1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Indian Drama

(Part 2)

Indian Drama

The origin of the INDIAN drama may unhesitatingly be described as purely native. The Mahometans when they overran India brought no drama with them ; the Persians, the Arabs, and the Egyptians were without a national theatre. It would be absurd to suppose the Indian drama to have owed anything to the Chinese or its offshoots. On the other hand, there is no real evidence for assuming any influence of Greek examples upon the Indian drama at any stage of its progress. Finally, it had passed into its decline before the dramatic literature of modern Europe had sprung into being.

The Hindu writers ascribe the invention of dramatic entertainments to an inspired sage Bharata, or to the communications made to him by the god Brahma himself concerning an art gathered from the Vedas. As the word Bharata signifies an actor, we have clearly here a mere personification of the invention of the drama. Three kinds of entertainments, of which the nátya (defined as a dance combined with gesticulation and speech) comes nearest to the drama, were said to have exhibited the gods by the spirits and nymphs of Indra’s heaven, and to these the god Siva added two new styles of dancing.

The origin of the Indian drama was thus doubtless religious ; it sprang from the union of song and dance in the festivals of the gods, to which were afterwards added narrative recitation, and first sung, then spoken, dialogue. Such scenes and stories from the mythology of Vish_u are still occasionally enacted by pantomime or spoken dialogue in India (játras of the Bengalis ; rásas of the Western Provinces); and the most ancient Indian play was said to have treated an episode from the history of that deity,—the choice of him as a consort by Laxmi,—a favourite kind of subject in the Indian drama. The tradition connecting its earliest themes with the native mythology of Vish_u agrees with that ascribing the origin of a particular kind of dramatic performance—the sangíta—to K_ish_a and the shepherdesses. The author’s later poem, the Gítagovinda, has been conjectured to be suggestive of the earliest species of Hindu dramas. But while the epic poetry of the Hindus gradually approached the dramatic in the way of dialogue, their drama developed itself independently out of the union of the lyric and the epic forms. Their dramatic poetry arose later than their epos, whose works, the Mahábhárata and the Rámáya_a, had again been long preceded by the hymnody of the Vedas—just as the Greek drama followed upon the Homeric poems, and these had been preceded by the early hymns. The beginnings of the Indian drama may accordingly belong to the 3d century B. C., or to a rather earlier date. But by the time it produced the first specimens with which we are acquainted, it had already reached its zenith ; and it was therefore looked upon as having sprung into being as a perfect art. We know it only in its glory, in its decline, and in its decay.

The history of Indian dramatic literature may be roughly divided into the following periods :—

I. From the 1st century B.C. to the 10th century A.D.—This period belongs to the pre-Mahometan age of Indian history, but to that second division of it in which Buddhism had already become a powerful factor in the social, as well as in the moral and intellectual, life of the land. It is the classical period of the Hindu drama, and includes the works of its two indisputably greatest masters. Of these Kálidása was by far the earlier, who lived at the court of King Vikramáditya of Avanti (died 56 B.C.), being accounted the brightest of its "nine gems" of genius. He is the author of Sákuntalá,—the work Sir William Jones’s translation of which first revealed to the Western world of letters the existence of an Indian drama. It is a dramatic love-idyll of surpassing beauty, and, in the opinion of the highest authorities, one of the master-pieces of the poetic literature of the world. Kálidása’s other drama, Vikrama and Urva_í (The Hero and the Nymph), though unequal as a whole to Sákuntalá, contains one act of incomparable loveliness ; and its enduring effect upon Indian dramatic literature is shown by a imitations of it in later plays. To Kálidása has likewise been attributed a third play—the Málavikágnimitra ; but it is doubtful whether this comedy, though held to be of ancient date, was not composed by a different poet of the same name.
Another work of high merit, the pathetic Mrichchhakatí (The Toy-Cart), a domestic drama with a public underplot, may possibly belong to the close of the 2d century A.D., and seems certainly of an earlier date than the 10th. It is attributed (as it not uncommon with Indian plays) to a royal author named Súdraka.

