Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

On Ancient Greek and Ancient Indian Drama

Seshendra Sharma

(With Special Reference to Dithyramb and Purvaranga)


If the mountain of Olympus was the abode of Greek Gods, the land of Greece was the Olympus of the literary gods. From Homer sometime about 10th century B.C. to Menander in the 3rd century B.C., we have a large hierarchy of illustrious poets as bards and minstrels regaling the Greek people with their lays on heroic deeds in epic measures and as lyricists enchanting them with polished verse overflowing with the wine of love and life. It is said of the Iliad, one of the oldest poems known to mankind, that it is “the greatest that ever sounded on the lips of man”. After Homer, Hesiod, Sapho, Pindar; then the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and, then Aristophanes, and a host of others upto Menander. It is a huge galaxy that planted an immortal civilisation on earth, a civilisation that became later the corner stone of the great edifice of the European Civilisation. Greece flows to this day in the rivers of blood of all the Europeans and their racial off shoots across the seas.

It is the direct echo of the ancient Greek civilisation that we hear today when the English poet T. S. Eliot speaks of “the European mind,” or the French Paul Hazard speaks of “Conscience Europeane” or when the English critic Mathew Arnold said, “that the literary criticism must consider Europe as a great confedera­tion of thought and feeling for all intellectual and spiritual purposes.”

Civilisations are mainly made by poets who took their art to the masses in the open air. The bard of the epic and the wizard of the stage sowed the sly seeds of change in the minds of their audience turning them into new men as they went to their homes. It is this that Homer and the dramatic poets of Greece did a their people in those ancient times.

Specially after Homer, 6th century B.C., was the golden century which laid foundations of the Greek drama. Greek tragedy the real core of Greek literature, arose from several mimatic religio­us rituals performed to the Greek gods and particularly from the ritual at paloponnesus and Attica of mourning and rejoicing over the death and resurrection of Dionysus. It is also said similarly that ancient Indian drama took birth from the Vedic rituals of samvaadas.

The Greek tragedies exerted profound influence on the creative writers of Europe down the centuries. It is seen that shakespeare’s tragedy is the child of Greek tragedy. The domina­tion of metaphorical expression in his dialogues, his techniques of philosophizing life, the crucial role of fate, destiny and the illogi­cality of human life, all are clear marks of the influence of the Greek tragedy.


It is a thrill to attempt a comparative study of ancient Greek and Indian dramas despite the numerous dissimilarites between the two. The first significant point is that while to day in Greece, the plays of the times of the greatest heights of drama are available to us, in India the drama available to us is from the time of its decli­ne. Kalidasa with his dearth of action and lack of dramatic thrill represents the Indian drama which deteriorated eventually into readable writing from being a stage play. By then Sanskrit also as a language was passing out of vogue and began to be rather pedantic, losing its living qualities. Only in kalidasa we find Sanskrit rather polished, delicate and supple and has not yet lost its idiomatic expression completely. But in the later dramas like Mrichhakatikam, Mudraa Rakshasam, Veneesambharam Uttara Ramacharitam etc. the language is clearly bookish and gives the evidence that it ceased to be living speech which is actually the verbal material to make dialogues in a drama. Kalidasa belongs to 1st century B.C. by which time the mighty river of Greek drama was already reduced to a trickle.

The decline of Indian drama is not only indicated by the symptoms of a trophy appearing in the Sanskrit language but also by another most significant fact that works on aramaturgy ceased to be written after Bharata. Bharata was the last author in long line of such authors who preceeded him and some of whom were referr­ed to by him in his own work. His work Naatyashaastra on a closer scrutiny reveals itself as a digest of all the works on dramaturgy that came before Bharata. Later on Bhamaa probably in the first century A. D. for the first time, opened the era of poetics in which all references to drama are eliminated. In the prefatory Shlokas (verses) Bhamaha refers his readers to books of dramaturgy for such material

“ Naatakam shamyaadeeni raasakaskandakaadi yat
tadukta mabhineyartham uktonyaisthasya vistarah”

This indicates clearly the decline of the stage and the beginning of the long poem (shravya kaavyas).

