Traditional Indian Narrative Structure – The basis of our mainstream cinema by Salim Arif (Part 2)

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Not only in theatre but any assessment in painting, music, dance, literature or cinema would also refer to this Rasanubhav (experience of the emotional impact) as the epitome of desired impact and aesthetic evaluation of all art forms in India. Essentially a manual meant for stage craft, the Natya Shastra is very often regarded as the foundation for the fine arts in India including the popular Indian Films.

Apart from this manual like detailing for actors, the Natya Shastra has also laid down principles for music, Indian classical dance and literature. These performing arts adhere to the basic tenets of this treatise and still practice classical forms following these rules in India.

Bharata describes acting, which is called Abhinaya in Natya Shatra as the main tool in hands of a performer in conveying a story through characters, where he becomes the instrument as well as the player. It is divided into four distinct categories that help in portrayal of any character and situation identifiable by an audience.

Angik (by various parts of the body) – The communication through body movements, called Angika abhinaya, where the movements of major limbs like hands and feet as well as head, chest and movements of facial parts like eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, chin etc. are involved. The glances, gestures, gaits are also part of Angika abhinaya.

Vachik (vocal or diction: by use of voice including the way you speak your dialogue and emote) – The communication by speech is called Vachika abhinaya. In this, the vowels, consonants and their origin, intonation, modes of address etc. are discussed.

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Aharya (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 or acting expressing the inner feelings of the character by subtle movements of face and body. We will discuss this later too.

These four types of acting combine together to present a Bhava or state of “being” on stage during a performance. On the performance aspect, Bharata describes Bhavas (The representation of emotion or ability to emote) and its impact that can effectively transmit and evoke Rasa (an appropriate emotional response) in the viewer or an audience. This Rasa Utapatti (creation of an emotional response) in the audience is one of the primary intentions of a performer while narrating a story. Bharata classifies Rasa (literal meaning essence or extract or juice) into eight categories and gives the intentioned and corresponding Bhava, which evoke those Rasas or emotional responses. They are also known as Sthayi Bhava or basic emotions.

They are:
1.Rati (Love)
2.Hasya (mirth or laughter)
3.Shoka (grief or sorrow)
4.Krodha (anger)
5.Utsah (enthusiasm as in heroism or bravery)
6.Bhaya (fear or terror)
7.Jugupsa (disgust)
8.Vismaya (astonishment or wonderment)
9.Shanta (peace or tranquil as the Ninth Rasa was a later addition to the eight emotional experiences)

The corresponding Nine Rasas to these basic emotions are Srinagar (amorous), hasya (humorous), karuna (pitiful, sad or tragic), raudra (furious), vira (Brave or valorous), bhayanaka (horrific), bibhatsa (repugnant or disgusting), and adbhuta (wondrous or evoking astonishment) and shanta (Peace). This ninth Rasa suggested by Abhinavgupta, the mystic aesthetician of Natya Shastra in the 10th century AD got finally included to make the entire gamut known as Nav-Rasa.

The Bhavas are further classified into three types, namely, Sthayi (eight types), Sanchari/Vyabhichari (thirty three), and Satvika (eight). The Satvika Bhava are the physical manifestation of intense emotion. They are sthamba (petrification), sveda (sweating or perspiration), romancha (thrill or horripilation), svarabheda (alters the vocal register or voice change), vepathu (trembling), vaivarnya (change of facial colour), ashru (tears or weeping), and pralaya (blanked out or fainting).

The attribute or main reason (Karana) is called Vibhava. Alambana Vibhava is the term used for main stimulating cause or deciding factor. The factors that help create an environment as external stimuli are called Uddipan Vibhava. The experience as a reaction to corresponding action is called Anubhava (Anu and Bhava). It is a combination of Anu or Anubhuti, the experience that happens through Vibhava by some physical action, words and facial expression of the performer. The thirty-three Saanchaari Bhava (also referred to as Vyabhichari Bhava in some editions), are emotions that are created reflecting variable and fleeting moments, they are transitory in nature, depicting changing psychological states of minds. They in a way reinforce the Sthayi Bhava, very much like the effect, which small thin lines add on to thick bold lines in a drawing, creating roundness or depth to an otherwise flat picture plane. This lingering on Sthayi Bhava with the help of Sanchari Bhava enhances the overall experience and evokes the intentioned emotion/mood or Rasa, which is called Ras-Utapatti or Rasanubhav. This transmission of Rasa from a performer to the audience is the key to a shared experience in performance theory of Natya Shastra. According to Bharata, Bhava and Rasa have to be mutually dependent.

