Indian drama as a distinct genre of Sanskrit literature emerges in the final centuries BC, although its origins date back to the Rigvedic dialogue hymns of the late 2nd millennium BC. Famous Sanskrit dramatists include Śhudraka, Bhasa, Asvaghosa and Kalidasa. Though numerous plays written by these playwrights are still available, little is known about the authors themselves.
The Yama-Yami episode and other Rigvedic dialogue hymns (late 2nd millennium BC) present one of the earliest forms of dramatic dialogue in literature, and can be argued to be an early precursor of Sanskrit drama. The nature of the plays ranged from tragedy to light comedy. Dramatists often worked on pre-existing mythological or historical themes that were familiar to the audience of the age. For instance many plays drew their plot lines from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the great epics of India.
Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra (literally "Scripture of Dance," though it sometimes translated as "Science of Theatre'") is a keystone work in Sanskrit literature on the subject of stagecraft. The Natya Shastra dates to between the second century BC and the second century AD.
The text specifically describes the proper way one should go about staging a Sanskrit drama. It addresses a wide variety of topics including the proper occasions for staging a drama, the proper designs for theatres, the types of people who are allowed to be drama critics and, most especially, specific instructions and advice for actors, playwrights and (after a fashion) producers. The theory of rasa described in the text has been a major influence on the modern theatre of India as well as Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood.
Mricchakatika (The Little Clay Cart)
One of the earliest known Sanskrit plays, this play is thought to have been composed by Śhudraka in the 2nd century BC. Rife with romance, sex, royal intrigue and comedy, the juicy plot of the play has numerous twists and turns. The main story is about a young man named Charudatta, and his love for Vasantasena, a rich courtesan or nagarvadhu. The love affair is complicated by a royal courtier, who is also attracted to Vasantasena. The plot is further complicated by thieves and mistaken identities, and thus making it a greatly hilarious and entertaining play. It invited widespread admiration when staged in New York in 1924. The play was made into a 1984 Hindi movie Utsav, directed by Girish Karnad. The Indian play depicted in the film Moulin Rouge! may have been based on The Little Clay Cart.
The plays written by Bhāsa were only known to historians through the references of later writers, the manuscripts themselves being lost. Manuscripts of 13 plays written by him were discovered in an old library in 1913 by the scholar Ganapati Sastri. A 14th play was later discovered and attributed to Bhāsa, but its authorship is disputed.
Bhasa's most famous plays are Svapna Vasavadattam (Swapnavāsadatta) (Vasavadatta's dream), Pancharātra and Pratijna Yaugandharayaanam (The vows of Yaugandharayana). Some other plays being Pratimanātaka, Abhishekanātaka, Bālacharita, Dūtavākya, Karnabhāra, Dūtaghatotkacha, Chārudatta, Madhyamavyāyoga and Ūrubhaṅga.
Karnabhara is a critically acclaimed play and it is being subjected to lot of experimentation by the modern theatre groups in India.
Bhasa is considered to be one of the best Sanskrit playwrights, second only to Kalidasa. He is earlier than Kalidasa, and may date to any time between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD.
Kālidāsa (3rd-4th cent AD) is easily the greatest poet and playwright in Sanskrit, and occupies the same position in Sanskrit literature that Shakespeare occupies in English literature. He deals primarily with famous Hindu legends and themes; three famous plays by Kālidāsa are Vikramōrvaśīyam (Vikrama and Urvashi), Mālavikāgnimitram (Malavika and Agnimitra), and the play that he is most known for: Abhijñānaśākuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last named play is considered to be greatest play in Sanskrit. More than a millennium later, it would so powerfully impress the famous German writer Goethe that he would write:
- "Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline
- And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
- Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
- I name thee, O Shakuntala! and all at once is said. "
Kālidāsa also wrote two large epic poems, Raghuvaṃśa ("The Genealogy of Raghu") and Kumārasambhava ("Birth of Kumara"), and two smaller epics, Ṛitusaṃhāra ("Medley of Seasons") and Meghadūta (The Cloud Messenger), another 'perfect' work.
Kālidāsa's writing is characterized by the usage of simple but beautiful Sanskrit, and by his extensive use of similes. His similes have earned him the saying, Upama Kalidasasya (Kālidāsa owns simile).
Daṇḍin is a 6th-7th century Sanskrit author of prose romances and expounder on poetics. Although he produced literature on his own, most notably the Daśakumāracarita, translated in 1927 as "The Adventures of the Ten Princes", he is best known for composing the Kāvyādarśa ("Mirror of Poetry"), the handbook of classical Sanskrit poetics, or kāvya. His writings were all in Sanskrit.
He is also known for his complex sentences and creation of very long compound words (some of his sentences ran for half a page, and some of his words for half a line).
A shloka that explains the strengths of different poets says: Dandinaha padalālityam ("Daṇḍin is the master of playful words").
Other Major Plays
There are lot of other great plays like Ratnavali, Nagananda and Priyadarsika by Sri Harsha (7th century), Mahendravikramavarman's Mattavilasa Prahasana, Shaktibhadra's Āścaryacūḍāmaṇi, Sri Harsha's Nagananda, Kulasekhara’s Subhadradhananjaya and Tapatisamvarana, Neelakantha's Kalyana Saugandhika and Sri Krishna Charita.
King Udayana in Bhasa's Swapnavasavadattam Koodiyattam-the only surving ancient Sanskrit theatre. (Artist:Mani Damodara Chakyar)
Sanskrit plays were very popular and were staged in ancient times all over India. Now the only surviving ancient Sanskrit drama theatre is Koodiyattam, which is preserved in Kerala by the Chakyar community. This form of Sanskrit drama is thought to be at least 2000 years old and is one of the oldest living theatrical traditions in the world. All major Sanskrit plays such as that of Bhasa, Sri Harsha, Shaktibhadra etc. are performed in Koodiyattam. Guru Nātyāchārya Vidūshakaratnam Padma Shri Māni Mādhava Chākyār choreographed and directed plays like Kalidasa's Abhijñānaśākuntala, Vikramorvaśīya and Mālavikāgnimitra; Bhasa's Swapnavāsadatta and Pancharātra for the first time in the history of Koodiyattam. He popularised Koodiyattam and rejuvenated the only surviving Sanskrit drama theatre in India.