The origin of the Indian theatre or rather folk theatre and dramatics can be traced to religious ritualism of the Vedic Aryans. This folk theatre of the misty past was mixed with dance, ritualism, plus a depiction of events from daily life. It was the last element which made it the origin of the classical theatre of later times. Many historians, notably D.D. Kosambi, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Adya Rangacharaya, etc. have referred to the prevalance of ritualism amongst Aryan tribes in which some members of the tribe acted as if they were wild animals and some others were the hunters. Those who acted as animals like goats, buffaloes, reindeer, monkeys, etc. were chased by those playing the role of hunters and a mock hunt was enacted.
In such a simple and crude manner did the theatre originate in India nearly 4000 years back in the tribal Aryans of Rig Vedic times. There also must have existed a theatrical tradition in the Indus valley cities, but of this we have no literary numismatic or any other material proof.
The origin of drama and the theatre has been told to us in an aptly dramatic manner by Bharatamuni, the author of Natyashastra an ancient Indian text on dance and drama. Bharatamuni is said to have lived around the 4th century but even he is not aware of the actual origin of the theatre in India.
He has cleverly stated in a dramatic manner that it was the lord of creation Brahma who also created the original Natyashastra (Drama). According to Bharatamuni, since the lord Brahma created the entire universe we need not question his ability in creating dramas. But Bharatamuni goes on to tell us that the original Natyashastra of Brahma was too unwieldy and obscure to be of any practical use. Hence, Bharatamuni, himself took up the task of making Natyashastra simple, intelligible and interesting.
Thus the Natyashastra of Bharatamuni was supported to be understood by lay people. So the Natyashastra of Bharatamuni is not the oldest text on dance and drama, as Bharata himself says that he has only simplified the original work of lord Brahma. The Natyashastra assumes the existence of many plays before it was composed, and says that most of the early plays did not follow the rules set down in the Natyashastra. But the Natyashastra itself seems to be the first attempt to develop the technique or rather art, of drama in a systematic manner. The Natya Shastra tells us not only what is to be portrayed in a drama, but how the portrayal is to be done.
Drama, as Bharatamuni says, is the imitation of men and their doings (loka-vritti). As men and their doings have to be respected on the stage, so drama in Sanskrit is also known by the term roopaka which means portrayal. According to the Natyashastra all the modes of expression employed by an individual viz. speech, gestures, movements and intonation must be used. The representation of these expressions can have different modes (vritti) according to the predominance and emphasis on one mode or another. Bharatamuni recognises four main modes viz., Speech and Poetry (Bharati Vritti), Dance and Music (Kaishiki Vritti), Action (Arabhatti Vritti) and Emotions (Sattvatti Vritti). Bharatamuni also specifies where and how a play is to be performed.
In ancient India plays were generally performed either in temple-yard or within palace precints. During public performances, plays were generally performed in the open. For such public performances, Bharatamuni has advocated the construction of a mandapa. According to the Natyashastra in the construction of a mandapa, pillars must be set up in four corners. With the help of these pillars a paltform is built of wooden planks. The area of the mandapa is divided into two parts. The front part, which is the back stage is called the ranga-shrishu. Behind the ranga-shirsha is what was called the nepathya-griha, where the characters dress up before entering the stage.
Bharatamuni has also specified that every play should have a Sutradhara which literally means 'holder of a string'. The Sutradhara was like the producer-director of today. Every play had to begin with an innovation of God. This invocation was called the poorvaranga. Even today, plays in Indian languages begin with a devotional song called Naandi. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata can be called the first recognised plays that originated in India. These epics also provided the inspiration to the earliest Indian dramatists and they do even today. One of the earliest Indian dramatists was Bhasa whose plays have been inspired by the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Bhasa's date cannot be definitely ascertained, but that he lived before Kalidasa is proved by the latter's reference to Bhasa as one of the early leading playwrights.
As Kalidasa lived in the 4th century, Bhasa should have lived in the early centuries of our era. Bhasa was a natural dramatist who drew heavily from the epics, but Kalidasa can be called an original playwright. Kalidasa has written many plays, some of which are;AbhijananShakuntalam, Kumarsambhavam, Meghadutam and Malavikagnimitram. Kalidasa was the court playwright at the Gupta court. He lived at Ujjaini, the capital of the Guptas and was for some days the Gupta Ambassador at the court of the Vakatakas at Amaravati where he wrote the play Meghadutam.
The next great Indian dramatist was Bhavabhuti. He is said to have written the following three plays viz. Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Among these three, the last two cover between them the entire epic, Ramayana. Bhavabhuti lived around the 7th century A.D., when Sanskrit drama was on its decline, mainly due to the lack of royal patronage. The last royal patron of Sanskrit drama seems to be king Harshavardhana of the 7th century. Harshavardhana is himself credited with having written three plays viz. Ratnavali, Priyadarshika and Nagananda.
But nevertheless despite lack of patronage two more leading playwrights came after Bhavabhuti, they were Shudraka whose main play was the Mricchakatikam, and the second dramatist was Rajashekhara whose play was titled Karpuramanjari. But the decline of Sanskrit theatre is evident from the fact that while Mricchakatikam was in Sanskrit, the Karpuramanjari was in Prakrit which was a colloquial form of Sanskrit. Rajashekhara has himself said that he chose to write in Prakrit as the language was soft while Sanskrit was harsh. Sanskrit plays continued to be written upto the 17th century in distant pockets of the country, mainly in the Vijayanagara empire of the South. But they had passed their prime, the later Sanskrit dramas are mostly imitations of Kalidasa or Bhavabhuti.
As in the case of the other fine arts, the Indian theatre has left its mark on the countries of South-east Asia. In Thailand, especially it has been a tradition from the middle ages to stage plays based on plots drawn from Indian epics. This had been so even in Cambodia where, at the ancient capital Angkor Wat, stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been carved on the walls of temples and palaces. Similar, bas reliefs are found at Borobudur in Indonesia.
Thus, the Indian theatre has been one of the vehicles of enriching the culture of our neighbouring countries since ancient times.
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