Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Classical Indian Theater


Classical Indian Theater

  • Aryans settled India in 1500 b.c.e. and created a Vedic civilization centralized around the Vedas—the founding texts of Hinduism.
  • Classical Indian drama is based on the Aryan caste system, in which Indian society was divided into a hierarchy of four groups: priests, warriors and rulers, traders and merchants, workers and peasants.

Origins of Indian Theater

  • Though the earliest surviving Indian plays date from 100 c.e., Indian theater may have been based on Vedic rituals.
  •  The Mahabharata makes references to performers (nata), though it is not known if these included actors.
  • Bharata Muni (300 b.c.e.–200 c.e.?) wrote the treatise Natyasastra (Art of Theater), which described the nature and purpose of dramatic performance.

Audience, Playhouse, and Actors

  • In the Natyasastra (Art of Theater), Bharata writes that educated and noble men are the ideal spectators for theatrical performances, though all four castes attended and sat separately.
  • Bharata focuses in particular on a rectangular building measuring 96x48 feet in his treatise’s chapter on three forms of playhouses.
  • This rectangular building mimicked a cave in order to resonate actors’ voices.
  • Playhouse interiors were divided into a seating area (prekshagriha), and a back section containing a dressing room/ backstage (nepathya) and performance area (ranga).
  • The performance area (ranga) consisted of a main area (rangapitha), upstage (rangashirsha), musicians’ area (kutapa) hidden from the audience’s view with a curtain (yavanika), and two downstages (mattavaranis).
  • Multiple performance areas allowed for several events and encounters to take place simultaneously.
  • Few props, scenery, and decorations were used; instead, location and actions were indicated through symbolic movements and mime.
  • Unlike Greek and Roman theater, women and men could be actors.

Theory of Performance: raja

  • Rasa is a sentiment, mood, or artistic impression a play creates in a spectator.
  • Eight rasas correspond to eight permanent emotions (bhavas), and 33 transient emotions, which the spectator will feel through the actor’s portrayal.

Classical Indian Drama

  • Bharata describes ten categories of play but two dominated: Nataka—based on mythology and heroic tales, and prakarana—based on fictitious stories and less important characters.
  • Indian dramatists composed plays in a mixture of Sanskrit and dialects known as Prakrit.
  • The finest Sanskrit plays parallel the flourishing of science, math, literature, and philosophy during the Gupta Dynasty (240–550 c.e.).
  • Kalidasa’s epic romance Shakuntala is considered by many to be the finest Sanskrit play.
  • Muslim invasions and political instability led to the disappearance of Sanskrit theater by 1000 c.e.