The palm of pre-eminence is disputed with Kálidása by the great dramatic poet Babhavúti (called Çrika__ha, or he in whose throat is fortune), who flourished in the earlier part of the 8th century. While he is considered more artificial in language than his rival, and in general more bound by rules, he can hardly be deemed his inferior in dramatic genius. Of his three extant plays, Mahávára-Charitra and Uttara-Ráma-Charitra are heroic dramas concerned with the adventures of Ráma (the seventh incarnation of Vish_u) ; the third, the powerful Málatí and Mádhava, has love for its theme, and has been called (with more aptitude than such comparisons usually possess) the Romeo and Juliet of the Hindus. It is considered by their critical authorities the best example of the prakara_a, or drama of domestic life.

Among the remaining chief works of Indian dramatic literature, the Ve_i-Samhara is thought probably to date from about the 8th or 9th century. Its author’s name seems doubtful ; the play is described as one in which both pathos and horror are exaggerated, and which in the violence of its action recalls the manner of Shakespeare’s predecessors. The next series of plays forms a transition between the first period of Indian dramatic literature and

III. the period of decline, which may be reckoned from about the 11th to about the 14th century of our era, and of which the beginning roughly coincides with that of a continuous series of Mahometan invasions of India. Hanúmantinuous series of Mahometan invasions of India. Hanúman Nataka, or "the great Nataka" (for this play, the work of several hands, surpasses all other Indian dramas in length, extending over not less than fourteen acts0, dates from the 10th or 11th century. Its story is taken from the Rámacycle, and a prominent character in it is the mythical monkey-chief Hanúmat, to whom, indeed, tradition ascribed the original authorship of the play. K_ish_amicra’s "theosophic mystery," as it has been called, of Prabodha-Chandrodaya (The Rise of the Moon of Insight, i.e., the victory of true doctrine over error), is ascribed by one authority to the middle of the 11th century, by another to about the end of the 12th. The dates of the famous to about the end of the 12th. The dates of the famous Ratnavali (The Necklace), a court-comedy of love and intrigue, with a half-Terentian plot, and of the interesting Buddhist drama Nágánanda, which begins as an erotic play Buddhist drama Nágánanda, which begins as an erotic play but passes into a most impressive exemplification of the supreme virtue of self-sacrifice, depend on the disputed question of their respective authorship. One of them belongs to first quarter of the 12th century, the other to an earlier time. Finally, Vi_ákhadatta’s interesting drama of political intrigue, Mudrá-Rakshasa (The Signet of the Minister), in which prince Cnandragupta, presumably identifiable with Sandrocottus, makes his appearance, was probably composed later than the end of the 12th century. This is the only Indian play known to us with an essentially historical fable—a noteworthy circumstance, if (as is most likely) it was produced at a time when the Mahometan invasions had already begun.
The remaining plays of which it has been possible to conjecture the dates range in the time of their composition from the end of the 11th to the 14th century, and belong to the period of decline. Of this period, as compared with the first the general characteristics seem to be an undue preponderance of narrative and description, and an affected and over-elaborated style. As a striking instance of this class is mentioned a play on the adventures of Ráma, the Anargha-Rághava, which in spite, or by reason, of the commonplace character of its sentiments, the extravagance of its diction, and the obscurity of its mythology, is started to enjoy a higher reputation with the pandits of present age than the master-pieces of Kálidása and Babhávuti. To the close of this period, the 14thc century, has likewise (but without any pretension to certainty0 been ascribed the only Tamil drama of which we possess in English version. Arichandra (The Martyr of Truth) exemplifies—with a strange likeness in the contrivance of its plot to the Book of Job and Faust—in the trials of a heroically enduring king the maxim "Better die than lie."

