The Natyasastra retrieved in Girish Karnad’s Plays

- Dr. Payal Trivedi (Gujarat-India)
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The Natyasastra (an ancient Indian treatise on drama written during the period between 200 BCE and 200 CE) has received great importance in the realm of Indian theatre for its detailed exposition on the nature of dramatic composition. The introduction of drama or natya as a sacred practice or Yajna (holy fire sacrifice) is its unique contribution to theatre which has ascertained the distinctiveness of Indian dramatic art. In the contemporary Indian theatre, the selected works of Indian dramatist Girish Karnad reflect the relevance of this fundamental core of the Natyasastra that drama is a yajna which leads humanity towards redemption or a state of beatitude. This article attempts to highlight that alluding to the analogy between natya and yajna postulated by the Natyasastra, the plays of Karnad (based on myths and folktales) revise the common image of theatre as a commercial activity and illustrate the extraordinary significance of dramatic art in the Indian context.

The Natyasastra elevates dramatic art from the banal to the spiritual and proclaims in the very beginning:

He who always hears the reading of that (sastras) which is auspicious, sportful, originating from the Brahman’s mouth, very holy, pure, good,destructive of sins and who puts into practice and witnesses carefully the performance (drama) will attain the same blessed goal which masters of Vedic knowledge and performances of sacrificial ritual attain(Natyasastra XXXVI 79)

Yajna is a formalized practice undertaken for varied high-sounding goals; one of them being mokshaprapti or salvation. This involves ahuti or immolation of the Yajnasamagri or ingredients in the Yajnakunda or the sacred altar. The entire ritualistic process is paradigmatic of self-sacrifice. Chapter III of Bhagwadgita expounds on Yajna thus:

Yagna is self-dedicated activity. There is no self-interest. In the absence of self- interest, the ego merges in its fundamental nature. That merger is like offering in the fire of yagna. When it becomes our nature to perform selfless action, then the ego of individuality can’t live long… <>

The Natyasastra considers natya as yajna so it may be inferred that according to the treatise, sacrifice of ego which is the crux of yajna is also the core of natya. Such inference can be drawn by focusing on the implications regarding the necessity of selfless sacrifice present in the sub-text of the treatise. It is conspicuous that there is a lack of certitude regarding the author who composed this elaborate doctrine on drama. This perhaps denotes the self-effacement on the part of the creator as critic Kapila Vatsayayan points that the Natyasastra insists on the sacrifice of stringent authorial intent while practicing dramatic art and this can be inferred from the lack of information regarding its author:

The unique and undisputable importance of the Natyasastra is universally accepted. Of the author, little is known. … It would appear that for the ‘creator’ as also the ‘theoretician’, the identity of ‘self’ or individuality, ‘I’-ness as assertion of position, or point of view, that is unique, distinct and largely in confrontation with the immediately preceding or the contemporary, was not a psychical issue. The moment of ‘creation’ and ‘reflection’, of deducing a theory or evolving a set of principles, could have been possible only after the subjective individual ‘self’ and ‘identity’ had transcended to a higher level of harmony and equilibrium, or had enlarged itself to a larger wider self where principles could be evolved and universals extrapolated or explicated. Impersonalization or depersonalization was its first demand. (Vatsyayan 3)

A reasonable explanation regarding the vague identity of a fixed author of the Natyasastra can be based on critic Kapil Kapoor’s observation that Indian culture sustains on the theory of the man as the Nimitta or the medium chosen by the creator. It thus automatically follows that authorship doesn’t matter in case of Indian art:

…Since man was never a measure of things in the Indian-world view, he is looked upon, in dominant philosophical systems not as the agent, but as nimitta, as a means or an instrument…And in Kavya as in all art, there is stress on anyonymity-the individual is never important-and therefore there is no problem related to authorial intention or to the ultimate meaning…(Kapoor 7)

Though Indian tradition gives an opportunity to erase authorship as Kapil Kapoor explains, the Natyasastra also provides indication that subliminal importance given to its creator is a way of neccessitating the abnegation of ego. The treatise is believed to be composed by Bharata; a certain author but there are various scholarly presumptions (based on certain information in the sastra) that Bharata is not a single author but a group of authors or that Bharata is a sort of acronymn Bha-Bhava (expressions) raga (melody) and ala (rhythm). This indicates that the Natyasastra chooses to remain evasive regarding the concept of its authorship which implies that it ascertains the importance of renunciation of ‘I”. Kapila Vatsyayan states that the treatise includes the tale of Bharata’s sons cursed on account of their vanity which denotes that since natya is regarded as the fifth Veda, it leaves no room for negative impulse as pride:

