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(7): A Brief Note on the Origin and the Architecture of Indian Classical Theatre

Preamble

The question on, if not the whole issue of, Indian Theatre, whether classical, folk, modern or whatever appendage is affixed to it raises eyebrows. Why? There was no India as known today prior to a certain and recent period of time, which is following the British colonial masters’ declaration of independence to a people who hitherto shared no language, religion, norm and culture; the group of people who were even sometimes hostile to one another. Many scholars and theatre historians and critics have intensely argued (and the argument still continuous) on the true origin, and, again, the existence of an all-encompassing concept called Indian theatre. Reasons ascribed to such contentions are many: Is this the Hindus’, or the Muslims’, the Sikhs’, the Buddhists’, or other religions’ performance that is more befitting to be tagged Indian Theatre? So also the ethnic dispensations; Hindi, Punjabi, Kannada, Bengali, etc all rightly belong to the India; or the recently emerged but very popular English theatre. One is left with many questions. Thus, simply calling any single act of performance and labelling it as Indian is but a mere assumption, or what Ahuja (2012) impliedly describes as “Pan-Indian[ism]”. It is an argument that is unending. Theatre practice in India is heavily regional-based, sometimes language-based, culture-specific a la based, and often than not, religious-themed. Be it, however, as it may, whichever theatre performance, as per as I see it, that is carried out in India, by Indians and with one of the multitude Indian thematic preoccupations could be qualified to be termed an Indian theatrical performance.

The Indian Theatre

Above was briefly explored for the sake of argument. Besides, everything was begun by somebody, at somewhere and in a certain period; the same with the Indian theatre. Theatre is very much a part of Indian’s ancient history. But, a fact remains; the history or origin of theatre all over the world is
trailed with so much hypothetical postulations. Many “authoritative” scholars say that theatre, or more narrowly, theatrical performance, is as old as the first man on earth, hence the difficulty in tracing its exact root. This supposition is held by many other theatre historians and archaeologists, though some scholars later refer to those performances said to be done by the First Man on earth as antecedents of drama and/or quasi or para-drama we know today (See Clark, 1918, Damen, 2009 and others).

However, regarding the origin of the Indian theatre, Chatterjee (undated), and many other scholars, believes that the theatre has a tradition going back to at least 5000 years. It began with Regvadic dialogue hymns during the Vedic period. Natya Shashtra is said to be the earliest known Sanskrit compendium on Indian theatre, attributed to the sage Bharata. According to the famous Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance (2012), the encyclopaedic text of Natya Shashtra was allegedly written almost two millennia ago, where it incorporated interpolations over the years which have been tacitly approved by gurus and performers.

The Classical Indian Theatre

The Classical theatre is one form of theatre (others are folk/traditional and modern), and this is a theatre which is based on rules, regulations and modification. In India, there exists a treatise which contains many dramaturgical issues called Natya Shashtra written in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. This was written by Bharata in between 200 B.C and A.D 1000 (there is no consensus on the exact time it was written). According to one account, the Natya Shastra is also known as Natyaveda or the fifth Veda, and, it is a detailed classical manual on the theory and practice of Indian aesthetics— theatre, music, dance, poetics, gestures and many other allied arts. It talks about Rasa (“flavour”, “feeling”, “sentiment”), which is grounded in a spectrum of at least nine distinct emotional registers—erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrifying, odious, marvellous and peaceful (Kennedy, 2011).

The treatise was taken up for performance. This was most of the times carried out during some sort of ritualistic or ceremonial practices by the local people. The performers moved further ahead to different areas, where there spectacular and many a times marvellous show was awarded by the amused massive audience in kind, or “cash”.  This stands to mean that the very earliest performances of the Indian classical drama was done in what modern theatre scholars called “street”, and then it moved to “stage”. The first and the most important requirement of a theatre is that it should allow people to gather round to watch and hear the performers. Horwitzz (1912:22) records that when it is in the rainy seasons, the [actors’] place was the city temples, but during the fine months of the year the evening entertainment was given on the village green. He goes on describing the setting that “A fellow-actor expounded the Sanskrit verses to the illiterate villagers in their local patois”. Though “illiterates”, being the plots of the play are based on epics, history, folk tales and legend, the audience are mostly familiar with the stories. The theatre language, as Chatterjee (undated) records, also, requires a visual presentation through gestures, mime and movement. This brings us to the crux of the question at hand.

