Any study of Indian drama begins with Sanskrit drama which is purely of Indian origin. It has beeen proved beyond doubt that Indian drama was developed quite independent of any Western influence.Dr. Horace H. Wilson, who took much interest in Sanskrit Literature and translated a number of Sanskrit dramas emphatically maintains that whatever may be the merits or defects of the Hindu dramas, they were definitely its own. Hemendra Nath Das Gupta quotes Dr. Ward:
There is no real evidence for assuming any influence of Greek examples
Upon the Indian drama at any stage in its progress.
The logical starting point of the Indian Theatre is the Classical Sanskrit Theatre. It is the earliest known form of Theatre in India.
As perceptively observed by M. L. Varadpande:
The rudiments of drama are found in Rig Vedic dialogues. The Vedic rituals
are full of theatrical elements, so much so that they can be termed as cult dramas.
From these elements evolved the Sanskrit drama.
The Sanskrit words for play (nataka) and actor (nata) are from the root nat which is the Prakrit form of Sanskrit ‘nrutya’ meaning ‘to dance’. We presuppose a development from the religious to the dramatic, which is not essentially different from that found in Greece. It must be remembered that earlier stages which were connected with the worship of Krishna- Vishnu, were not unlike the early primitive Christian mystery –plays of the middle ages in Europe.
Despite all controversies, it is certainly true that drama flourished and progressed in ancient India. The plays had a considerable freedom of choice of subject and treatment and can be described as melodramas or tragic comedies. Primarily their elements are mixed: gravity and gaiety, despair and joy, terror and love – are all combined in the same play. India did not have a tragedy in the real sense for it was compulsory that every drama had a happy ending. According to the rules, death cannot be represented on stage. The usual subject for dramatic treatment is love, and according to the rank or social position of the hero and heroine the play is placed in one or another of the ten chief (rupaka) or eighteen minor (uparupaka) divisions of the drama recognized by the Hindu text books. The defect of the Sanskrit drama is attributed to its conventionality, with the result that originality and life are sacrificed for a hackneyed arrangement and a stereotyped manipulation of threadbare sentiments and action.
Although the plots have the least originality, the details of the plots were clearly worked out an d the development of the intrigue was presented. One of the most striking features of the Sanskrit drama is the jester, who is indispensably a Brahman, a person of slow intelligence whose uncouth attempts seem often lacking in every element of humour. The jester is a glutton, greedy for money and an invertebrate gossip, always on the watch for some fresh bit of news. Ironically, this figure of of a degraded besotted Brahman was allowed to appear as a typical stage-figure though the court drama was controlled by the Brahman priests. Other stock characters were the parasite ministers, Buddhist monks and nuns, servants of the harem, dwarfs, mutes, and the female attendants of the king.
A Sanskrit drama always opens with a nandi, or benediction, usually addressed to Ganesh or Shiva for the prosperity of the audience by the Sutradhara or director. At the end of the nandi the Sutradhar compliments the audience on their critical ability and introduces one of the characters of the play, after which the action goes on with the regular divisions into acts and scenes. Scenes are marked by the exit of one person and the entrance of another, as on the classical and the French stage, and the stage is never left empty until the end of the act. The theory of unity of time, place and action, which played so important a part in the Greek drama, appears in rather a modified form in India.
Sanskrit drama flourished between 200 B.C. and about 700 A.D. No other theatre in the world has had such a long and continuous history. Many attempts are being made to rescicate and reinterpret our classic drama. Sanskrit plays of Bhasa are performed in pure classical Kudi-Attam style with all medieval stage-sets in Sanskrit itself by university students. Vijaya Mehta produced Mudra Rakshasa in Marathi, reconstructing Bharata’s stage-form, Bhagvadujjikiyam was produced as a force in Gujarati by Shanta Gandhi. Mrcchakatika has been staged in Delhi in several stytles like the Nautanki in Hindustani Theatre by the late Qudsia Zaidi and by the National school of Drama.
Given the importance of Sanskrit theatre in the history of Indian stage, one could have expected the drama to inspire at least some of the playwrights investigating the “Indian” identity of their theatre. But no playwright of of the twentieth century not even Tagore, who tried hard has shown any genuine influence of Sanskrit drama.