Performing Artistes in Ancient India

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Item Code: IDD277
Author: Iravati
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 8124602077
Pages: 292
Cover: Hardcover
(b&w.illus.: 40)
Other Details 9.5 inch X 7.5 inch
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Book Description


Two of my former students chose to work on dramaturgy for their doctoral dissertations. One of them, in the 1960s, was M. Christopher Byrski from Poland (now Professor of Sanskrit at Warsaw and one-time Polish Ambassador to India) and the other is Ms. Iravati, the author of this work (now Reader in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology at Basant College for Women, Rajghat and a well known Director of theatrical performances at Varanasi). If the former had family background for selecting the topic the latter had personal commitment to it. Both have done splendid work. Byrski's work was published in 1974. I am pleased to find the other one being published now (it deserved to be published much earlier). Byrski focused on the theoretical aspects of theatre in ancient India and discussed its concept, symbolism, etc. Iravati directed her attention to the practicing features of the theatre in ancient India and has discussed all the nitty-gritty aspects of it through the ages as known from the primary sources. In my knowledge, Iravati is the first to do such a major study of the theatre as a performing art in ancient India.

The book is indeed a comprehensive treatment of ancient Indian theatre. She has thoroughly examined the genesis of Indian theatre and its phases of development. She concludes convincingly how it arose from folk traditions and was groomed and disciplined by the elites of the society, how the acaryas and the theatre artistes helped the various art forms and disciplines to emerge in a symbiotic relationship and how the Natasastra was transformed into Natyasastra. This co-existence with mutual appreciation of the folk and classical traditions is significant. Iravati has given a detailed account of the various stages of the symbiotic process involving the natas on the one hand and the natasaryas on the other.

Somehow the identity and individual contribution of artistes in the various branches of arts and crafts have been ignored in studies of ancient history and civilization of India. Iravati has given due recognition not only to the actors and actresses but also to the back-stage workers and the traveling troupes. She has given as well special attention to the various types of female performing artistes and it is interesting to find that there were female counterparts of almost each type of male performing artistes.

Iravati has not forgotten to deal with what she calls 'the love and hate relations' of Indian society with performing artiste for 'people despised their way of life but loved their art' and this leads her to examine the social status and economic conditions of the artistes in ancient India.

Iravati's work is an in-depth study of a little known subject in all its multifaceted features, relations and development. I am sure readers, both the specialists and the general ones, will find this contribution valuable of commendable.


Fascinated by the theatre, primarily as a captivated spectator and later as an artiste and director, I was increasingly drawn to make an indepth study of theatre as an art, as a discipline – in its various aspects like its origin, antiquity, development and atmosphere. I was keen on studying the contributions of those who had helped in creating and later translating the words of drama into action – the actors, actresses, directors, writers, back-stage workers and all those who populated the world of drama in ancient India.

I cannot claim to be an innovator on the subject since much work has been done in the field of drama and poetics. Works in this field are based basically on Bharata's Natyasastra and Sanskrit dramas but Indian drama has a history dating back much earlier when it was in the form of dance, song and ritualistic impersonation. It seems necessary that students of the history of Indian drama should look into aspects of practice of drama as described in the Natyasastra and depicted in the sculptures of ancient India. Some scholars like Kapila Vatsyayan and Padma Subrahmanyam have studied the art of dance in the light of ancient Indian sculptures. M. L. Varadpande needs special mention since he, basing his study on archaeological remains, sculptures, folklore and present folk theatre, gave a new direction and a pronounced form in his works. My attempt in the present work is to study the evolution of ancient Indian theatre, particularly its representational aspect – dramatic theory and practice, focusing on the contributions of the performing artistes as actors, actresses and natacaryas upto 700 AD.

Originating in the form of folk art and enriching itself with several other socio-religious elements, Indian dramatic art was gradually polished and organized by acaryas who made drama a respectable art, rather a discipline. The two traditions of drama folk and classical, co-existed in ancient India, often borrowing elements from each other and finally giving rise to a symbiotic tradition of Indian theatre. I have tried in this work to trace the history of the contributions of the performing artistes to the development of this symbiotic tradition.

As theatrical art developed and became more comprehensive, its different branches – dance, music, narration, acrobatics, impersonation and histrionics – merged into a single art called natya and the original distinctive professions of performing artistes like sailusa, sailalin, sobhanika, granthika, mankha, kusilava and bharata merged into the single profession of nata, who originally was a folk artiste but whose art, later, with the intervention of acaryas with sophisticated taste and scientific approach assumed a classical form up to a certain extent. These natacaryas were originally such natas who had been proficient in the art and had gradually become the instructors of novices. When the art became a classical discipline, it attracted scholars from other fields and thus two types of natacaryas came into being – acaryas of first type were represented by the theoreticians who drew a code for natas like Natsutra and might have produced 'prayokta acaryas' (producer, director and actor all in one), and the second type, like Bharata, had a perfect knowledge of theory and practice of theatre. The natas (actors) on one hand and the natacaryas on the other contributed to the development of Indian theatre I have tried to give a detailed account of the various stages of this process.

