Nostrils, Harmony with the Universe, and Ancient Sanskrit Theater: Crash Course Theater #7

Hi, I’m Mike Rugnetta. This is Crash Course Theater, and as much
as we may all adore the violence and raunch of Roman performance.. it’s time to move
on. Aw, Yorick – you disappointed? I know it well, you’re a fan of the rope
dancing maidens aren’t you? So bawdy, this one! The theater of Greece and Rome is only one
tradition, and today we’re going to survey another: Sanskrit theater. We could devote several episodes to classical
Indian theater, but because we have two and a half millennia of opening nights from around
the world to cover in this series, today is more of a highlights reel—and those highlights
include happy endings, rectangular theaters, and fish bellies. INTRO
We don’t really know when Sanskrit theater started or how it evolved, but likely it followed
a process similar to Greek drama and—spoiler alert!—the future reemergence of theater
in the medieval period. Basically: People create religious rituals
to honor their gods. Someone gets the bright idea that, instead
of just singing praises, it might be cool to act out some devotion. And before you know it, you have characters
and plots and sometimes a chorus of frogs. Thee-ah-TAH! Sanskrit literature starts around 1500 BCE,
and like Greek literature, it was originally an oral tradition. Its great works—the Mahabharata and the
Ramayana—weren’t written down until much, much later. The Mahabharata is an epic tale of a battle
between two groups of cousins. The Ramayana is a more intimate family narrative
… that also involves a monkey king. Yeah. It’s as dope as it sounds. Most Sanskrit dramas are based on excerpts
from these epics. There’s no solid date for the first Sanskrit
dramas, either, though we do have a bunch of surviving plays from the first century
CE, suggesting this tradition had already been around for a while. The golden age for Sanskrit drama comes a
little bit later, around the 4th and 5th centuries, during the Gupta Dynasty. Which was a good time if you were into science,
math, or … theater. That’s us! All told, about two-dozen dramas survive;
we’re going to look at one later in this episode. The plays were typically written in a mix
of Sanskrit, the fancy literary dialect, and Prakrit, the more common dialect. If the Greeks have taught us anything, it’s
that if you want to have a great age of drama, you need someone to come along and lecture
you on how to do it right. In Sanskrit theater, instead of Plato and
Aristotle, we have Bharata Muni. Speaking historically, he may not actually
have been a real person, but more of a literary construct like Homer, except he was also semi-divine. Sorry, Homer. We still think you’re fabulous. Sometime in the common era, Bharata Muni wrote
the Natyasastra, which is basically an all-purpose guide to theater: How to write it, how to
stage it, how to watch it, all the different ways an actor can move her nose. And much more. So much more. It’s like Aristotle’s Poetics if, after
writing about tragedy, Aristotle decided to write about… everything else. Oh and the Natyasastra, is also structured
as a 6000 verse poem. Obviously we’re not going to have time to
summarize all of the Natyasastra–turns out there are LOTS of nose movements; I’m partial
to this one [C/U ON SOME NOSE MOVES] –but we will look at the philosophies that underlie
the composition of plays. We’ll also look at how plays should be performed,
at least according to Bharata Muni. But first, let’s check out the Natyasatra’s
theory of the origins of drama. Theater, it says, was created by Brahma, because
Brahma’s job is creating stuff. See CC World Mythology, with this handsome
half bird sir – don’t worry Thoth and I still hang out on the weekends. Brahma and some other gods are worried that
the scriptures are just too literary, so he comes up with drama as a religious teaching
tool. Brahma teaches it to the god Bharata, who
teaches it to his 100 sons. They prepare a play about that awesome time
the god Indra defeated some demons. The gods in the audience love the play, the
demons not so much. They start wilding out, and Indra has to defeat
them—again! The demons are still pretty upset, but they
are reassured that some plays will make fun of the gods, so they agree to stop their attack. Man, and you thought your preview audiences
were tough! YEESH! After that exciting origin story, the Natyasastra
introduces the idea of rasas. Greek and Roman plays were divided by genre—comedy,
tragedy, satyr plays. Sanskrit theater is different. Instead of genre, plays are defined by the
kinds of moods they evoke. These moods are called rasas. There are initially eight of them: erotic,
comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious, and marvelous. Eventually a ninth rasa, is added: peace! A very nice mood to evoke! Not terrible or odious in the least. How do you evoke these rasas, you might ask? A playwright does it by drawing on eight major
human emotions, which are called bhavas. There are eight of those: pleasure, mirth,
sorrow, wrath, vigor, fear, disgust, and wonder. You put the bhavas together in the right combination
and you evoke the appropriate rasa. Hold the odious phone, though: not only are
there nine rasa-moods and eight bhava-emotions, there are also ten categories of play, somewhat
based on length, because a Sanskrit drama can have between one and ten acts. These categories don’t have precise English
translations, but most surviving plays belong to two main categories: nataka plays and prakarana
plays. Nataka plays are five to ten acts long. They usually borrow stories from the classic
Sanskrit epics and deal with gods and heroes and demons. These plays are a little like tragedies, except,
like most Sanskrit plays, they end happily. This helps the audience live in harmony with
the universe – which I mean hey, not a terrible aim for the arts, right? Prakarana plays are also five to ten acts
