The Old Indian Theatre
The discovery by Europe of the old Indian drama led immediately to suggestions that it had its origin in, or had been greatly influenced by, Greek drama. There was some plausibility in the theory, for till then no other ancient drama had been known to exist, and after Alexander’s raid Hellenized states were established on the frontiers of India. These states continued to function for several centuries and Greek theatrical representations must have been known there. This question was closely scrutinized and debated by European scholars throughout the nineteenth century. It is now generally admitted that the Indian theatre was entirely independent in its origins, in the ideas which governed it, and in its development. Its earliest beginnings can be traced back to the hymns and dialogues of the Rig Veda which have a certain dramatic character. There are references to Nataka or the drama in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It began to take shape in the song and music and dances of the Krishna legends. Panini, the great grammarian of the sixth or seventh century B.C., mentions some dramatic forms.
A treatise on the Art of the Theatre—the Natya-Shastra—is said to date from the third century A.C. but this was evidently based or previous books on the subject. Such a book could only be written when the dramatic art was fully developed and public representations were common. A considerable literature must have preceded it, and behind it must lie many centuries of gradual progress. Recently an ancient playhouse, dating from the second century B.C., has been unearthed in the Ramgarh Hills in Chota Nagpur. It is significant that this playhouse fits in with the general description of theatres given in the Natya-Shastra.
It is now believed that the regular Sanskrit drama was fully established by the third century B.C., though some scholars take the date back to the fifth century. In the plays that we have, mention is often made of earlier authors and plays which have not so far been found. One such lost author was Bhasa, highly praised by many subsequent dramatists. Early in this century a bunch of thirteen of his plays was discovered. Probably the earliest Sanskrit plays so far discovered, are those of Ashvaghosa, who lived just before or after the beginning of the Christian era. These are really fragments only of manuscripts on palm leaves, and they were discovered, strangely enough, at Turfan on the borders of the Gobi desert. Ashvaghosa was a pious Buddhist and wrote also the Buddha Charita, a life of the Buddha, which was well-known and had long been popular in India and China and Tibet. The Chinese translation, made in a past age, was by an Indian scholar.
These discoveries have given a new perspective to the history of the old Indian drama and it may be that further discoveries and finds will throw more light on this fascinating development of Indian culture. For, as Sylvain Levi has written in his ‘Le Theatre Indien’:
‘Le theatre est la plus haute expression de la civilisation qui l’enfante. Qu’il traduise ou qu’il interprete la vie reelle, il est tenu de la resumer sous une forme frappante, ddgagee des accessoires insignificants, generalisee dans un symbole. L’originalite de l’Inde s’est exprimee tout entire dans son art dramatique; elle y a combine et condense ses dogmes, ses doctrines, ses institutions….’
Europe first learned of the old Indian drama from Sir William Jones’s translation of Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntala’, published in 1789. Something in the nature of a commotion was created among European intellectuals by this discovery and several editions of the book followed. Translations also appeared (made from Sir William Jones’s translation) in German, French, Danish, and Italian. Goethe was powerfully impressed and he paid a magnificent tribute to ‘Shakuntala’. The idea of giving a prologue to Faust is said to have originated from Kalidasa’s prologue, which was in accordance with the usual tradition of the Sanskrit drama.*
Kalidasa is acknowledged to be the greatest poet and dramatist of Sanskrit literature. ‘Le nom de Kalidasa,’ says Professor Sylvain Levi,
‘domine la posie indienne et la resume brillamment. Le drame, l’epopee savante. l’elegie attestent aujourd’hui encore la puissance et la souplesse de ce magnifique genie; seul entre les disciples de Sarasvati (the goddess of learning and the arts), il a eu le bonheur de produire un chef doe’uvre vraiment classique, oil l’Inde s’admire et ou l’humanitd se re-connait. Les applaudissements qui saluferent la naissance de Gakuntala k Ujjayini ont apres de long siecles delate d’un bout du monde a l’autre, quand William Jones l’eut revels k l’Occident. Kalidasa a marque sa place dans cette pleiade entincelante ou chaque nom resume une periode de l’esprit humain. La serie de ces noms forme l’histoire, ou plutot elle est l’histoire meme.’
