Origin of Drama/Theatre – Indian perspective

Posted On: Monday, March 20th, 2023
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Author: Rohini Manjunath A. R, Bengaluru

Published as a part of Śāstra Raṅga-2023 Internship ; offered by NoopuraBhramari-  IKS Centre.  Article series No – 3

Nāṭyaśāstra – the foremost compendium on Indian Dramaturgy forms the basis of performing arts practiced across the country.  The root of the Sanskrit word Nāṭya is Nat which means “act”. The word Śāstra means, “a sacred precept, rule, scriptural injunction, manual, compendium, book or treatise”.  The word śastra is used in the context of Indian literature, for any department of knowledge or science, in a defined area of practice. Bharata in Nāṭyaśāstra describes the performing art in the form that was in practice in his times. Nāṭyaśāstra deals with diverse themes associated with Indian Dramaturgy. Besides theatre, Nāṭyaśāstra also lays down guidelines to stagecraft, dance and music, poetry.

The scope of drama lies in the following verse where Bharata says:

Na tajnanām na tacilpam na sā vidyā na sā kalā

Nāsau yōgō na tatkarma nātyesmin yanna driśyate

(Nāṭyaśāstra, Chapter 1, verse 116)

There is no wise maxim, no learning, no art or craft, no device, no action that is not found in the drama.

The treatise begins with an invocation to Lord Brahma and Lord Śiva in the mangala śloka. Though the author has overlooked Lord Vishnu in the mangala śloka, he cites Him as the originator of Kaiśiki Vritti .   Further, the great rishis like Ātreya and others approach Sage Bharata who was well versed in Naṭya and pose five questions about the origin of Naṭya. The answers to the questions form an elaborate dialogue between Bharata and other sages led by Sage Ātreya. Sage Bharata elucidates the theatrical aspects and its application in the form of six thousand verses (5569 to be precise)[1] in 36 chapters.

The first chapter Naṭyotpatti involves the narration of the story where at the onset of Tretayuga when the people were governed by Ariṣaḍvarga or the six enemies of the mind, Devas lead by Mahendra (Indra) as their leader approached Brahma requesting him to provide them with an entertainment medium which is both audible and visible and that which can be experienced by all classes of people including Shudras.

According to Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad[2] (Chapter 1, Brahmana 4, Verse 13)Sa naiva vyabhavat sa śaudram varnamasrujat pūṣaṇami; iyam vai pūśā, iyam hēdam sarvam puśyanti yadidam kiṁcha

He (brahmana / brahman) did not still flourish – He projected the Sudra – as Pūshan (as nourisher). This earth verily is Pūshan (the nourisher); for the earth nourishes all this whatsoever.

Hence, besides being a class that provides food through agriculture, shūdra is also understood as the class which supports the other three classes of people (providing services to other classes itself is his job / karmavritti).

Then Brahma in his meditative state recalls the four Vedas, compiles them and creates the fifth Veda which has itihāsa (historical tales), which conduces to duty / dharma, wealth or artha, as well as fame, which contains good counsel and collection of maxims, and gives guidance to all future generation in all their actions. They would be enriched by the knowledge of all Shastras (authoritative works) which gave reviews of all arts and crafts (śilpa)”.

According to Panini’s Aṣtādhyāyi the word śilpa mentioned here is not restricted to the handcrafted – metal – idol making skills but includes music, dance and theatre. It includes sixty our art forms / all kinds of artform.[3]. The Kaushitaki Bhramana includes vocal music, dance and musical instruments in its fold. Ramayana, Mahabharata and Kamasutra also include other forms while mentioning its scope. Further in this period all the artforms integrated in drama[4].

Naṭyaveda thus created consisted of Paṭya – the text taken from Ṛgveda, geeta – music from Sāmaveda, Abhinaya – histrionic representation from Yajurveda and Rasa – aesthetic experience from Atharvaṇaveda. Ṛgveda Samhita is in the form of hymns which forms the basis for any composition. All the features of classical poetry also can be traced to the Ṛgveda.  The Sāmaveda is the Veda of melodies and chants. Yajurveda is a compilation of ritual-offering formulas that were said by a priest while an individual performed ritual actions such as those before the sacrificial fire (Yagna). Both the priest and the performer employ hand gestures.  Atharvaṇaveda is the Veda which is related to both worldly happiness and spiritual knowledge. It is a Veda of varied knowledge. Hence it is filled with lots of emotions / bhava and life energy / rasa.

