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It is 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.

Shudraka, Harsha, 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 Sanskrit. Kalidasa's 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.  

There are 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 playwright.

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

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