Kalidasa wrote other plays also and some long poems. His date is uncertain but very probably he lived towards the end of the fourth century A.c. at Ujjayini during the reign of Chandragupta II, Vikramaditya of the Gupta dynasty. Tradition says that he was one of the nine gems of the court, and there is no doubt that his genius was appreciated and he met with full recognition during his life. He was among the fortunate whom life treated as a cherished son and who experienced its beauty and tenderness more than its harsh and rough edges. His writings betray this love of life and a passion for nature’s beauty.
One of Kalidasa’s long poems is the Meghaduta, the Cloud Messenger. A lover, made captive and separated from his beloved, asks a cloud, during the rainy season, to carry his message of desperate longing to her. To this poem and to Kalidasa, the American scholar, Ryder, has paid a splendid tribute. He refers to the two parts of the poem and says:
‘The former half is a description of external nature, yet interwoven with human feeling; the latter half is a picture of a human heart, yet the picture is framed in natural beauty. So exquisitely is the thing done that none can say which half is superior. Of those who read this perfect poem in the original text, some are moved by the one, some by the other. Kalidasa understood in the fifth century what Europe did not learn until the nineteenth, and even now comprehends only imperfectly, that the world was not made for man, that man reaches his full stature only as he realizes the dignity and worth of life that is not human. That Kalidasa seized this truth is a magnificent tribute to his intellectual power, a quality quite as necessary to great poetry as perfection of form. Poetical fluency is not rare; intellectual grasp is not very uncommon; but the combination of the two has not been found perhaps more than a dozen times since the world began. Because he possessed this harmonious combination, Kalidasa ranks not with Anacreon and Horace and Shelley, but with Sophocles, Virgil, and Milton.’
Probably long before Kalidasa, another famous play was produced—Shudraka’s ‘Mrichhkatika’ or the Clay Cart, a tender rather artificial play, and yet with a reality which moves us and gives us a glimpse into the mind and civilization of the day.
About 400 A.C., also during the reign of Chandragupta II, yet another notable play was produced, Vishaka-datta’s ‘Mudra-Rakshasa’ or the signet ring. This is a purely political play with no love motive or story from mythology. It deals with the times of Chandragupta Maurya, and his chief minister, Chanakya, the author of the Arthashastra, is the hero. In some ways it is a remarkably topical play today.
Harsha, the king, who established a new empire early in the seventh century A.C., was also a playwright and we have three plays written by him. About 700 A.C. there lived Bhavabhuti, another shining star in Sanskrit literature. He does not yield himself easily to translation for his beauty is chiefly of language, but he is very popular in India, and only Kalidasa has precedence over him. Wilson, who used to be professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, has said of these two: ‘It is impossible to conceive language so beautifully musical, or so magnificently grand, as that of the verses of Bhavabhuti and Kalidasa.’
The stream of Sanskrit drama continued to flow for centuries, but after Murari, early in the ninth century, there is a marked decline in the quality. That decline, and a progressive decay were becoming visible also in other forms of life’s activities. It has been suggested that this decline of the drama may be partly due to the lack of royal patronage during the Indo-Afghan and Moghul periods and the Islamic disapproval of the drama as an art-form, chiefly because of its intimate association with the national religion. For this literary drama, apart from the popular aspects which continued, was highbrow and sophisticated and dependent on aristocratic patronage. But there is little substance in this argument though it is possible that political changes at the top had some indirect effect. As a matter of fact the decline of the Sanskrit drama was obvious long before those political changes took place. And even those changes were confined for some centuries to north India, and if this drama had any vitality left it could have continued its creative career in the south.
The record of the Indo-Afghan, Turkish, and Moghul rulers, apart from some brief puritanical periods, is one of definite encouragement of Indian culture, occasionally with variations and additions to it. Indian music was adopted as a whole and with enthusiasm by the Muslim Courts and the nobility and some of its greatest masters have been Muslims. Literature and poetry were also encouraged and among the noted poets in Hindi are Muslims. Ibrahim Adil Shah, the ruler of Bijapur, wrote a treatise in Hindi on Indian music.
Both Indian poetry and music were full of references to the Hindu gods and goddesses and yet they were accepted and the old allegories and metaphors continued. It might be said that except in regard to actual image-making no attempt was made by Muslim rulers, apart from a few exceptions, to suppress any art-form.
