Glimpses of Natyashastra Presented by:

Dr. Asawari Bhat



The Indian dramatic art is called natya in natyashatra. Shastra is the term accepted in Indian tradition for the holy writ dedicated to a particular field of knowledge. Natyashastra is a compilation of work by various sages but the tradition offers its authorship to sage Bharata. So it came to be called Bharatamunis Natyashatra. Its date is not definitely known. It is taken as 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. It must have reached its present form sometime during this period. It is an encyclopedic work having 37 chapters and it deals with various topics, which are necessary for the production and presentation of the drama before the spectators.


In its first chapter, Bharata gives account of its creation. It is in a mythical form. The natya was created by Brahma, the god of creation, to meet the demand of a plaything a source of pleasure to minds weary of strife, wants and miseries of daily existence. An art form like a drama does it very ably because it has a visual and aural appeal. Any piece of advice communicated through a visual-aural form has more impact on human mind than any other form. A drama, besides offering entertainment, can also influence and uplift the minds of spectators.


The four vedas were created by Brahma, but the lower cast and ladies were not allowed to study them. So, the myth says, Brahma created the fifth veda called Natyaveda, i.e. the art of drama, which can be studied and practiced by everybody. While creating this natyaveda, Brahma adopted its constituents from four vedas. Recitation was adopted from Rigveda, music and song from Samaveda, histrionics from Yajurveda and sentiments from Atharvaveda. Subordinate vedas called Upavedas were also connected with natyaveda, e.g. Ayurveda was used to show expressions of diseases, their symptoms and certain mental moods etc. as explained by Charaka and Sushruta. Dhanurveda (archery) was made use of in the representation of fights on the stage. Gandharveveda was used in the preliminaries and in the actual performance of drama. Sthapatyaveda (architectural science) was necessary for construction of the playhouse.


Bharata assures us that we cannot think of any piece of knowledge or lore, art or craft, design or activity that will not enter into the composition and stage presentation of drama.

The story goes that this natyaveda was handed over to Indra and Indra handed it over to Bharata. This Bharata was supposed to have 100 sons. It should probably mean that Bharata made use of all kinds of people in the society coming from different parts of the country, or having deformities like squint eyes, stammering speech, or were very tall, very short, bald, hunch backed just about anybody, in the presentation of the drama. To play the role of women Brahma created Apsaras (celestial maidens), who were experts in dramatic art.


Ancient dramas were danced and presented. The dance form was attributed to Shiva. He requested one of his disciples named Tandu to teach the dance, hence called the Tandava. The feminine form of dance called Lasya was taught by Parvati. The drama was performed on the slopes of the mountains or in the open. Later it was found that it needed protection from natural calamities and also from the bad elements in the society, especially when protests from some groups of people take a violent form. This can be seen even in present days. So playhouses were constructed. Bharata gives details of construction of a playhouse right from the selection of land and its preparation, construction material, building plans, pillars, measurements and so on.


There are rituals before presentation of drama and they are described in detail. The principle deities of drama, viz. Brahma,Vishnu and Shiva, are worshipped. Shiva is in the form of Nataraja. Even today, Nataraja is offered a puja before any stage performance. Then the well-being of the spectators is wished for.


Further, there is a chapter discussing the aesthetic theories, definitions and characteristics etc. in detail.


Then Bharata describes histrionics, which is called Abhinaya in natyashatra. The drama is communicated to the spectators in four ways.

      The communication through body movements, called Angika abhinaya, where the movements of major limbs like head, chest, hands and feet as well as movements of minor limbs like eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, chin etc. are involved. The glances, gestures, gaits are also part of angika abhinaya.

      The communication by speech is called Vachika abhinaya. In this, the vowels, consonants and their places of origin in the mouth, intonation, modes of address etc. are discussed. While giving the literary aspect of drama Bharata describes ten types of dramas which are known as Dasharupaka. One of them is Veethi i.e. road shows. At present, a lot of them are seen during the election time.

      Extraneous representation is called Aaharya Abhinaya and is done by means of costumes, make up, ornaments, stage properties etc.

