Sanskrit Theatre

As a literary composition, drama usually tells us a story, but not just through words, in the form of dialogues, but also through gestures, movements, and facial expressions of the characters, dances, costumes, background landscape, music, stage setting etc. Drama is, therefore, a performative art that includes many components and participants such as the playwright, actors, director, audience, costume designer, make-up artists etc.


Indian classical drama

The Indian dramatic tradition was influenced by the dramatic elements found in the Vedas, in dialogue hymns and Vedic rituals. Thus, it is in the Vedic era (1500 – 1000 BCE) that we see dramatic elements that will come to define drama in the years to come and eventually usher in a genre known as Indian Classical Drama as we know it. Even the epics, such as the Mahabharata support the existence of performers or nata as early as 400 CE.

However, the most extant treatise on Indian drama is the Natyashastra by Bharatamuni, which emerged in 3rd CE. Bharata ascribes a divine origin to the dramatic tradition, which highlights its Vedic religious beginnings. The very existence of such a text suggests that it was the culmination of a fairly long process of dramatic development taking place at that time.


Indian classical drama and Greek drama: Similarities and differences

The Greek invasion of the Indian subcontinent has led a few critics such as Weber to assert a Greek influence on Indian drama.

  • Similarities: There are some similarities such as- the plot being mainly centered on historical, mythical figures and the division of the Play into Acts and Scenes, use of the Chorus, developments of stock characters demonstrate this Greek influence on all drama
  • Differences: Indian tradition has the added element of supernatural figures such as gods and goddesses that populate the world of drama, the absence of tragedy in the Indian dramatic tradition, Greek drama’s adherence to the Three Unities of time, place and action is not strictly observed in Indian drama where the action shifts from earthly spaces to heavenly ones, taking place across many years as well and dance and song are an important part of Indian drama and which are not found in the Greek counterpart

Some scholars have also highlighted the influence of Buddhist and Jain traditions in the formalizing of the Indian dramatic tradition. Thus, we can conclude that there might have been a strain of the Greek influence along with influences from other literary traditions and cultures such as the Buddhist and Jain traditions that worked together with ancient Vedic ones to create the Classical Indian drama as we know it today. This may be particularly true of the Tamil Epic Silappadikaaram which is influenced also by the Buddhist and Jain traditions


Some of the salient features of Sanskrit drama are:

  • Inspiration: Multiple sources of influence as seen earlier
  • Purpose:
  1. According to the Natyashastra, a dramatic work’s purpose was to provide not just entertainment and pleasure but instruction, wealth, justice, and spiritual liberation.
  2. That’s why Sanskrit drama does not have a tragic ending because in Hindu cosmology, death is not the end but a means to either achieve spiritual liberation from the cycle of life or be reborn till it is achieved.
  • Emphasis on sentiment:
  1. Rasa can be explained as a blissful aesthetic experience achieved via drama, and is seen as Sanskrit drama’s highest purpose.
  2. The Rasa or the aesthetic sentiment is an important aspect of Sanskrit drama, and can be best defined as the audience’s refined emotional response evoked by the play
  3. Rasa is broadly composed of vibhava, anubhava, vyabhicharibhava, and sthayibhava, which are the different types of emotional responses to a work of art
  • Classification of plays:
  1. Natyashastra also elucidates the different types of plays, the major type (Rupaka) or the minor type (uparupaka).
  2. Rupaka consists of ten varieties out of which the Nataka, are plays based on myths and heroic tales, and the Prakarana, are plays based on fictitious stories and where less important characters are dominant.
  • Plot structure:
  1. Sanskrit drama’s idealized plot structure consists of five transitions that lead to a final culmination of the events depicted.
  2. The first is the “origin” (mukha), which states the seeds or the beginning of the plot
  3. The second is the “incident” (pratimukha), which develops the plotline further by showing both good and bad events
  4. The third is “germ” (garbha) where good actions/events seem to lead towards the “aim” (phala)
  5. The fourth is “crisis” (vimarsa) where bad actions/events seem to outweigh the good and strays away from the “aim”
  6. The fifth is “completion” (nirvahana) that brings together all the different narratives in the play to a definitive conclusion.
  • Bilingual nature: One of the unique aspects of Sanskrit drama is its bilingual nature. The protagonists who belonged to the upper castes such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas spoke in Sanskrit whereas characters from other sections of society such as soldiers, servants, women and children etc. spoke in the various Prakrit languages.
  • Composition of actors: Unlike the ban on female actors in European classical drama, the Sanskritic tradition did not have such prohibitions that required male actors to perform the role of female leads, and drama could be performed by men alone, women alone or a mix of both, depending on the plot.
Drawback of Sanskrit drama

• The audience was mostly limited to a refined circle of upper castes such as the royalty, aristocrats, Brahmins and Kshatriyas since they were educated in Sanskrit unlike the masses who did not possess the knowledge of elite Sanskrit language

• Natyashastra states that the ideal spectators should be educated and noble men, all four castes could watch a play as long as they were seated separately

• Rigid rules which did not provide much room for improvisation.

