Natyasastra: The Timeless Classic

No other country in the world, apart from India can boast of an ancient classical text devoted solely to the production, technique and importance of music, dance and drama. The Natyasastra credited to the author Bharata and probably written around 200 BCE is unique. Not only is this Sanskrit text historic, it is also timeless as a lot of what was written in this manual of theatre, is relevant even today!

Natyasastra is an ancient classical text devoted solely to the production, technique and importance of music, dance and drama

The Natyasastra combines the words Natya, referring to the techniques of dancers/actors and the word “sastra” referring to science, thus rooting the Natyasastra within a codified context which is amazingly secular in its context. The text contains elaborate details of acting techniques, costumes, music, musical instruments and make-up and is also the essential social and philosophical foundation of India’s traditional dance forms like the Bharatanatyam, Oddisi and Kuddiyatam. At its most basic level, this text, thousands of years old, is a manual for the staging of plays and performances. In fact as a director and producer of plays myself, I can say the Natyasastra can be used in the most modern of productions even today.

Though many scholars believe that this work can’t be attributed to a single author given how large it is - it consists of 6000 sutras or stanzas, it is commonly believed that Sage Bharata was responsible for the creation of this text. However, we must keep in mind that many commentaries of the Natyasastra are available such as that of the great Kashmir scholar Abhinavagupta who is credited for imparting the rasa theory to the text.

Though the Natyasastra makes several references to Bharata, nothing much is known about him and there is some degree of confusion about whether there was such a man. The word Bharat also means an actor, so some scholars are of the opinion that an unknown actor(s) may have been responsible for the creation of this text.

Greek Philosopher Aristotle
Greek Philosopher Aristotle|Wikimedia Commons 

The Greek Connection

Written in Sanskrit, the Natyasastra is divided into 36 chapters and 6000 sutras and was written sometime between 200 BCE to about 600 CE. It is important to note that this text developed at the same time that the Poetics of Greek Philosopher Aristotle was being written. The Poetics of course is considered the first work on dramatic theory and philosophical thesis in the west.

Natyasastra developed at the same time that the Poetics of Greek Philosopher Aristotle was being written

Probably contemporary to each other, interestingly many concepts seem to have developed together in both the Natyasastra and the Poetics. Take for example the concept of mimesis. Mimesis means imitation and Aristotle claimed that all art forms are imitations. In his commentary Aristotle says that literature many times does not represent objects as they are or as they exist in real form, but they are universal and general in representation of the object. In the same manner the Natyasastra says that drama is Natyabhavanikritam, or the reconstruction of reality and hence is a process of sahanakirana (becoming one with the being and the process of it). In this way, the spectator experiences tanmayabhavina, whereby the spectator can reconstruct this reality of the object.

Many concepts seem to have developed together in both the Natyasastra and the Poetics

Just like the Greek Drama, which was performed as a part of the ritual of Dionysus, the performance as explained in the Natyasastra were performed in temples, palaces or any other consecrated ground. There is also an ontological commonality between the poetics of Aristotle and Bharata’s Natyasastra as both put emphasis on the display of plot and insist on strict mechanisms behind staging it. Both of them insist on a single plot. The Aristotelian method involves movement (kinesis), transformation and reversal of characters (peripeteia), recognition (anognorisis) and error in judgement (hamartia). The natyasastra talks about five stages in the plot, arambha (beginning), effort (prayatna), possibility of attainment (prapti-sabhavana), certainty of attainment (niyapti) and attainment (phalaprapti).

Similarities apart there are also commonalities. The word “yavanika” meaning a curtain, is found in both Greek and in the Natyasastra. According to the scholar Bharat Gupt the author of Dramatic Concepts Greek and Indian, a Study of Poetics and the Natyasastra:

Both classical Greek and Indian theatre traditions strove for sacred action (hieropraxis) — they both promulgated worship, philosophical understanding and theatrical representation at the same time. They pleased gods and men and used semiotised gestures, music, dance and dialogue to create a highly ornate theatrical reality. Both promoted certain values among people. In Greek theatre, they achieved this by acquainting people with the Olympian gods and in Indian theatre, they promoted Vedic values with the idea of making life better. So, in a sense, both were theatres of avatar or incarnation (avataran). Also, neither had puritanical views on art — all arts were instruments for higher ecstatic experiences.

