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Natya Brahman - Theatric Universe: A Concept of Ancient Indian Theatre (An Old and Rare Book)

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Natya Brahman - Theatric Universe: A Concept of Ancient Indian Theatre (An Old and Rare Book)
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Natya Brahman - Theatric Universe: A Concept of Ancient Indian Theatre (An Old and Rare Book)

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Item Code: NAM721
Author: Anita Ratnam Rangaraj
Publisher: Society for Archaeological Historical and Epigraphical Research, Madras
Language: English
Edition: 1979
Pages: 117 (56 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 160 gms

I have been happy to read Anita Ratnam Rangraj's refreshingly charming book Natya Brahman.

Her introduction is a convincing and concise statement of the fundamental difference between Aristotle's Poetics and Bharata's Natya Sastra. In a subsequent chapter she analyzes the theory of Rasa with penetrating insight and rare lucidity. Her chapter on the dramatic poem is thought-provoking. The chapters on Abhinaya, the play-halls and the players and playgoers present many complex problems of Indian dramaturgy in a simple direct style. All through she exhibits a sensitive understanding of the ancient Indian theatre and a modern sensibility. The author's command of the kinetic medium has been obviously of great help to her in interpreting obscure textual material.

Anita combines in herself the sensitivity of an artist and the critical objectivity of a scholar. She represents the new generation of dancers and scholars who have emerged in the sixties and seventies of the century. I hope that this maiden effort will be followed by further in-depth studies of several problems of the Indian aesthetic theory and practice which await detailed study.

For me the introduction has been particularly rewarding. The clear distinctions which she makes between the Aristotelian theory and that of Bharata based on the concepts of Triloka and Triguna will bear repetition and fuller elucidation.

Commendable also are the chapters on the play halls, players and playgoers which throw interesting new light on these neglected topics. I hope all this will stimulate further work.


It is quite appropriate that Anita has chosen the name "the Natya Brahman" the universal theatre, to explain eloquently and lucidly to the western reader the first and foremost treatise on Indian theatre as a vehicle of communication. In doing so, she has neither allowed the weight of traditional reverence handed down through several centuries to cloud her vision nor has she made the write-up pedantic with technical jargon. She writes by virtue of her vast experience as an accomplished dancer, with commendable communicative talent. The SAHER is happy to publish this work in its publication series.

From the primitive concept of singing and acting, satisfying the hedonistic pleasures, to elevate to the concept of divinity, is obviously a sign of maturity and thought process. In Indian parlance the Universal Principle is the highest form of expression, beauty, power, and all that could be conceived of as the best by the human mind. It is designated by the word Brahman. Dance, which includes action, music, and gestures is no exception and is itself Brahman "the Natya Brahman". Right from the days of the first treatise on Natya of Bharata (whatever its date may be) this art was held in veneration as emanating from the great Lord himself, Lord Mahadeva. Three essential elements-the actor, the theatre, and the spectator-are needed to lead Natya to fruition. The actor is Lord Nataraja who embodies in Himself dance, music and play. He is the Cosmic actor. The spectator is none other than the universal Mother, Goddess Uma. In music, dance, literature and sculpture Uma is represented as the Primordial spectator in whose immediate presence the cosmic dance is performed. The vast universal space (Ambara, or Akasa) is the theatre in which this action takes place. According to the metaphysicians, all these are the manifestations of the same Supreme -the Brahman.

That Bharata's Natya Sastra has influenced Indian theatrical tradition throughout the length and breadth of the country, from the early centuries of the Christian era, is evident from the available literature in South India.