The Sanskrit drama declined because much in India was declining in those days and the creative spirit was lessening. It declined long before the Afghans and Turks established themselves on the throne of Delhi. Subsequently Sanskrit had to compete to some extent as the learned language of the nobility with Persian. But one obvious reason appears to have been the ever-widening gap between the language of the Sanskrit drama and the languages of day-to-day life. By 1000 A.C. the popular spoken languages, out of which our modern languages have grown, were beginning to take literary forms.
Yet, in spite of all this, it is astonishing how the Sanskrit drama continued to be produced right through the medieval period and up to recent times. In 1892 appeared a Sanskrit adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Manuscripts of old plays are continually being discovered. A list of these prepared by Professor Sylvain Levi in 1890 contained 377 plays by 189 authors. A more recent list contains 650 plays.
The language of the old plays (of Kalidasa and others) is mixed—Sanskrit and one or more Prakrits, that is, popular variations of Sanskrit. In the same play educated people speak in Sanskrit and ordinary uneducated folk, usually women, though there are exceptions, in Prakrit. The poetical and lyrical passages, which abound, are in Sanskrit. This mixture probably brought the plays nearer to the average audience. It was a compromise between the literary language and the demands of a popular art.
Yet, essentially, the old drama represents an aristocratic art meant for sophisticated audiences, usually royal courts and the like. Sylvain Levi compares it, in some ways, to French tragedy, which was cut off from the crowd by the choice of its subjects and, turning away from real life, created a conventional society.
But apart from this high-class literary theatre, there has always been a popular theatre based on stories from Indian mythology and the epics, themes well-known to the audience, and concerned more with display than with any dramatic element. This was in the language of the people in each particular area and was therefore confined to that area. Sanskrit plays, on the other hand, being in the all-India language of the educated, had an all-India vogue.
These Sanskrit plays were undoubtedly meant for acting and elaborate stage-directions are given, and rules for seating the audience. Unlike the practice in ancient Greece, actresses took part in the presentation. In both Greek and Sanskrit there is a sensitive awareness of nature and a feeling of being a part of that nature. There is a strong lyric element and poetry seems to be an integral part of life, full of meaning and significance. It was frequently recited. Reading the Greek drama one comes across many customs and ways of thought and life which suddenly remind one of old Indian customs. Nevertheless Greek drama is essentially different from the Sanskrit.
The essential basis of the Greek drama is tragedy, the problem of evil. Why does man suffer? Why is there evil in the world? The enigma of religion, of God. What a pitiful thing is man, child of a day, with his blind and aimless strivings against all-powerful fate—’The Law that abides and changes not, ages l o n g . . . . ‘ Man must learn by suffering and, if he is fortunate, he will rise above his striving:
Happy be, on the weary sea
Who hath fled, the tempest and won the haven.
Happy whoso has risen, free,
Above his striving. For strangely graven
Is the art of life that one and another
In gold and power may outpass his brother.
And men in their millions float and flow.
And seethe with a million hopes as leaven;
And they win their Will, or they miss their Will,
And the hopes are dead or are pined for still;
But whoever can know,
As the long days go,
That to Live is happy, hath found his Heaven!
Man learns by suffering, he learns how to face life, but he learns also that the ultimate mystery remains and he cannot find an answer to his questions or solve the riddle of good and evil.
There be many shapes of mystery;
And many things God brings to be,
Past hope or fear.
And the end men looked for cometh not,
And a path is there where no man thought.
There is nothing comparable to the power and majesty of Greek tragedy in Sanskrit. Indeed there is no tragedy at all for a tragic ending was not permitted. No such fundamental questions are discussed for the commonly held patterns of religious faith were accepted by the dramatists. Among these were the doctrines of rebirth and cause and effect. Accident or evil without cause was ruled out, for what happens now is the necessary result of some previous happening in a former life. There is no intervention of blind forces against which man has to fight, though his struggles are of no avail. The philosophers and the thinkers were not satisfied by these simple explanations and they were continually going behind them in their search for final causes and fuller explanations. But life was generally governed by these beliefs and the dramatists did not challenge them. The plays and Sanskrit poetry in general were in full accord with the Indian spirit and there are few traces of any rebellion against it.