Such barriers limited the extent of popularization of Sanskrit drama amongst the masses.



Sanskrit drama is defined by the works of dramatists such as Sudraka, Bhasa, Bhavbhuti, Harsha, and Kalidasa to name a few. They have survived through thousands of years because of their literary prowess in depicting characters, settings, plots in their own individualistic way. Almost all the great Sanskrit playwrights benefitted from royal patronage or were part of royal households or even of kings

Some of the recent Sanskrit playwrights include- Manmohan Acharya (Arjuna Pratijnaa, Shrita-kamalam, Pada-pallavam, Divya-Jayadevam, Pingalaa, Mrtyuh, Sthitaprajnah, Tantra-mahasaktih, Purva-sakuntalam, Uttara sakuntalam and Raavanah); Vidyadhar Shastri (Purnanandam, Kalidainyam and Durbala Balam) and Prafulla Kumar Mishra (Chitrangada and Karuna), are a living testimony to the endurance of the genre.


Some of the famous ancient Sanskrit classical playwrights


  • Bhasa (3rd- 4th CE) was a Sanskrit playwright, preceding Kalidasa, believed to have lived in the city of Ujjain
  • Bhasa’s works saw the light of the day in 1909 when the play Swapnavasavadatta (Vision of Vasavadatta) was discovered by Pandit Anandalvar of the Archaeological Survey of Mysore. In 1913 a total of thirteen plays were discovered in an old library in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) by T Ganapati Shastri.
  • Bhasa drew his inspiration from epics such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Purana and semi-historical legends and figures
  • Bhasa’s plays do not follow the Natyashastra very strictly, even breaking dramatic conventions. This has led some critics to conclude that Bhasa’s plays were written before Bharatamnuni’s treatise, others see this as an indication of Bhasa’s poetic experiments and disregard for dramatic conventions
  • Swapnavasavadatta is his most famous play that depicts the story of King Udayana, who must choose between marrying for love his beloved Vasavadatta or the daughter of a neighboring king, Princess Padmavati, for political gain. In the play Bhasa combines romance with political intrigue creating a new kind of drama. Along with traditional dramas, Bhasa also wrote short plays, one act plays, and monologues.
  • Among the many dramatic conventions that Bhasa broke was depicting a tragic ending in his plays. Both Uru-bhanga (Breaking of the Thighs) and Karnabhara (Karna’s Task), which deal with the stories of Duryodhana and Karna respectively, end on tragic notes. Unlike others, he treats these characters with sympathy.
  • Bhasa does not shy away from showing violent acts on stage, which was another Natyashastra convention that he disregards.



  • Sudraka, literally translated as the little servant, was a poet-king who lived in Ujjain in the 2nd CE
  • He is well known for his Prakarana play, Mrichchhakatika (The Little Clay Cart), which is an extended version of Bhasa’s incomplete play Charudattam (Charudatta)
  • The ten act play tells the love story of a Brahmin merchant, Charudatta and a courtesan Vasantasenâ, whose union is thwarted by a jealous suitor
  • It offers an interesting and realistic picture of urban society and the complex social structure of that time.
  • His other plays include Vinavasavadatta, and a Bhana (short one-act monologue), and Padmaprabhritaka



  • Bhavabhuti, a major dramatist of the later Sanskrit dramatic period, was the court poet of King Yashovarman of Kannauj, in north India in 8th CE
  • He too wrote plays based on the Ramayana, such as the Mahaviracharita (Exploits of a Great Hero), which depicts the early life of Rama and Uttaramcharita (The Latter History of Rama), which shows the final years of Rama’s life as written in the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana. Both the plays consist of seven acts written in the Nataka style.
  • His third drama, Malatimadhava (Malati and Madhava), is a Prakarana play centered on the love story of Malati, the daughter of a minister and Madhavya, her beloved. The use of the supernatural makes this play a one of a kind drama that skillfully combines romance with horror
  • He is known for completely doing away with the vidusaka and thus eliminating the comic element in his plays. Critics see this as a reflection of his temperament that could not portray humor effectively



  • Kalidasa was a Sanskrit playwright belonging to the period of 4th-5th He is believed to be a courtier under Chandragupta II
  • His plays and poetry are primarily based on the Vedas, the Ramayaṇa, the Mahabharata and the Puraṇas.
  • His works include notable plays, such as Mālavikāgnimitram (Pertaining to Mâlavikâ and Agnimitra), and Vikramorvasiyam (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi). He also wrote epic poems such as Raghuvamsa (Dynasty of Raghu) and Kumârasambhava (Birth of ‘Kumara’ or Subrahmanya) along with Khandakavyas (minor poems)
  • However, his most popular and famous work remains the Abhijñâna Shâkuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala).

A painting of Shakuntala by the famous artist- Raja Ravi Varma


Practice questions

  1. Discuss the origin of Sanskrit classical drama
  2. Elaborate how Sanskrit classical dramas throw light on various aspects associated with Indian society