Ancient Indian Culture Theater and Drama:

THEATRE – The origin of the Indian theatre or rather folk theatre and dramatics can be traced to religious ritualism of the Vedic Aryans. This folk theatre of the misty past was mixed with dance, ritualism as well as a depiction of events from daily life. It was the last element which made it the origin of the classical theatre of later times.

Ancient Indian Culture Theater and Drama
Indian Folk Theatre

Many historians have referred to the prevalence of ritualism amongst Aryan tribes. Some members of the tribe acted as if they were wild animals and some others were the hunters. Those who acted as animals like goats, buffaloes, reindeer, monkeys, etc. were chased by those playing the role of hunters. In this way, a mock hunt was enacted.

In such a simple and crude manner the theatre originated in India nearly 4000 years back in the tribal Aryans of Rig Vedic times. There must have also had a theatrical tradition in the Indus valley cities. But there is no material proof of it.

Origin of Drama and Theatre

The origin of drama and the theatre has been told to us in an aptly dramatic manner by Bharata Muni. Bharata Muni was the author of Natyashastra an ancient Indian text on dance and drama. He was said to have lived around the 4th century but even he was not aware of the actual origin of the theatre in India. He has cleverly stated in a dramatic manner that it was the lord of creation Brahma who also created the original Natyashastra (Drama).

According to Bharatamuni, it was Lord Brahma who created the entire universe. Hence, we need not question his ability in creating dramas. But Bharatamuni went on to tell us that the original Natyashastra of Brahma was too awkward and ambiguous to be of any practical use.

Ancient Indian Culture Theater and Drama
Natyashastra Influenced Other Arts in Ancient

Hence, Bharatamuni, himself took up the task of making Natyashastra simple, intelligible and interesting. Thus the Natyashastra of Bharatamuni was supported to be understood by lay people. So the Natyashastra of Bharatamunii is not the oldest text on dance and drama. This was because Bharata himself says that he has only simplified the original work of Lord Brahma.

Ancient Indian Culture Theater and Drama

The Natyashastra assumed the existence of many plays before it was composed. It further also said that most of the early plays did not follow the rules set down in the Natyashastra. But the Natyashastra itself seemed to be the first ever attempt to develop the technique or rather an art, of drama in a systematic manner.

The Natya Shastra narrated us not only what was to be portrayed in a drama, but how the portrayal was to be done. Drama, as Bharatamuni said, was the imitation of men and their doings (Loka-Vritti). Men and their doings had to be respected on the stage. Hence, drama in Sanskrit is also known by the term Roopaka which implied portrayal.

Natyashastra and all the Modes

According to the Natyashastra, all the modes of expression employed by an individual viz. speech, gestures, movements and intonation were to be used. The representation of these expressions could have different modes (Vritti). These modes depended on the predominance and emphasis on one mode or another.

Bharatamuni recognized four main modes viz., Speech and Poetry (Bharati Vritti), Dance and Music (Kaishiki Vritti), Action (Arabhatti Vritti) and Emotions (Sattvatti Vritti).

Ancient Indian Culture Theater and Drama
Brihadishwara Temple, Bharatanatyam dancers

Bharatamuni further specified where and how a play was to be performed. In ancient India, plays were generally performed either in temple-yard or within palace precincts. During public performances, plays were generally performed in the open. For such public performances, Bharatamuni advocated the construction of a mandapa.

According to the Natyashastra in the construction of a mandapa, pillars were to be set up in four corners. With the help of these pillars, a platform was built of wooden planks. The area of the mandapa was divided into two parts. The front part, which was the Backstage, was called the Rangashrishu. Behind the Ranga-Shirsha what was called the Nepathya-Griha. Here the characters dressed up before entering the stage.