Theatre Practitioners: Indian and Asian Traditions

I recently came across the practitioner/theorist Bharata, who is considered to be the father of Indian theatrical forms. No one really knows who he was, or even when he was practising, and it is believed that his text, the Natyashastra, is actually the work of several scholars over a number of years.

Regardless, this is actually a beautiful text.

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According to Bharata, theatre and the arts are gifts from Brahma, the creator god, and is a "noble form form of diversion" which was intended to be enjoyed by all people of all castes and classes.

"Please give us something which would not only teach us, but be pleasing to both eyes and ears. True, the Vedas are there but some like to Sudras are prohibited from listening to and learning from them. Why not create for us a fifth Veda which would be accessible to all the castes?"
(from BHARATA MUNI, Natyasastra, tran. Adya Rangacharya. 1986)

According to Bharata, the success of a performance is measured by the reactions of the audience; that they should be moved to reaction. Again this shows that it is believed that theatre's purpose is to induce catharsis; that enlightenment, education and emotion are the key goals of theatre.

Despite the opening of the Natyasastra reading like a beautiful parable, recounting Brahma's gift of the fifth Veda, which incorporated all of the arts, and required "...persons who are smart, intelligent, observant and self-controlled..." to practice it, the text also incorporates detailed instruction on all aspects of mounting a production, from choosing the location of the theatre all the way to the specifics of costume and make-up for different characters.

"Never start a show without worshipping the stage..."
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In parts, I find echoes of the Aristotelian Unities: "An act should cover the events of a single day..." 

In others it describes forms of mime and physical theatre, stating that large objects, such as chariots or elephants, should not be brought onto the stage themselves but instead represented by gesture, movement, costume, etc. In this I also find similarities to Horace's distrust of spectacle, which was popular in Greek theatre. Horace believed that spectacle was unedifying and only for entertainment, not education: Bharata seems to agree. If spectacle is non-educational, does this mean that the absence of it is therefore more educating?

However, I must admit that in many ways I find the Natyasastra quite proscriptive and prohibitive: it could be read as a handbook which dictates certain methodologies which are acceptable, even as far as how certain characters would walk. I would find this rather limiting, not taking into account differences in characterisation or differences in the actors. However, in this I personally see the origins of the 'stock character' and the roots of theatrical traditions such as the Commedia (specific stories, characters, characterisations and costumes)

Stock characters, costumes and masks from the Commedia dell'arte
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At the same time, I was also reading more about the major theorist of the Asian dramatic form (Noh Drama) Zeami - another figure of mystery who went by many names during his lifetime, and as many following his death, because of his paranoia that his theories would be stolen by his rivals.

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Zeami writes that an actor must be a master of all of the elements of his art. Only then can he tailor his performance to the time and the place, and create what the audience require, which according to Zeami, is novelty. This is in opposition to the theories of the Natyasastra, as it seems to suggest an element of spontaneity and allowing the actors to interpret the characters themselves, rather than sticking rigidly to a stricture or structure.

" actor who strives only to play demon roles will never some to understand what is really of interest about them. An actor who has mastered every technique and occasionally plays a demon role, will create the Flower, because his portrayal of the role will be unusual and so will be of interest to his audiences."
(from On the Art of the No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami trans. J.Thomas Rimmer and Yamazaki Masakazu. 1984)

Zeami compares the art of the actor to a flower: it blooms (novelty), dies (novelty wears off), then, during its appointed season (when the time is right) it blooms again (novelty returns). I really like this analogy, and can see it reflected even across the wider theatre industry: reviving productions after a length of time, or re-staging a play when parallels can be drawn with a current event or political procedure, which reintroduces the sense of novelty.

It appears that Zeami appreciates versatility and spontaneity in performance, rather than rigid control. He also understands that the audience want to feel as though they are seeing something for the first time: "...the principle of novelty represents the nature of the Flower, then the spectators coming to watch a performance would expect just this quality." During his treaties on the Flower he also extols the necessity of continual training throughout an actors life, continually learning new arts in order to create the Flower of novelty and mastery of the art.

Despite Zeami and Bharata not being as well known in the Western theatre traditions as the Ancient Greek and Roman writers, their manifestos are still very relevant and useful to modern theatre. I believe this is an example of the importance of heritage and history in theatre, which I touched on during my research degree and am currently composing a blog post on. I will post when it is ready!

Gerould, D. 2000 Theatre Theory Theatre. Devon:Roundhouse


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