Urubhangham directed by Dr. Satyabrata Rout
Urubhangham directed by Dr. Satyabrata Rout|Wikimedia Commons

The Origins of the Natyasastra

Brahma, the creator of the world asked Sage Bharata to write the Natyasastra

The connections between the sacred and the secular is best exemplified in the legend of how the Natyasastra came into being. The story goes that Brahma, the creator of the world asked Sage Bharata to write the Natyasastra. Bharata took the lyrics from the Rig Veda, the music from the Sama Veda, the gestures from the Yajurveda and the aesthetics from Atharvaveda to create the Natyasastra which is often referred to as the fifth Veda. The legend goes on to give an explanation of what happened next. Apparently a performance was created during the banner ceremony of the god Indra, (Indrodhvaja), and Bharata’s 100 sons were assigned roles. The female parts were given to the celestial nymphs or apsaras. Though the performance was lacking in emotions such as vigour and erotica it was greatly enjoyed by the kings. However as the performance showed the banner ceremony of Indra, the asuras were extremely agitated and created chaos during the show. Hence the show had to be transferred from the open air performance to a closed auditorium. In one way, this was the beginning and start of a proscenium (vertical plane or space) theatre. After this chaos, Bharata goes to explain that the purpose of theatre is to take into account both the evil and the good and it does not show exclusive representation of any one group and represents all groups such as sages, gods and demons alike.

Apsara: A figure that often appears in plays
Apsara: A figure that often appears in plays|Wikimedia Commons

Just by looking at the textual analysis of the Natyasastra one should make a note that many scholars opine that the formation of theatrical recitation goes beyond the date given to the natyasastra. They see connections in the epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana and look at the various smaller tales within it.

It is interesting to note that the role of the apsaras seem to be very important in the Sanskrit plays as well as within the text of the Natysastra. Immense prestige and honour was given to the character of the celestial nymph the apsara and even the courtesan. There was no social stigma attached to her. They in fact enjoyed a fair amount of freedom and respect and that is also evident in sculptures across ancient temples.

Statues showing female actors in dancing postures
Statues showing female actors in dancing postures|Wikimedia Commons

Setting the Stage for the Natyasastra

The birth of Natyasastra has to be seen in the context of the immense churn that had swept through Arya Vrata during the later Vedic period. The second urban revolution of ancient India or the rise of the great Republics or Mahajanapadas was extremely important to the tradition of theatre in India. The Maurya dynasty (6th - 4th BCE ) saw the rise of several important towns such as Sravasti, Kashi and Rajgriha. These cities were bustling with life and activity and theatre it seems, as citizens needed to be entertained. Archaeological excavations have revealed several statues of artists and it is said that many troupes were present in the cities. The performers were both men and the women.

As theatre became popular it also became prolific. Plays performed in temples, palaces and holy places were enjoyed by spectators of all classes. It was said that the performance not only bought good luck to the king but also to the city and the country and its dwellers, the young or the old. Theatre in ancient India was also rooted in moral values. For example the text was grounded in reality and in philosophy of Hinduism as practiced in every- day life. The society was kept in the foreground while the performance took place and it was meant for the greater good of the people. A common theme of plays was the moral constraints on a human which was often depicted in the performance.

Plays performed in temples, palaces and holy places were enjoyed by spectators of all classes

There was great stress given to not just the aesthetic values but also moral values According to the Natyasastra, the nature of the characters are shown as having uttama prakiti, high moral order, an elevated sense of the world, or he could be having a madhayama prakiti, who lacks the moral sense but is worldly wise and has great sagacity or one who is adhama prakiti or someone with criminal tendencies.

It should be added here that scholars like Prof Konow, a noted German scholar who studied the Natyashastra, have explained the secular content in the origins of the Natyasastra. This they see in the shadow puppet plays of India. The word “Sutradhar”, is the main actor of the play. Etymologically it means or denotes one who holds the thread of the play and hence Konow says that the origin of the text goes back to shadow puppets and to string puppets.

Auditorium|Wikimedia Commons

Material Culture explained in the Natyasastra

About 105 stanzas of the Natyasastra are exclusively devoted to the construction of the theatre house or the auditorium of the play. This starts at the beginning in the second chapter of the Natyasastra called the Mandapa Vidhanam which talks about the construction of public buildings. According to Bharata there are three basic shapes of theatre houses which can be square, rectangular or triangular. These should be 108, 64 or 32 hastas long. Each hasta is about 18 inches and about 45 cms and is measured from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. According to Bharata the auditoriums should not be more than 108 hastas as the facial expressions, movement of hands and feet and the whole bodies of the actors will not be notice. He realises that the voices of the male and female actors should be pleasing and hence the size of the auditorium is pivotal to the drama.

105 stanzas of the Natyasastra are exclusively devoted to the construction of the theatre house

According to Bharata the auditorium should be divided into two main parts of equal length. The east part was meant for the audience hall and the western part was divided into two parts the Rangasirsa and the green room. The Rangapitha was the stage and the Ragasirsa was the surface. The Mattavani was wooden railing around the Rangasirsa so that the actors and actresses could be protected from intoxicant persons.

