Below is the gist of my Talk on Sanskrit plays, text and performance at Kadavallur, Trichur Kerala, on 16th November 09, as part of the famous Kadavallur Anyonyam. The performance of the play Karnnabharam followed after the talk.
Text and performance are the two aspects of dramatic expression. The relationship between these two and their divergence is always a matter of discussion, in all traditions of dramatic endeavors- Text is the domain of the playwright (words, language) and the other is that of the actor (acting, performance, histrionics). In classical and Sanskrit theatre this discourse gains special meaning and relevance.
The first one (Text) is permanent, intelligent and poetic; the second one (performance) lives for a moment, emotional in nature, is crafty, skillful and dexterous in nature. The poet is more philosophical and he speaks about human life and its fate through his writing. In this pursuit he transforms the stories of Gods and Noble Kings down-to-earth, so as to portray the human situation- he brings human elements, character and dilemmas into the story of gods and their great lives to discuss the conflicts and limitations of human life in its social, political and philosophical perspective. Thus the playwright brings down the Gods to the Earth, demystifies them, humanizes their story to match the life of the reader and relate to his mortal, experiential reality.
At the same time, the actor performing the same role is trying to grow into a higher plane, to lift him to the upper limits, to grow from the ordinary human situation to match the super-human persona and supreme entities – it is an extension upwards. He cannot ‘act’ and behave in his mundane/ordinary life style to represent such ‘great’ characters; the audience may not ‘believe’ nor accept such a blunt and morbid portrayal. He achieve this ascend with his craft, special talents, histrionics, and other attributes that ordinary human in the audience can not achieve, cultivated by intense, systematic training and hard work. In this attempt to grow upwards, the performance uses techniques, craft, and customs that may be symbolic and/or representative, that can cover up the mundane ordinary entity and persona of the performer. It can be a ‘forged, and bogus’ existence, - a divine lie’ - tricky and crafty and at the same time exceptional, extraordinary. The ability of the actor to dance, sing, perform extraordinary feats, do jugglery, mastery over language and literature, power to improvise and interpret, sense and application of humor, and similar traits make this upward growth from a usual being to a performer blessed with extra-human power and privilege.
In short while the text tries to bring down the Gods down to the human nature, the performance tries to lift the actor/character to the gods or an equivalent supreme situation. One can say that this is true to any classic drama; be it Greek or Sanskrit and even Shakespeare. May be, the elevation and the desire of the actor to be worshiped in the star-status is embedded here.
The role of the director is to make these two perceptions moving in opposite directions, to blend and unite; to relate the meaning of the text with the aesthetics of performance and with the craft of the actor. That means to relate the text and its meaning to the reality of life and the period, but expressed through the actor’s craft, abilities and resources.
Sanskrit drama has a history from 2nd century to 11th century with great playwrights like Sudraka (3rd-6th century), Kalidasa 4th or 5th century; Harsa 7th; Mahendravikramavarman 7th , Kulasekhara Varman -11th etc. A close look onto this history reveals that the progress of Sanskrit drama is in leaps, not in a continuum... The change from Kalidasa to Kulasekhsra Varma is vast and diverse; the Sanskrit drama of Bhasa is much different from that of Kalidasa, which is very much different from that of Mahendravikrama Varma or Kulasekhara. There are more differences between them than similarities. We can see that the focus is being shifted from the text to the performance, as we move from the history of Sanskrit theatre from 2nd century to the 11th). So where to place the tradition of Sanskrit drama and its performance? I can very well say that the notion of a single notion of a monolithic structure for Sanskrit drama/theatre is false; there is not ‘one Sanskrit theatre’, but there are many Sanskrit theatres to make it in the right perspective!
The texts of Sanskrit drama available today do not suggest a clear idea about the mode of performance of the period. What is known to us is from treatise like Natyasastra, excerpts of plays and other related material, commentaries and from references regarding performance; but that too mostly focuses on the abilities and skills the actor, his training etc.
Natyasastra and its interpretation by Abhinavagupta are giving light onto the performance aspects of Sanskrit tradition. Here we find singing and dancing was getting fused into acting; or the concept of acting/performance is a fusion of the three.
Then we have the living traditions like Kutiyattam which are derivatives of Sanskrit tradition of performance, interactions and extensions on performance by the Kerala theatre; it seems to be enlarged and blown-up version of Sanskrit drama itself (this enlargement and magnification might have been an inherent characteristic of Sanskrit tradition itself.)
In Kutiyattam, the text and performance have completely separate lives, priorities and approaches in attributes like dialogue, story and elaboration of the plot. Elaboration of a Sloka into a days performance complete within itself, and placing an act as an independent performance, may hamper the concepts of plot development and its effect – the basics of the dramatic theory based on the Rasasatra, characterized by Panchasandhi, Avastha and Prakriti as elaborated and defined in Natyasastra itself; the wholistic understanding and continuity of the plot development is submerged in this kind of elaboration, characteristic to Kutiyattam tradition of performance. In other words the text gets underdone with performance. And the journey of Sanskrit theatre from the beginning through the centuries was precisely doing this.
Sanskrit Theatre as a Ritual
It is understood that the performance of Sanskrit plays happened along/with ritual sacrifices, and then later was developed/ substituted as a ritual itself. (Remember the concepts of Natya-Yajna or Natya-Veda). We can identify the various elements and characteristics of ritual being incorporated into the body of performance. In a ritual the most important attribute is to the exact execution of even the minute details according to set rules, since the ‘result’ or ‘outcome’ of a ritual depends on its correct execution. Any deviation or an erratic action will be a ‘sin’ or at least a ‘malpractice’ that cannot be allowed. This kind of a demeanor of perfect execution and detailing in a ritual, results in emphasizing the form over its meaning. As in ritual, the performances of a Sanskrit play also emphasizes on the form over the meaning communicated. In the text of a play and the literary form the meaning is the supreme.
How much Sanskrit is present in a Sanskrit play?
The big amount of Prakrit spoken by lesser characters like heroin, women, and ordinary mortals (Kutiyattam the Vidushaka speaks fully in Malayalam), in concord with the ‘Sanskrit tradition’ encoded in Natyasastra, makes a Sanskrit play a mixture of Sanskrit and other vernaculars in terms of the spoken language. Thus the term Sanskrit in connection with Sanskrit drama does not relate to the issue of the language, it is more to the philosophy, aesthetics, sociology, politics, and the technique of performance. It is about an attitude and ideology than of a language, which leaves out lots of spaces for further understanding of the form and practice of this genre of theatre itself.