That the arts of dance, music and acting were intimately associated with the temple movement from the period earlier than 7th Century A.D. is gleaned from the sacred hymns of the Saivite and Vaishnavite saints. That a number of dancing girls well versed in their art were dancing in the temple rituals and festivals is frequently mentioned. The Bhakti sringara forms the main mode of expression in these sacred hymns. An inscription assign- able to the beginning of 8th Century from the famous site, Mamallapuram, mentions sage Bharata as a great exponent of music. It is interesting to note from this record that Brahma, Hari, Narada, Skanda, Bharata and Siva were recognized as great masters of music. It is thus evident Bharata as an exponent of music was known in Tamil country by 700 A.D. According to Bharata, when the theatre was commissioned, Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Subrahmanya and Narada besides other deities were to be propitiated. While the association of other deities mentioned above is well known, reference to Subrahmanya both in Bharata's Natya sastra and the above inscription seems to point to a close relationship. The seven mothers called the "Sapta matas", are named the dancing mothers, "Natya Mathas" in the Natya Sastra.

"Namaste Natya Matribhyalt Brahmyadhibhyo Namonamah".

In a cave temple at Aihole, ascribed to the Chalukya rulers of Western India (6th Century A.D.), Siva as a dancer is carved on the wall. To his side is the Primordial spectator, Uma and flanking them are the seven mothers also shown dancing. This is clearly after the tradition of Bharata's Natya Sastra. This Bharatan tradition of Siva as the Divine dancer, Parvati as the spectator and the seven mothers dancing is also found in the southern part of India, near Madurai, in a rock-cut temple precisely dated 772. A.D.

Silappadikaram, the celebrated Tamil work, has a separate chapter on Arangetram- i.e. performance, revealing a full knowledge of Bharata's theatrical tradition. Its date of composition is much debated; conservative estimates place it in the 3rd, 4th Century A.D. The work makes a pointed reference to Natya Sastra (Natya-Nannul-3-40) and gives a vivid description of Natya- charya, musicians, instrumental musicians, the composers, the details regarding the construction of the theatre, and the various poses, movements and gestures. It is a veritable treatise on Natya in Tamil. There are two commentaries, one by Arumpada Urai Asiriyar and the other by Adiyarkkunallar. The commentator calls the Silappadikaram a Nataka Kavya, i.e. a drama in poem. Several treatises on music and drama were in existence in Tamil language; the names of some have survived but the treatises themselves were lost even by the time of the commentary. Perunarai, Perunkuruku were musical treatises mentioned as lost. Panca Bharatiya by Narada was also lost. Bharata's Natya Sastra was available in Tamil (probably as a translation). But even this seems to have been lost by the time of the commentator. Besides Bharata, Agastya the celeberated sage of the South composed a treatise on Natya similar to the one of Bharata. This was also lost by 11th Century. But a few verses from Agastya's Natya Sastra are cited by the commentator. How far Agastya's work differed from that of Bharata and whether it was an earlier indigenous tradition or only a different school of the pan-Indian theatre is difficult to say. There were other works on theatre like Muruval, Jayantam, Gunanal, and Seyirriyam, which survived only partially. Sikhandi, said to be a disciple of Agastya composed a work called "Isai nunukkam" i.e. the secret of music. "Indra Kaliya" by Yamalendra, a Parasava saint, "Pancamarabu" by Arivanar, "Bharata Senapatiyam" by Adivayilar, and "Nataka Tamil nul" by Mativananar are other works in Tamil on theatre and music which are lost. Recently a text "Ponca Marabu" has been published. Whether this text is the same referred to in the commentary of Adiyarkkunallar is yet to be established.

The commentary on Silappadikaram mentions the theatrical tradition (Natya dharma) and worldly tradition (Loka dharma). A comprehensive study of this text, similar to the present study is required to bring out the full import. However a few interesting points are indicated below.

The four styles mentioned by Bharata in his Natya Sastra are named Bharati, Satvati, Arabati and Kaisiki, Silappadikaram was greatly influenced by these four styles of composition. The Pandyan court prospered with Arabati and Satvati styles, and with Vari and Kuravai. The commentator, Adiyarkkunallar, equates Vari with "Kolacari" i.e. to dance assuming another form and is positive that it is derived from dance. Similarly the word Kuravai is also derived from dance. It is not known whether Vari and Kuravai stood for Kaisiki and Bharati styles, respectively.

