THE DRAMA OF INDIA

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 99-102.

INDIA is one of the few countries which can boast of an indigenous drama, unaffected by any foreign influence. When Hindu plays first became known to the European world through Sir William Jones' translation of Sakuntala in 1789, it was then generally thought that Greek literature had penetrated into India, influencing their playwrights; but that opinion does not prevail today. Most critics agree that Hindu drama was neither a borrowing nor an imitation, but the product of native genius.

The dramatist Bhasa, or Bhrata, thirteen of whose works have been recovered and published, is traditionally considered to have been the founder and "Father" of Indian drama. There is considerable confusion concerning the authorship of many plays, owing to the fact that it was the custom to attribute a literary work to the ruler at whose court, or under whose favor, the real author chanced to live. Thus the earliest extant stage piece, The Little Clay Cart, is ascribed to a sovereign named Sudraka. It should probably be dated sometime before 400 A.D. This is one of the few oriental dramas treating, in part at least, of middle-class life.

Language and conventions. The long play opens with a prayer, followed by a dialogue between the manager and one of the actors, in which the audience is complimented and the chief circumstances of the coming presentation described; then by skillful management the dialogue merges into the play. There is division into acts and scenes, the intermissions being filled by musicians. The greater part of the piece is in prose, while the more impassioned passages are in verse, the four-line stanza being much in use. (Nearly half of Sakuntala is in this form.) There are many lyrical scenes in which lovely things in nature are described, also many moral reflections and precepts of wisdom. Such lines are always put into the mouth of an important character and are given in Sanskrit, which has not been the common language of India since about 300 B.C., though it is still spoken by Brahmin priests. While the gods, heroes, and the few important personages speak in this aristocratic tongue, the women, slaves, and all minor characters use the dialect of the lower class. The play closes, as it opens, with a prayer.

The exhibition of undue ardor of love is not regarded as decorous or aesthetically permissible; nor extravagant expressions of jealousy, hate, or anger--in fact, nothing sensational or violent. Sorrow is toned down to a gentle melancholy. Kissing, sleeping, eating, scratching, or yawning are considered indelicate; and there is never any reference to such topics as banishment, plague, or national calamity of any sort. There are stock figures, such as the accomplished courtesan, the jester, the humble confidant and friend of the hero. There are also stock comic situations, like the complaining of the stubborn servant, and mock grief over the death of a wealthy relative. Other devices of the stage, such as the play within the play, the finding of hidden letters, and the antics of drunken men, are as well known and as popular in India as elsewhere. Magic and supernatural events have a large part in the action of many pieces: characters are put under a curse, bewitched, or caused to assume the form of an animal or a tree. In many of these cases, as in Greek tragedy, the intervention of a god is required to release the victim from his difficulties.

Unity of action in the Hindu play was rigidly insisted upon. Unity of time was interpreted as allowing, roughly, one act to represent the passage of one day, though this general rule was often disregarded. There was no attempt at observing unity of place; whenever it was necessary, the actor announced his whereabouts. The theater was usually a concert hall or the outer court of a palace. Scenery did not exist; and the curtain, instead of falling before the actor, formed the background and concealed the dressing room behind the stage. The stage properties were extremely simple, with perhaps seats, thrones, and occasionally chariots drawn by actors disguised as animals. Masks were not commonly used, and the costumes were usually those worn in everyday life. There was no chorus, and no official distinction between comedy and tragedy. In fact, pure tragedy was unknown, since every play was required to end happily. As in Greek plays, there was frequent intercourse between earth and heaven.

The production of plays was almost exclusively an affair of the aristocracy, who gave them in honor of a coronation, a lunar holidy, a royal marriage, or the birth of a royal heir. The actor's profession was regarded with respect, and there was no objection to women being employed on the stage. In many ways, however, the drama reveals the social philosophy upon which the caste system is based, as well as a profound religious feeling. Great importance is attached to the idea of self-sacrifice as the highest form of self-realization.

The brilliant period. We know of about a dozen plays, written in India probably between 400 and 900, which have excited the interest and admiration of modern students. Sometime during those five hundred years lived the two greatest playwrights, Kalidasa and Bhavabuti, whose works were attributed to the emperors Sudraka and Criharsha respectively. Wide differences of opinion exist concerning the dates of these two authors, especially of Kalidasa, the difference ranging from half a century before the birth of Christ to the sixth century after. Professor Kunow, in Das Indische Drama (1920), places him at about 400; and with this opinion Professor Jackson (Columbia University) agrees. Bhavabuti was a Brahmin of southern India and probably belonged to the early eighth century. He must have been much admired, for the people called him Crikantha, "he in whose throat is fortune." Three dramas survive from each of these authors.

Famous plays. The drama best known to Europeans is the Sakuntala of Kalidasa, which was translated into English by Sir William Jones in 1789. It made a profound impression upon such scholars as Goethe, and created something like a literary sensation. It is in seven acts, and the story is taken from the first book of the Mahabharata. Its hero, Dushyanta, was a celebrated king of ancient times. The action moves in part within the realm of fancy and the supernatural; and the dialogue is always poetic and elevated. On account of its imaginative insight, lofty poetry, and emotional appeal, it has been regarded by people of every nation as one of the masterpieces of dramatic literature. Mr. Arthur Symons has called it the most beautiful play in the world.

The Rise of the Moon of Knowledge is an allegorical and theological piece in six acts, in which abstract qualities such as Will, Reason, and the follies and vices of man are personified and made to struggle with one another. The obvious parallelism between the play and the European moralities of the late Middle Ages is of considerable interest. A political work called The Signet of the Minister, written about 800, and another named The Binding of a Braid of Hair, are among the well known productions. Besides these, the titles of more than five hundred Sanskrit dramas are known; and more than a dozen have already been translated into various modern European languages. From them and from other sources, much has been learned concerning the technique and ideals of the ancient Indian stage.

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