Types of Theatres

In chapter two, the Natyashastra identifies three types of theatres for Sanskrit drama: rectangular, square, and triangular.  Furthermore, each kind of theatre could be large, medium, or small.

Among these three, the medium-sized rectangular theatre seems to have been the most common configuration, and it figures more prominently, in any case, among the buildings that the Natyashastra describes.  (The large, rectangular theatre, says the Natyashastra, isn’t really suitable for regular people, but for the gods.)

Theatre Diagram

Basic Layout of the Natyashastra Theatre

The medium-sized rectangular theatre consists of a rectangle measuring sixty-four hastas by thirty-two hastas.  Since a hasta is about eighteen inches, this theatre measured ninety-six feet by forty-eight feet.  The space itself was divided exactly in half to create two forty-eight foot squares.  One of these divisions served to accommodate the audience, the other served to accommodate the performance and the performers, being, itself, subdivided into to rectangles measuring thirty-two by sixteen feet, as in the included diagram of the basic, rectangular theatre.

The rangashirsha was, for the most part, the stage.  The nepathya provided backstage space, and incorporated a curtained area from which characters could enter the stage and from which off-stage voices might be heard.  Sanskrit dramas, including the plays of Kalidasa, consistently use the term nepathya to refer to off-stage space.  Although the Natyashastra draws several more lines and identifies smaller and small units of the theatre space, scholars dispute the proper reading of the Natyashastra with respect to further subdivisions.

Note that, whatever the shape, and however else the playing space might be divided, the space the Natyashastra designates for the audience is small.  Five hundred audience members who could be satisfied with four square feet each would be able to accommodate each other within a forty-eight-feet by forty-eight-feet box.  The theatres for classical Sanskrit drama were not the vast, open, hill-side semi-circles of classical Greece.  On the contrary, these were what we call “intimate” spaces.  The proximity of relatively small audiences to actors meant that the actors’ expressions could be much more subtle, much more refined and sophisticated than would have been practical for the performers of ancient Athens.

On the other hand, we might also expect that performances took place during evening and nighttime hours, as as performances of traditional theatre in India often do nowadays.  If so, the performances would have necessarily relied on lamplight for illumination.  Even in such intimate circumstances, given the intensity (or lack thereof) and quality of lamplight, actors on the classical Sanskrit stages would have had to inflate their movement and expression.  Which is to point out that the shapes of the theatres the Natyashastra describes, even the minutia of how they were laid out, where the pillars stood, how many platforms comprised the playing space, how large the backstage area might have been, are not incidental or trivial questions.  In classical Sanskrit days, as today, the theatre space contributed to the manner in which performances were rendered.

Bharata identifies several other parts of the rectangular theatre, including a platform structure called a mattavarani, for instance, which sat to the side of the central playing space.  Perhaps there were two mattavaranis, sitting on either side of the primary stage.  The relationship of the rangashirsha to the rangapitha, including how each of these areas was to be used, is also a matter of dispute.

Although the details the Natyashastra provides sometimes seem inexhaustible, many of them are too cryptic to be understood, and no such structures—which were made of wood and other perishable material—remain to provide us with a concrete example.  Our conceptual reconstruction of the theatre buildings and the other activity the Natyashastra describes is necessarily, and often, speculative.