Bhasa is one of the most celebrated names in classical Sanskrit literature. He lived and wrote about two thousand years ago. Though his dates have not been conclusively established, it is certain that Bhasa preceded Kalidasa, the great poet and dramatist of ancient India, who has praised Bhasa by name in one of his own plays.
Bhasa’s works were considered lost and it was only in the beginning of the twentieth century that some of his plays were recovered. Six of these, which form the present collection, are based on the Mahabharata, which provided a thematic unity to the plays. Bhasa’s strengths were his skilful melding of dialogue, legend and dramatic action. The comparatively short and fast-paced plays in this collection are remarkable in their nearness to modern idiom despite their antiquity.
Of the six plays in this collection four-The Middle One, The Envoy, The Message and Karna’s Burden-are one-act plays evoking tragic and heroic emotions. Five Nights and The Shattered Thigh have three and two acts respectively. The latter is a tragedy in which the hero dies on stage, an innovation that is very unusual in Sanskrit drama.
Bhasa is a celebrated name in classical Sanskrit drama. Although his dates have not been conclusively established, it is certain that he preceded Kalidasa, who has praised him by name in the prologue of one of his own plays. It has been suggested that Bhasa lived in the Mauryan period, the fourth of the third century BC, but most scholarly opinion places him in the first or the second century AD.
Bhasa’s plays were lost over a period of time but thirteen were rediscovered in Kerala at the beginning of the twentieth century. Of these six, forming the present collectons, are based on the Mahabharata story which Bhasa embellished for obtaining dramatic effects. The remaining seven are derived from the Ramayana, the Harvamsa and legends and stories prevalent at the time.
Bhasa wrote in a period which was politically, socially, economically and most importantly, culturally dynamic. Theatre was already an established art from and the foremost treatise on fine arts, Bharata’s Natyasastra, was written in the same period. Plays were written and performed by professionals supported by other well-developed aspects of stagecraft.
For over fifteen hundred years classical Indian commentators and anthologists have counted Bhasa among the foremost writers of ancient India. He made use of the Sanskrit language in a simpler from as compared to the more ornate style of later playwrights. He dispensed with the opening benediction or nandi and began his plays directly with the stage direction. And, most importantly, he broke with convention by giving a tragic ending to one of his plays, Urubhangam, with the death of the hero on stage.
Aditya Narayana Dhairyasheel Haksar was born in Gawalior and educated at the Doon School and the universities of Allahabad and Oxford. A well-known translator of Sanskrit classics, he has also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, serving as Indian high commissioner to Kenya and the Seychelles, minister to the United States, and ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia. Haksar’s translations from the Sanskrit include Hitopadesa, Simhasana Dvatrimsika, Tales of the Ten Prince and Subhashitavali, all published as Penguin Classics. He has also compiled A Treasury of Sanskrit Poetry.
Bhasa is a cerebrated name in classical Sanskrit literature. The figure best known today from what remains of that literature, which once pervaded the entire South Asian subcontinment and beyond, is of course Kalidasa. In the prologue of his play, Malavikagnimitram, that great poet and dramatist of ancient India poses the following question: ‘How can the work of the modern poet Kalidasa be more esteemed than the works of Bhasa, Kaviputra, Sumilaka and others of established fame?’ An impeccable answer follows in the next line: ‘Everything is mot praiseworthy, just because it is old; nor should a poetical work be dismissed just because it is new.’ But this brief dialogue makes it clear that Bhasa was already well known on the Indian literary scene over fifteen hundred years ago, when Kalidasa had just begun to make his mark.
Two hundred years later, the classical period was in its last phase. Bhasa remained well known across the country. In North India, Bhna Bhatta, the first Sanskrit novelist nad the court-poet of King Harsha in seventh century Kanauj, has this to say in his biography of the king, Harshacharita: ‘Bhasa earned fame by his plays which commenced with the producer, had many roles, and were like temples with banners.’ And is South India, Dandin, the critic and prose stylist from Kanchi of the same century, writes in his Avantisundarikatha that even though departed, Bhasa lives on, embodied in his plays with their craftsmanship.
Six hundred years nearer the present time, Bhasa, Kalidasa and Bana are included in an oft-quoted tribute to poets of yore by Jayadeva in his thirteenth century work, Prasanna Raghava, ‘who will not delight in the Muse of Poetry,’ asks the writer, ‘the lovely maid whose laughter is Bhasa, the guru of poets, whose sport of pleasure is Kalidasa, whose Cupid is Bana….’