      Representation of temperament of the characters is called Sattvika Abhinaya. It is the highest quality of abhinaya expressing the inner feelings of the character by subtle movements of lips, nasal ali, trembling of body, turning the face red, rolling down the tears etc.

      Then Bharata describes how to represent the phenomena like sunrise, sunset, different times of the day, rains etc. which is called Chitrabhinaya. He also mentions in detail how to show the animals on stage, how to make them artificially and with what material.


Bharata makes a note of the dramatic competitions, how to conduct them, the qualification of judges, gifts to be given to the actors in one of the chapters.


A lot of importance is given to music in natyashastra, wherein about nine chapters have been dedicated to music. In vocal and instrumental music, he describes svara (a musical note) and its use in expressing particular aesthetic sense i.e. Rasa.

Gandhar and nishada are used for expressing a pathetic sense i.e. Karuna rasa, shadja and rishabha in heroic and marvelous sense i.e. Veera and Adbhuta rasa, madhyama and panchama in erotic and comic sense i.e. Shrungara and Hasya rasa and dhaivata for odious sense i.e. Beebhatsa rasa. Details about murcchana (a group of svaras to be sung together) and its types have been given also.

The music is derived from Samaveda. Gandharva music is also sama music. Seven notes were already established in sama music. The sama singers were connected with sacrifice and gandharvas were professional singers or musicians. Svara, pada( composition) and tala (beats) are the three constituents of gandharva music. Bharata gives details about songs to be used in drama. They are called Dhruvas.


Instruments are divided in four groups.

      Stringed instruments are called Tata.

      Wind blown instruments are called Sushira.

      Percussion instruments are called Avanaddha and

      Cymbals are called Ghana.

The stringed instruments like veena are of different types. Chitra, Vipanchi are major veenas and Ghosha, Kacchapi are the subordinate ones. Human body is also called veena, a musical instrument as it produces musical notes through vocal cords.

The stringed and wind blown instruments naturally produce pleasant notes so they get upper hand in musical instruments.

Chitra veena has seven strings and is played by fingers. Vipanchi has nine strings and is played by kona (plectrum). These veenas can be seen in early sculptures of Sanchi, Barhat, Amaravati, Nagarjunkonda etc. In Buddhist literature, there is a mention of a seven stringed veena. It describes there that Buddha broke the seven strings one by one and still the notes continued. It shows that the influence of music lasted even after the actual music stopped. There are other types of veenas having fourteen strings for two saptakas (Mahati) and twenty one strings for three saptakas. (Mattakokila).


The second group is of wind blown instruments like flute. These instruments are hollow and have holes to control the air flow. The flute is the major instrument while conch, tundakini are the subordinate ones. The shahanai is also a wind blown instrument. Flute is the important leading instrument. The magic cast by Krishnas flute is well known. In many dance panels in ancient Indian sculptures flute is seen though veena is absent. In Khajuraho temple structure, veena is seen with flute, drum and cymbal.


The third group is percussion instruments like drums. They are covered tightly with hide. The tightening or loosening of hide would change the pitch higher or lower. Mrudanga, Panava, Dardura are the major ones and Pataha, Zallary are the minor ones. The face of the drum is called Pushkara which is covered by mud. A drum with three faces Tripushkara is seen in Nataraja temple at Chidambaram. It is said that sage Swati heard the raindrops falling on the petals of lotus. The sound produced by them appealed to him and he created this instrument. In the detailed treatment we get mrudanga (two faces), panava (two heads then thinning in the middle part and fastened with strings) and dardura (drum with one face shaped like a pitcher, i.e. Ghata). Bharata also describes how to play them.


The fourth is group is cymbals, like zanza and manjira. They supplied rhythm, i.e. taal. Taal is derived from tala, i.e. stability. Taal is the foundation necessary for music. It is indicated by clapping of hands also. Bharata describes various taals. He says, Music, vocal and instrumental, and dance should be performed harmoniously to give pleasant experience like a fire band (alatachacra). A stick with fire at both ends, when rotated fast enough in a circular movement, creates an impression of a circle of fire. That is called alatachacra.


This is only a gist of natyashatra. There are many other topics described in it and their finer details are given. It shows how well developed our dramatic art was right from the ancient period.