The Natyasastra also listed details of all the people critical to a theatre production. They included persons specialized in seventeen types of works related to a production. This included a multidimensional person Vidusaka (person to make fun i.e. Jester), Tauripta (Person skilled in music, expert in all musical instruments), Nata (person perform as an actor-Dancer), Sutradhara(person specialized 3 in applying the songs and music during the performance) and Natyakara (one who in accordance with the Natyasastra expresses the various rasa-s, bhava-s natural to the people though different character), and Nayaka (person engaged in directing dance during a performance), among others.

A detailed description is also given on the music and the musical Instruments

The Natyasastra points that the performers should use music to make their communication to the audience more effectual. Premlata Sharma, a noted scholar who is known to have studied musical semiotics and the rasa theory, clearly says that the mentality of Natyasastra regarding the use of music and dance was for a better understanding of the text. The instruments used were stringed, hollow, or percussive. Flutes were also used and the mridanga and cymbals were popular percussive instruments. The vocal singing was taken from the Gandharva form that consisted of the Tala (rhythm) sar (tone) and pad (metre).

Mridanga: Percussive instrument
Mridanga: Percussive instrument|Wikimedia Commons

At the core of the Natyasastra are of course acting techniques, which include a focus on the words, movements and gestures. In the Natyasastra abhinava or acting is not simple - the text lays out a detailed treatise on every aspect from the context of an actor's physique (need for fitness) to facial expressions, speech and postures.

The rules of <i>Abhinaya </i>set in the Natyasastra are still followed today
The rules of Abhinaya set in the Natyasastra are still followed today|Wikimedia Commons

However it must be emphasized that the author time and time maintains that there can be no hard and fast rule to these forms of abhinaya.

The next part of abhinaya is said to be sattvika which means grace and charm. It is insisted that for proper acting one needs to have grace. Bharata in particular says that love making scenes and depiction of wars should be done with sensitivity as there could be women and children present in the auditorium and they should not become uncomfortable with the portrayal of such strong emotions.

The Natyasastra also talks about the forms of stage representation and the rasa or the emotions that is stirred up in the audiences. This is credited to the commentary made by Abhinavagupta in the 10th century B.C. Rasa can be described as the overwhelming dynamic feeling that the actor, artist and spectator feel while the performance is taking place. According to Abhinavagupta, who looks at the details of the rasas, there are eight fundamental rasas to which later a ninth one was added. These Rasas form the core of traditional Indian performances even today.

The <i>Rasas </i>form the core of traditional Indian performances  even today&nbsp;
The Rasas form the core of traditional Indian performances even today |Wikimedia Commons

Covering various aspects of staging a play and performing in it, the Natyasastra also creates 10 categories that it believes all production of plays fall into

Nataka - It should be a well-known story about a royal king or a sage, having seven to five acts in total.

Prakaranam - The story made up by the playwright should see the main hero is a Brahmin, minister or merchant. This should have five to ten acts in total.

Anka - This is a well-known story about an ordinary man who becomes a hero. This only has one act.

Vyayoga - This is a well-known tale about a royal sage and has only one act.

Bhana - The story is built by the author around a monologue and it only has one act.

Samavakara - Well-known story in which gods and demons are heroes and heroism is the main principle character.

Vithi - The story is built by the drama. It shows two characters in love and has one act.

Prahasana -Imaginary story

Dima - Well-known story of gods and demons that are fighting because of witchcraft and has four acts.

Ihamgra - Mixed story of men and gods in which man is the hero.

This encapsulates the essence of almost all theatre and movie scripts today. It is amazing that Bharata had the foresight to lay out the essentials of theatre over 2000 years ago.

To sum up we can say that the Natyasastra is a holistic text that covers all aspects of drama and is of immense relevance even today. Most of the classical dances of India, the Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi and Kathak have taken many aspects from the Natysastra in the sense of the music, abhinaya and bodily expressions and movement. They have also taken the costume design and ornaments from the text. The Natyasastra thus is a living, vibrant text and can be easily identified in the dance forms and the philosophy behind them even today.

It is amazing that this 2000 year old text has remained the foundation of classical Indian dance forms, across the country, through the ages.


Gouri Nilakantan has done her double masters in Ancient Indian history, Culture and Archaeology from Pune and theatre from Miami University. She is an active theatre director and is the artistic director of Platform for Action in Creative Theatre. She has written several scripts for children and is right now working on her semi-historical fiction ‘And Then He Was Unbound’

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