiating the two recensions, which are as follows:

(i) Chapters XIV and XV of the shorter recension dealing with prosody introduce the later terminology of Piṅgala (ra, ja, sa, na, and bha gaṇas etc.) while the longer recension uses terms like laghu and guru in defining the scheme of metres.

(ii) The shorter recension in its chapter XV gives definitions of metres in Upajāti. while the corresponding chapter (XVI) of the longer recension gives them in Anuṣṭup metre and in a different order. Considering the fact that the bulk of the Nāṭyaśāstra is written in this (Anuṣṭup) metre the longer recension in this case seems to run closer to the original work.[9]

Though Ramakrishna Kavi, has overlooked it, there is yet another point which may bo said to differentiate the two recensions. The chapter dealing with the Nāṭyaguṇas and Alaṃkāras have nearly forty ślokas differently worded in the two recensions. These ślokas in the longer recension (ch. XVII) are written in the usual simple language of the Nāṭyaśāstra while (ch. XVI) in the shorter recension (the ślokas) betray a later polish. The opening stanzas of the chaptar (XVI) in the shorter recension are in Upajāti metre while in the longer recension (ch. XVII) they are in the śloka metre. This points to the earlier origin of the latter for the bulk of the Nāṭyaśāstra as has been pointed out before is composed in the same metre. Now the shorter recension which appears to be of later origin, does not seem to be totally devoid of worth. It appears that this has in certain cases preserved what once existed but are now missing in the longer recension. The cases in which the shorter recension gives in a different language the corresponding passages of the longer recension may be explained by assuming that the passages in question were probably written from memory of the original in the prototype of the recension.


3. Unity of the Nāṭyaśāstra

Some scholars have entertained a doubt the unity arc authorship of the Nāṭyaśāstra. They think that there are indications that “it (the Nāṭyaśāstra) has been subjected to considerable rehandling in later times before it assumed the present shape.........”

The alleged indications may be summed up as follows:

(i) The colophon at the the end of the KM. text of the Nāṭyaśāstra.

(ii) The mention of Kohala as the future writer on certain topics in the Nāṭyaśāstra (XXXVI. 63). (iii) Bhavabhūti’s reference to Bharata Muni, the socalled author of the Śāstra, as the Tauryatrika-sūtrakāra.

(iv) The mention of the sūtra, the bhāṣya and the kārikā as its constituent parts in the Nāṭyaśāstra itself along with the the existence of prose passages in it. As for the first alleged indication Dr. S. K. De has tried to connect the colophon of the Nāṭyaśāstra (samāptaś cāyam Nandi-Bharata-saṃgīta-pustakam) with the chapter on music only.[10] He opines that the Nandi-Bharata of the colophon indicates that the chapters on music ( XXVIII-XXXIII) are Bharata’s original teaching on the subject as modified by the doctrine of Nandī. If we could accept the view it would have been easy to believe in the composite authorship of the Nāṭyaśāstra. But this does not seem to be possible for the following considerations:

(a) The colophon in question stands at the end of two Mss. copied from the same original and are missing in all the rest of the available Mss.

(b) The word saṃgīta occurring rarely in the Nāṭyaśāstra includes according to Śārṅgadeva (c. 1300 A.C.) gīta (song), vādya (instrumental music) and nṛtya or nṛtta (dance). Hence the colophon may be taken in relation to the entire text and and not with the chapters on music alone.

(c) Nandī as a writer or authority on saṃgīta alone has not been mentioned anywheres else.

As for the prediction that Kohala will treat certain topics not discussed in the Nāṭyaśāstra, it may be said that there is nothing in it to show that Kohala is later than the author of this treatise. He was in all likelihood a predecessor or a contemporary of his.

