Bhasa

The playwright Bhasa probably preceded Kalidasa, producing Sanskrit plays in the second century, CE.  The Buddhist poet Ashvaghosha wrote plays in Sanskrit in the first century, CE, but these survive only in fragments.  It is, therefore, likely that Bhasa gives us the oldest complete Sanskrit dramas.

Although numerous poetic and critical sources in the north and in the south of India cite Bhasa’s plays and acknowledge the poet’s skill, Bhasa’s plays were completely lost some time before the modern period.  Scholars attributed several plays discovered in the early twentieth century to Bhasa, and, today, the field mostly accepts thirteen extant plays as Bhasa’s, grouped below according to their literary genealogy:

Group One: Mahabharata Plays

  1. Madhyamavyayoga (The Middle One)
  2. Pancharatram (Five Nights)
  3. Dutavakyam (The Message)
  4. Dutaghatotkacham (Ghatotkacham’s Message)
  5. Karnabharam (Karna’s Burden)
  6. Urubhangam (The Broken Thigh)
  7. Balacaritam (The Story of Krishna’s Childhood)

The first six plays of this first group are one-act plays based on the Mahabharata.  All six can be found in A. N. D. Haksar’s English translation [see Further Study below].  The last of these plays is a long play that relies on the tradition of the Harivamsa, a first-century, CE, devotional text that is commonly regarded as an appendage to the Mahabharata epic.  In truth, the Harivamsa more resembles puranic literature than epic literature.

Group Two: Ramayana Plays

  1. Pratima (The Statue)
  2. Abhisheka (The Consecration)

Group Three: Other Plays

  1. Daridracarudattam (Carudatta’s Poverty)
  2. Svapnavasavadattam (Vasavadatta’s Dream)
  3. Pratijnayaughandharayanam (The Minister’s Vows)
  4. Avimarakam (Avimaraka)

The Mahabharata plays of the first group include some of the most important short plays of the Sanskrit repertoire, if only because examples of the shorter genres defined by the Natyashastra are less common.  In contemporary terminology we would refer to plays like Karnabharam and Urubhangam, which consist of only a few pages of dialogue, as one-act plays.  Classical dramaturgy descending from the Natyashastra classifies such plays as ankas.

But these plays are peculiar for other reasons.  Bhasa does not always treat the epic material with which he works as inviolable.  While Kalidasa largely transforms the Shakuntala story that is to be found in the Mahabharata, Duhshanta and Shakuntala are rather incidental characters in the epic, so Kalidasa’s adaptation of this story does nothing to the epic’s central narrative.  Bhasa, on the other hand, re-imagines some of the Mahabharata‘s pivotal episodes, and develops new stories and interpretations of the epic’s major characters.

Furthermore, Bhasa’s work does not strictly subscribe to the conventions cataloged in the Natyashastra.  Most notoriously, the play Urubhangam prescribes that the character Duryodhana die on stage in direct violation of the Natyashastra‘s prohibition of death on stage.

Some scholars have suggested that the ways in which Bhasa’s work departs from the dramaturgical recommendations of the Natyashastra indicate Bhasa’s radical artistry.  However, the unconventional elements of Bhasa’s plays may be an indication that the full text of the Natyashastra ought to be dated later than the second century.  Rather than a radical, intentional contravention of the tradition the Natyashastra codifies, Bhasa’s work may tell us that in his day, the tradition of the Natyashastra had not yet been codified, and, perhaps, that the Natyashastra had not yet been written or accepted as authoritative.  Even so, the way in which Bhasa plays with the well-established narrative traditions of epic and religious literature indicate a playwright who valued his own creativity and aesthetic (as well as religious) judgments.

Bhasa’s play Daridracarudattam, (Carudatta’s Poverty), tells the story that we also find in Shudraka’s Mrcchakatikam (The Little Clay Cart).  Some scholars assert that a close comparison identifies Bhasa’s play as the older of the two plays, another element that reinforces the argument that Bhasa’s works come early in the Sanskrit drama tradition.

Further Study

Bhasa, The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays.  A. N. D. Haksar, trans. (New Delhi: Penguin, 1993).

Bhasa, Thirteen Plays of Bhasa.  A. C. Woolner, Lakshman Sarup, trans. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991).