The Natyashastra

What does theatre do?

Mostly, perhaps, we go to the theatre looking for some kind of story.  We hope to see characters with which we identify doing stuff that we care about.  Perhaps we go to the theatre to see a “slice of life” played out in a way that seems familiar.  This interest in theatre may be described as an “Aristotelian sensibility”, since Aristotle asserted that we mostly go to the theatre to see the theatre imitate the world we know outside of the theatre.  The kind of theatre that reiterates Aristotelian theatre gives us the activity of characters as stories that have clear beginnings, middles, and ends, with almost obligatory climaxes of action and emotion just prior to the stories’ conclusions.  Often our appreciation of this kind of theatre is rooted in psychological evaluations of the motives and intentions of characters.

Of Basketball and Ballet

We can appreciate theatre for reasons other than the imitation of action in the form of a linear story.  In fact, we do appreciate theatre for other reasons, even if we don’t realize that we do.  Consider the so-called “Slam Dunk Contest” that comprises a kind of theatrical performance in conjunction with the annual NBA All-Star Game.  Basketball fans appreciate this mini-game not so much, perhaps, for the competition itself, but for theatrical qualities that are not, primarily, the kind of Aristotelian action that constructs a story.  The object of the Slam Dunk Contest is to ram the basketball directly into the basketball hoop in the fanciest way.  The NBA players who participate in the Slam Dunk Contest take extreme measures to out-do each other with respect to style.  Hence, during the competition we see three-hundred-and-sixty-degree rotations, acrobatic approaches to the basket, even, recently, players who jump over cars on their way to the hoop.  Winners are determined by judges who award points almost exclusively on the basis of style.  The appeal of this kind of theatre is almost entirely grounded in the effect of bodies in stylized motion and in the recognition of virtuosity that this style requires.

Slam Dunk Competition

In edited videos of the competition, other layers are added to enhance the effect of the stylish motion in which the NBA bodies engage, including music and various camera angles assembled in the film editing process that create a kind of rhythm that shapes the way that audiences access the performance.

NBA Basketball

The kind of theatrical style that the Slam Dunk Contest explicitly values comprises a significant part of the value of basketball as a spectator sport.  Players routinely go out of their way to invest what their bodies do on the stage of the basketball arena with style.  Basketball theatrics are not the tools of economical storytelling, but of flair—gratuitous and thrilling flair. Basketball audiences appreciate basketball for the gratuitous artistry of its performers as much as for the stories that might be constructed by competition.

Consider also the Western traditions of opera and ballet.  Typically, opera and ballet do tell stories of the linear sort, with beginnings, middles, and ends, but for opera and ballet audiences, stories are often incidental accompaniments to the real art to be found in the stylish, virtuosic expression of bodies in voice and movement.  We might say that theatrical arts like opera and ballet are more invested in aesthetics than the usual, Aristotelian theatre, which is more invested in psychology.

Opera: Nixon In China

Ballet: Swan Lake

The Natyashastra does concern itself with plots and dramaturgy and the creation of characters.  But the kind of theatre that the Natyashastra seems to have in mind appreciates movement, voice, emotional expression, and the stylization of bodies with make-up and costumes as artistic elements in their own right.  For the author of the Natyashastra, because these elements make essential—not incidental—contributions to the effect of a production, they are just as important as plot and character.

The Natyashastra is a book of theatrical practice and theory that is much more interested in aesthetics than psychology.  Appearing early in the tradition of classical Sanskrit drama, the Natyashastra‘s primary interest in is the stylish possibilities of bodies in motion on a stage.  The theory of theatrical performance that the Natyashastra promotes has become important to understanding all the arts.  In India, one can hardly assess the quality of a novel or a poem or a dance or a painting without using the term rasa, which the Natyashastra identifies as a touchstone of aesthetic experience.

Scholars date the Natyashastra as early as 200, BCE, and as late as 600, CE. Most likely, the text in a form similar to what we know was composed between 200, CE, and 400, CE. Generally, the work is attributed to a single author named Bharata, though we know next to nothing of this individual’s identity—or even if ‘Bharata’ is a proper name or an acronym or title. It is possible that the text was composed by several authors over a period of decades or even centuries. Whoever it was, the author of the Natyashastra clearly knew theatre from experience. The Natyashastra‘s primary concerns are not philosophical or theoretical; rather, the text spends most of its time elucidating how theatre is done, from the construction of theatre buildings, to the application of make-up, to the design and building of props, to arm movement, foot movement, eye movement, with additional chapters on music and audience appreciation.

Nevertheless, one problem we must face with respect to the Natyashastra is a distinct absence of conclusive evidence that classical Sanskrit dramas regarded the Natyashastra as a prescriptive text. Which is to say, we don’t know how the theatre that the Natyashastra advocates looked or sounded. Sanskrit dramas allude to things that seem to coincide with parts of the Natyashastra, but many Sanskrit dramas also include elements that the Natyashastra forbids. In any case, we have no confessions by any Sanskrit playwrights that they looked to the Natyashastra as a definitive document.

Furthermore, no living traditions of theatre go back as far as either Sanskrit drama or the Natyashastra. Kutiyattam theatre may have originated in the eleventh century, and it probably has the strongest claim to continuing the tradition of Sanskrit dramas, but, ultimately, the specific art that the Natyashastra describes is dead. We have only the text of the Natyashastra itself and the implications of Sanskrit dramas to fuel our speculation.

On the other hand, the Natyashastra does give us an enduring and intriguing theory about theatrical performance that pervades South Asian aesthetics. Bharata’s sense of how theatre affects audiences, rooted in his understanding of the Sanskrit terms bhava and rasa, still illuminate and challenge how we think of what theatrical performances can do.

The book was written in Sanskrit, which identifies it as a work of erudition intended for an educated, elite audience. The Natyashastra also confirms an attitude that associated theatrical performance with religious activity. On the other hand, the text confirms that theatre performers in classical India occupied a particularly stratum of the social hierarchy.

Altogether, the Natyashastra is composed of thirty-six books, as follows:

  1. The Mythic Creation of Theatre
  2. Theatre Buildings
  3. Religious Rituals
  4. Dance
  5. Pre-Show Activity
  6. Rasa
  7. Bhavas
  8. Acting: Head and Face
  9. Acting: Hands and Limbs, pt. 1
  10. Acting: Hands and Limbs, pt. 2
  11. Stage Movement: Steps
  12. Stage Movement: Combinations of Steps
  13. Stage Movement: Gaits
  14. Areas of the Stage and Styles of Plays
  15. Voice
  16. Meter
  17. Poetic Figures
  18. Languages, pt. 1
  19. Languages, pt. 2
  20. Types of Plays
  21. Plot
  22. Mood
  23. Costume
  24. Acting: Imitation and Representation
  25. Acting: Characterization
  26. Gesture
  27. Success of a Production
  28. Music
  29. Stringed Instruments
  30. Hollow Instruments
  31. Tala (Drumming Rhythms)
  32. Songs
  33. Drums
  34. Character Categories
  35. Roles
  36. The Theatre Myth

This Introduction to Theatre in India offers additional information on the content of the chapters listed above in bold.

Further Study

The Natyasatra: English Translation with Critical Notes.  Adya Rangacharya, ed. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2003.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata: The Natyasastra. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.