Asian drama: Sanskrit Drama

Sanskrit Drama

Sanskrit drama is part of Sanskrit literature, the classical literature of India, which flourished from about 1500 b.c. to about a.d. 1100. The earliest extant critical work on Sanskrit drama is attributed to Bharata, the legendary formulator of the dramatic art in India. That work, the Na ya-sastra (c.2d cent. a.d.) is relatively late but could be a reworking of a much earlier version. References to the drama and to dramatic criticism in the work of the grammarian Panini constitute a more certain indication of an early date for Sanskrit drama. The earliest-known Sanskrit playwright was Bhasa (c.3d cent. a.d.) while among the most renowned were Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti (c.8th cent. a.d.), and King Harsha. Few Sanskrit plays survive, perhaps due to the limited size of their exclusively aristocratic audience as well as to their antiquity.

The Sanskrit plays were performed in palaces and, as in all Asian drama, the performances were highly stylized in terms of gesture and costume, and music and dance played a significant part in them. To the Westerner, Sanskrit plays would probably seem overladen with religious and supernatural elements. However, they are also firmly grounded in the real world, which often forms a positive contrast to the negative aspects of the supernatural; the plays of Kalidasa convey a sense of the natural world with a fine simplicity, whereas those of Bhavabhuti depict a more grandiose nature.

It is undoubtedly the religious influence that explains the happy endings occurring in all Sanskrit drama. Love and heroism are the two most common sources of emotion in the plays, although there is a frequent infusion of a sense of wonder produced by the supernatural elements. Indeed, some plays are almost totally concerned with the supernatural (Kalidasa's Vikramorvasi) while others treat political and historical topics (Kalidasa's Malavikagnimitra). Another type is represented by Mrcchakatika, attributed to the legendary King Sudraka, which concerns ordinary people and is profuse in exciting, melodramatic incident.

Sanskrit drama later developed into a didactic form of religious allegory represented by the Prabodhacandrodaya of Krsnamisra (11th cent.). The language of Sanskrit drama alternates between prose and lyric poetry. Since Sanskrit is a literary language, it is used only by important characters; inferior characters speak in the vernacular known as Prakrit.

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