The works of Bhasa have considerable significance in this context. They were not available for centuries and were discove­red only in 1912. The authorship of the work is still debated. The Indian scholars hold the view that Bhasa belonged to the 4th century B. C. at which time Greek excellence lay not in literat­ure but in philosophy. That was the period perhaps when Socrates was at his peak. The new comedy perhaps had not yet arrived on the scene.

Bhasa with his superb skill of weaving the plot, creating scenes and improvising extremely interesting dialogues, must have been a very popular playwright commanding vast audiences. Bhasa was referred to with reverence by kalidasa in the prologue of his Maalavikaagnimitra and we also find Bhasa’s influence on the plays of Kalidasa. Bhasa can be fairly compared with any of the best Greek playwrights in dramatic skills, though there is a basic difference between his plot his thinking, his objective and his culture and those of the Greek dramatists.


If we can accept Bhasa’s date without dispute, we can say that the extant Indian plays are available only from the date of Bhasa. We know nothing of the plays before him. We have only evidence to that there was Indian drama in and around the time of Valmiki’s epic Ramayana, if not before. The following verse from the Ayodhyakanda (the second book of Ramayana) clearly proves this:

Nata nartaka sanghanaam gaayakaanaam cha gaayataam
Manahkarnasukhaa vaehah sushraava janataa tathah”.

The juxtaposition in this verse of the two words’ “nata”, “narthaka” clearly indicates the different meanings of the two words; “nata” means actor and “narthaka” means dancer. They had “sangha’s” i.e., associations which implies profuse theatrical activity. The date of Valmiki could not be fixed with any precisi­on. It was only left as any time before 5th century B. C. This may be prior to Homer or after Homer’s time also, is perhaps in the same plight.

Not only Ramayana but also Panini the renowned grammari­an provides clear evidence of ancient Indian drama. His Sutra:
“Paaraasharya shilaalibhyaam bhikshu natasutrayoh”

refers to the rules of dramatic action (4-3-110) laid down by the authors paaraasharya and Shilaali. There is another textual variant according to which Krishashvin is there in the place of paaraasharya and shilcali Existence of rules of dramatic action unquestionably implies the existence of fully developed acti­vity of stagecraft. Panini according to Indian scholars belongs to 7th century B. C. Similarly Patanjali of 3rd century B. C. in his commentary on Ashtaadhaayi called Mahaabhashya referred to two plays “kamsavadha” and “Balibandha” .

Bharata’s Natya-shastra of 2nd century B. C., also plays crucial role in determining the antiquity of Indian drama. Natyashastra lays down elaborate rules for music, dance and drama. It is a huge compendium of 5,000 verses in 36 Chapters. Bhaavaprakaasa says that it had once 12,000 and in later times it dwindled to 6,000 shlokas. Bharata’s Naatyashaastra cannot be equated with the slim volume of Aristotles Poetics. Bharata’s Natyashastra is held to be an agglomeration of numerous works on dramatury over centuries that came before Bharata and which Bharata redacted and rearranged systematically. This also shows that Indian drama existed many centuries before Bharata.

In this context we have to consider another important aspect. India is a continent like Europe with many languages, literatures, regions and cultures. In the ancient days Sanskrit was disliked by many people speaking the regional languages. These regions in those days of yore were separately called countries, the people of Laata country hated Sanskrit. Rajashekhara, the author of Kaavya Mimaansa says:

“Pathanti latabham laataah praakritam samskrita dwishah
jihvayaa lalithollassa labdhasaundarya mudraya”

So it is reasonable to presume that all those numerous people of India who disliked Sanskrit and developed their own literatures in their own dialects must have certainly produced inn­umerable stageplays. It is said by scholars that the volume of Prakrit literature is far more enormous than that of the Sanskrit and much of it has become either extinct or remains in palm leaf manuscripts unexposed to light. Paumachariya, Dashmuhavaho, Budha Katha, Harivijaya etc., all probably belonging to hoary times before 8th century A.D. still like in darkness.