In the Satvati style, the main motto is dharma, God or man appearing as the hero. Arabati style has artha as the main aim, valorous men appearing as heroes. In Kaisiki, Kama is the main aim, lascivious men appearing as heroes and Bharati has action as the main aim, the dancer appearing as the hero. This view about the main aim and the heroes suited to each style is not found in Bharata's Natya Sastra, which gives a different version of the styles (see page 7). It is not known whether this view of the styles is found in Agastya's Natya Sastra. Commenting on the origin of these four styles, Anita says, "It is possible that these four styles of acting or interpretation developed amongst families of professional actors and the significance of their names was lost" (p. 7). This seems to be the most probable explanation, and is supported by Sangita Ratnakara of Sarngadeva in which gestures with shields and swords are classified under Satvati, Kaisiki, Bharati and Arabati. They are said to be the styles followed by four clans of people viz. Satvatas, Kaisikas, Bharatas and Vrshaganas (Arabati).

Referring to the purpose of Natya, Anita states, (p. 11) "its main function is to refresh a person's mind, to free him from the worries, care and sorrow". In short its main aim is to bestow Santi-peace of mind. To the ancient Hindus the performance of Vedic sacrifices is a Santi Karma. Vedic chanting is concluded with the recitation Santi, Santi. Natya (or theatre) was important only when it became a form of sacrifice, Yajna (P. 10) and Natya is a Santi Karma. (Temple rituals were also called Santi in the southern part of India. Even to this day, the name Santi is applied to the priest in Kerala and the extreme south.) That Natya grew with temple rituals has been explained above.

That Natya itself went by the name Santi is known from early Tamil literature and mediaeval records. Natya, called Kuttu, is broadly divided into two classes, Santi Kuttu and Vinodakuttu, Santi Kuttu is essentially the classical tradition with its manifold divisions, viz., Chokka, Ahamarga, Abhinaya and Natya; Chokka stands for the 108 Karanas described in Bharata's treatise. Ahamarga with sub-divisions Desi, Vadugu and Singala, mainly focuses on love themes; "Abhinaya" is to play gestures suited to the music, but not based on any story and Natya is the playacting suited to the story. The players of all these varieties of dance were called Santikuttar. Actors were both men and women. Mediaeval temple records refer to endowments made for dance performances in the temple premises during rituals and enactment of plays on festival occasions. Several hundred names of such actors, particularly of the period of the Cholas-9th Century to 13 th Century A.D. have come down to us from records.

Most of the temples that received the attention of the rulers and nobles were provided with theatre-halls called Nritta Mandapas, Adal mandapa or Natyasala. In some instances, Kings, Queens and nobles were personally present and witnessed dances and plays enacted in the temple. Some of the mandapas in the temples could be identified as the Natya mandapas of yore. One such mandapa in the Chidambaram temple called Nritta mandapa is illustrated here.

The construction of the theatre hall is referred to in Silappadikaram. When compared to the Bharatan tradition, the measurements of the hall given are small. The measuring rod of the Silappadikaram was only 24 inches (angulas) in length. The hall measured 8 rods in length 7 rods in width. The height of the base was one rod and from base to ceiling four rods. It should be provided with two doorways, one for entrance and one for exit. According to the earlier commentator, Arumpada-urai-Asiriyar, the hall should be constructed as stipulated by experts in theatrical art, Nataka-nul-Asiriyar. But the later commentator, Adiyarkkunallar states that the hall should be constructed as per the plan of the general architects tSirpanid-Asirlyar). Further this commentator states that the theatre hall should be erected in the middle of the village, facing the broad streets.

Another point of interest is the coloring of the body, face etc. and decorating with special head-gear, which are now preserved in the Kerala tradition. But this tradition was in vogue in Tamil country as well, is mentioned by the commentator Adiyarkkunallar. The "Santi Kiittar should colour his face, and wear Viisika (the broad decorated head gear like the Kathakali) and with sword and shield perform dance for Siva and Kali", says an ancient Tamil verse cited by the commentator. A 13th Century sculpture in a temple near Madras shows a Santi Kuttan as described in this verse, attesting to the fact that the tradition prevailed in Tamil country.