…The curse when juxtaposed with initial exalted place given to the art as fifth Veda, it will be clear that whether Bharata was a real person or not, the author of the text was unambiguously stating that each moment and throughout, the actor (extended to artist) who had the power, knowledge, and skill of creating another world, could at no time be arrogant, egoistic, and that he could be worthy of an exalted place, as also his art, only if he had discipline and self-restraint, self-transcendence and humility… (Vatsyayan 10)

The Natyasastra’s insistence on the sacrifice of ego is implied in some well-known plays of Girish Karnad. Yayati, Girish Karnad’s first play (based on the story of King Yayati in the Mahabharata) points at the fact that sacrifice of pride is must in order to understand the significance of eternity. Yayati is a powerful King whose vanity regarding his masculine strength and royal inheritance makes him blind to the impending danger in his life. He wants eternal life and yearns for sanjeevani herb which could make him immune to death. Nevertheless, instead of a ceaseless existence in the world, Yayati receives the curse of decrepitude. He loses everything in the end. The play conveys the necessity of renouncing the greed for power and materialistic needs as King Yayati sacrifices his earthly desires and goes to the forest to spend the rest of his life admitting the futility of clinging to worldly enticements. Karnad’s play Hayavadana (main plot of the play inspired from folktale of Madanasundari in Kathasaritasagara)demands sacrifice of material attachments in order to counteract the perennial incompleteness in life. Padmini, the beautiful woman wants a complete man in her life and her desire manipulates her to exchange the heads of her husband and his friend to obtain the perfect blend of brain and brawn in a man. However, her urge to avail a complete man remains unfulfilled as the bodies of both the men turn to their original shape sometime after the exchange of the heads. This brings nothing but disappointment for Padmini. The sub-plot of the play has a horse-headed creature who equates completeness with exterior perfection and wants to become complete by getting rid of his horse head. This horse-headed man also becomes a complete horse towards the close of the play but not a complete man. Hayavadana thus points at the need to sacrifice material avarice in order to comprehend the essence of the term ‘completeness’. The next play by Karnad namely; The Fire and the Rain (based on the story of Yavakri and the Indra-Vritra myth from the Mahabharata) extols selfless sacrifice over any grand ritualistic endeavor. In fact, the play shows the failure of actual Yajna and triumph of an act of selflessness indicating the necessity of sacrifice in the world susceptible to evil impulses. Similarly, Flowers (based on the folktale of Chitradurga) is the monologue which demands renunciation of material senses in order to obtain divine bliss. The Priest of Shiva temple surrenders his material consciousness in front of the lingam (emblem of Shiva) and thus develops a kindred affinity with the lord which is unexplainable and unfathomable through earthly efforts. His mundane worship is converted into selfless sacrifice and therefore lord Shiva pardons him for even the guilt of decorating the concubine with the flowers used for the Shivalingam (phallic emblem of Shiva). Thus, the philosophical principle of sacrifice implied in the Natyasastra becomes an important reference in Karnad’s theatre.

Sacrifice of ‘I’ in the Natyasastra also denotes the sacrifice of the world of matter that binds humans and thwarts the experience of sublime delight. Natya grants blissful pleasure or Brahnmananda according to the Natyasastra. This heavenly delight can be obtained only by transporting oneself to the imaginary world of art which is essentially distinct from the world of the real or the banal. Natyasastra therefore introduces natyadharmi abhinaya or the artistic expression which is hyperbolic and deliberately made to be distinct from that of the real world. The treatise describes highly ornamented kind of representational style including music and dance combined with four main kinds of abhinaya with varied body parts (angika) dialogue (vachika) sattvika (states of emotions) and aharya (make-up, accessories and costumes) to beautify a performance and thus make it appear distinct from the worldly appearance. Interestingly however, this kind of exaggerated rendition is not meant to emulate the ways of the world in its bland form. It is in fact a conversion of the tasteless experiences of life into a very tasty relish-asvada. The effectiveness of abhinaya is such that it adds splendor to the entire performance entertaining the recipients who are like gourmets relishing a mouth-watering dish:

Just as well-disposed persons, while eating food prepared with several kinds of spices, relish its taste and get pleasure and satisfaction, so do specatators with refined minds relish permanent states when they seem them represented by an expression of various emotions through words, gestures and involuntary responses and get pleasure and satisfaction (Kavi 25)

