difficult to determine the precise origins of the Sanskrit
drama. Fragments of the earliest known plays have been traced to
the 1st century A.D.
However, scholars believe that a living theatre tradition must
have existed in India much earlier. Unfortunately, although the
Indus Valley people left behind an enormous wealth of
archaeological evidence, they give no signs of any theatrical
activity. Dance and music seem to have been their mainstay,
perhaps as part of their religious celebrations. A search of the
Vedas, dating from approximately 1500-1000 B.C.,
yields no trace either, although a few texts are composed in
short, elementary dialogue.
The earliest phase of
Sanskrit theatre includes the writing and practice of theatre up
to about 1000 A.D.,
based almost entirely on the rules, regulations and
modifications laid down in the Natya Shastra. One of the
earliest plays written was Sariputraprakarana by Asvaghosa, who
was part of Kanishka's court from 78 A.D.
to 144 A.D. A courtesan
forms the central figure of this play that is humorous in tone
but espouses Buddhist teachings as its cause. Bhasa came soon
after, and thirteen of his works survived, the best-known being
Swapanavasavadatta. Bhasa took his themes from different sources
like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and semi-historical
tales. Sudraka was another renowned playwright of the time.
Mrcchakatika was one of his best-remembered plays. What
distinguishes Sudraka's plays from those of his predecessors is
the element of conflict introduced in them. Besides a hero (the
Brahmin Charudatta) and a heroine (the courtesan Vasantsena),
there is also a villain, one of the few in the Sanskrit drama.
Kalidasa, one of the "nine jewels" in the court of the famous
Vikramaditya some time in the fifth century, is the most widely
known of all the Sanskrit dramatists. He has left three dramas:
Malavikagnimitra, Vikramorvashi and
Shakuntalam. Bhavabhuti falls into the category of writers
who emerged in the latter half of classical period. His
Uttaramcharitra, written in approximately 700 AD, is known as
the best dramatic play of its time.
Visakhadatta, Bhasa, Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti were, undoubtedly,
the six outstanding Sanskrit playwrights of all times who have
contributed in a great measure through their dramatic pieces in
Shakuntala, King Harsha's Ratnavali, Bhasa's
Swapna-vasavadatta, Bhavabhuti's Uttara-rama-charita
and Mahavira-charita, Visakhadatta's Mudrarakshasa
are some of the outstanding Sanskrit plays.
said to be ten types of Sanskrit plays: Nataka, Prakarna, Anka, Vyayoga, Bhana,
Samvakara, Vithi, Prahasana, Dima and Ithamgra.
The Natyashastra focuses on only two of these types - the Nataka
and Prakarna. Swapanavasavadatta, Uttaramcharitra
and Shakuntala fall into the category of the Nataka.
These plays deal with the exploits of a hero, either a royal
sage or king, who is always successful in the end. The dominant
sentiment is love and heroism. The plays range between five and
seven acts. Plays falling into the category of Prakarna narrate
stories that were invented by their authors. The hero is a
Brahmin, minister or merchant while the heroine is a courtesan.
Love is the predominant sentiment. Anka (act) involves a change
in the hero's basic situation as the plot develops. It is made
up of a series on incidents that are related to the major
character. Certain events are never depicted in an anka, like a
battle, marriage, death, loss of kingdom and the pronouncement
of a curse.
The Sanskrit plays were limited by certain
conventions. Tragedy was taboo and the end was always happy.
There was no place for plays that raised controversies (although
Bhasa had shown death on the stage in one of his plays). The
basic plot in most Sanskrit plays centre around the hero who
struggles for (and finally obtains) the object of his desire.
The realisation of this goal in closely entwined with the three
ends of Hindu life - duty, pleasure and wealth. Thus there was
an opening, progression, development, pause and conclusion.
Unlike French and German neo-classical plays, both time and
place were flexible. Within these parameters however, it appears
that most playwrights found enough space for exerting their
individualistic creative expression.
Sanskrit plays commenced with an elaborate
ritual. Some twenty pre-play ceremonies (purva-ranga)
of music and dance were performed, nine of them behind the
curtain. The Sutradhara (he was the director, the chief actor
and the stage manager), clad in immaculate white, entered with
his two assistants and offered worship (Puja) to the presiding
deity of the theatre to ensure success to the producer and good
luck to the actors. After this the Sutradhara summoned the
leading actress and opened the play with a prologue which
announced the time and place of the play and introduced the
The theatre halls were carefully constructed
and decorated according to traditional rules of architecture. A
theatre of medium size, according to Bharata, could accommodate
400 spectators. Some of the stages had two storeys, the upper
storey being for the representation of action in the celestial
sphere and the ground storey for that in the terrestrial sphere.
Masks were not used, and the subtlest interplay of emotions was
conveyed through facial expressions, gestures and speech. The
adroit employment of the curtain made for heightened impact. The
choice of themes covered a wide range and the treatment of the
theme also varied greatly. Skits, comedies and intense
melodramas were all written and presented. The absence of scenic
effects was made up by a versatile histrionic technique.
Sanskrit theatre was characterised by its high degree of
refinement in performance technique. It followed
well-articulated, aesthetic principles, usually those laid out
in the ancient dramatics texts. It depended on a high degree of
audience knowledge and expertise i.e., only the refined
sensibility could appreciate it. Religion played an important
role in drama as certain rituals accompanied most plays, and
even the stage was consecrated before a performance. Thus the
Sanskrit drama could be called an amalgamation of the religious,
educational and entertaining elements.