The dramaturgy in Sanskrit plays makes use of this process in literary construction of the text to presentation of action on stage. Scripting of Abhigyan Shakuntalam of Kalidas or Vishakhdutt’s Mudra Rakshas follows this method in creating scenes. Alambana Vibhava, is used initially to put forth the main cause of the scene, followed by Uddipan Vibhava that help create a locale and setting in the minds of the audience. The Sanchari Bhavas are then used to describe what the characters are thinking or feeling. Satvika Bhavas as physical manifestations complete the overall action and lead to the comprehension of intentioned impact by the audience.

Coming back to drama in Indian classical format, it is important to understand that it treats the stage as a sacred space, which is ritualistically activated to take the audience onto a journey as equal partners in a performance. It excites the imagination of the audience to a level that they start to see and feel all that the performer is experiencing. But it never tries to camouflage that it is a stage performance for the audience. The state of “suspension of disbelief” is stylistically evoked in the audience right at the outset and that gives the action on stage its tremendous flexibility and fluidity of narration, transcending the physical limits of the stage and its limited space. The stage has to be without any permanent set or backdrop, making it obligatory on the performers to suggest and create ambience by their acting. Actor is at the center of this treatise as the main source or basic medium through which a performance has to be negotiated.

The Natya Shastra lays down conditions and guidelines for stage or Mandap and the way a play needs to be staged. It also presents a detailed analysis of musical scales and movement, analysis of dance forms, categorizing body movement and their impact on the viewer. Besides, it has certain guidelines for the audience or spectator to observe including being Sa-hriday (compassionate to the performance and performer) to experience and absorb the Rasa and full impact of the act. Each member of the audience is expected to be a Rasic (an initiated fellow) to assimilate and absorb the Rasa that is transmitted in the performance. Characters are described with several types and having traits to be classified in various categories.

The poetics of Aristotle, the classical unities of Western Drama, which lay importance on unity of time, place and action in a drama, limiting the entire play performance to adhere to a chronological portrayal of action in one locale, where stage time corresponds to real time ,demanding a scripting like in the play Oedipus Rex. Natya Shastra and Sanskrit plays on the other hand have an entirely different approach. A drama can have multiple locales, several time lapses, and run into many days and months in the expanse of actual story, much like a Shakespearean play.


The performing areas in Natya Shastra are supposed to be on a bare stage in Rangpeeth area. Because of this freedom, a Sanskrit play like Little Clay Cart (Mrichhkatikam), which also became the source of Girish Karnad’s Utsav, reads more like a cinema script than a play to be done on stage. It is a very good example of the connection of Indian mainstream cinema with our classical and traditional theatre.

It is interesting to understand the flow of action and several locations it moves with the narrative. The action of the scene starts with a call from behind the stage about a shampooer who has run away after losing in gambling. The shampooer then enters stage and in a song reflects on the nature of dice and his plight. This is a regular way of introducing a character in our traditional theatre and this device of a song has been also frequently used in popular cinema to introduce a character. The shampooer decides to hide in a roadside temple. The other gamblers enter on the town street corner, noticing the steps of that gambler. Then action leads to an abandoned temple, from there it moves to another street and moves into the house of Vasantsena, the courtesan, where this shampooer turned gambler asks for refuge and is saved. In return, he gives up gambling and decides to become a Buddhist monk, renouncing all worldly attractions. He later on in the play saves the life of Vasantsena, providing a “poetic justice” in the sub plot. It is crucial to visualize these scenes from the point of view of staging. The dramaturgy as explained in the Natya Shastra made it possible for the performers to negotiate through this content on a bare stage. Imagine this sequence with various sets or backdrops on a stage and you realize that the frequent and quick scene changes would hamper the fluency of narrative and result in several tedious and time consuming stoppages. But actually centuries later that is what happened on proscenium stages during the Parsi Theatre days and several devices were invented in the narrative to engage the audience while these changes of locations were made on stage. We will discuss those devices in the transition of Parsi Theatre in the pre-cinema days in another article.

(To be continued…)


“I would have loved to play ‘Gabbar’ from Sholay” – Rahul Bagga

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