The most important of all the alleged indications of the plural authorship of the Nāṭyaśāstra is the third one. The idea that the work was originally written in prose and was subsequently turned into verse, arose probably from a misunderstanding of the word sūtra. In spite of its traditional definition as alpākṣaram asandigdhaṃ sūrvad viśvatomukham etc. there is nothing in it to show that the sūtra must always be in prose. Indeed the Nāṭyadarpaṇa-sūtra is entirely in verse, and the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-Sūtra of the Mahāyāna Buddhists is partly in verse and partly in prose. In the Maṅgalācaraṇa ślokas of his commentary Abhinava too mentions the extant Nāṭyaśāstra as the Bharatasūtra. Thus on taking the sūtra in its oldest sense, the theory of the supposed original prose version of the Nāṭyaśāstra falls to the ground. The existence of the prose passages in the Nāṭyaśāstra does not in the least help this theory, and it may bo explained on the assumption that the author found it more convenient to write certain things in prose. All this will remove the difficulty in understanding the words of Bhavabhūti who mentioned Bharata as the sūtrakāra.


4. It Scope and Importance

It has already been shown what a great variety of topics the Nāṭyaśāstra discusses in connection with its principal theme, the dramatic art. In sharp contrast with almost all the later writers on the subject its author treats of dramaturgy as well as histrionics. In justification of this twofold aspect of this work Abhinava says that “it is for the guidance of the producers as well as playwrights”[11]. As the drama in any form is primarily and essentially a spectacle, laws of its production should be considered indispensable for the playwrights. It is a well-known fact that many good literary dramas often get rejected by the theatrical directors because of their construction being found unsuitable for successful and profitable representation in the stage. The author of the Nāṭyaśāstra was evidently conscious about this vital connection between the literary and technical aspects of a drama, and treated of both very elaborately. It is a very unique text dealing with every possible aspect of the dramatic theory and practice. It is no wonder therefore that the Nāṭyaśāstra was often quoted or referred to in later treatises on gestures, poetics, music, prosody and even on grammar, besides being often laid under contribution by commentators of diffirent Sanskrit and Prakrit plays. And all the later writers on dramaturgy too depended greatly if not excusively on this work, and most of them expressly mentioned their debt to the Muni Bharata, the supposed author of the Nāṭyaśāstra.


5. Its Style and Method of Treatment

In style the Nāṭyaśāstra differs very largely from all the later writers on drama who professed adherence to it and formulated their rules in a concise manner. Those latter are sometimes so very brief, that without the help of a commentator they are not easily intelligible. Though some passages remain obscure without a commentary or similar help yet the major portion of the Nāṭyaśāstra is written in a simple language in the Śloka and the Āryā metres. Though composed mainly in verse, a very small number of its passages are in prose. As the work is in the form of dialogue between Bharata, its mythical author, and some ancient sages, it has some similarity with the Purāṇas. One of the charge, brought against the Nāṭyaśāstra is that it is very diffuse. This is true. On a careful examination of his method of treatment it will be found that the author of the Nāṭyaśāstra, like the famous Pāṇini, treated of the subject analytically. He has taken up individual topics and considered them in every possible detail and has found it necessary to repeat things for the completion of the matter in hand. This has given it diffuseness. But the adoption of this method was unavoidable in a technical work which aimed at completeness. This however may be said to have rendered it difficult to some extent. The difficulty with which we moderns are confronted in studying this ancient work, is however primarily due to its discussing an art which has practically gone out of vogue for quite a long time. That the text was transmitted through a defective Ms. tradition is no less responsible for occasional difficulties it presents.


6. The Early Commentators

According to Śārṅgadeva (SR. I. l. 9) the commentators who set themselves to the task of explaining or elucidating the Nāṭyaśāstra are Lollaṭa, Udbhaṭa, Śaṅkuka, Abhinavagupta and Kīrtidhara. Abhinava in his commentary refers in addition to Bhaṭṭa Yantra and Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka who may be taken as commentators of the Nāṭyaśāstra, and quotes from of one Bhāṣya and one Vārtika. The Vārtika however seems to be an independent treaties on drama though the Bhāṣya an old commentary. But in the absence of suitable data our knowledge about the date of these commentators and the nature as well as the value of their work, is very inadequate. We are however discussing below whatever meagre informations may be gathered about them.

