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Art Without Contention


Sudhanva Deshpande

PERFORMING ARTISTES IN ANCIENT INDIA
By Iravati
D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 2003, pp. xx 292, Rs. 950.00

BACK TO THE ROOTS: ESSAYS ON THE PERFORMING ARTS OF INDIA
By Jiwan Pani . Compiled by Reba Pani
Manohar Publication, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 124, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 8 August 2005

Bamana ghari vani, vangya ghari naani, kunbya ghari daane, ani mahra ghari gane.   (The brahmin’s house has education; the trader’s house has coins; the farmer’s house has foodgrains; and the mahar’s house has music.) (From a song by Shahir Krishnarao Sable.)   The problem with the past, of course, is that we were not there. Historians of ancient India know this all too well. They have to rely on the very limited textual evidence that survives, much of it couched in mythology, and on material evidence unearthed by archaeology or left behind on temple walls as sculptures and frescoes. No wonder D.D. Kosambi thought that knowledge of Sanskrit and Prakrit was as important as stout walking boots for the historian of ancient India.   The problem is greater still when talking of ancient theatre. Not only were we not there, but those who were, didn’t think we’d be interested. As a result, what we have is some plays by playwrights like Bhasa, Kalidasa, etc., and texts such as Bharata’s Natyashastra and commentaries on it, such as Abhinavgupta’s. Now, Kalidasa at least wrote what we would recognize as plays. Bhasa has left us mere outlines, barely a few pages long, which were to be filled with action on the floor.   We do not know where and when Bharata lived. We do not know when his treatise was written. We do not know how long it took him to write it. This is assuming that he was a historical person. It is equally possible that no such person existed, and that authorship of this text, which would then have to be seen as a compilation of past knowledge, was attributed to a mythical sage to give it a certain sanctity.   We do know, however, that Bharata is the name of a tribe. We also know that Bharata is used in the sense of ‘actor’. It is possible, then, that Bharata was essentially a tribe of itinerant actors, and the text was put together by the tribe to pass on tricks of the trade to succeeding generations. I personally find this hypothesis attractive, since the Natyashastra appears to me not a philosophical treatise on aesthetics, as it is often made out to be, but a manual that tells actors how to produce plays. The famous rasa theory, in this scheme, is not an abstract aesthetic concept, ...


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