This fifth Veda was then passed on by Brahma to Indra who in turn passes it on to Sage Bharata as the Nāṭyaveda could be brought into practice only by those who are able to receive, sustain, become acquainted with and practice (inured to hard work).  These are also the criteria for a Naṭa (actor / dancer) who follows the tradition to this day. On Brahma’s instructions Bharata learnt Nāṭyaveda from Him and taught his 100 sons the application of the same.

On a close analysis we find that 104 names are mentioned which include the names of Ṛshis, Rākṣasās, gods, gaṇās, names of Rasas (eg. Bheebhatsa, Veera etc) and authors (Kohala, Dattila etc)[5]. This also indicates that the art permeated across all classes of people.

Bharata then assigned various roles to his sons and adopted Vrittis (dramatic styles) – Ārabhaṭi (energetic), Bhārati (verbal) and Sātvati (representation of the temperament) to perform. Further on Brahmas instructions Kaiśiki (graceful) was introduced which led to the creation of twenty four Apsaras or celestial nymphs.

The etymology of Apsara is अद्भ्यः सरन्ति उद्गच्छन्ति, सृ-असुन् i.e.,”moving in the waters or between the waters of the clouds”[6].

Apsaras are the epitome of grace and hence it is expected of a dancer to be as graceful as the   creatures in the water which is swift / agile.[7]

Bharata then presented the play in the festival (Indradhwaja mahōtsava) in honour of Indra’s victory over dānavas. This play was an imitation of the situation in which daityas were defeated by Gods.   The Gods were filled with joy and presented him with various rewards (which are used as props in the theatre[8]). One such example is the Kuṭilaka – a crooked staff presented by Lord Brahma which is used by the sūtradhāra in dance dramas even to this day in Yakshagana and Bhagavatamela nātaka. The instigated malevolent spirits at once paralysed the speech and movement of the actors with their magical powers. Indra ascertaining the cause of this, punished the asurās with his banner staff. This act of smashing the asuras to pulp with the weapon is known as Jarjara and hence the weapon gets its name.

Performing the Jarjara ceremony (preliminary) pleases the leaders of Vighnas, according to Nāṭyaśāstra Chapter 1, Verse 57-58, “The performance of the Preliminaries which means worshipping (pūjā) the gods (devas), is praised by them (i.e., gods) and is conducive to duty, fame and long life. And this performance whether with or without songs, is meant for pleasing the Daityas and the Dānavas as well as the gods.”

According to the Nāṭyaśāstra Chapter 1, Verse 11-13, the nāṭyācārya (master of the dramatic art) should offer pūjā to the Jarjara for attaining good success at the performance, and pray to it as follows “Thou art Indra’s weapon killing all the demons; thou hast been fashioned by all the gods, and thou art capable of destroying all the obstacles; bring victory to the king and defeat to his enemies, welfare to cows and Brahmins, and progress to dramatic undertakings”.

Performing the Jarjara ceremony (preliminary) pleases the leaders of Vighnas, according to Nāṭyaśāstra Chapter 1, Verse 57-58, “The performance of the Preliminaries which means worshipping (pūjā) the gods (devas), is praised by them (i.e., gods) and is conducive to duty, fame and long life. And this performance whether with or without songs, is meant for pleasing the Daityas and the Dānavas as well as the gods.”

Then Lord Brahma instructed Viśvakarma to build a playhouse (Theatre space) and with the help of other gods the playhouse was protected. Gods became guardians of various parts of the playhouse. Meanwhile Brahma also pacifies the vighnās by explaining the characteristics of drama saying that in drama there is no exclusive representation of either gods or demons. It is a representation of the states (bhavaanukeertana) of the three worlds.  It addresses various departments of arts, knowledge and action etc.

The chapter concludes with Bharata elucidating the importance of performing pooja to the Ranga devatas deities of theatre / playhouse.


[1] (99+) Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra | Shruti Das – Academia.edu

[2] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – Shankara Bhashya translated by Swami Madhavananda : Swami Madhavananda : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

[3] Devaālaya śilpagala Nāṭyamānyate, Dr B N Manorama, page 3,

[4] Devaālaya śilpagala Nāṭyamānyate, Dr B N Manorama, page 4

[5] Oral documentation – Dr Manorama B N

[6] Sanskrit Dictionary

[7] Oral documentation – Dr Manorama B N

[8] Natyashastra Kathegalu – Dr Manorama B N

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