(a) Acārya Kīrtidhara and Bhāṣyakāra Nānyadeva.

Abhinava has referred to Kīrtidhara only once.[12] But from the special respect shown him by the commentator who calls him ācārya, it appears that Kīrtidhara was a very early commentator of the Nāṭyaśāstra, and as such he was possibly anterior to Bhaṭṭa Udbhaṭa and hence may be placed in the 6th or the 7th century.[13] And Nānyadeva[14] quoted by Abhinava as the author of the Bharata-Bhāṣya seems to be another early commentator of our text.

(b) Bhaṭṭa Udbhaṭa.

Bhaṭṭa Udbhaṭa’s[15] opinion has been thrice quoted by Abhinava. As his views were controverted by Bhaṭṭa Lollaṭa who flourished in the 8th century it is possible that Udbhaṭa was a person of the early 8th or the late 7th century.[16] Though it has been doubted[17] whether Udbhaṭa was really a commentator of the Nāṭyaśāstra, from the reference to his work by Abhinava we may be fairly certain in this matter.

(c) Bhaṭṭa Lollaṭa.

Bhaṭṭa Lollaṭa has been referred to as many as eleven times.[18] From these he appears to be a commentator of the Nātyaśāstra. As the rasa theory of Śaṅkuka was known to have been lavelled against Lollaṭa’s view on the same, this latter writer flourished possibly in the middle of the 8th century.[19]

(d) Śrī Śaṅkuka.

Abhinava referred to Śrī-Śaṅkuka or Śaṅkuka as many as fifteen times.[20] About his time we seem to have some definite information. For he is probably identical with the author of the poem Bhuvanābhyudaya written during the Kashmirian king Ajitāpīḍa whose date is about 813 or 816 A.C.[21]

(e) Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka.

Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka has been referred to as many as six times by Abhinava.[22] Besides explaining and elucidating the Nāṭyaśāstra, at least in part; he wrote on the Dhvani theory an independent work named the Hṛdayadarpaṇa. He has been placed between the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century.[23]

(f) Bhaṭṭa Yantra,

From the single reference to him in Abhinava’s commentary it appears that Bhaṭṭa Yantra[24] was a commentator of the Nāṭyaśāstra. About him nothing more can be said except that he preceded the celebrated commentator.


7. Bhaṭṭa Abhinavagupta

Among the commentators of the Nāṭyaśāstra, Abhinavagupta or Abhinava is the most well-known. But his fame rests also on his commentary on the Dhvanyāloka as well as numerous learned treatises on the Kashmir Śaivism. From the concluding portion of some of his books we learn a few facts of his family history, and on the strength of these he has been placed between the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century.[25] From the Abhinavabhārati we learn that his another name was Nṛsiṃhagupta.[26]

Although like any other work of this class it professes to explain the text, Abhinava’s commentary is not always an adequate help for understanding the several difficult passages of the Nāṭyaśāstra. This drawback might be due to its defective text tradition, but a careful study of it will convince any one that all its weak points cannot be explained away on this assumption alone. There are instances of Abhinava’s not being sure about the explanation offered, for example, the word kutapa is once explained as ‘four kinds of musical instruments’[27] and next as ‘a group of singers and players of musical instruments’[28] and then again as ‘four of musical instruments’,[29] while explaining the mattavāraṇī he gives four different views[30] and does not give special support to his own preference. Besides this, his explanation in some cases seem to be fanciful. For example, he explains khaṇḍana as (meaning) ‘also fanning by means of a fan made of palmleaf’.[31] This evidently is wrong, for in the same context vyajanakam‘ fanning’ has been mentioned, and khaṇḍana may better be interpreted as ‘drawing patterns or designs’.[32] But such instances are not many. That Abhinava had as the basis of his commentary a defective text of the Nāṭyaśāstra, is apparent from its published portion, and his text was in places to some extent different from any of the versions that have reached us. It is due to this latter fact that sometimes particular passages of the commentary cannot be connected with any portion of the text (given above the commentary) in the Baroda edition. For example, once Abhinava writes “here are four ca-kāras”,[33] but in the text indicated by the pratīka two cā-kāras only are available. And curiously enough a part of this text quoted elsewhere[34] in the commentary corroborates the available reading of the text. In another place of Abhinava’s commentary we have the word ālambhana explained, but we look in vain for it in the text.[35] The same is the case with avyatireka and āgama occuring in the commentary later on.[36] And some responsibility for its reduced usefulness must be ascribed to the fact that Abhinava had his commentary based on an imperfect text of the Nāṭyaśāstra.

