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The everlasting relevance of Natya Sastra

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Bharata’s text has guidelines for all forms of performing arts, which was reflected in the three-day seminar

The everlasting relevance of Natya Sastra

Rain fell like a sheet of glass on the morning of December 1. The long drive on the East Coast Road from Chennai to Mamallapuram was exciting and scary. The skies seemed to clear a bit as we turned right at Pattipulam village, eight kilometres ahead of Mamallapuram. The casuarina grove and the sea sand beneath had soaked in water and the ground was still slushy. As one turned on the left winding mud road, the white and terracotta building with a unique architecture came into view. It is the abode of Bharatamuni, author of Natya Sastra, enshrined in the structure form where Bharatha Ilango Foundation for Asian Art (BIFAC) functions.

The satatue of Bharatamuni

The satatue of Bharatamuni   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Long wide steps led to a terrace above with a shrine to Bharatamuni and the Natya Sastra expert and artiste Padma Subrahmanyam was already there giving last minute touches to a long bamboo stick with five segments in it decorated with small clothes of five different colours. This is Jarjara, she explained, as stipulated in Bharatamuni’s Natya Sastra (the ancient Sanskrit treatise on dramatic arts) and the icon of Bharathamuni in the sanctum.

Sheker Sen and other dignitaries during the inauguration of Natya Sastra at Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture (BIFAC) display at Pattipulam village near Mamallapuram on Sunday.

Sheker Sen and other dignitaries during the inauguration of Natya Sastra at Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture (BIFAC) display at Pattipulam village near Mamallapuram on Sunday.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The heavy downpour the previous night had changed plans to shift the inaugural session of the National seminar on Natya Sastra to Kalakshetra. Padma Subrahmanyam wanted to have just the offering of flowers to Bharatamuni and Jarjara at the Bharatha Ilango Foundation for Asian Art (BIFAC). The three-day seminar convened by Padma Subrahmanyam was organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) in association with BIFAC and Kalakshetra. The distinguished gathering that morning therefore included Sachidanand Joshi of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Shekar Sen, SNA.

Sachidanand Joshi at the inauguration of Natya Sastra at Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture (BIFAC) display at Pattipulam village near Mamallapuram on Sunday.

Sachidanand Joshi at the inauguration of Natya Sastra at Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture (BIFAC) display at Pattipulam village near Mamallapuram on Sunday.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

BIFAC houses a museum to Natya Sastra in its ground floor. The central space is taken up by the 108 granite panels, each depicting a karana, movement mentioned in the Natya Sastra.

Panels inside the Bharatamuni temple.

Panels inside the Bharatamuni temple.   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU

Designed by Padma, the Karanas are shown as executed by Siva and Parvathi. There are also artefacts related to arts showing a connection to Natya Sastra through Asia.

The 10th century Brihadeeswara temple (Big Temple) in Thanjavur earlier called Sri Rajarajeswaram, has 108 granite panels set for the 108 Karanas in the inner chamber of its tall gopuram over the sanctum with only 81 completed.

A panel inside the temple.

A panel inside the temple.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The ninth century Prambanan temple in central Java in Indonesia also has similar Karana sculptures. Hence the name Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Arts given to the centre that is studying the unifying elements of dance in different parts of Asia. A question that crops up is: was Natya Sastra known in the Tamil country, even before the 10th century for such an important space to have been allocated for the Karanas?

Yes, said Dr. R. Nagaswamy, historian, researcher and former Director of the Archaeological Survey of India, in his keynote address. He referred to an inscription at the sixth century Atiranachanda Mandapa in the Tiger Cave complex in Mamallapuram that refers to Bharata. He then traced the commonalities between the Sanskrit Natya Sastra and the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam. The link is visible in all the three chapters of Tolkappiyam namely, Ezhuthu, Sol and Porul (syllable, word and meaning). He emphasised that Tolkappiyam is a translation of Natya Sastra.

Agam and Puram

As many as 2,300 of the 2,800 poems in the extraordinary collection deal with Agam and 500 are Puram poems. The Agam poems are Sringara poems, which deal with the emotional status of relationships and Puram talks about Dharma, Artha and Moksha. All of these are derived from Natya Sastra, he said. By the time of Tolkappiyam, there were already great works of literature in Tamil for the performing arts such as Agathiyam and Bharatham. Now, could there not have been a give and take between these Tamil works and Natya Sastra? There is always the question of authorship, relationship of oral to the written, context, text, the implicit and the explicit and the history of discourse in relation to Natya Sastra and other texts of the tradition. Nagaswamy said that since Tolkappiyam referred to the written script, it is later than Natya Sastra.

Debate has been endless about who was Bharata, his period and whether the word Bharata is an acronym for Bhava, Raga and Tala, whether it was one person or many and so on. According to Nagaswamy, a close reading of the text shows that it reflects a unity of purpose, which in turn proves that it was the product of a single integrated vision. While explaining the origin, theory and technique of drama and theatre with all its components of speech, word, body language, gesture, costumes, decor and the inner status of the artist, Bharata constantly refers to Vedic texts and rituals and also to performance rituals. The authority of a teacher that he gives himself is obvious.

The everlasting relevance of Natya Sastra

Among the various scholarly papers, screenings and traditional performances that were shown in the three-day seminar, Kalakshetra being the venue, was “Krishnanattom,” a precursor to Kathakali. ‘Krishnanattom’ is performed only in the temple of Srikrishna at Guruvayur. This was the first time ever that the dance genre was being performed outside the temple. They performed two small episodes of Narakasura vadha and Kuchelopakhyanam. The entry of Kuchela in the audience was a real celebration of the art of drama. Then there was the Thevaram (seventh century music) recitation by Sadgurunathan attached to the Mylapore Kapaleeswara temple.

Natya Sastra, the text, encapsulates a discourse in a variety of disciplines. The attempt here seemed to review the Natya Sastra as an important confluence in the perennial flow of the tradition with the twin processes of continuity and change as also the interplay of the sastra and prayoga (theory and practice) and to speak of the integral vision which provides a unity of purpose and rigorousness of structure to the text.

Nrityodaya artistes at Purvarangam at Kalashetra, Thiruvanmiyur.

Nrityodaya artistes at Purvarangam at Kalashetra, Thiruvanmiyur.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Natya Sastra, the text, has been placed in the context of the flow of practice instead of simply locating it in a particular period and specific place.

The three-day seminar had performances, demonstrations, plays, etc., all of which showed how comprehensive Natya Sastra is.

In her concluding remarks, Padma Subrahmanyam said that there were many pramanas or evidences in the Natya Sastra to convey that Bharatamuni was a contemporary of Valmiki and that Natya Sastra was composed at the same time as the Ramayana.

Natya Sastra mentions that Bharata answers his disciples in the first chapter that it was in Tretayuga that Natya Sastra was composed. There is no mention of Rama or Krishna, who are popular Gods, depicted in the art forms but only Vedic Gods. The various authors he talks about in the last chapter of Natya Sastra is Valmiki.

In the Ramayana, Lava and Kusha sing in Jati and not in Raga. Natya Sastra does not refer to Raga but only to Jati. Padma says that Margi was a unified style, practised all over the continent and that the regional styles such as Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, etc., are desi styles giving the local colour and variations though the base is the Natya Sastra.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 10:18:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/the-everlasting-relevance-of-natya-sastra/article30187209.ece

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