Theater in Bengal


Jan 31, CANADA (SUN) — A three-part study of the history of Sanskrit theater in Bengal.

The evolution of theatre in Bengal and modern Bangladesh, which follows more or less the South Asian tradition with a later European mix, may be narrated in terms of three distinct streams: (i) Sanskrit theatre and derivatives, (ii) indigenous theatre and (iii) European theatre. In the South Asian tradition dramatic conflict is not an indispensable structural element.

Sanskrit Theatre and Derivatives

Ancient period: With the Gupta annexation of the greater portion of Bengal by the 4th century AD, the Aryan culture of the upper Gangetic plain penetrated into the region. The flourishing trade of Bengal led to the rise of urban centres patronising art and culture. In such urban centres, performances of classical Sanskrit theatre would naturally be a part of cultural life, at least among the urbane classes of the society. A few literary evidences strongly support this assumption. The most important of these is a Sanskrit play titled Lokananda by Chandragomi (6th c.), a reputed Buddhist grammarian from Bengal. Lokananda is structured in four acts with a prologue. The play must have been popular, for I-Tsing states, 'people all sing and dance to it throughout the five countries of India'.

The intimate political connection of Bengal (or parts of it) with the Aryan culture continued till the mid-8th century, during which period Harsavardhan of Northern India, Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa, Yashovarman of Kanyakubja and Lalitaditya of Kashmir exerted great influence. Sanskrit theatre got a great patron in Harsavardhan, who was himself a renowned Sanskrit playwright (with plays such as Nagananda to his credit). Bhavabhuti, the author of Malatimadhava, was the court-poet of Yasovarman. However, the most interesting account of a performance is recorded by the Kashmiri poet Kalhan in his Rajatarangini. According to him, Jayapida, the grandson of Lalitaditya, witnessed a performance given by a highly skilled dancer named Kamala in the temple of Kartikeya in the city of Pundravardhana. The performance was given in accordance with Bharat's Natyashastra (a Sanskrit treatise on theatre ascribed to Bharat).

Nothing much is known about Sanskrit theatre during the Pala Rule in Bengal (mid-8th to mid-12th c.). The sole evidence is the Tibetan historian Taranath's comments about 'a grand dramatic performance that formed part of seasonal festival in the city of Vikramapura, which clearly indicates the existence of a flourishing tradition of theatre.

The Senas, with their strong Brahmanical bias and distinct South Indian background, extended widespread patronage to performances derived from Sanskrit tradition. King Vijayasena (c. 1096-1159) and Bhavadev Bhatta (minister of King Hari Varman and a noted scholar) both claim to have provided for a great number of deva-dasis in the temples established by them. Highly skilled in song, dance and music in the classical tradition as formulated in the Natyashastra, the deva-dasis gave public performances in the temples and also private performances at royal courts.

There also exist a substantial number of references from various religious tracts of the period in which nata (actor) has been cited as a separate class. Halayudh Mishra's Sekhshubhodaya, a historical kavya or poem written in Sanskrit, confirms the existence of nata (actors) and nartaki (danseuse) in the Sena court. Vidyapati's Purus Pariksa also refers to a performance by an actor named Gandharva, in the court of King laksmanasena. Prevalence of classical Sanskrit theatre in the Sena court can also be inferred from Govardhan Acharya's poetic work titled Aryasaptashati. Shlokas 174 and 538 of Aryasaptashati clearly refer to acting, curtain, and actress, which obviously imply the existence of Sanskrit theatre in the court of the Sena rulers.

Ragatarangini, a critical work on music composed in 1160 by Lochan Pandit, refers to an earlier text titled Tambaru-nataka. It is possible that Tambaru-nataka was a critical work on dramaturgy. However, the most important material for the study of theatre during this period is a Sanskrit performance-text titled Gita-govindam (c. 1200 AD) by Jaydev, the court-poet of Laksmanasena. In the Gita-govindam, Jaydev blended the existing popular tale of Radha and Krishna with one of the Uparupakas (minor type of plays) of the classical Sanskrit tradition and set a new trend, which was to be echoed in the centuries that followed. If oral traditions have any historical validity, then Jaydev performed the Gita-govindam as a singer with his wife Padmavati as a dancer.

The Gita-govindam is composed in twelve parts and features three characters: Krishna, Radha, and Sakhi. The characters may be performed by three dancers (as in the case of Manipuri Rasa Nrtya still performed in Bangladesh) or by a single dancer (as was possibly the case with Jaydev and Padmavati). The dancers are required to sing their lines simultaneously as they dance with mimetic gestures (angika abhinaya). In between the songs, the sutradhar (narrator) is required to render narration in verse, in which he describes part of the action, comments on the same and sometimes also introduces the characters and describes their mental states.

The structure of performance follows the general pattern of Sanskrit theatre. Clearly, the text bears remarkable similarity with sangit-natakas (verse-plays) of the Nepalese court. The Gita-govindam and the Aryasaptashati bear evidence that in the court of Laksmanasena, the love theme of Radha and Krishna, performed by courtesans, was indeed a regular feature. Jaydev's text stood out as the model to be emulated by the later poets in vernacular during the course of the following centuries.

Medieval period Sanskrit theatre received a serious setback towards the beginning of the13th century, when the Turkish invasion wrested north-western Bengal from the Senas. However, Sagaranandi composed a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, titled Natakalaksanaratnakosa in the same century. The work cites quite a few play-texts which were also composed. Nothing more can be deduced with certainty, but the very existence of a critical work on drama presupposes the continuance of the tradition of Sanskrit theatre in Bengal, possibly under the patronage of Hindu feudal lords and in Hindu kingdoms.

From the 16th century onwards, literary evidence appears in greater number. Towards the end of the same century, King Laksmana Manikya of Bhulua composed two plays, Vikhyata-vijaya and Kuvalayashva-charita, his son, Amara Manikya composed one (Vaikuntha-vijaya) and a court poet, Kavitarkik, composed another, Kautuka-ratnakara. This evidence proves unequivocally the existence of Sanskrit court theatre in Bengal.

It continued in the 18th century because of Krishnachandra Roy, tributary king of Nabadwip. Chandi (1760), the unfinished play of his court poet Bharatachandra, which is based on the tale of Mahisasura Vadha (the slaying of the buffalo shaped asura), displays remarkable influence of Sanskrit dramaturgy, although the play is not composed entirely in Sanskrit. While the play was never performed, the court of Krishnanagara is known to have produced another play of similar characteristics named Chitra-yajna by Vidyanath Vachaspati, in 1777-78.

Away from the court, Rupa Goswami, one of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's close associates based at Vrindavan, composed three Sanskrit plays, Bidagdha Madhava (1524), Lalita Madhava (1529), and Dankeli-kaumudi (1549), as well as a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, Nataka Chandrika. At least three more plays were written outside Vrindavan: Jagannathavallabha by Ramananda Ray, Chaitanyachandrodaya by Kavikarnapur, and Sangit Madhava by Govinda das. The plays by Rupa Goswami and Ramananda Ray's are all based on tales of Krishna. Kavi Karnapur's play is based on the life of Chaitanya. Of these plays, only Jagannathavallabha is known to have been performed. All save Govinda das's play were translated into Bangla in the 17th century. It is not known if any of these translations were performed.


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