‘Theatre’ in Sanskrit is known as natya, although this term also covers ‘dance’ for the simple reason that the two arts were combined in classical India. Another term, nataka (or natakam), refers to ‘drama’ that is based on epic themes, although now it is used widely in most Indian languages to mean ‘theatre’ in the western sense. Ancient Tamil literature refers to ‘drama’ using the Sanskrit term nataka, and several plays are mentioned in subsequent literature, though none survive. The Tamil term kuttu is used for more localised, regional and today’s folk theatre traditions.
Indian classical theatre, and all Sanskrit literature and many art forms, is guided by an aesthetic theory. The two key terms are bhava, the mood or emotion of the dancer, and rasa, the distillation of that mood that is evoked in a (discerning) audience. The eight different rasas (love, pity, anger, disgust, heroism, awe, terror and comedy) were also later used to describe music and poetry.
Early fragments of a drama by Asvaghosa date from the 1st c. CE, although it seems likely that dramatic performance must have occurred earlier. Two early Sanskrit texts, the Mahabhasya (‘Great Commentary [on grammar]’) and the Nātyaśāstra (‘Treatise on Theatre), from about the same period, provide evidence of a developed drama form. The earliest extant complete plays are those by Bhasa, Kalidasa and Sudraka (all 5th c. CE).
Some scholars have detected Greek influence in early Indian drama, arguing that plays enacted at the courts of Indo-Greek kings (c. 250 BCE-50 CE) inspired Indian poets to develop their own form. Indeed, the curtain the divided the stage is called yavanika (from the Sanskrit word for ‘Greek’). The famous ‘The Little Clay Cart’ also bears a superficial resemblance to the late Greek comedy of the school of Menander.
Manuscripts of plays by both Kalidasa and Sudraka have been copied and transmitted throughout Indian literary history, but Bhasa’s 13 plays had been lost for centuries and were known only from mention in other works. In 1912, however, palm-leaf manuscripts were found in an old Brahmin house in south India. None mentioned an author, but linguistic research eventually credited them to Bhasa.
The Sanskrit dramas cover a wide range of subjects and types of play. They include full-length poetic love stories, political plays and palace intrigues, as well as shorter farces and one-act love monologues. The foremost drama genre centred on the character of a noble hero. These “heroic dramas”, often with plots derived from tradition, are called natakas. Another important type of drama is a kind of social play dealing with various kinds of human relationships. These plays, mostly invented by their authors, are called prakranas.
The language of Sanskrit dramas is characterized by the blending of classical Sanskrit with local Prakrit languages. The royal heroes and Brahman priests, ascetics and high officials use Sanskrit, while women, children and all low-caste characters speak Prakrit. Thus the plays, already at the level of language, reflect the social and gender hierarchies of their time. This intermingling of languages may also have been intended to make the plays understandable for those spectators who did not understand Sanskrit. Another characteristic of the dramas is the blending of prose and verse. The verses are mainly In Sanskrit. The alternation of languages as well as prose and verse widens the scale of linguistic expression from “high” to “low”, from noble to vulgar, and anything in between.
Plays were performed by troupes of professionals, of both men and women, but amateur dramatics were not unknown (texts refer to performances at court by officials, kings and ladies of the harem). No physical theatre building survives, and it is assumed that plays were performed in palaces or in the homes of rich merchants. A curtain, through which actors emerged, divided the front from the back stage; no curtain divided the actors from the audience. Scenery was non-existent and props were few. Conventional costumes were worn by stock figures, who also used the language of gesture to convey meaning.
Plays began with an invocation to the gods, followed by a long prologue, in which the stage manager or chief actor often discussed with his wife or chief actress the occasion and nature of the event. Most of the play’s dialogue was in prose, interspersed with verse, declaimed rather than sung.
Classical Indian drama, like most of Indian literature, did not hold with tragedy. Heroes and heroines might suffer defeat and loss, but a happy ending was not far away. There was, however, sufficient melodrama to satisfy the emotional needs of the audience. Innocent men are led toward execution, chaste wives are drive from their homes and children are separated from their loving parents.