Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Early Chinese Drama - Canjun Opera

Early Chinese Drama - Canjun Opera

Chinese drama has its origins during the period of the Six Dynasties from the Eastern Wu Dynasty (222-280 AD) through to the Chen Dynasty (557-589) with the Canjun Opera. This is known as an era of relative peace and decentralized governance compared to the turbulent previous Han Dynasty Period characterized by centralized government. As a dramatic form, Canjun Opera was originally a comic musical drama form involving initially two performers – one who played the ‘straight man’ (usually a corrupt court official) and the other playing the ‘comic character’ (usually a court jester or comic fool). The dialogue was sung and usually involved a comic interlude or response format. Eventually more characters were added and the plots became more complex and involved the acting out of the incidents recalled or related.

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Canjun Opera had developed into a more composite performing arts form, involving singing, acting out of comic sequences, music which accompanied danced or mimed sequences and the use of some elaborate costumes. Much of the early Chinese Canjun Opera was performed only to male nobles. The form involved primarily males performing although some documents from about 750 AD suggest that some female singers performed in these operas in later times.

Mostly light folk stories were enacted, mimed and sung. Although sometimes topical stories and people were imitated and portrayed. One story tells of how an important actor known as Meng, used his influence and potrayed local people and events in a Canjun Opera. Sun Shu'ao, one of the Chu Kingdom's high officials and on whom the king of Chu relied heavily, died and his poverty-stricken children went hungry. Seeing this, actor Meng dressed up as Sun and imitated him. Startled, even the king thought Sun had come back to life. In showing his sentiment for Sun, the king ordered Meng to hold Sun's former position but Meng refused, saying that he could not see any good in being an official because although Sun had been honest during his lifetime in performing his duties and did not seek any private fortune, Sun's family still went hungry. Realizing the actor's true intent, the king sent his solicitude to Sun's family immediately and raised Sun's boy to a high-ranking level. This story might have been the beginning of the stage performance of opera in China, and the phrase "actor Meng in costume" was thereafter used to refer to the performance of opera.

Later in the Tang Dynasty Canjun Opera became more known for its comic representations. Sometimes minor officials were punished by being forced to watch a specially made Canjun Opera where they were mocked. Some officials were even forced to dress up as woman in a Canjun so that they were mocked. The suggested structure of many Canjun of the early and middle period is that they involved two actors. Later performances involved more complex plots and more characters. The main purpose, however, was still to satirize and reprimand through mimicry, amusing gestures and satirical dialogue.

Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, although a man of daring strategy, had a musical temperament and was very fond of singing and dancing. He established a special institute called "the Pear Garden (Liyuan)" as a place to train actors. Moreover, he selected actors personally, gave them guidance and even performed on stage himself. This theatrical troupe was actually the first opera school in china. Actors in later times referred to this theatrical circle as "the Pear garden" and called themselves students of the garden. In the past, a statue of the founder of the opera could usually be found in theaters where the actors could pay their respects.

The folk songs, dances, the genre of talking and singing, and comic plays showed tendencies of merging, and "a variety play (Zaju)" came into being, which became further refined in the Yuan dynasty; "Yuan Zaju" embodied the peak in Chinese opera history. Sometimes bells were played as a musical accompaniment to the stylised dances and folk songs. Here is a video of bells performed in the style of the period.

In the Yuan Dynasty, since scholars were the least respected in society and their social status was no higher than that of beggars, they had no opportunity to become officials through an academic route and had to focus their talents on artistic endeavors such as opera, poems, songs and performances. The combination of entertainment and education, with special emphasis on moral inculcation and cultivating a sense of national duty, is one of the main features of Early Chinese drama as shown in Canjun Opera. The street opera sometimes performed in Chinese cities and towns probably shows performance closest to the Canjun and early Chinese drama. Here is a video which gives a sense of early Chinese theatre.

Oovene, P. (2010). 'Chinese Operas on Stage and Screen: A Short Introduction'. The Opera Quarterly. 26 (2-3): 181-199. Retrieved from Project Muse.
Jin Fu (2012). Chinese Theatre (3rd edition ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Tan Ye (2008). Historical Dictionary of Chinese Theater. Scarecrow Press. Hong Kong.
Wang Kefen (1985). The History of Chinese Dance. China Books & Periodicals, Beijing.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Origins of Asian Drama – The Natya Shastra and the beginnings of Indian Drama

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

Sanskrit Drama

Ancient Indian Dance Drama