long.These are closer in spirit to Roman comedies in that they often have urban settings and
deal with everyday human characters. Other kinds include dima plays, which have
16 heroes, and anka, one-act plays in which women lament. Very exciting things happen in these plays—like
kidnappings and battles and berserk elephants—but those things mostly happen offstage. Onstage, we get messengers’ reports and
dialogue about how people are dealing with invading monkey forces, but not usually the
monkey forces themselves. Which, I mean, makes sense. What director wants to manage the blocking
for an army of monkeys? Besides what types of plays there are, the
Natyasastra has a lot of ideas about how plays should be staged. Like Greek and Roman theater, Sanskrit theatre
was often staged in conjunction with religious festivals and preceded by elaborate religious
rituals. But UNLIKE Greek and Roman theater, players
weren’t exclusively men: troupes were male, female, and mixed gender. Plays were also sometimes commissioned as
court performances. Bharata Muni says although the best spectators
are noble, theater is for all classes. Members of the four castes—priests, warriors,
merchants, and peasants—all seem to have gone to the theater, though they didn’t
get to sit together. No classical Sanskrit theaters survive, and
sadly we know nothing about their concession snacks. But Bharata Muni does have some pointers on
architecture. Theaters could be rectangular, square, or
triangular and small, medium, or large. The medium-sized rectangle was the most popular
design. And in case you’re thinking, hey isn’t
bigger better, – turns out you’re more right than you think, because large rectangles are
reserved for the gods. Half of the theater was for the audience,
the other half was for the stage and the backstage. There were also four color-coded pillars,
and the whole thing was meant to symbolize the entire universe. No pressure. If you think that seems precise, wait until
you hear about the acting. Acting in the classical Indian theater is
incredibly specific and highly stylized. The way a performer stands and blinks and
crooks a finger and flares her nostrils—all of that is conveying vital information about
her character and the circumstances of the play. The Natyasastra lists six ways you can move
your nose, nine ways you can move your neck. There are seven ways you can move your eyebrows,
each with its own distinct meaning – from lowering “in envy, disgust and smelling”
to contracted in “manifestation of affection”. And don’t even get Bharata Muni started
on the eyes. Or the fingers. Or the feet. That said, it’s communicating through emotion
that matters most. Rhythm and music, costume and make-up, are
also crucially important. Props, too. But not scenery. Sanskrit drama doesn’t do scenery. To get a feel of how these plays…uh, played
out, let’s take a look at one of the most beloved Sankrit dramas, Kalidasa’s “The
Recognition of Sakuntala.” No solid date for this one, but best guess:
early in the common era. Thoughtbubble, You Better Recognize:
The play begins with a prayer to Shiva, the destroyer. But in a pretty meta gesture a director stops
the hymn so that he can rehearse with one of his actresses. She sings a song, and the play begins. In the first act, King Dushyanta is out hunting
deer near a bunch of hermitages when he decides to hide behind a tree, perving on some beautiful
hermit maidens—especially Sakuntala. The king falls in love, but ooohhh dip, she’s
in the wrong caste! The king mopes because he’s soooooo in love
with the hermit girl and is trying to find an excuse to see her. But then! Two youths come and ask him to protect the
hermitage. Score! Before long, the king and Sakuntala confess
their love. By the next act, their wedding has taken place
and also presumably sex. Then the king has to leave to do king stuff. Daydreaming, Sakuntala accidentally offends
the touchy poet Durvasa. So he curses her, telling her that King Dushyanta
will forget all about her until she presents him with a token, like the ring he conveniently
left. Sakuntala, who is pregnant, brings the king
his kingly ring, to bring to mind their forbidden fling. But alas! The king fails to recognize her. And she’s like, “But wait, I have this
ring.” which … fell into the Ganges. Oops! Sakuntala leaves the palace dejected, and
after a long while a fisherman finds what is clearly a KINGLY RING in the belly of a
fish! When the king sees it, he remembers Sakuntala,
but is busy fighting demons. After the king defeats them, Indra rewards
him with a ride through the heavens. In the final act of the play, Act VII, the
chariot lets the king off at a hermitage. And even after years, he recognizes Sakuntala
… and his son! Thanks Thoughtbubble. Reunited and it feels so good! Yay! A happy ending! Harmony with the universe achieved! As you can see, a nataka is very different
from its Greco-Roman counterparts. Seven acts, a lots of events, a multiyear
span, a ton of locations, and a distinct mix of tragedy and comedy and prayer and sex and
hermits. Sorta has it all. And then some! There was even a rampaging elephant. Somehow it all comes together to help the
audience achieve that harmony with the universe. Nice work, Kalidasa. Sanskrit drama thrived for hundreds of years. But in the next episode we’re going to go
back to Rome to talk about the decline of drama. There’s gonna be a whole mess of trouble
from the Goths and the Visigoths, and then– for a bunch of centuries – no Western theater
at all. Unless you count mimes. Turns out the Dark Ages means dark nights
for theater, too! Get it, Yorick? Because a dark night is a night when there
isn’t a performance and a theater and it’s closed… oof, tough customer,
this guy… Okay! Until next time… curtain!


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