Bhasa is also mentioned in other medieval works: in Vakpatiraja’s eighth century Prakrit poem Gauda Vaho; in the Sanskrit literary critiques, Rajasekhara’s Kavya Mimamsa and Ramachandra’s Ntya Darpana, of the tenth and twelfth centuries respectively; and in the verse anthologies Suktimuktavali, Sarngadhara Paddhati and Subbashitavali, complied respectively in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Kashmir in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the second of these, in a stanza ascribed to the famous tenth century critic Rajaselhara, Bhasa heads a list of sixteen ancient writers, including names like Kalidasa and Bharavi, who had mastered the Goddess of Speech. In the first anthology a wuotation from the same critic names and lauds one of Bhasa’s plays.
The three anthologies also contain some stanzas attributed to Bhasa, though discrepancies put most attributions in doubt. But at least two stanzas are shown as Bhasa’s two anthologies. One described in a conventional didactic mode the season at the end of the rains:
The sun burns sharply, base but brief,
The deer shed horns, the ungrateful drop friends,
Water pleases, like sages the wise,
And mud starts drying up, like lust in poverty.
The other verse is an unusual variation on a traditional subject:
This mad moonlight turns the whole world’s head:
The cat licks it in the cup like milk;
The elephant grasps at its beams through the branches
Mistaking them for tender shoots;
And on the bed it seems a silken sheet
To the maiden at love’s end.
But the fame of Bhasa clearly rests at present on his plays.
The plays of Bhasa were lost over the course of time. A hundred years ago the text of not a single one of them was available, even though the name of Bhasa has long been esteemed through references in the works of other writers for more than a thousand years. The credit for the rediscovery of his work, it is now accepted, goes to Mahamahopdhyaya T. Ganapati Sastri of Trivandrum. In 1909 this scholar found a palm leaf manuscript containing Sanskrit texts, written in Malayalam characters, of a play evidently composed by Bhasa. Te qualification has been added as the author’s name did not appear in any of the texts. The authorship had to be inferred from a variety of external and internal evidence. Sastri’s researches led to the discovery of other manuscripts, and eventually he recovered thirteen plays which he ascribed to Bhasa and published critically in the Trivandrum Sanskrit Series.
Not unexpectedly, this discovery also resulted in a scholarly controversy about the attribution which has yet to be fully set at rest. This may never happen as the paucity of comprehensive evidence, resulting in different interpretations, remains a feature of ancient Indian historiography. But the prevailing, though not unanimous, scholarly opinion now regards the thirteen plays as the works of Bhasa, and among the earliest examples of Sanskrit drama now available.
Six of these plays are based on the epic Mahabharata story, and presented here in translation. The remaining seven are: Abhisheka, Pratima, Balacharita, Svapna Vasavadatta, Pratijna Yougandharayana, Charudatta and Avimaraka. The plots of the first two of these are drawn from the other Indian epic, the Ramayana; of the next from the Krishna stories in the Harivamsa; of the next two from the legends about Udayana; and of the last two from other stories prevalent at the time.
This extant oeuvre of Bhasa has been the subject of a certain amount of scholarly research and critical analysis since its discovery. A learned translation into English was made over sixty years ago at the Punjab University. A few of Bhasa’s plays have been staged in recent times, both in the original and in translation. But Bhasa’s name is still better known than his works, their times, and the contemporary literary and cultural environment. Bhasa himself , the man, is yet to emerge from the shadows of history.
The dating of ancient Indian events and figure is rarely an easy process, and often results in numerous theories. It is clear that Bhasa preceded Kalidasa, in whose time the former’s plays had already ‘established fame’. It has been suggested that Bhasa lived in the Mauryan period, the fourth or the third century BC, as a verse from one of his plays figures in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. But in general, scholarly opinion places him in the first or the second century AD. Ashvaghosha , the biographer of the Buddha and also a noted dramatist, may have lived earlier. But only fragments of one of his plays, the Sariputra Prakarana, have been found is Central Asia. Two satirical monologues by Vararuchi and Isvarradatta are also dated to Bhasa’s time or a little earlier. Though this literary from is recognized in classical Indian dramaturgy, it cannot of course be described as a play in the fullest sense. Thus, Bhasa is at present the earliest of the classical Sanskrit dramatists whose plays have come down to us intact.
In historical terms, the time of Bhasa lies between the end of the Mauryan empire and the advent of the Gupta age. It was a period when a number of kingdoms and principalities flourished in India, some of them of considerable size and importance. The Andhra Kingdom of the Satavahanas has arisen in the Deccan. The Kushanas were established in the north-west under the famous Kanishka. The Sakes ruled in the west, and the era named after them, which is still in use, had just commenced. The Cheras controlled the south, and in the east the golden age of Kharavela in Kalinga was a recent memory. In the Gangetic Plain, Bhasa’s own reference to the land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas being under single rule upto the sea, points to the existence of a substantial state.
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