V. Isolated plays remains from centuries later than the 14th ; but these, which chiefly turn on the legends of K_ish_a (the last incarnation of Vish_u), may be regarded as a mere aftergrowth, and exhibit the Indian drama in its decay. Indeed, the latest of them, Chitra-Yajna, which was composed about the beginning of the present century, and still serves as a model for Bengali dramatic performances, is improvised comedy) it is left to the actors to supplement. Besides these there are farces or farcical entertainment, more or less indelicate, of uncertain dates.
The number of the plays which have descended to us from so vast an expanse of time is both relatively and absolutely small. Wilson doubts whether all the plays to be found, and those mentioned by Hindu writers on the drama, amount to many more than 60 ; and it has been seen that not more than three are ascribed to either of the two great masters. To these should be, however, added the plays in Tamil, stated to be about 100 in number, and to have been composed by poets who enjoyed the patronage of the Pandian kings of Madura. On the other hand, there is among the Hindus no dearth of dramatic theory. The sage Bharata, the reputed inventor of dramatic entertainments, was likewise revered as the father of dramatic criticism—a combination of function to which the latter days of the English theatre might perhaps furnish an occasional parallel. The commentators (possibly under the influence of inspiration rather than as a strict matter of memory) constantly cite his sátras, or aphorisms. (From sutra, thread, was named the sutra-dhára, thread-holder, carpenter, a term applied to the architect and general manager of sacrificial solemnities, then to the director of theatrical performances). By the 11th century, when the drama was already approaching its decline, dramatic criticism had reached an advanced point ; and the Dasa Rupaka (of which the text belongs to that age) distinctly defines the ten several kinds of dramatic composition. Other critical works followed at alter dates, exhibiting a rage for subdivision unsurpassed by the efforts of Western theorists, ancient or modern ; the misfortune is that there should not be examples remaining (if they ever existed) to illustrate all the branches of so elaborate a dramatic system. "What," inquires the manager of an actor in the induction tone of the most famous of Indian plays, "are those qualities which the virtuous, the wise, the venerable, the learned, and the Brahmans, require in a drama?" "Profound exposition of the various passions," is the reply, "pleasing interchange of mutual affection, loftiness of character, delicate expression of desire, a surprising story, and elegant language." "Then," says the manager (for the Indian dramatists, though not, like Ben Jonson, wont to "rail" the public "into approbation," are unaffected by mauvaise honte) "I recollect one." And he proceeds to state that "Babhavúti has given us a drama composed by him, replete with all qualities, to which indeed this sentence is applicable: ‘How little do they know who speak of us with censure! This entertainment is not for them. Possibly some one exists, or will exist, of similar tastes with myself ; for time is boundless, and the world is wide.’" This self-possessed disregard of popularity, springing from an imperturbable consciousness of lofty aims, accounts for much that is characteristic of the higher class of Indian plays. It explains both their paucity and their length, renders intelligible the chief peculiarity in their diction, and furnishes the key to their most striking ethical as well as literary qualities. Connected in their origin with religious worship, they were only performed on solemn occasions, chiefly of a public nature, and more especially at seasons sacred to some divinity. This, though they might in some instances be reproduced, they were always written with a view to one particular solemn representation. Again, the greater part of every one of the plays of Northern India is written in Sanskrit, which ceased to be a popular language by 300 B.C., but continued the classical, and at the same time the sacred, form of speech of the Brahmans. Sanskrit is spoken by the heroes and principal personages of the plays, while the female and inferior characters use varieties, more or less refined, of the Prakrit language (as a rule not more than three, that which is employed in the songs of the women being the poetic dialect of the most common Prakrít language, the Çauraseni). Hence, part at least of each play cannot have been understood by the majority of the audience, except in so far as their general acquaintance with the legends or stories treated enabled them to follow the course of the action. Every audience thus contained an inner audience, which could alone feel the full effect of the drama. It is, then, easy to see why the Hindu critics should make demands upon the art, into which only highly-trained and refined intellects were capable of entering, or called upon to enter. The general public could not be expected to appreciate the sentiments expressed in a drama, and thus (according to the process prescribed by Hindu theory) to receive instruction by means of amusement. These sentiments are termed rasas (tastes or flavours), and said to spring from the bhávas (conditions of mind and body). A variety of subdivisions is added ; but the sa_ta rasa is logically enough excluded from dramatic composition, inasmuch as it implies absolute quiescence.