Keeping all this in view it can only be said that the Indian drama is perhaps more Ancient than the Greek drama but the ex­tant Works in Sanskrit are available only from the times of its decadence.

This situation operates as a basic handicap in our attempt at a comparative study of the Greek and Indian dramas. Still an attempt is made here to study the basic features of the two dramas


The Greek drama opens with a prologue, a short scene in which a single character introduces to the audience the dramatic situation. Then the Chorus enters the orchestra, singing and danc­ing to suit the situation. The role of the Chorus in the Greek drama is perhaps equivalent to the role of the poet in the epic. The Chorus comments on the action and the play and also seeks to reflect the opinion of the audience. The Chorus stays throughout the play interjecting now and again to perform such role and impart continuity to the narrative element of the play.

At this stage if we look at the ancient Indian drama we are told there was what is called “poorva ranga” before the commen­cement of the play. It was performed on the stage behind the cur­tain. It consists of “pratyaahaara” “avatarana” “aarambha” and
“aashraavana”. The first phase is a drum-beat to announce the performance; the second is to spread a carpet for the orchestra and then the singers and musicians take their respective places, after that the singers test their voices and musicians tune their instruments and then come the dancers. They practise their steps to the instrumental concert that follows. Then a song follows invoking the gods, and the Tandava is performed. The Sutradhara, the leader or manager of the stage installs the banner of Indra, the God of Heaven. The banner is called “jarjara” which was considered by some as “Vighnesh wara”, the God to be propitiated to overcome any impediments in the way of performing the drama. This is followed by praise to the gods called “Lok Paalaas” (later called “Dikpaalaas” in the Indian mythology.) Then homage is paid to the banner, and then starts the “naandi”, a benedictory verse and then more dances and other intricate rituals follow. After that, the Sutradhara comes outside the curtain onto the stage before the audience. He enters into a dialogue with another actor or actress and introduces the poet, the drama and describes the season and so on.

The poorvaranga given above is based on its description in Bharata’s “Natyashastra”. Since it is performed behind the curtain it is not meant for the audience, in the Greek drama there is nothing that corresponds to the “Poorvaranga”. There the drama opens with a prologue which corresponds to the scene in the Indian drama where the Sutradhara comes outside the curtain andintroduces to the audience, the drama, the poet and the season. This is called “Prasthavana”.

I am inclined to believe that there must have been some such things as the Indian “poorvaranga” in the Greek drama also before the commencement of the Greek drama in the ancient times. In all probability it maybe the “dithyramb”. Dithyramb is a hymn sung in praise of Dionysus, the presiding deity of drama. Dithyramb is therefore a religious ritual in dance and music performed by the Chorus. The ritual of “poorvaranga” roughly resembles this. Perhaps after existing before the Greek tragedy for sometime, it might have been eliminated from the drama in the 5th century B.C. with the emergence of the plays of Aeschylus. Of course, this may require deeper study.


The Indian “poorvaranga” itself appears to have undergone some changes before it eventually vanished altogether. Though Bharata’s “Natyashastra” tells us that Sutradhara performs the poorvaranga, Dasaroopaka of the 10th century A.D which is the only work that discussed dramaturgy after Bharata, tells us that Pooravaranga is performed by Kushilavaas. This is a significant point. Kushilava, a word of singular number, masculine gender, means at the same time a bard, an actor, a dancer, a singer. The several meanings obviously indicate the stages of the evolution of the word in terms of the sense in which it came to be applied over a long period of time. Here I believe Dasharoopaka is not describing what Poorvaranga was during its own times but it was describing what Poorvanga was during the ancient times, includ­ing the times of Bharata. The fabric and the production of “Natya­shastra” being what they are, it is more likely that in the place of Sutradhara in the “Natyashastra” before Naandi the word Kushee­lava should have been there and in the later times others might have replaced the word Kusheelava with the word Sutradhara, because by that time performance of Poorvaranga might have become outdated and must have been reduced to a brief formality. I give here the quotations from Dasharoopaka:

“Yannaatya vastunah poorvam ranga vighnopa shantaye
Kusheelavaah prakurvanti purvarangah sa uchyate”

It may also be likely that the word Sutradhara must have displaced the word “Kusheelavah” prior to 14th century A.D. because “Sahitys Darpana” of the 14th century A.D. mentions as follows:

“Purvarangam vidhasyaiva sutradhaaro nivartate” (283)

In the course of its existence “Poorvaranga” might have reached a penultimate state when it was used also for introducing the dramatic situation to the audience. It might be the stage, when “poorvaranga” upto its Indra ritual came to be considered as superfluous and “Naandi” began to be considered as the proper beginning of a drama. This may be sometime about 8th century A.D. Maagha of that century says in his poem “Shishupaalavadha” (2-8).

“Purvarangah prasangaaya naatakiyasya vastunah”
(poorvaranga is for introduction of the theme of the drama)


It is useful to note here that the worship of Indra by common folks was popular in the ancient times as can be seen from the episode of Krishna’s tribe worshipping Indra traditionally...Drama was meant for a mixed audience including ordinary folks. There­fore, it naturally commenced with the propitiation of God Indra who was also at that time the head of the pantheon of gods. In that case “naandi”, also a prayer to propitiate the gods in the Poorvaranga of Bharata’s description is obviously a repetition or redundance. That too, the God prayed to the “naandi” is a lesser God, usually Shiva. Shiva was no where in the Rigveda or Rigvedic times when Indra alone was omnipotent and omniscient. The gods are symbolised and represented by their flags. Makara dhwaja, Garuda dhwaja, Vrishabha Dnwaja, etc. So the ritual here is the installation of Indra’s flag Jarajara and worshipping it.

It is reasonable, therefore, to infer that “naandi” a prayer to another God of a lesser position could not have been existing simultaneously with the ritual of Indra and also commanding grea­ter attention of the audiences as extant plays indicate. It must have been grafted into “poorvaranga” in later times when the supremacy of Indra in the pantheon of Indian mythology declined and other gods like Vishnu. Shiva, Bramha, etc., gamed ascendancy, relegating Indra to a subordinate position. This must be the period after Upanishads and the early part of the puranic period.

It is interesting to note that during and before the 8th century A.D. to which Bhatta Narayana belongs, the word “kusheelavah” came to settle down finally to mean “singer” from the times of Kalidasa. In his Maalavikaagnimitram Kalidasa says:

“Tat sarve kusheelavaah sangeeta prayogena
Matsameehita sampaadanaaya Pravartantaam”

Shudraka perhaps of the 6th century A.D. in his “Mritchhakatikam”

“aye, shoonyeyam asmat sangeeta shaalaa
kwa nu gathaah kusheelavaah bhavishyanthi”

Bhatta Narayana in his “Veneesamhaara”

“Tat kim iti naarambhayasi kusheelavaih saha sangeetham”

The Indian poorvaranga changed in three stages. Firstly I’kusheelava” was replaced by sutradhara to perform the ritual of ndra Dhwaja (i,e. Jarjara). Secondly “naandi” was introduced at the end of the “poorvaranga” perhaps simultaneously with the Sutradhara and thirdly the purpose of “poorvaranga” was itself changed to ‘prastaavana’ (introducing the drama) from ritual, the original purpose. This is of great significance in the course of the evolution of ancient Indian drama.


However it can be generally inferred from the above discussion that the early Indian drama might be more or less similar to the early Greek drama, especially in its being an aesthetic amalga­mation of song, dance and drama. Such a form of early Indian drama must have been popular in its times and therefore must have entered into poems as a metaphor. For example, I have accidenta­lly tread upon the golden mine of a shloka of Valmiki which gives the picture of the early Indian drama:

“Kokilaakula sannaadaih nartayanniva paadapaih
Shaila kandara nishkraanthah prageeta iva maaruthah”

(Kishkindha, 4th Book)