The rules laid down for dramatic writing were strict and it was not easy to break them. Yet there is no meek submission to fate; the hero is always a man of courage who faces all hazards. ‘The ignorant rely on Providence’, says Chanakya contemptuously in the ‘Mudra-Rakshasa,’ they look to the stars for help instead of relying on themselves. Some artificiality creeps in: the hero is always the hero, the villain almost always acts villainously; there are few intermediate shades.
Yet there are powerful dramatic situations and moving scenes and a background of life which seems like a picture in a dream, real and yet unreal, all woven together by a poet’s fancy in magnificent language. It almost seems, though it may not have been so, that life in India was more peaceful, more stable then; as if it had discovered its roots and found answer to its questions. t flows along serenely and even strong winds and passing storms ruffle its surface only. There is nothing like the fierce tempests f Greek tragedy. But it is very human and there is an aesthetic armony and a logical unity about it. The Nataka, the Indian rama, says Sylvain Levi, still remains the happiest invention f the Indian genius.
Professor A. Berriedale Keithf says also that ‘The Sanskrit drama may legitimately be regarded as the highest product of Indian poetry, and as summing up in itself the final conception of literary art achieved by the very self-conscious creators of Indian literature… .The Brahmin, in fact, much abused as he has been in this as in other matters, was the source of the intellectual distinction of India. As he produced Indian philosophy, so by another effort of his intellect he evolved the subtle and effective form of the drama.’
An English translation of Shudraka’s ‘Mrichhkatika’ was staged in New York in 1924. Mr. Joseph Wood Krutch, the dramatic critic of the Nation, wrote of it as follows:
‘Here, if anywhere, the spectator will be able to see a genuine example of that pure art theatre of which theorists talk, and here, too he will be led to meditate upon that real wisdom of the East which lies not in esoteric doctrine but in a tenderness far deeper and truer than that of the traditional Christianity which has been so thoroughly corrupted by the hard righteousness of Hebraism.. . A play wholly artificial yet profoundly moving because it is not realistic but real…. Whoever the author may have been, and whether he lived in the fourth century or the eighth, he was a man good and wise with the goodness and wisdom which come not from the lips or the smoothly flowing pen of the moralist but from the heart. An exquisite sympathy with the fresh beauty of youth and love tempered his serenity, and he was old enough to understand that a light-hearted story of ingenious complication could be made the vehicle of tender humanity and confident goodness…. Such a play can be produced only by a civilization which has reached stability; when a civilization has thought its way through all the problems it faces, it must come to rest upon something calm and naive like this. Macbeth and Othello however great and stirring they might be, are barbarous heroes because the passionate tumult of Shakespeare is the tumult produced by the conflict between a newly awakened sensibility and a series of ethical concept? inherited from the savage age. The realistic drama of our own time is a product of a like confusion but when problems are settled, and when passions are reconciled with the decisions of an intellect, then form alone remains. . . Nowhere in our European past do we find, this side the classics, a work more completely civilized.’
* There is a tendency on the part of Indian writers, to which I have also partly succumbed, to give selected extracts and quotations from the writings of European scholars in praise of old Indian literature and philosophy. It would be equally easy, and indeed much easier, to give other extracts giving an exactly opposite viewpoint. The discovery by the European scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of Indian thought and philosophy led to an outburst of admiration and enthusiasm. There was a feeling that these filled a need, something that European culture had been unable to do. Then there was a reaction away from this attitude and criticism and scepticism grew. This was caused by a feeling that the philosophy was formless and diffuse and a dislike of the rigid caste structure of Indian society. Both these reactions in favour and against, were based on very incomplete knowledge of old Indian literature. Goethe himself moved from one opinion to the other, and while he acknowledged the tremendous stimulus of Indian thought on western civilization, he refused to submit to its far-reaching influence. This dual and conflicting approach has been characteristic of the European mind in regard to India. In recent years that great European and typical product of the best European culture, Romain Rolland, made a more synthetic and very friendly approach to the basic foundations of Indian tought: For him East and West represented different phases of the eternal struggle of the human soul. On this subject— Western reaction to Indian thought—Mr. Alex Aronson, of Santiniketan University, has written with learning and ability.
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