The Need for Permanent Theatres

The need for permanent theatre is created as much by the needs of the audience as by the need of the actors. While permanent theatre may allow for greater comfort for the actors, who are probably getting tired of their tour in and around towns; and, moreover, it means a greater development and sophistication in the production, a very important function is to contain the audience within a space that allows the actors to control their attention. One of the advantages of this is this if the audience is expected to pay admission, then there has to be a clear demarcation of territory between them and the actors.

Although there was a written treatise of Natya Shashtra the theatre was heavily dependent upon improvisation. This was so because when the Sanskrit became too choice and high-flown for light street gossip and plain home talk…that is when, in summary, it became very popular and gained many patronages. The bharatas and magadhas began to introduce vernacular versions of both epics, and gradually discarded bookish Sanskrit altogether (Horrwits, 1912). The theatre building could be said to be somehow similar to proscenium theatre (Devlin, 1989). We shall therefore examine how the architecture of this theatre looks like:






The Natya Shastra Stage

The Natya Shastra describes nine types of theatre spaces for performing drama in Sanskrit – three shapes (square, rectangle, triangle) and three sizes for each (large, medium, small). A medium-sized rectangular theatre could hold roughly 400 spectators and was 29 metres long and 14.5 metres wide. The auditorium took up exactly one-half of the space and was enclosed to improve the acoustics. The theatre was regarded as representing the universe. Some stages were consequently divided into two levels, with the upper level for celestial figures and the lower level for terrestrial figures. The stage space was also divided into two sections, backstage and performance area, which were linked by a pair of doors.
Scenes are set in any background. Stage direction and location are indicated through music, dhruvagana. Singers and instrumentalist perform this duty. Music and dance find a place in the theme itself. The play begins with a nandf followed by an introduction by Stitradhiira. The prologue introduces the author and play and announces the commencement of performance.

The exponent figures of the classical Indian theatre according to Chatterjee (undated) include Bhasa, Kalidasa, Shudraka, Vishakhadatta, Bhabavhuti among other playwrights. The Sanskrit theatre is, however, an extinct theatre in this contemporary time. Ahuja (2012:286) believes that “[it] is now, more or less, the theatre of the academics who read plays in Sanskrit, talk broadly about classical dramaturgy, do plays in school, colleges and universities with students or scholars”. This is so due, among other reasons, to the reason that the language is not decipherable, neither used by people except a very tiny minority; or only as a religious or ritualistic language by Bharamis.

Conclusion

As already discussed in the foregoing paragraphs, theatre and theatrical practice are unlike many other historical artefacts and practice, for their origin remains very obscure. It is perhaps due to that some accounts attribute that to the god, Brahma and other numerous contentious assertions. Nonetheless, scholars have been and are being putting up “evidences” to prove their various findings. All there are in place are yet hypothetical postulations. Even these often discussed phenomena of rituals of Greek, Sanskrit in India and so on despite all “proofs” are debatable. Nothing is known for certain, authenticity is a mere chimera, to borrow one scholar’s expression.


Reference:
Ahuja, Chaman (2012). Contemporary Theatre of India: An Overview. New Delhi: National Book Trust.
Clark, H. B (1918). European Theories of the Drama. Cincinnati: Steward and Kidd Company.
 Chatterjee, M (undated). “Indian Theatre: Past Perfect, Future Tense” from www.medialearning.in (accessed on: 3rd September, 2013).
Devlin, Diana (1989). Mask & Scene: An Introduction to a World View of Theatre. London: Macmillan.
John, Damen (2009). Classical Drama and Theatre. United State:  Creative Commons Attribution Publishers.
Jane, Hartmann (1977). History of Drama Therapy. New York: Haskel House.
Kennedy, Dennis (Ed.) (2011). Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Horrwitz, E.P (1912). The Indian Theatre: A Brief Survey of the Sanskrit Drama. Bombay: Blackie and Son Limited.

*Note Yet in Print:

Beyond everydayness Theatre Architecture in Central Europe (Book).


NB:


I felt compelled to put this piece on my blog for the benefit of some more students like me. It is my first write-up on the Indian Theatre; while writing it, I realized that there is scanty of relevant literatures especially on the internet. This shall be, I hope, an addition; and, I hope someday there would be an avalanche of that.

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