This verse has in the first instance its normal verbal meaning to say that, to the song of the cuckoos the trees are made to dance by the wind which blows out of the mountain caves, it also sings aloud. But the verse has a suggestive meaning not seen by Valmiki’s commentators. The suggestion is that the mountain cave here is “nepathya” the green room of the theatre. Having come out of the room the manager or the leader of the players has ordered the singers to sing and to such singing the dancers were ordered to dance while the leader himself also was singing aloud. The singers are indicated by the cuckoo and the dancers by the trees and the wind coming out of the caves indicates the leader of the players, is this not a chorus? The figure of speech in this verse is ‘samaasokti’. ‘Chandraloka’ a work on poetics (dating to 10th century A.D.) gives its definition as follows:

“Samaasokti parisphurthih prastute Prastutasya chet”.

I am inclined to think by this verse that the ancient Indian plays also had a chorus like interjections at least in the preliminary stage of development of the play. Symptoms of it are still available in the folk theatre. However it is difficult to visualise the early Indian play in greater detail with the help of the above verse.


Now resuming the comparative study. After the Chorus the episode opens, that means the play starts. In the Greek drama the thread of narration of the theme is represented by a series of episo­des interspersed by ‘stasima’. Occasionally the “commus” a lyric passage sung by an actor or actors together with the chorus will occur. The play proceeds by an alternation of episodes and “stasima” leading ultimately to “Exodus” the finale of the play. The five parts of the Greek drama - mainly prologue, parodos, episode, stasima and exodus roughly correspond to the “Pancha Sandhi’s” through which the Indian drama progresses upto its denoument.

However while the first two parts of the Greek - drama the prologue and parados are not directly connected to the dramatic plot and are only introductory scenes, all the five “sandhis’ of the Indian drama are connected exclusively to the dramatic plot and are devised only as a technique to develop the plot in such a way that it holds the interest of the audience.

I have to say one word on the Greek prologue before I pass on to the next point. The Greek prologue merely gives a short int­roduction of the dramatic situation of the drama going to be staged, whereas the Indian prologue called prastaavana (perfor­med by Sutradhara or Sthaapaka) not only introduces the dramatic situation but first introduces the poet, play and lastly the season.


There is another fundamental difference between the compo­sing of the Greek drama and that of the Indian drama of ancient times. All the several parts of the Greek drama from prologue to Exodus are metrical compositions. They are all in ‘strophe’, “anti­strophy” the pairs followed by an “epode” with occasional use of repeated refrains. The speech is also in “anapests” accompanied by a simple melody and chanted rather than spoken. It is this that came to be inherited by the European plays of medeaval times upto Shakespeare. Thus the Greek drama is a pure metrical composition.

The Indian drama on the other hand is composed of purely prose dialogues with a sparce ineterspersion of verse. The drama mainly depends on prose rather than verse.

The difference operated favourably in the case of the Greek drama in its survival over centuries of time, whereas the Indian drama composed in non-metrical and plain prose dialogues, cru­mbled being subject to changes each time it was either copied or declaimed and ultimately not being amenable to memory, being prose, the Indian drama tended to decay and disuse with the flux of time.

The Greek drama was for the sophisticated sections of people who were already fed and cultured upon the recitations of Homer, Hesiod, Sappho and others. The domination of the metaphorical expression and the chosen language in the Greek drama is beyond the ken of understanding of the common people, “The language of ‘Attic Tragedy’ was not the usual language of its audience”, observes Anne Pippin Barnet, Prof. of Classics, University of Chicago in her preface to her translation of Ion by Euripides.

The Indian drama on the other hand, contrary to the opinion of some scholars, was always aimed at reaching the masses. There were two reasons for this. There was a trend after the Upa­nishadic period to take knowledge to the common people for which purpose huge projects like writing Puranas and commentar­ies were undertaken employing simple language and lucid expre­ssion. It was only in this direction that the ancient Indian litera­ture also was motivated. (It is also for the same reason that the drama was considered the best of all the literary genres.)

