Sanskrit Drama


Highly literary and poetic, the Sanskrit dramas had an elite audience in mind.  Sanskrit is a highly-inflected, Indo-European language, related to classical Greek and Latin.  It was primarily a literary language employed for documenting the affairs of state and for composing literary art.

Not only was Sanskrit the language of the elite and educated, the Sanskrit dramas are dense with poetic devices, literary, mythic, and historical allusion, and literary devices and ornaments of all sorts.  Furthermore, the stories that the plays dramatize tend to reinforce upper-class authority and values.  At first glance, the Sanskrit dramas seem to be very exclusive.

On the other hand, there isn’t all that much Sanskrit in Sanskrit dramas.

Only the most elite characters in the plays—divine beings, kings, and brahmans—speak Sanskrit.  Other characters, including soldiers, merchants, townspeople, etc., and very nearly all women, speak a variety of colloquial languages referred to, collectively, as Prakrits.  Which means that characters occupying the stage together, and carrying on conversations with each other, are very often speaking different languages.

Imagine a play in which a king and his closest advisors speak Latin, while his queen and lesser members of the court speak Italian, and the merchants and townspeople who conduct business around the capitol  speak Spanish and Romanian.

Sanskrit dramas, therefore, must have appealed to a relatively diverse audience.  The plays include so much Prakrit dialogue that the wider population of people who could not access Sanskrit would, nevertheless, have been able to follow a performance of a so-called Sanskrit drama just fine.

Sanskrit drama emerges in fragments and short pieces beginning in the first century, CE, and continuing to the tenth century.

The most commonly read and performed examples of Sanskrit drama include plays by Bhasa, Shudraka, and, especially, Kalidasa.  The work of all three of these playwrights comes within the first three or four centuries of the tradition.

The plays often concern the exploits of the kings and heroes of history.  As with the Greek tragedies, ‘historical’ figures of Sanskrit drama include mythical persons and the subjects of epic poetry.  Supernatural beings of several varieties play important roles in the stories of Sanskrit drama.  Important characters in Sanskrit dramas also come from the middle and lower classes, including soldiers, merchants, and hermits and sages.  Of the two principal types of dramas, the Nataka plays feature stories about kings and divine beings.  The Prakarana plays concern stories that revolve around middle-class characters.

With very, very few exceptions, the three hundred, or so, Sanskrit dramas that we have end happily, with conflicts comfortably resolved.  The king and his wife are reunited.  The king discovers a son.  The girl’s discovery of her royal or divine parentage clears the way to marry into the royal family.  Even an exception like Bhasa’s Urubhangam, which concludes with the morose death of its protagonist, does not affirm the sense of futility or the nihilistic worldview that figures so prominently in Greek tragedy.  Sanskrit drama consistently regards existence as orderly and predictable.  Conflict in the plays occurs as individuals make attempts to act outside of an order sustained, if not established, by divine forces, and all such attempts are redirected so as to bring characters back into their ordained places.  Even so, the plays are not necessarily predictable, since the characters themselves don’t always realize exactly what their ordained places are until they suddenly occupy them.  The king and his wife are supposed to be together.  The king is supposed to have a son.  The girl was royalty all along.

The action of Sanskrit dramas includes precious little action.  Most often, the potentially exciting moments of a drama occur offstage and are related to characters onstage by way of messengers, letters, or eye-witnesses who can see what is happening out of view of the other characters (and out of the view of the audience).  Although the plots commonly involve battles, kidnappings, flying demons, and rampaging elephants, what we get onstage in a Sanskrit drama is dialogue about kidnappings and elephants, and so forth.  Nevertheless, as in many other dramatic traditions around the world, Sanskrit drama creates and sustains tension through the plans that characters lay in dialogue with each other, the obstacles that arise to prevent those plans from coming to fruition, and the ways that characters maneuver to accomplish their aims, anyway.

The dialogue of Sanskrit drama consists of both verse and prose.  Within a single, unified speech, a character may slip out of prose and into verse and back into prose several times.  Dense with figurative speech and imagery, the verses demonstrate the playwright’s poetic skill.  Because the the verse in his play Shakuntala, the playwright Kalidasa, for instance, is, perhaps, regarded in India more as a poet than as a dramatist.

Besides the dramatic literature that survive from the period, the tradition of Sanskrit theatre gives us some practical information about play performance and also a theory about how we experience theatre.

The Natyashastra, an encyclopedic volume dating from between the first and fourth centuries, CE, touches on almost every practical aspect of theatrical art, and it speculates in a theoretical-philosophical way about how theatre affects an audience.  The concept it dubs rasa is still essential to Indian aesthetics.

The following unit examines the work of the best-known Sanskrit playwrights, provides an overview of some representative portions of the Natyashastra, and offers an approach to the complex idea that is rasa.

The Sanskrit Prologue

In production, performances were preceded by elaborate preliminary rituals, collectively known as purvaranga.  The one element of these rites commonly documented by the play scripts themselves is the nandi, a kind of opening prayer consisting of several lines of verse that acknowledge divine authority over the space and time of the production.  Most often, Shiva is the subject of the nandi.  The first piece of text in most Sanskrit plays, then, is the nandi.

What generally follows the nandi is a dramatic prologue, involving a short conversation between the production’s director and an actor or other member of the performing troupe.  These brief conversations serve to introduce the title and author of the play, and may also preview the major themes of the play to follow.  Bhasa’s prologues tend to be very brief and formulaic.  As an example, the prologue of his play Karnabharam consists entirely of the following:

Stage-manager. With these words, my lords and gentlemen, I have to announce to you—But what is that?  I thought I heard a noise just as I was to make my anouncement.  Well, I must see what it is.

(Voice behind the scene.) Ho there, take word to his Highness the King of the Angas.

Stage-manager.  Good, I understand.  A flurried servitor with folded hands brings word to Karna at Duryodhana’s behest that the battle grows tumultuous. (Exit.)

(translation by A. C. Woolner and Lakshman Sarup)

The prologues of Kalidasa, on the other hand, tend to be more elaborate and thematic.  In the prologue to Shakuntala, the director calls an actress to the stage to sing an introductory song for the performance.  The song is so lovely that by the time the actress has finished, the director has forgotten what play the troupe is to present.  The prologue here previews the themes of (weak) memory and reminders that move the play.

As a device, the prologue of Sanskrit dramas provides an interface between the audience and the play.  In the brief prologue from Bhasa’s Karnabharam included above, the ‘stage-manager’ speaks directly to the assembled audience and, then, hears Duryodhana’s messenger speaking from an area behind the stage.  For the stage-manager whose company is producing the performance, the audience to whom the stage-manager speaks is a real audience.  For the ‘stage-manager’ who is a character in Bhasa’s play, Duryodhana’s messenger is real.  The stage-manager, then, occupies a space in between the world of the audience and the world of the play, and he brings the two world’s together in the way he interacts with audience and play.

We might say that the stage-manager in the prologues of Sanskrit dramas serves to facilitate the audience’s transition from their real world into the pretend world of the performance.  Perhaps, the stage-manager helps audiences ‘suspend their disbelief’, so as to engage more fully with the world of the play.

However, such a superficial reading of the prologues and of the stage-manager ignores the fundamentally theatrical worldview that pervades India, as articulated in the Bhagavad Gita.


Further Reading

Miller, Barbara Stoller, ed. Theatre of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.