The Hindu critics know of no distinction directly corresponding to that between tragedy and comedy, still less of any determined by the nature of the close of a play. For, in accordance with the child-like element of their character, the Hindus dislike an unhappy ending to any story, and a positive rule accordingly prohibits a fatal conclusion in their dramas. The general term for all dramatic compositions is rúpaka (from rúpa, form), those of an inferior class being distinguished as uparúpakas. Of the various subdivisions of the rúpaka, in a more limited sense, the nataka, or play proper, represents the most perfect kind. Its subject should always be celebrated and important—it is virtually either heroism or love, and most frequent the latter—and the hero should be a demigod or divinity (such as Ráma in Babhavúti’s heroic plays) or a king (such as the hero at Sákuntalá). But although the earlier drama tists took their plots from the sacred writings or Puránás. they held themselves at liberty to vary the incidents,—a licence from which the later poets abstained. Thus, in accordance, perhaps, with the respective developments in the religions life of the two peoples, the Hindu drama in this respect reversed the progressive practice of the Greek. The prakara_as agree in all essentials with the natakas except that they are less elevated ; their stories are mere fictions, taken from actual life in a respectable class of society.1 Among the species of the uparúpaka may be mentioned the trotaka, in which the personages are partly human, partly divine, and of which a famous example remains.2 Of the bha_a, a monologue in one act, one literary example is extant—a curious picture of manners in which the speaker describes the different persons he meets at a spring festival in the streets of Kolahalapur.3 The satire of the farcical prahasanas is usually directed against the hypocrisy of ascetics and Brahmans, and the sensuality of the wealthy and powerful. These trifles represent the lower extreme of the dramatic scale, to which scale, to which, of course, the principles that follow only partially apply.

Unity of action is strictly enjoined by Hindu theory, though not invariably observed in practice. Episodical or prolix interruptions are forbidden ; but, in order to facilitate the connection, the story of the play is sometimes carried on by narratives spoken by actors or "interpreters," something after the fashion of the Chorus in Henry V., or of Gower in Pericles. "Unity of time" is liberally, if rather arbitrarily, understood by the later critical authorities as limiting the duration of the action of a single year ; but even this is exceeded in more than one classical play.4 The single acts are to confine the events occurring in them to "one course of the sun," and usually do so. "Unity of place" is unknown to the Hindu drama, by reason of the absence of scenery ; for the plays were performed in the open courts of palaces, perhaps at times in large halls set apart for public entertainments, or in the open air. Hence change of scene is usually indicated in the texts ; and we find5 the characters making long journeys on the stage, under the eyes of spectators not trained to demand "real" mileage.

With the solemn character of the higher kind of dramatic performances accord the rules and prohibitions defining what may be called the properties of the Indian drama. Not only should death never be inflicted coram populo, but the various operations of biting, scratching, kissing, eating, sleeping, the bath, and the marriage ceremony should never take place on the stage. Yet such rules are made to be occasionally broken. It is true that the mild humour of the vidúshaka is restricted to his "gesticulating eating" instead of perpetrating the obnoxious act.6 The charming love-scene in the Sákuntalá (at least in the earlier recension of the play) breaks off just as the hero is about to act the part of the bee to the honey of the heroine’s lips.7 But later writers are less squeamish, or less refined. In two dramas8 the heroine is dragged on the stage by her braid of hair ; and his outrage, a worse one than that imputed to Dunstan, is in both instances the motive of the action. In a third,9 sleeping and the marriage ceremony occur in the course of the representation.