This work by Anita Ratnam Rangaraj is a very valuable contribution to the proper understanding of Indian theatre and is sure to stimulate further interest in the subject.

I express profound thanks to Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, Joint Educational Adviser, Government of India for her thought provoking preface.

I would like to place on record the valuable help rendered by many of our friends who prefer to remain anonymous.

To Mr. Nachiappan of Kalakshetra I express my special thanks for the neat printing and to Mr. S .. Visweswaran for going through the proofs.


The Natyasiistra ascribed to Bharata, a hero of approximately the third century of the Christian calendar, is one of the main sources of information on the art of theatre in ancient India. The name Bharata is a very ancient Vedic name which' can be found referred to in the Rig- Veda. Bharata is also the son of Dusyanta who is Kalidasa's hero in "Sakuntala". It is also the name of Lord Rama's younger brother. None of these can be identified with Bharata of the Natyasastra. As a matter of fact, the major- ity of the Puranas (ancient Hindu literary texts) are silent about the so called author of the Niityasiistra and there is not a single legend about him in any of the extant Puriiniis or the epics." There is no evidence to suggest the historical identity of Bharata.

The name Bharata is used to designate a Vedic Indo-Aryan tribe. Bharata is also a synonym for actor and is used in that sense in the Natyasastra itself, much in the way the term Thespian evolved from the name Thespis. On the strength of these two separate meanings of the word Bharata, Adya Rangacharya has suggested the following:

Thus the word Bharata in the Natyasastra refers in the first instance to some members and descendants of a clan or family of that name. This family was the first sponsor and manager of dramatic representation. Either the family heritage was lost or the family ceased, for reasons suggested above, to be recognized as a family. After some time Bharata meant anyone and everyone who sponsored the art and managed or took part in. the production.

Indian tradition reverses the Natyasastra as a book of divine revelation. It also enjoys the unique status of a prescriptive aesthetic law-book, expounding the rules and regulations which govern the world of theatrical activity but only somewhat on the order of Aristotle's The Poetics. Its cosmic view and overall structure resemble the mythological compilations known as the Puriiniis which encompass within themselves the acts and activities, thoughts and feelings of humans and non-humans." The Puranas cover all three worlds, heaven, earth and the underworld, throughout the ages of man-past, present and future: "Niitya is the presentation of the essence and state Of all the three worlds." To the orthodox in India thus the Natyasastra has the combined force and authority of the divinely revealed Srutis," the sage- expounded Smritis and the broad based popular tradition of the Puranas," To a Christian of European background the Purana might be a combination of Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Acquinas and the Old Testament.

Students of comparative drama and theatre in the west often try to understand the place Natyasastra has in the theatrical tradition of India by comparing it with Aristotle's The Poetics. The comparison is both facile and misleading. Like the Greek classic, the Naiyasastra has had enormous influence on centuries of critical thought and artistic endeavour. But the similarity between these two major expositions on the theories of communication in theatre cannot go further than this. The Poetics is an interpretation of theatre in terms of large human experience while the Natyasastra is a restructuring of human experience as theatre, not merely a critical view of existing playwriting and acting. The Poetics is a critical enquiry into a specific phenomenon of Greek theatre. Its object is to provide a rational explanation. The Natyasastra, on the other hand, is a creative attempt to bring together all the known elements of theatrical activity into one mythic world view," Not only is drama described in the Natya- sastra but the philosophy of a whole way of living inspired through sensory pleasures: "There is no knowledge, no craft, no learning, no art, no yoga, no action which one cannot find in Natya.

