The Natya Shastra is a Sanskrit text on the performing arts.

The text is attributed to sage Bharata Muni, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE.

The text consists of 36 chapters with a cumulative total of 6000 poetic verses describing performance arts. The subjects covered by the treatise include dramatic composition, the structure of a play and the construction of a stage to host it, genres of acting, body movements, make up and costumes, role, and goals of an art director, the musical scales, musical instruments and the integration of music with art performance.

The Natya Shastra is notable as an ancient encyclopedic treatise on the arts, one which has influenced dance, music and literary traditions in India.

It is also notable for its aesthetic “Rasa” theory, which asserts that entertainment is the desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal, and that the primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.

The text has inspired secondary literature such as Sanskrit bhasya (reviews and commentaries) such as by the 10th century Abhinavagupta.

Historical roots

The Natya Shastra is the oldest surviving ancient Indian work on performance arts. The roots of the text extend at least as far back as the Natasutras, dated to around the mid 1st millennium BCE.

The Natasutras are mentioned in the text of Panini, the sage who wrote the classic on Sanskrit grammar, and who is dated to about 500 BCE.

This performance arts-related Sutra text is mentioned in other late Vedic texts, as are two scholars names Shilalin and Krishashva, credited to be pioneers in the studies of ancient drama, singing, dance and Sanskrit compositions for these arts.

The Natya Shastra refers to drama performers as Śhailālinas, likely because they were so known at the time the text was written, a name derived from the legacy of the Vedic sage Śilālin credited with Natasutras. Richmond et al. estimate the Natasutras to have been composed around 600 BCE.

According to Lewis Rowell, a professor of Music specializing on classical Indian music, the earliest Indian artistic thought included three arts, syllabic recital (vadya), melos (gita) and dance (nrtta), as well as two musical genre, Gandharva (formal, composed, ceremonial music) and Gana (informal, improvised, entertainment music).

The Gandharva subgenre also implied celestial, divine associations, while the Gana was free form art and included singing.

The Sanskrit musical tradition spread widely in the Indian subcontinent during the late 1st millennium BCE, and the ancient Tamil classics make it “abundantly clear that a cultivated musical tradition existed in South India as early as the last few pre-Christian centuries”.

The art schools of Shilalin and Krishashva, mentioned in both the Brahmanas and the Kalpasutras and Srautasutras, may have been associated with the performance of Vedic rituals, which involved storytelling with embedded ethical values. The Vedanga texts such as verse 1.4.29 of Panini Sutras mention these as well.

The roots of the Natyashastra thus likely trace to the more ancient vedic traditions of integrating ritual recitation, dialogue and song in a dramatic representation of spiritual themes. The Sanskrit verses in chapter 13.2 of Shatapatha Brahmana (~800–700 BCE), for example, are written in the form of a riddle play between two actors.

The Vedic sacrifice (yajna) is presented as a kind of drama, with its actors, its dialogues, its portion to be set to music, its interludes, and its climaxes. — Louis Renou, Vedic India

Contents

The contents of the Natya Shastra, states Susan Schwartz, are “in part theatrical manual, part philosophy of aesthetics, part mythological history, part theology“. It is the oldest surviving encyclopedic treatise on dramaturgy from India, with sections on the theory and practice of various performance arts.

The text extends its reach into asking and understanding the goals of performance arts, the nature of the playwright, the artists, and the spectators, their intimate relationship during the performance.

Natya topics as envisioned in this text include what in western performing arts would include drama, dance, theatre, poetry, and music. The text integrates its aesthetics, axiology, and description of arts with mythologies associated with Hindu Devas and Devis. Performance arts, states Natyashastra, are a form of Vedic ritual ceremony (yajna).

The general approach of the text is to treat entertainment as an effect, but not the primary goal of arts. The primary goal is to lift and transport the spectators, to the expression of ultimate reality and transcendent values. The text allows, states Schwartz, the artists “enormous innovation” as they connect the playwright and the spectators, through their performance, to Rasa (the essence, juice).

The “rasa theory” of Natyashastra, states Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, presumes that bliss is intrinsic and innate in man, it exists in oneself, that manifests non-materially through spiritual and personally subjective means.

Performance arts aim to empower a man to experience this rasa or re-experience it. Actors aim to journey the spectator to this aesthetic experience within him.

Rasa is prepared, states Natya Shastra, through a creative synthesis and expression of vibhava (determinants), anubhava (consequents) and vyabhicharibhava (transitory states). In the process of emotionally engaging the individual in the audience, the text outlines the use of eight sentiments – erotic, comic, pathetic, terrible, furious, odious, heroic and marvelous.

The text discusses a variety of performance arts as well as the design of the stage.

The goals of art: spiritual values

The Natyashastra and other ancient Hindu texts such as the Yajnavalkya Smriti assert that arts and music are spiritual, with the power to guide one to moksha, through empowering the concentration of mind for the liberation of the Self (soul, Atman).

These arts are offered as alternate paths (marga or yoga), in strength similar to the knowledge of the Srutis (Vedas and Upanishads).

Various medieval scholars, such as the 12th-century Mitaksara and Apararka, cite Natyashastra and Bharata in linking arts to spirituality, while the text itself asserts that beautiful songs are sacred and performance arts are holy.

The goal of performance arts, states Natyashastra is ultimately to let the spectator experience his own consciousness, then evaluate and feel the spiritual values innate in him, and rise to a higher level of consciousness.

The playwright, the actors and the director (conductor) all aim to transport the spectator to an aesthetic experience within him to eternal universals, to emancipate him from the mundane to creative freedom within.

Influence

The first chapter of the text declares that the text’s origins came after the four Vedas had been established, and yet there was lust, covetousness, wrath and jealously among human beings.

The text was written as a fifth Veda, so that the essence of the Vedas can be heard and viewed, in Natya form to encourage every member of the society to dharma, artha and kama. The text originated to enable arts that influence society and encourage each individual to consider good counsel, to explain sciences and demonstrate arts and crafts widely.

The text is a guide and progeny of what is in the Vedas, asserts the Naty Shastra. The text re-asserts a similar message in the closing chapter, stating for example, in verses 36.20–21 that performance arts such as drama, songs, music, and dance with music are equal in importance as the exposition of the Vedic hymns, and that participating in vocal or instrumental music once is superior to bathing in river Ganges for a thousand days.

Nāṭyaśāstra, states Natalia Lidova, has been far more than “a mere compendium on the drama“. It provided the foundation of theatrical and literary works that followed, which shaped the post-Vedic culture.

It has been an important sourcebook of Hindu performance arts and its cultural beliefs regarding the role of arts in the social (dharmic) as well as the personal inner life of man in Hinduism.

The Natysashastra text has been influential in other arts. The 108 dance forms described in the Natyasastra, for example, have inspired Shiva sculptures of the 1st-millennium BCE, particularly the Tandava style which fuses many of these into a composite image found at the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram.

The movements of dance and expression in the Natyashastra are found carved on the pillars, walls, and gateways of 1st-millennium Hindu temples.

The specifications provided in the Natya Shastra can be found in the depiction of arts in sculpture, in icons and friezes across India.

[In Indian arts] the imagery of the Upanishads and the elaborate ritual of the Brahmanas is the ground plan for each of the arts, be it architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance or drama. The artist repeats and chisels this imagery by giving it concrete shape through stone, sound, line or movement. — Kapila Vatsyayan

The Rasa theory of Natya Shastra has attracted scholarly interest in communication studies for its insights into developing texts and performances outside the Indian culture.

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