The dramatic construction of the Indian plays presents no very striking peculiarities. They open with a benediction (nándí), followed by "some account" of the author, and by an introductory scene between the manager and one of the actors, which is more less skillfully connected with the opening of the play itself. This is divided into acts (ankas) and scenes ; of the former a nataka should have not fewer than 5, or more than 10; 7 appears a common number ; "the great reaches 14. Thus the length of the higher class of Indian plays is considerable—about that of an Aeschylean trilogy ; but not more than a single play was ever performed on the same occasion. Comic plays are restricted to two acts (here called sandhis). In theory the scheme of an Indian drama corresponds very closely to the general outline of dramatic construction given above ; it is a characteristic merit that the business is rarely concluded before the last act. The piece closes, as it began, with a benediction or prayer. Within this framework room is found for situation as ingeniously devised and highly wrought as those in any modern Western play. What could be more pitiful than the scene in Sákuntalá, where the true wife appears before her husband, whose remembrance of her is fatally overclouded by a charm ; what more terrific than that in Málatí and Mádhava, where the lover rescues his beloved from the horrors of the charnel-field? Recognition—especially between parents and children—frequently gives rise scenes of a pathos which Euripides has not surpassed.1 The ingenious device of a "play within the play" (so familiar to the English drama) is employed with the utmost success by Babhavúti.2 On the other hand, miraculous metamorphosis3 and, in a later play, vulgar magic lend their aid to the progress of the action. With scenes of strong effectiveness contrast others of the most delicate poetic grace—such as the indescribably lovely little episode of the two damsels of the god of love helping one another to pluck the red and green bud from the mango tree ; or of gentle domestic pathos—such as that of the courtesan listening to the prattle of her lover’s child, one of the prettiest scenes of a kind rarely kept free from affectation in the modern drama. For the dénouement in the narrower sense of the term the Indian dramatists largely resort to the expedient of the dues ex machina, often in a sufficiently literal sense.5

Every species of drama having its appropriate kind of hero or heroine, theory here again amuses itself with an infinitude of subdivisions. Among the heroines are to be noticed the courtesans, whose social position to some extent resembles that of the Greek hetaerae, and association with whom does not seem in practice, however it may be in theory, to be regarded as a disgrace even to Brahmans.6 In general, the Indian drama indicates relations between the sexes subject to peculiar restraints of usage, but freer than those which Mahometan example seems to have introduced into higher Indian society. The male characters are frequently drawn with skill, and sometimes with genuine force. Prince Samsthanaka7 is a type of selfishness born in the purple worthy to rank beside figures of at the modern drama, of which this has at times naturally been a favourite class of character ; elsewhere8 the intrigues of ministers are not more fully exposed than their characters and principles of action are judicioiusly discriminated. Among the lesser personages common in the Indian drama, two are noticing, as corresponding though by no means precisely to familiar types of other dramatic literatures. These are the vita, the accomplished but dependent companion (both of men and women), and the vidúshaka, the humble associate (not servant) of the prince, and the buffoon of the action.9 Strangely enough, he is always a Brahman, or the pupil of a Brahman. His humour is to be ever intent on the pleasures of a quiet life, and on that of eating in particular ; his jokes are always devoid of both harm and point.

Thus, clothing itself in a diction always ornate and tropical, in which (as Rückert has happily expressed it) the prose is the warp and the verse the weft ; in which (as Goethe says) words become allusions, allusions similes, and similes metaphors, the Indian drama essentially depended upon its literary qualities, and upon the familiar sanctity of its favourite themes, for such effect as it was able to produce. Of scenic apparatus it knew but little ; the simple devices by which exists and entrances were facilitated it is unnecessary to describe, and on the contrivances it resorted to for such "properties" as were required (above all, the cars of the gods and of their emissaries)10 it is useless to speculate. Propriety of costume, on the other hand, seems always to have been observed, agreeably both to the peculiarities of the Indian drama and to the habits of the Indian people.

The ministers of an art practised under such conditions could not but be regarded with respect, and spared the contempt or worse, which, except among one other great civilized people, the Greeks, has everywhere at one time or another been the actor’s lot. Companies of actors seem to have been common in India at an early date, and the inductions show the players to have been regarded as respectable members of society. In later if not in earlier times individual actors enjoyed a widespread reputation,—"all the world" is acquainted with the talents of Kalaha-Kandala.11 The directors, as already stated, were usually Brahmans. Female parts were in general, though not invariably, represented by females. One would like to know whether such was the case in a piece12 where—after the fashion of more than one Western play—a crafty minister passes off his daughter as a boy, on which assumption she is all but married to a person of her own sex.