Drawing such uncanny analogy of an entertaining drama with a vyanjana or tasty dish, it seems that the Natyasastra unites the physical and the metaphysical. This unison implies the material means (drama) as the mode of availing the illuming philosophical insight which engenders the revelation of truth. In Girish Karnad’s drama based on primeval Indian subject matter, musical dance dramatic representation along with the so-called artificial exaggerated techniques like masks and miming play a crucial role to engender the exposure of truth. This kind of ‘total theatre’ (Mukherjee 22) is an implicit recognition of the Natyasastra doctrine of the needful transcendence in the world of art in order to avail illumination of a higher kind. Karnad says, “Look here I am creating a world of make-belief for you” (ibid 32). Hayavadana is based on musical dance dramatic style Yakshagana wherein masks, puppetry and miming reflective of Natyasastra abhinaya style play a crucial role to enlighten the significance of completeness. Similarly, Naga-Mandala is a musical dance drama which creates an imaginary artistic world distinct from the real life to disclose the pathos of feminine exploitation in a patriarchal set-up. The Fire and the Rain alludes to the Natyasastra principle of dramatic art as a musical dance dramatic representation which performs the dual task of entertainment and learning on the modern stage. The play provides the scope for involving music and stylized dance movements for instance Arvasu’s mask dance performance towards the close of the play is an important illustration of the presentation of drama as a musical dance enactment. Moreover, The play begins with the actor-manager’s reference to the creation of drama as Natyaveda for the illumination of humankind which indicates Girish Karnad’s intent to retrieve the Natyasastra on the contemporary stage. This is also clear as the playwright discusses the analogy between yajna and natya presented in the Natyasastra by stating that, “...” Both activities involve human performances, precise gestures, speech and a carefully worked out action leading to a predetermined denouement. The parallels are so close that many scholars have argued that the steps by which the narrative of the Birth of Drama proceeds in the first chapter of the Natyasastra actually mirror the progression in similar myths about yajna: Performance-disruption by demons-building of a protective enclosure-discussion-second performance inside the enclosure”. (Collected plays 298). Referring to the Natyasastra concept of drama as Yajna, Karnad indicates in The Fire and the Rain that Indian theatre conceptualizes dramatic art as a sophisticated discipline and not just a means of profit gaining commercial activity as is usually understood in today’s times.

To conclude, Girish Karnad’s works based on myths and folktales echo the Natyasatra in the contemporary theatre. It cannot be denied that Karnad has always been non-committal in his enterprise of playwriting and does not specify his preference for any form of dramatic composition; Indian or Western. As a contemporary playwright Girish Karnad merely acknowledges the distinct concept of Indian theatre when he refers to the Natyasastra or the Indian folk theatre. His opinions on drama seem to imply that Indian theatre must have the opportunity to exhibit its uniqueness in the global theatre. Thus, Karnad never tries to openly endorse or promote tradition of Indian playwriting inspite of the fact that his plays based on myths and folktales significantly allude to ancient Indian theatrical practice explained in the Natyasastra and continued in the folk theatre of the country. However, it appears reading Karnad’s plays based on primeval Indian subject matter, that the Natyasastra makes its prominent reentry in contemporary Indian theatre through his works. The present-day spectators are often used to watching proscenium drama largely based on the Western theme and style of composition. It is apparent that the Natyasastra provides Girish Karnad the means to illustrate that drama in the Indian context is an exotic sacred practice(Yajna)yet is not just a perfunctory ritual. It entertains through music, dance and enactment but it also acts as a source of enlightenment. This becomes evident as Karnad points at the uniqueness of Indian theatre and differentiates it from the Western drama stating that:

Kathakali performers are not allowed to take make-up off without going through a ritual, because they are believed to be charged with energy that can be dangerous for other people. The ritual is supposed to discard this energy... So the parallel between the actor and the ritual-performer is a close one. English actors probably discard their energy after performance by getting drunk in a pub! (Pioneer n.pag.)

Works Cited:

Collected Plays (CP). Vol II OUP, 2009.
Kapoor, Kapil. Literary Theory: Indian Conceptual Framework. New Delhi: EWP, 1998.
Karnad, Girish. “Preface on the Natyasastra in Knowledge, Tradition, Text. Approaches to Bharata’s Natyasastra”. Sangeeta Natak Academi Ed Amrit Srinivasan.: Hope India Publications, 2007.
Kavi, Ramakrishna M. and K.S. Ramaswami Sastri. Eds. Natyasastra of Bharatamuni. VolI. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1980.
Mukherjee, Tutun.Ed. Girish Karnad’s Plays: Performance and Critical Perspectives. New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2008.
Natyasastra by Bharatamuni. Chap. XXXVI. Ed.1979.
Rangacharya, Adya. The Natyasastra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt ltd., 1996.
Pioneer. “Dons of Drama”. 25 January 2010. Sangeet Natak Akademi Archives.
Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata: The Natyasastra. Sahitya Academi, 2001. Self Dedicated Activity (Yagna or Sacrifice) Online article. Shri Rama Publishing 1996.

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(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2015)