Traditional Indian Narrative Structure – The basis of our mainstream cinema by Salim Arif (Part 1)


Nor aught nor naught existed; yon bright sky
Was not, nor heaven’s broad woof outstretched above.
What covered all? what sheltered? what concealed?
Was it the water’s fathomless abyss?
There was not death – hence was there naught immortal,
There was no confine betwixt day and night;
The only One breathed breathless in itself,
Other than it there nothing since has been.
Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled
In gloom profound, – an ocean without light. –
The germ that still lay covered in the husk
Burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat.
Then first came Love upon it, the new spring
Of mind – yea, poets in their hearts discerned,
Pondering, this bond between created things
And uncreated. Comes this spark from earth,
Piercing and all-pervading, or from heaven?
Then seeds were sown, and mighty power arose –
Nature below, and Power and Will above.
Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here,
Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang? –
The gods themselves came later into being. –
Who knows from whence this great creation sprang? –
He from whom all this great creation came.
Whether his will created or was mute,
The Most High seer that is in highest heaven,
He knows it, – or perchance e’en He knows not.
(Translation of Nasadiya Sukta or Hymn of Creation from Rig Veda by Max Muller)

This popular hymn from the Rig Veda/Mandala 10/hymn 129 is a “cosmology” hymn, trying to explain the origin of creation. It describes the tumult and chaos that preceded creation of this universe, when there was neither death nor immortality. From this upheaval emerged, animated by its own impulse a being that breathed and came into existence. From depths of oceans, from an abyss of the cosmic void, burst-in this spirit, animated by desire. It further says how sages see the powers that create the colossal fertile forces, and ends with questioning if the phenomenon was known to the Almighty.

This hymn is at the centre of Indian consciousness from ancient times. A small segment taken from several others contained in these oceans of knowledge these vedas are an important source of wisdom from early days. Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda are four Vedas that form the primary religious text of ancient India and are still followed in study and practice.

They had enormous influence on subsequent Indian religions including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Composed and codified about 2500 years ago, these Vedas contain Hymns, Incantations and Rituals from ancient India. Besides their religious and Spiritual value, they also became a guiding text for everyday life.

Besides these four Vedas, a notional fifth Veda, Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra also acquired significant importance during the early years of Indian Civilization. It is believed that a number of sages approached Sage Bharata to ask about a Natyaveda. Natyaveda here means Natya=Drama and Veda=Wisdom/Knowledge. That interaction started a discourse and the Natya Shastra came into being. Natyashastra became an answer to this quest to enumerate the codification of performing arts, of providing a guideline that puts forward aesthetics in place for performers to follow. Interestingly this codification with its suggestive use of Mime and Gestures in Western Drama terminology usually excludes dance or music, but etymologically the root Nat in Sanskrit/Indian languages refers to “dance” and even an “acrobat”.

In Sanskrit, the term Natya refers to a combination of drama, dance and music. Emotional Expression in this guideline includes stylization of bodies. Codification in presentation implies that the audience would have been an evolved body of patrons understanding this language of theatre. Considered to be written around 200 BC-200 AD in Sanskrit containing 6000 Slokas (Verse stanzas), Natya Shastra is a complete treatise on Performing Arts, including Dance, Music, Literature, Drama or Theatre besides extensive codification of Stage Craft. Some passages are also composed in a prose form. The title can be translated as A Manual of Dramatic or Performing Arts.

Costumes, make up and stage Props are not incidental but essential components that have a creative bearing on the overall felt experience. This Fifth Veda Title for Natya Shastra comes from the attributed origin of this treatise and its social importance in the everyday life of that era. In the West, two distinct words are used to identify this performing art: drama and play. Drama is the written script, and a play — if one goes by Shakespeare’s famous line, ‘The play’s the thing’ — is the production on stage. But whether we see drama as purely a literary genre or a theatrical one, it is indisputable that theatre sources the bulk of its material from literature. While enumerating the literary aspect of texts, Bharata describes ten types of Dramas, which are known as Dasharupaka (The Ten Forms) or Ten Categories of plays.

 Book twenty of the Natyashastra makes distinctions between these ten kinds of plays. These have long, multiple-act plays and very short one-act plays besides a few others.

