Sanskrit and society: Beyond the politics of language – II

The often non-elite venue, heterogeneous audience and pantomimic nature of Sanskrit drama suggest that it was not confined to aristocratic circles. 

Published: 27th June 2022 12:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th June 2022 07:26 AM   |  A+A-

Sanskrit, Scriptures

Representational image

Contrary to misconceptions in certain circles today that associate a narrow obscurantism with Sanskrit, this series is a reminder of the vast and variegated repertoire of this prodigious language. This repertoire has included not only virtually all knowledge systems known to humankind but a multiplicity of voices and visions. Yet the tendency in modern scholarship has been to label Sanskrit literary culture elitist and rarefied, having little to do with the wider world. 

In this piece, we interrogate this assumption vis-a-vis Sanskrit drama (natya, a sub-genre of kavya), with a view to moving towards a greater appreciation of its social reach. Some of the greatest Sanskrit plays were written by luminaries like Bhasa, Shudraka, Kalidasa, Harsha, Vishakhadatta and Bhavabhuti, among many others.

We saw last time how Sanskrit poets were not passive “housebirds of patricians” but exercised considerable critical agency in representing figures of power and authority of their time. They also pointed to unorthodox social attitudes and behaviour, thereby sagaciously engaging with and complicating the question of right and wrong. But who was Sanskrit literature composed for?
There is no doubt that any literature that requires a great degree of learning and leisure to compose would have been patronised or cultivated by affluent individuals. This would mean the king or ministers on the one hand and wealthy magnates on the other. We must beware, however, of confusing patron and audience. This is because, as the Natyashastra (NS, 1st century CE), India’s earliest work of dramaturgy, tells us, Sanskrit plays were performed at festivals, among other occasions, in public places like temples and city squares. 

Indeed, Bhavabhuti’s 9th century play Malatimadhava spells it out thus: “A large conclave of men (mahajanasamajah) residing in different quarters has gathered here in connection with the festival of Lord Kalapriyanatha and I am ordered by the assembly of the learned (vidvajjanaparishada) to entertain them by the performance of some new play.” Note that audience and sponsors are clearly distinguished from each other. Similarly, Vijaya’s 8th century Kaumudimahotsava alludes to the autumn “public festival” (sarvajanasamanyamahotsava) as the occasion on which it is performed, while Kalidasa’s 4th century Malavikagnimitra refers to the “spring festival” in the same way. Interestingly, Bana’s 7th century Harshacharita (a biography, not a play) has also vividly described festivals as occasions when the ‘high’ and ‘low’ mingle.  

Then, types of plays like the vithi (‘street play’), bhana (erotico-comic monologue) and prahasana (farce), with their lively, irreverent, often bawdy content, are suggestive of general lay audiences. Moreover, the NS explicitly describes drama as “the fifth Veda (panchamam vedam) for all classes of society”. Far from envisaging—as it is often claimed it does—a purely connoisseurial audience, this text speaks of the presence of various categories of viewers across a spectrum. In fact, there is explicitly a reference to fools (murkha) and children in the theatre! 

It is true that the NS first prescribes a long list of qualities like high birth, good character, learning, a sensitive nature, etc., for a viewer. But this is clearly only an ideal, as the text goes on to realistically observe that “all these various qualities are not known to exist in any single spectator”! In fact, it admonishes that a play should “contain no obscure and difficult word (gudhashabdarthahinah) and be intelligible to country people”. 

The NS’ final take on the matter of audience is that “different are the dispositions of women and men, young and old, who may be of the superior, middling and inferior type, and on such dispositions (the success of) drama rests”. Or as Kalidasa put it, again, in his Malavikagnimitra: “Drama is entertainment for a variety of people with very different tastes”. Clearly, we need to rethink Sanskrit as a rarefied language of little reach or relevance.

In fact, the audience (and therefore the materialising context) for Sanskrit drama need not necessarily have been literary or even literate. This is because of the highly visual component of theater where dialogue (vachika) was only one out of four modes of histrionic representation. The other three were gestural (angika: movements of the face, limbs and body); sartorial and make-up (aharya); significatory (sattvika: tears, horripilation, etc). 

Words were to be sung or recited to a variety of metres accompanied by dance motions. Altogether then, there was a large element of pantomime and spectacle: not for nothing was drama known as drishyakavya (visual literature). So learning was not a prerequisite for the consumption of this kind of literature, even if it was for its creation. What’s more, the actors and actresses (nata, nati) performing the plays traditionally belonged to lower sections of society.  That they still did justice to these plays and presumably to the laborious instructions of the NS suggests the popular character of the theatrical enterprise in early India.

The often non-elite venue, heterogenous audience and pantomimic nature of Sanskrit drama thus suggest that it was not confined to aristocratic circles. And this would definitely have shaped the reception of the ideas and representations in plays, especially ones that were critical of wrongdoing authority or orthodoxy. Note that kavya’s functions included not just entertainment but mimesis of the ways of society (lokasya anukarana) followed by ethical instruction (upadesha). These reiterate the socially engaged and didactic goals of Sanskrit for the welfare of the world at large. 

Shonaleeka Kaul
Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
(The writer is author of Imagining the Urban: Sanskrit and the City in Early India)


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