Indian Dramatic Tradition: Legend, Myth and Metaphor

To witness a traditional dramatic performance in India is to enter a magico-mystical world, where gods and demons battle; where heroes and heroines court, make love, are separated and reunited; where clowns and acrobats perform feats of astonishing virtuosity and where people of an amazing diversity of backgrounds roam, speak in a variety of tongues and relate to each other. Amongst traditional dance-drama genres of the classical canon, Kathakali and its parent form, Kuttiyatam of Kerala, Krisnattam and Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh, Bhagavata Mela Natakas from Tamil Nadu and Yakshaganas of North and South Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh can be included. Besides Ramlila and Nautanki popular in much of North India, folk variants include Veethinatakan in Andhra Pradesh, Therukuttu in Tamil Nadu, Tamasha in Maharashtra, Swang in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, Bhavai in Gujarat, Bhand Pather in Kashmir, Karyala in Himachal Pradesh, Ramman in Uttarakhand, Ankita Natha Bhaona in Assam and Jatra in Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. Melodic conventions, stylized gestures, choreographed mime are put into effect, along with dialogues. Resplendent costumes and symbolic make-up (which may include masks and other accoutrements like a specially coloured flag a swaying scarf, a stick, etc.) aid the task of communication. Stage props are few, mostly non-existent. The cumulative effect of music, dance and drama is to create a theatrical spectacle, floating in time and space.  


The most quoted theory regarding the origin of drama in India is the theory of divine origin encapsulated in the first chapter of the Natyashastra, an encyclopedic dramaturgic work attributed to the mythical sage Bharata. According to this, the art of drama was created by the god of creation, Brahma at the request of other gods led by Indra. Brahma took the constituent elements of drama from the four Vedas - pathya or recitation from Rigveda, gita or song from Samaveda, abhinaya or mimetic art from Yajurveda, and rasa or sentiments from Atharvaveda. Drama was thus accorded a revelatory character like the existing four Vedas. It was to be the fifth Veda, called Natyaveda. After witnessing the first performance, Siva and Parvati added and element of dance as an integral part of drama. Siva demonstrated tandava, the virile masculine form while Parvati demonstrated lasya, the delicate feminine style. Visnu, the god of preservation evolved the four vrittis or the modes of presentation. 


The first performance was organized by Brahma on the occasion of Indradhwaja, the flag staff festival of Indra. The play performed was Amritamanthana, the story of the conflict between the gods and the demons over obtaining the divine nectar promising immortality from the oceans. Brahma offered this new art to Indra to be practised by the gods but Indra suggested that the sages, superior in their knowledge of the Vedas, would be more suitable practitioners. Brahma then summoned the sage Bharata to practise this art with his one hundred sons. A theatre hall was constructed by the divine architect Viswakarma. The last chapter of the Natyashastra describes the descent of this heavenly art into the mortal world. The performers were cursed for satirizing the gods and the art of drama was brought down to earth by King Nahusa

Scholars have suggested that this legend may be viewed as an extended metaphor. The legend tells us that Brahma created the art of drama as entertainment for the eyes and ears. In the aesthetic tradition, drama is called drisyakavya or visual poetry. It is a preksa or spectacle. Drama was created using constituent elements from the four Vedas. The aesthetic tradition reiterates and elaborates this legend through the concept of the four integral components of acting or abhinaya - speech or vacikabhinaya, body movements and gestures or angikabhinaya, makeup and costumes or aharyabhinaya, and sentiment or satvikabhinaya. The legend further describes how Siva added the element of dance. In the aesthetic tradition, dance and drama are considered inseparable. Natya encompasses both drama and dance. According to the legend Visnu added the four vrittis; in the aesthetic tradition this is matched by the great range and variety of the regional dramatic forms. 


The legend characterizes drama as revealed knowledge, first revealed to Brahma during meditation who then revealed it to Bharata. It has been suggested that Bharata performed an act of mediation; he is thus a mediator. According to some scholars, Bharata is an appellation for an actor or class of actors. An actor is a mediator. Moreover, the legend describes the art of drama as the fifth Veda, thus giving it the antiquity and sanctity of a sacred text. This also hints at the sources of the art of drama and its early history. The Natyaveda was deemed accessible to all castes and it thus provides an anti-structure to a highly structured society. This emphasized the true nature and purpose of drama as a public experience and its broad all-encompassing social base. The legend of its descent also carries hidden meanings. It is said that drama was brought to earth by sages cursed for satirizing the gods. Drama continues to satirize and some may argue that actors and performers remain “cursed”, living outside the society in which they live and entertain. The context of the first performance was the flag festival of Indra. This practice is part of living tradition in India - most traditional performances are part of festivals marking the sacred calendar of the people. The theme of the first performance was the conflict between gods and demons; this theme continues to be exhibited in most traditional repertoires even today. 


Post-Bharata, the Indian stage continued to evolve in myriad ways. The earliest performances were in temple precints; thereafter theatre moved to royal courts and still later to urban stages in the colonial and post-colonial periods. Today we have inherited a legacy that within its modern sensibilities echoes memories of the past. Carrying this vision seamlessly forward while embracing the vast wealth of performing arts in the country in all its diverse forms and languages, theatre festivals like the META offer patronage and a platform for theatre enthusiasts to perform and for theatre lovers to witness the best that India has to offer.

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