They are:
1. Nataka
2. Prakarana
3. Samavakara
4. Ihamrga
5. Dima
6. Vyayoga
7. Anka
8. Prahasana
9. Bhana
10. Vithi

Number of acts in each play distinguishes these categories from each other in The Natya Shastra. An “act” (anka) is generally having incidents that occur within the unities of Time ,Place and Action. The Natyashastra does not demand that these incidents run in a unified way. Therefore, an act might include episodes from various times of a day like morning, mid-afternoon, and late evening. The episodic structure is at the core of this scene division.

The Nataka has characters from the divine and royalty, the stories are not ficitional but from Mythology or History. (Mostly stories that are found in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana or about a king).They reinforce the status of kings and sages and divine powers. Unlike the classical Greek tragedy where the hero is vulnerable against divine order (as in Oedipus Rex), reinforcing the status-quo, the Hero in a Sanskrit Nataka is triumphant. The royal heroes of the plays are generally earthly inheritors and executioners of cosmic order, and blessed for the same. Shakuntala by Kalidasa is a good example of this type of Nataka. Prakarana, the other principal category is a more liberal form that can have characters from different spectrums of society. It may have Five to ten Acts and in a way can be likened to a Greek comedy. Prakarana has characters that are fictional or created by playwrights from their surroundings. The stories are not from palaces and royal families, the scenes take place in the lanes and houses of town. The subject are very often dealing with everyday concerns of money, love, justice, and social honor. Shudraka’s Mrcchakatika (Little Clay Cart) is the best known example of Prakarana. I will be quoting a scene from this play to illustrate the staging and corresponding style of a Sanskrit play. The Samavakara and Ihamrga, for instance, use less than five acts and depict mythological characters and stories. The Vyayoga and Anka are one-act plays, having a much smaller expanse of action. The Anka usually depicts sorrow, much like a tragedy. Bhasa’s Urubhangam is an example of Anka.

Altogether, the Natya Shastra is composed of several chapters as follows:

1. The Origin of Drama / Creation of Theatre (The Mythological basis)
2. Making of the Playhouse: Theatre Architecture/Stage Preparations
3. Invocation of Gods/Religious rituals
4. Karana Dance to spiritually enlighten the audience/Create a position in audience to receive the performance with a clear frame of mind and heart.
5. Preparing for the performance/Pre-Stage rituals of actors
6. Rasa Theory or Emotion or Sentiment Creation
7. Bhavas or Various state of Emotions
8. Acting Gestures of Head and parts of face, Gestures of Hands, Gestures of Torso and limbs
9. Movement on Stage (Chaaris): Steps, Combination of Steps and various Gaits and postures.
10. Areas of the Stage, space division of performing areas and Styles of Plays
11. Voice or Diction of a Play, Meters, Poetic Figures
12. Language of various characters, areas, modes of addressing etc.,
13. Classification of Plays into 10 types and their distinct characteristics
14. Role of main story line, Plot
15. Decisive Mood of a performance
16. Costume and Make-Up
17. Acting: From Imitation to Representation, ways of suggesting characters and Characterization
18. Importance of Gestures, Gestures as representative symbols
19. Production Process and Success of a performance
20. Music-Vocal and Instrumental, Stringed Instruments, Hollow Instruments
21. Percussion and role of Beat, Variations of Beats (Tala) (Drumming Rhythms)
22. Dhruva Songs
23. Covered Instruments-Drums
24. Types of Characters, their Categories
25. Casting for Roles
26. Drama as it came to this universe

This defines the broad aesthetics of a performance from the text to its stage presentation, including three varieties of auditoriums and stages that are to be made keeping in mind the kind of space or plot available. They are Vikrishta (Rectangular), Chaturastra (Square) and Tryastra (Triangular) in shape. Bharata’s Natya Shastra pays special attention to representation of natural phenomena like Sunrise and sunset, rain, thunder etc. Even animals with their traits are given representational importance on stage. This classification in a way covers the entire gamut of expressed emotional states that can be identified by a viewer.

(To be continued…)


“In ‘Gun Pe Done’, I play a struggling actress” – Tara Alisha Berry

“I always wanted to compose music that would talk about world peace” – Sandesh Shandilya