It seems that due stress has not been laid on the contribution of actresses to drama so far. Much have been written on the position of women in ancient Indian society, but there too, actresses have found only marginal reference. Being an actress and director myself, I felt an urge to explore this field in detail and tried to make an indepth study of various types of female performing artistes such as the professional actress, the professional actress from royal harem the courtesan actress, and the actress of noble birth. There were female counterparts of almost each type of male performing artistes in ancient India like kusilava (musician), gayana (singing and dancing woman), aditi (woman practicing the art of mankha, kausiki (a female artiste with the knowledge of music, dance and acting appointed in the harem of the state), nati or natakiya and sutradhari (the female director of the play) who are mentioned in literature and depicted in sculpture. I have attempted to explore the field of their training and their special field of abhinaya and its style.

I have tried to give an account of the back-stage workers, their background and history while describing theatrical troupes. There were traveling troupes also in ancient India and I have attempted to trace their history as well. As several scholars have already studied abhinaya (the histrionic expressions) described by Bharata, I did not go in detail regarding the same but tried to explore the reason for the minute description of different modes of expression given by Bharata. Though a large number of books have been devoted to the study of Bharata's Natyasastra, irrespective of approaches, what is missing in all these is a consideration of Bharata as a prayokta (producer, director who is himself an actor), and as an acarya, pouring his knowledge in every line of his treatise for the benefit of the future active workers of his field. The present work makes an attempt to address this aspect, giving a brief account of the four forms of histrionic art. It also gives a detailed account of various forms of stage and auditorium – open-air stage, cave theatre and pavilion or mandapa type of theatre known from ancient Indian literature, sculpture and painting.

Ancient Indian society had a love-and-hate relation with the performing artistes. People despised their way of life but loved their art. I have tried to trace the reason behind their low status in society, giving some glimpses into their everyday like and also an account of their economic status.

This work deals with the genesis of Indian Theatre as an introduction and presents the story of the origin of drama as narrated by Bharata and an account of the spectators and their role in the development of Indian theatre as appendices.

For the original text of Bharata's Natyasastra I have consulted the Chowkhamba Sanskrit Sansthan's edition (1978) and M. Ghosh's Natyasastra for translation of the text wherever necessary.

The prefatory remarks would remain incomplete without recording my gratitude to all those who have been kind enough to help me in my intellectual pursuit. An ambitious work like this would have been impossible without the large hearted co-operation and encouragement from various quarters.

I am greatly indebted to my teachers – Prof. A. K. Narain, Professor Emeritus, History and South Asian Studies, Dept. of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, U.S.A. for his unfailing help, affection and guidance and to Dr. Saroj Bisarya, Ex-principal, Vasanta College for Women, Krishnamurti Foundation (India), Varanasi, a distinguished playwright, for her constant encouragement and blessings. I express my gratitude to Dr. Mahesh Vikram Singh, Department of History, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith Varanasi, for his constant interest in this work.

My acknowledgement to Mr. J. S. Yadav Deputy 'Director (Library), and staff of the 'American Institute of Indian Studies', whose efficiency I could not help admiring and exploiting. The rare books and plates were made accessible through their courtesy. I offer my thanks to Padmashri Ahalya Chari, Ex-Commissioner, Central Schools and a member of Krishnamurti Foundation (India) for inspiring me to explore this field of study. I wish to record my sincere appreciation to my friend Dr. N. Sharada Iyer, Reader, Department of English, Vasanta College for Women, Krishnamurti Foundation (India), Varanasi, for correcting the language of this work, but thanking her would belittle her affectionate co-operation. I am thankful to Mr. Sanjeev Kumar. Lecturer, Department of History, Vasanta college for women, for directing me to D. K. Printworld for the publication of this book. I also thank Mr. Susheel K. Mittal of D. K. Printworld for his excellent management in shaping the book to its final form.

The inspirational forces behind this work have been many whose blessings have gone into the making of this work. Primarily, my parents to whom I dedicate this work. My revered father, Acharya Sri Krishnananda, First Principal of the D. A. V. Degree College, Varanasi, whose profound wisdom and life, spent in constant academic pursuit, has been a motive and a spirit behind this work. My mother, Smt. Krishnakishori inspired, sustained and supported me in moments of uncertainty Culture & Archaeology, Banaras Hindu University, gave the encouragement I needed most.

Finally I submit my work to the men of learning for their valuable critical assessment and scholarly opinion which alone could make my endeavour worthwhile.