There is still another reason due to which Abhinava’s work does not prove to be quite adequate for our need. It is probably because he wrote the commentary with a view to help scholars of his time, whose knowledge on many things relating to the Indian drama, theatre and general literature he could easily assume, his commentary sometimes falls short of our needs.

But in spite of these limitations Abhinava’s work has its value. Whenever he has to explain any theory or problem concerning the dramatic art or general aesthetics, he does it very exhaustively by quoting all possible views on the same and often cites examples from a vast number of dramatic and other works some of which have perished. Often he sums up the discussion in a masterly fashion. That he was a voluminous writer on the abstruse philosophical topics gave him some facility in handling such matters. But, for the purpose of reconstructing the theory and practice of the ancient Indian drama, such scholastic discussions arc often not of much value, though students of Indian poetics and aesthetics will surely be profited by their perusal. But it must be said of Abhinava’s commentary that it gives considerable help in understanding some difficult passages of the very old obsolete text of the Nāṭyaśāstra, and for this we should be genuinely greatful to him.

Footnotes and references:


See IHQ. Vol. Vi. 1930. pp. 72 ff, Annals of BORI, Vol. XV, 1934, p. 90fn.


See NSI 2-5 note 2.


Kalidasa’s Śakuntalā, HOS. p. XI.


The Bṛhaddevatā, HOS. Vol. I. p. XVIII-XIX.


Introduction to the Nighaṇṭu and Nirukta, p. 39.


Preface to Baroda ed. of NŚ. Vol. I. p. 8.


See above note 6.


See above note 6.


See above note 6.


Skt. Poetics, Vol 1. p. 24.


Ag. I p. 7.


Ag. I. p. 208. Cf. Skt. Poetics, Vol. I. p. 29.


Cf. Skt. Poetics, I. p. 39.


He should be distinguished from his namesake who was a king of Mithila in the 12th century (see JASB for 1915, pp. 407ff.)


Ag. II. pp. 70, 441, 451, De’s. Ms. pp. 392.


See Skt. Poetics, I. pp. 75ff.


Skt. Poetic, I. pp. 37ff.


Ag. 1. pp. 208, 266, 279, 299; II. pp. 134, 196, 415, 423, 436, 452. Dc’s Ms p. 386.


Skt. Poetics. Vol. I. pp 38-39.


Ag. I. pp. 74, 217, 274, 285, 293, 298, 318; II. pp. 411; 436, De’s. Ms. pp 403, 413. 437, 441, 448, 469.


See Skt. Poetics, I pp 38-39.


Ag. I. pp. 4, 26, 278, II, p. 298, De’s MS pp. 506, 508.


Skt Poetics, I. pp. 39ff.


Ag. I. p, 208.


Skt. Poetics, I. pp. 117ff.


See Ag. De’s. Ms. pp. 428, 511.


Ag. I. p. 73.


Ag. I. p.65.


Ag. I. p. 180.


Ag. I. pp. 64-65.


Ag. I. p. 41.


See note 2 on IX 61-64.


Ag. II. p. 34.


Ag. I. p. 203.


Ag.II. p. 34.


Ag. II. pp. 97, 225.

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