Where The Poetics is the product of a single scholarly mind in its organization and presentation of a pattern of thinking sprung from Greek philosophical theory, the Natyasastra has literally grown through the centuries as a compilation of several anonymous authors who made contributions at different historical periods." Internal stylistic evidence suggests that the Natyasastra in its extant form is a compilation developed through centuries rather than the work of a single author. Its rich variety, complexities and contradictions cannot be ordered into an easily comprehensible system.

This work is an attempt to provide a general introduction to the Natyasastra; therefore, it cannot be a definitive study in all the textual and thematic complexity that would develop from such a work. Rather it is a study limited to a specific area of human endeavour, dramatic art and performance in the accepted western sense of the term.

Material life and worldly pleasures have always been held suspect by Indian philosophers. Others have to sublimate or sanctify their worldly interests. The Kamasatra of Vatsyayana and Natyasastra of Bharata attempt to sanctify, to elevate sacredness what is in fact "profane" and worldly. It is for this reason that the treatise had to become a Fifth Veda for the use of all people- a sacred science to be observed and followed meticulously. Dramatic performance becomes a sacrifice lovely to look at and charming enough to propitiate the gods and win their hearts. The pleasure in drama is not mere sensuous pleasure, confined to the material world. It is a transcendental pleasure-epicurean pleasure in its highest sense-which liberates rather than enslaves the body and the soul.

A large part of the treatise is given to the creation of a mythological framework which may appear meaningless and irrelevant to the modern student of theatre; but as shown above, there are integral reasons for its presence here. In understanding them one should be able to find a proper historical perspective on which the study is based. It is necessary to try to grasp this balance between sacredness and profanity which gives the treatise its special form, shape and purpose.

The date of the extant Natyasastra has been variously conjectured by different scholars. Ghosh puts it in the second century A.D; Keith places it in the 3rd century A.D.; De puts the lower limit as 4th or 5th century A.D. and the upper limit as the 5th century A.D. It is reasonable to assume that the Natyasastra attained its present form by the 8th century A.D. though some portions of it could date back to the 2nd century A.D.

It is fortunate that the most complete erudite commentary on the Natyasastra is available today. Abhinavaguptapadacharya (10-11 century A.D.), a Kashmiri Brahmin, is the author of this work, incomparable in its erudition and scope. Abhinava records the opinions of previous commentators and examines them in detail along with the text of the Natyasastra itself. Abhinava draws fully on the writing of Bharata on Rasa (empathic feeling) to construct a comprehensive aesthetic theory. His philosophical insight as well as aesthetic sensibility cannot be overestimated. He is very rightly called one of the most remarkable personalities in medieval India. His learned commentary on the Natyasastra is only one aspect of his many sided genius.

The term Natya is not used exclusively either for literary drama or dance drama. It describes generally the same sphere of human activity and experience which the word "theatre" tends to describe today. After reviewing the opinions of the various commentaries in Sanskrit on the significance of the word Natya, Kane concluded that "Natya means all dramatic performance. It comprehends drama, singing and dance.

The text is full of variorum readings. Corruptions and lacunae occur in many places. Inconsistencies and contradictions are numerous. In spite of all these, as a source book of information on ancient Hindu theatre, the value of the Natyasastra remains undiminished. For the uninformed it is a confusing heap of ancient, outmoded, rusty ideas; however for the reader with an open mind a mine of rough, uncut diamonds to explore.

In the following chapters an attempt is made to understand that vanished phenomenon-the Hindu theatre-in terms of today. It is not an attempt to "modernize" the Natyasastra in the light of our present knowledge or to proclaim to the world the infallible wisdom of ancient Hindu theorists. It is an attempt to understand a past generation in theatre by piecing together information avail- able on it in the Natyasastra, one of its important documentary sources. No other study in English has attempted to clarify the concepts in the Natyasastra. The ancient treatise explains and defines several theatrical terms and dramatic events in specific Sanskrit terms. This thesis uses the very same Sanskrit terms along with the corresponding English definitions. And makes every attempt to clarify the Sanskrit or Hindu terminology for the western reader.



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