Origins of Asian Drama – The Natya Shastra and the beginnings of Indian Drama
Many people think that drama starts much later in Asia than in Europe and the ‘West’, but this is simply not the case. In fact, we know that drama started in India before 200 BC since the first treatise on the Performing Arts was written in India around this time. The Natya Shastra is often thought to have been written by Sage Bharata in around 200 BC. Like Aristotle’s Poetics, the first writings on dramatic theory which was written in about 335 BC, Sage Bharata’s Natya Shastra is an incredible work exploring dramaturgical aspects, but unlike Aristotle’s Poetics, it is a detailed document which covers theatre, dance and music and covers most aspects of stagecraft from music to make-up and stage design. This makes Indian Drama one of the oldest dramatic forms in the world and certainly comparable to Ancient Greek drama in its richness and more diverse in its form.
The text is written in Sanskrit and is made up of 6,000 sutras (verse stanzas) which are divided into 36 chapters. In Sanskrit, the word Natya means Drama or Dramatic Arts although in its original Indian form drama included music and dance and the Sanskrit word nat means dance. Unlike Aristotle’s Poetics (which is essentially formal, literary and didactic in its form), the style of writing in the Natya Shastra is a dramatic outlining of the principles of the performing arts written in the structure of a dialogue between Bharata and a number of munis or holy men.
Everything from writing construction and literary techniques to musical arrangement to audience etiquette to performer vocal and movement techniques to theatrical staging (mandapa):
“If a play is violent, it requires quick, violent gestures and movements to represent actions such as cutting, piercing and confrontation. It also will make use of magic and mystical powers, and involve using props and makeup to achieve its grand, larger than life, violent style.”
(Natya Shastra Ch14 Verses 57-59)
A great range of dramatic forms are described in the Natya Shastra. Up to 15 forms of drama are described ranging from short one act scenes to long ten act epic drama forms. It covers information on producing and directing plays, performing, the portrayal of emotions, the execution of gestures and movement, vocal techniques, stage designing, costuming, makeup, dramaturgy, literary analysis and the aesthetics of performance.
The text describes four types of acting (abhinaya):
· Angika (acting with body movement)
· vAchika (acting using the voice)
· AhArya (acting using costumes and makeup)
· aAttvika (acting using facial expression and movement in the lips, nose, ears, eyebrows and eyes)
Ancient Indian drama involves both written dramas and dramas which were passed on in non-written form through oral, movement and demonstrative dramaturgy. Traditions drew significantly from the Natya Shastra and hundreds of written verse dramas and dance dramas were developed and thousands of non-written dramas and dance dramas were developed and passed on. Many of the stories used for theses dramas came from the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana although local stories, characters and fables were often used.
The Natya Shastra has influenced Indian drama and the performing arts of Southern Asia for many centuries since it was written. It lead to the development of discreet forms of Indian Drama such as Sanskit Drama which developed around 100 AD and the dance drama and drama forms developed in the Brihadessi around 600AD. Some early playwrights of Indian Drama include Bhasa whose most well known play is the political romance entitled The Vision of Vasavadatta. Some other interesting plays were written by the poet-king Sudraka including a play entitled The Little Clay Cart. Longer later plays are written by playwrights such as Visakhadatta who wrote The Minister’s Seal. Another famous Ancient Indian playwright is Kalidasa. The theories and forms described in the Natya Shastra also influence modern Indian drama, dance and cinematic forms and many have said these principals underpin most modern Indian drama, dance drama, dance, cinema and television.
Exercises in Early Asian Drama
Before starting any Indian drama or dance drama work, a sloka (a short prayer or tribute or verse from the Vedas, the ancient scriptures), is chanted. Here is the most common dance sloka from the Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikeshvara:
Salutation Kriya – Action Sloka – spiritual poetry
Lord Shiva is praised as the embodiment of the 4 types of abhinaya (1. Body & hand movement, 2. ornaments and costume, 3. Song, 4. Mood/emotional expression) in this following sloka.
Angikam Bhuvanam Yasya (All our body parts are yours) Vachikam Sarva Bhagmayam (Our words are your world) Aharyam Chandra Taradi (The Sun and Moon are your ornaments) Tum Namaa Satvikam Shivam (I salute you Shiva, the embodiment of truth, with my body-mind-spirit)
“We bow to Him the benevolent One whose limbs are the world, whose song and poetry are the essence of all language, whose costume is the moon and the stars…”
Bhumi Pranam – Salutation to the earth
Odissi dancers offer Bhumi Pranam. This is a Dance-Prayer sequence to initiate and to conclude every dance session. Bhumi is the earth Goddess. The students start by saluting the earth before practice, asking permission to stump upon her and generate our creation, and we thank her at the end of our practice, for allowing us to do so. This can be done with a formal Salute to the Sun yoga movement or the students can develop their own simplified Salute to the Sun and Earth.
Odissi dance takes shape as a gradual progression: addressing all aspects of the dance and then layering them together. It is easiest to begin every practice session with gentle exercises; joint opening sequences and light stretches, followed by more vigorous exercises that strengthen the legs, open the hips, flex the spine, and develop stamina and rhythm. Making circles and figure eights with the various limbs is a good way to warm up, but it can also be used as a transition into a movement piece itself.
The students then move onto proceed more distinct dance postures in various dance steps, spins, walks and jumps, climaxing in practice of choreography. Sometimes different groups can be given different elements or landscapes to portray in this.
A session concludes with unwinding and cooling down stretches, as well as refining our mudra practice, developing eye, head, & neck movements, and facial expressions.
Before beginning dance drama work, the performer always centers and grounds: connecting with her natural and calm breath, with the earth through the sole of her feet, with the heaven through the top of her head, and with space within and around. The performer is seen as the creator of the universe, creating her own universe with her dance and letting creation happen while performing. The most profound role of the performer is the ability to transform personal reality and touch the audience deeply, offering the opportunity to transcend ordinary life moments into extra-ordinary spiritual ones.
Students can take one of the simple tales from the websites below and use them as the basis for a dance drama piece.
Stories for Ancient Indian Dance Dramas
Banham, M. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge Press. Cambridge.
Baumer R.V.M & Brandon, J.R. 1981. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Baumer R.V.M & Brandon, J.R. 1993. Sanskrit Theatre in Performance. Motilal Banarsidass. Delhi.
Brockett, O. G. and Hildy, F.J. (eds.). 2003. History of Theatre (9th Edition). Allyn and Bacon. Boston.
Namboodiripad, N.C. 1999. Revealing the Art of Natyasastra. Perad Press. Delhi.
Richmond, F.P. et al. 1993. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu.
Satguru, G. Natya Sastra (English Translation). 2010. Satguru Publications. Delhi.
Information on early Indian Drama
Web translation of the Natya Shastra
Ancient Indian Dance Drama