A Sanskrit text on dramaturgy, poetics and aesthetics, the Natyashastra is the earliest known treatise on performative arts in South Asia. The Natyashastra is encyclopaedic, detailing all aspects related to a performance. Its contents include theorisations of rasa and bhava as well as instructions on constructing performance spaces, the costuming and makeup of actors, the musical instruments and scales to be used and the role of the director within a performance.
The Natyashastra has been dated to between the second century BCE and the fourth century CE. While the text is attributed to a sage called Bharata, it is difficult to determine whether he was a historical individual: the text describes him as a legendary figure and the word “bharata” is also used to describe an actor. This has led some scholars to suggest that the term was later applied to the author of the Natyashastra. As a classical Sanskrit shastra (discipline or code), the Natyashastra evolved through three major stages – the sutra (thread), vartika (interpretation) and bhasya (commentary).
The earliest text or sutra of the Natyashastra is attributed to Bharata. The vartika on theatre and dramaturgy was prepared by Harsha, which was referenced in later commentaries on the text but has since been lost. The earliest surviving bhasya on the Natyashastra is the Abhinavabharati, attributed to the Kashmiri aesthetician Abhinavagupta in the late tenth or early eleventh century CE. It also provides a summary of previous debates over issues such as rasa theory, and has thus contributed significantly to modern interpretive frameworks of the Natyashastra. The Natyashastra continued to be the subject of bhasyas following Abhinavagupta’s, including the Bhavaprakasha of Saradatanaya, dated to the twelfth to thirteenth centuries and focussing on interpretations of bhava and rasa; Sarngadeva’s Sangita Ratnakara of the thirteenth century and the sixteenth century Kalanidhi of Kallinatha, which interpreted the text’s musicological aspects.
Two main recensions of the Natyashastra have been identified: a longer version with about twelve thousand verses and a shorter one with six thousand verses. Abhinavagupta’s work and Dhananjaya’s Dasarupakam (tenth century CE) reference the shorter version; the eleventh century ruler Bhoja’s dramaturgical treatise, the Shringara-Prakasha, refers to the longer one. The treatise is divided into thirty-six to thirty-eight chapters depending on the recension and division of chapters. The general content of the Natyashastra revolves around the role of rasa as the central aspect within a drama and its physical manifestation through abhinaya (acting). Abhinaya is described in the text through four distinct forms – angika or physical acting through the body; vachika or speech patterns in acting; sattvika, the internal emotive state used by an actor to effectively convey the rasa and aharya, referring to external aspects involved in the performance such as makeup, costuming and stage set design.
The treatise draws on four essential aspects of Sanskrit drama – pathya (text), gita (song), abhinaya and rasa. Some scholars have identified antecedents to these concepts in Vedic literature.
The text opens with the sage Bharata answering queries by his pupils on the origin of theatre. Bharata describes dramaturgy being created by the Hindu deity Brahma as a fifth veda, the Natyaveda, which was then used by Bharata and his hundred sons to arrange the first dramatic performance with assistance from the gods. The treatise then explains how the goals of life, joy and peace may be achieved through theatre, emphasising the collective experience of performance.
The second chapter details the construction of prekshagriha (auditorium) to adequately protect the performance from natural elements, malevolent spirits, and damage from men and animals. The ideal theatrical space as described in the Natyashastra is rectangular in shape and is generally enclosed and of moderate size, allowing for the abhinaya to be viewed by the audience in an intimate setting. The third and fourth chapters describe ritualis to propitiate specific deities in order to ensure a successful performance. The fifth chapter describes the purvaranga or the preliminary portion of the performance and provides an introduction to angika abhinaya or physical acting. The concepts of bhava and rasa, which the text argues is conveyed in performance through abhinaya, are outlined in the sixth and seventh chapters.
Chapters eight through twelve detail codified body language, also known as mudras, to be used by a performer to effectively convey rasas. Chapter thirteen discusses various types of gaits and onstage movements. The chapter also introduces vritti, or different styles of acting and music. Two kinds of performance modes are then discussed: natyadharmi, a more stylized and refined style, and lokadharmi, a naturalistic style. Chapters fourteen through seventeen deal with the poetic and literary text of a drama, with details on the different structures and metres of Sanskrit and Prakrit literature.