Though sophisticated poems like “Kirathaarjuneevam” and “Sishupaalavadha” appeared, the ideal writing was considered to be only the epic style of “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” which realised all the grandeur of the art in their simple and most translucent words. The Indian drama was exactly born in this milieu. So the Indian drama not only adopted prose for its dialogues but it also adopted several dialects and corrupt languages for the speech of such characters which represented the lower classes of society, who are not supposed to be learned and who speak not Sanskrit, but several dialects which are uneducated tongues. The authors of Indian dramaturgy also framed their rules accordingly laying down principles of speech of various characters depending on their social positions. For example in “Sahitya Darpana” it is laid down as follows:

“Purushaanaam aneeehaanam sankritam syaath krithaathma­naam
Saurasenee prayokthovyaa thaadrisaanam cha yoshithaam
Athrokthaa maagadhee bhashaa raajaanthahpura charineem
Praachyaa vidooshakaadenaam dhoorthaanaam syaathavantki­kaa”

Dandi, a very early author of poetics in his “Kavyadharsa dividing Indian literature on the basis of literary genres and the languages to be used in them, lays down:

“Samskritam sargabandhaadi praakritham skandakaadi yath
Osaraadirapabhramso naatakaadi thu misramam”

(The epic has to be written only in Sanskrit; genres like “skandaka have to be written in Prakrit; osara in Apabhrasma languages.)

“Natyashastra” of Bharata the, oldest work available on dramaturgy enjoins on playwrights that they should not use the same language for all characters in a drama.

In fact a Sanskrit drama, strictly speaking, need not be called a Sanskrit drama, because of the bulk of dialects used in a given Sanskrit drama is generally more than the bulk of Sanskrit used. In the famous “Mritchakatika”, seven Prakrit dialects are used besides Sanskrit.


It was suggested that the Indian drama was born out of the Greek drama. In support of this theory many similarities between the Greek and the Indian dramas were pointed out by well-known scholars like Dr. Weber and Dr. Windsitch. But on a closer scrutiny the theory fizzles out. The similarities are universal features in a drama, given similar human situations.

The other point discussed time and again regarding the word “Yavanika” was picked up by some scholars to show that Yavana means Greek, and Yavanika (meaning the stage curtain) is deriva­tive of Yavana and therefore Indian drama was evolved from the Greek drama. The theory is not only erroneous but ridiculous because there is no curtain in the Greek drama and also there is no word “yavanika” in Sanskrit language. There is Yavani meaning Greek woman.

“Yavanee navaneetha komalaangee” (Jagannatha)

Yavani can be turned into Yavanika by adding “ka pratyaya” but the meaning will be Greek maiden instead of a woman. But the point to note is there is no such word as Yavanika in Sanskrit which means “curtain”.

However the passage “Javanikaanantharam” occurs in “Karpoora Manjari”, a Prakrit drama by Rajashekhara of 9th centu­ry A.D. The word “javanika” here means curtain and it is a Sanskrit word. The old Sanskrit dictionary “Amarkosh” gives the set of synonyms as follows:

“Prathiseeraa javanikaa syaath thiraskaranee cha saa mathaa” (2/3/132)

Its etymology is given as “javena vegena prathirodhana masthi asyaam”. This is reinforced by the usage in Bhartrihari

“Narah samsaaraanthe visathi yama dhaanee javanikaam”

The best piece of evidence, the one that clinches the issue is the 50th sloka of Mayura’s “surya satakam” - “praathassailaagra, rangae rajani javanikaapaaya samlakshya Laxmeeh...”. Mayura belongs to the 7th century A.D. (i.e. earlier to Rajasekhara).

Since the word was seen in the Prakrit play “Kapoora Manjari” it was mistaken to be a Prakrit word and then it was margined that its original should be “yavanika”. This is obviously a gross mistake.

Indian drama and Greek drama originated and developed independently. Human life is of universal nature despite its regio­nal peculiarities. Human wisdom can perceive the universal truth which is hidden behind the shrubbery of local variations.

In the end it may have to be said that the “Greek Tragedy” is the only peak achievement of mankind now remaining with us as a beacon of light in the world of literature.

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