The Indian drama would, if only for purposes of comparison, be invaluable to the student of this branch of literature. But from the point of view of purely literary excellence it holds its own against all except the very foremost dramas of the world. It is, indeed, a mere phrase to call Kálidása the Indian Shakespeare—a title which, moreover, if intended as anything more than a synonym for poetic pre-eminence, might fairly be disputed in favour of Babhavúti ; while it would be absolutely misleading to place a dramatic literature, which, like the Indian, is the mere quintessence of the culture of a caste, by the side of one which represents the fullest development of the artistic consciousness of a people such as the Hellenes. The Indian drama cannot be described as national in the broadcast and highest sense of the word ; it is, in short, the drama of a literary class, though as such it exhibits many of the noblest and most refined, as well as of the most characteristic, features of Hindu religion and civilization. The ethics of the Indian drama are of a lofty character, but they are those of a scholastic system of religious philosophy, self-conscious of its completeness. To the power of Fate is occasionally ascribed a supremacy, to which gods as well as mortals must how ;13 but if man’s present life is merely a phase in the cycle of his destinies, the highest of moral efforts at the at the same time points to the summit of possibilities, and self-sacrifice is the supreme condition both of individual perfection and of the progress of the world. Such conceptions as these seem at once to enfold and to overshadow the moral life of the Indian drama. The affections and passions forming part of self it delineates with a fidelity to nature which no art can neglect ; but the freedom of the picture is restricted by conditions which to us are unfamiliar and at times seem intolerable, but which it was impossible for the Indian poet’s imagination to neglect. The sheer self-absorption of ambition or love appears inconceivable by ht e minds of any of these poets ; and their social philosophy is always based on the system of caste. On the other hand, they are masters of many of the truest forms of pathos, above all of that which blends with resignation. In humour of a delicate kind they are by no means deficient ; to its lower forms they are generally strangers, even in productions of a professedly comic intention. Of wit, Indian dramtic literature—though a play on words is as the breath of its nostrils—furnishes hardly any examples intelligible to Western notions.

The distinctive excellence of the Indian drama is to be sought in the poetic robe which envelops it as flowers overspread the bosom of the earth in the season of spring. In its nobler productions, as least, it is never unture to its half religious, half rural origin ; it weaves the wreaths of idyllic fancies in an unbroken chain, adding to its favourite and familiar blossoms ever fresh beauties from an inexchustible garden. Nor is it unequal to depicting the grander aspects of nature in her mighty forests and on the shores of the ocean. A profound familiarity with its native literature can here alone follow its diction through a ceaseless flow of phrase and figure, listen with understanding to the hum of the bee as it hangs over the lotus, and contemplate with Sákuntalá pious sympathy the creeper as it winds round the mango trees. But the poetic beauty of the Indian drama reveals itself in the mysterious charm of its outline, if not in its full glow, even to the untrained ; nor should the study of it—for which the materials may yet increase—be left aside by any lover of literature.


FOOTNOTE (p.398)

1 e.g., Mrichchhakáti ; Mákatí and Mádhava.

2 Vikrama and Urvasí.

3 _a_ada-Tilaka.

4 Sákuntalá ; Uttara-Ráma-Charitra.

5Arichandra, act iv.

6 Nágánanda, act i.

7 Act iii. ; cf. Nágánanda, act iii.

8 Ve_i-Samhára ; Pracka_da-Pa_dáva.

9 Viddha-Salabhanjika.

FOOTNOTE (p.399)

(1) Sákuntalá ; Uttara-Ráma-Charitra.

(2) Ib., act vii.

(3) Vikrama and Urvási, act iv.

(4) Ratnávalí.

(5) Vikrama and Urvási: Arichandra; Nágánanda.

(6) M_ichchhakatí.

(7) Ib.

(8) Mudrá-Rakshasa.

(9) Sákuntalá; Nágánanda.

(10) Sákuntalá, acts vi. And vii. ; Málatí and Mádhava, act v.

(11) Induction to Anargha-Rághava.

(12) Viddha-Salabhanjika.

(13) Vikrama and Urvasí.

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