Chapter eighteen details the ten rupakas or types of plays: Nataka, a play divided into acts, where the plot or the hero are derived from epics or Puranic literature; Prakarana, where the playwright presents an original plot and protagonist; Natika, consisting of elements from both Nataka and Prakarana; Samavakara, featuring the actions of gods and demons as the central plot; Ihamrga, where the protagonist is implicated in or motivated by fights over divine women; Dima, a relatively fast-paced, action-packed play with a distinctive plot and characters; Vyayoga, depicting the activities of a hero and a few women characters over the course of a single day; Anka, a plot derived from popular stories where the central characters are not divine; Prahasana, of two kinds – ‘pure’, depicting stories of sages or ascetics, and ‘mixed’, depicting courtesans, attendants and servants; Bhana, narrated by a single character focusing on their emotions; and Vithi, a narrative enacted by one or usually two characters.
Chapter nineteen discusses lasyangas, the components of dance derived from popular and adapted contemporaneous forms, whereas chapter twenty details various forms of vritti, including kaishiki (graceful), arabhati (energetic) and sattavati (grand). These styles are methods through which particular bhavas, or emotive states, may be represented through physical movements. Chapters twenty-one through twenty-seven detail the external and internal aspects of a performance, from the aharya abhinaya to the internal states and characteristics associated with specific emotions as well as the characteristics of male and female roles in drama. The chapters also discusses the principles of makeup and costuming and details the philosophical aspects behind drama.
The next seven chapters provide details on music, including jati (melody types), svara (notes), murchhana (also known as raga) and grama (scales). They discuss the different instruments that may be used in a performance and explain the difference between instrumental and lyrical songs. Chapters twenty-nine to thirty-one detail tala, rhythm, stringed instruments, wind instruments and cymbals. Chapter thirty-two talks about dhruva songs and their forms; chapter thirty-three lists the different qualities of instrumentalists and vocalists; and chapter thirty-four discusses percussion instruments such as drums. The final chapters of the text provide instructions on organising troupes and assigning roles, and exalt the art of theatre and performances.
The Natyashastra was considered a “lost text” by early Orientalists such as H.H. Wilson in 1826. The scholar F. Hall first brought the text to the attention of scholars in an appendix to his work on Dhananjaya’s Dasarupakam, and published four chapters in 1865. W. Heymann brought more attention to the text in 1874; Paul Regnaud published chapters six, seven, fifteen and sixteen of the treatise under the name La Rhetorique Sanskrite (1884); J. Gross published chapter twenty-eight in 1888 and Indologist Sylvain Levi based his Theatre Indien (1890) on the Natyashastra. The entire text was first published as a whole in 1894 by the Bombay (now Mumbai) based Nirnayasagara Press, based on two manuscripts of the text. The first critical and comprehensive published volume of the work, based on over forty manuscripts from across India and including the bhasya by Abhinavagupta, was brought out in 1926 under the Gaekwad Oriental Series. A revised edition of the first volume was compiled and translated by Manomohan Ghosh in 1956.
The Natyashastra is a valuable source of information on both dramaturgy and aesthetics. Its aesthetic formulations have been extensively applied to studies and interpretations of Sanskrit poetics. They have also been used in the study of the visual arts due to the details the treatise provides on different emotional states and their representation. Today it is widely considered one of the most influential texts on aesthetics composed in premodern South Asia.
Ghosh, Manomohan. The Natyashastra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics, Ascribed to Bharata Muni Volume I. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951: 40–85.
Kale, Pramod. The Theatric Universe: A Study of the Natyasastra. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 1974, 1–13.
Pandey, K.C. “History of Indian Aesthetics.” Comparative Aesthetics: Indian Aesthetics Volume II. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1974.
Tarlekar, G.H. Studies in the Natyasastra: With Special Reference to the Sanskrit Drama in Performance. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991: 1–53.
Tripathi, Kamlesh Datta. “Natyasastra.” The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, edited by Ananda Lal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004: 310–312.
Vatsyayan, Kapila. “Indian Aesthetics.” Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1977: 1–63.