From the Jacket

Theatre in ancient India or natya incorporated various aspects of art and different branches of knowledge in its very definition – not only histrionics but also dance, music and fine arts and branches of learning like history, philosophy and science. This work traces the evolution of the ancient Indian theatre, focusing on the contributions of the performing artistes.

The scholarly treatise deals at length with aspects of dramatic performance like nature, kinds and members of dramatic troupes, abhinaya, the stage and auditorium, incorporating a number of visuals to depict the dramatic scenes etched by artists on pillars, temple walls, caves and objects. It classifies the different kinds and levels of performers: actors like Sailusa, Sailalin, Mankh Musilava, Nata and Bharata, and actresses like professional actresses, courtesan actresses, divine actresses and so on. It refers to Natyasastra and other noted works on dramaturgy and their authors, and gives examples and illustrations from the famous epics, Buddhist and Jain literature and other works like the Arthasastra to throw light on values associated with drama and its actual performance in ancient times.

The book, presenting well-researched facts and giving an insightful analysis, will prove useful to researchers and teachers of classical Indian art.

Dr. Iravati, a scholar who has specialized in the field of ancient Indian theatre, has written a number of research articles on the subject for various journals. Several plays penned by her have been staged and admired, the latest one based on the life of poet Kabir and tiltled Moko Kahan Dhundhe Re Bande. She has been honoured by Samskar Bharati for her contributions to histrionic art.

Currently she heads the Department of Ancient Indian History Culture and Archaeology in Vasanta College for Women, Krishnamurti Foundation (India), Varanasi.


  Foreword v
  Preface vii
  Abbreviations xv
  List of Illustrations xvii
1 Genesis of Indian Theatre 1
2 Actors and Their Contribution to Theatre in Ancient India 9
  Sailusa 17
  Sailalin 19
  Sobhanika and Granthika 21
  Mankha 24
  Kusilava 31
  Nata 34
  Bharata 49
  Actors of noble birth 50
  Natacarya or Natyacarya 54
3 Actresses and their Contribution to Theatre in Ancient India 63
  Professional Actress 67
  Professional Actress from Royal Harem (Antahpura) 88
  Courtesan Actress 97
  Apsarases: The Celestial Dancers 112
  Role and Functions of Apsarases and Courtesans 114
  Art of female Theatre Artistes as Reflected 119
  in the Depiction of the Art of Apsarases  
  Female Performing Artistes in the Form of Devadasis 125
  Origin of Devadasi System 125
  History and Contributions of Devadasi to Theatrical Art 127
  Female Performing Artistes of Noble Birth 133
  Stri-preksa 136
4 Dramatic Troupes, Abhinaya, Stage and Auditorium 148
  Dramatic Troupes 143
  Member of the Troupe 143
  Sutradhara 144
  Pariparsvika 144
  Bharata 145
  Vidusaka 145
  Tauripa 147
  Kusilava 148
  Nata 148
  Natakiya 149
  Play-wright 149
  Backstage Workers 152
  Mukutakara – Abharanakrta – Malyakrta – Vesakara – Citrakara – Rajaka - Karuka  
  Inter-troupe Rivalry 160
  Travelling Troupes 161
  History of Troupes 163
  Sattvika Abhinaya 167
  Angika Abhinaya 169
  Mukhaja Abhinaya 170
  Sarira Abhinaya 173
  Cestakrta 176
  Vacika Abhinaya 178
  Sanskrit Pathya or Speech in Sanskrit 179
  Prakrt Pathya or Speech in Prakrt 179
  Samanyabhinaya or General Expression Pertaining 182
  to Voice and Speech  
  Citrabhinaya or Particular Expression Pertaining 182
  to Voice and Speech  
  Aharyabhinaya or expression through make-up and costume 183
  Bharata as a prayokta: A Review of the Acting Style Known from Natyasastra 183
  Open air Theatre 187
  Cave Theatre 189
  Pavilion or Mandapa type of Theatre 197
5 Social and Economic Status of Performing Artistes 205
  Reasons 211
  Glimpses of the Everyday Life of Performing Artistes 219
  Regular Exercise 220
  Good Diet 220
  Physical Charm 220
  Bhrukumsa 221
  Close Relationship Among Performing Artistes 222
  Habit of Drinking 222
  Rehearsals of the Plays 223
  Economic Status 223
  Appendix – I : Spectators 233
  Darsaka 236
  Preksaka 236
  Daiviki Siddhi 237
  Manusi Siddhi 237
  Prasnika 238
  Mass and Class 239
  Seating Arrangement 242
  Appendix – II : Story of the Origin of Drama Narrated in Natyasastra 247
  Plates 251
  Bibliography 271
  Glossary 285
  Index 287

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