The Creation of Theatre

According to the first chapter of the Natyashastra, theatre begins with Brahma.  When approached by other gods who complained that the scriptures, the Vedas, were not sufficient to keep people from behaving badly because the common and uneducated couldn’t read the Vedas, anyway, Brahma decided to create what he called a “Fifth Veda” that would make the content of the Vedas accessible to everyone.  (The first four Vedas being highly literate, Sanskrit compositions consisting of the Rg Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda.)

Theatre, Brahma reasoned, would be able to teach everyone.  Even the illiterate.

Brahma taught the art to Bharata, and charged him to teach the art to his hundred sons.  As the premier of the new art, Bharata’s family presented the first theatre performance to an audience of the gods.

The first play concerned the god Indra’s victory over the demons, commencing with a recitation from the Vedas, and then proceeding to dramatize the great battle that ended in Indra’s triumph.  The performance was a tremendous success.  Everyone regaled the actors with congratulations and gifts.

But not the demons, who had also watched the play.  Incensed at the foolish way they had been portrayed and by the dramatization of their ignominious defeat, the demons caused calamity around the playing space, and had to be chased away by Indra, wielding a flagpole (the nearest weapon at hand).  When the dust settled, the gods all got together to devise some means of keeping theatre safe, and theatre buildings were designed with each particular part consecrated to warden powers.

Then they went and asked the demons for their opinion.

When the demons explained that it was unfair to humiliate them as a means of entertaining the gods, Brahma assured them that this new art was intended for everyone, implying that they could expect the gods to be humiliated upon occasion.  Brahma then charged Bharata not to mount any production without first worshiping properly at the stage.

So goes the origin myth as recorded in the opening pages of the Natyashastra.  Through this story, the author of the Natyashastra establishes a couple specific notions that are still attached to theatre in India, many centuries later.

First: theatre both teaches and entertains.  Thanks to Plato’s disdain for theatre and Aristotle’s attempt to vindicate the art, European cultures have argued incessantly as to whether theatre’s primary justification is its power to teach or to entertain.  The Natyashastra does not privilege one above the other.  A companion to the Vedas, theatrical art instructs people in duty, and simultaneously distracts and delights.

Second: theatre is divinely conceived and commissioned.  As opposed to the reputation theatre has across history and cultures for being the occupation of delinquents and miscreants, the Indian ideal regards theatre as a noble, even sacred, endeavor.  People ought to revere theatre and treat it with the respect due to a gift from the gods.

The first chapter of the Natyashastra, then, gives theatre artists cause to rejoice.  It’s too bad, then, that there’s a final chapter in the Natyashastra, which undoes much of the unusual good that the first chapter does for actors and theatre folk.

In chapter thirty-six, we find that at some point Bharata’s hundred sons did some theatre that enraged the sages, or religious authorities, too.  Not so easily pacified as demons, the sages condemned the actors to be Shudras, or occupants of the lowest stratum of the social hierarchy.  In spite of the way the Natyashastra associates theatre with pure, religious activity, it nevertheless finds a way to justify the marginalization of theatre practitioners.

Ultimately, however, Bharata’s sons get re-admitted to heaven, which allows the Natyashastra to conclude with the assertion that doing theatre and going to the theatre—at least, the kind of theatre described by the Natyashastra—offers a person as much as the study of the Vedas.