Dramatic recovery of classical heritage
by Priyadarsi Dutta on 10 Aug 2008 2 Comments

(NSD Repertory Company performed ‘Banbhatt ki Atmakatha’, based on the famous novel by Pt. Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, in Abhimanch Auditorium of National School of Drama, New Delhi on June 13 & 14, 2008)


My unfamiliarity with the text of Pt. Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s ‘Banbhatt ki Atmakatha’ presumably put me at a disadvantage in reviewing a play based on the novel. But NSD Repertory Company was not expected to depart from the script, unlike some imaginative Bollywood directors like Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Vidhu Vinod Chopra who took profligate liberty with Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas and Parineeta. The performance had all the finesse expected of seasoned director M.K. Raina. The play could capture the audiences’ imagination and concluded on a crest of public applause.


But plot was not the forte of the play, it was left open-ended, even unfinished, ‘as the literary opuses of Banbhatt’. Yet the audience was bewitched (perhaps influenced by the Kaulachari Tantrik’s team in the play?) and cared little about the witch’s brew of history the author, a great classicist, had prepared.


The play was meant to be about Banbhatt, court poet of Harshavardhan, the Buddhist king who lorded over northern India between 606 and 647 CE. But many non-contemporaneous events of ancient India, ranging from 2nd century BCE to 7th century CE were thrown together. You have a ‘Bhattini’, daughter of Bactrian Greek king Milind (Menander of 2nd century BCE) smuggled by frontier tribe highwaymen; the spectre of Hun invasion (of Gupta period) - things belonging to different era.


By the 7th century, not merely Greeks, but Sakas and Kushans had been assimilated into the Hindu society. The Huns had been convincingly crushed, and on their way towards assimilation. Bhattini’s remarks that she had travelled across the Greco-Roman world but never across such disparities as in India were an ill-advised afterthought. The Bactrian Greek kingdoms, on the fringes of India, had been left to themselves as early as 323 BC when the rest of Alexander’s colossal empire was partitioned amongst his satraps.


Bactrian Greeks adopted Hinduism (remember the Heliodorus’ Column dedicated to Vasudeva, the ‘best of gods’, at Besnagar, as early as 113 BC) or Buddhism (Gandhara school of art whose last remaining icons were the Bamiyan Buddhas). Bactrian Greeks never had an active relationship with the Greco-Roman sphere. Bhattini herself was shown as a practicing Hindu, devoted to Maha-Varaha (Great Boar incarnation of Vishnu), a popular form of worship in those days.


Ironically, King Harsha seldom appears in the play. Bana’s well known works like Harshacharita (Life of Harsha) or Kadambari (perhaps the world’s first novel) are not referred to. Art can only reflect the spirit of history, not reproduce it. My fascination with Banbhatta ki Atmakatha was that it mirrored ancient India, fount of our civilization.


But Banbhat ki Atma Katha was on ancient India and not from ancient India. If one were looking for a play from ancient India, then Raja Shudrak’s Mrcchakatika (The Little Clay Cart) would be a good choice. I had the opportunity to see it performed by second year students of NSD, under the direction of K.S. Rajendran. The storyline of this play was used by Shyam Benegal to portray civilization in the Gupta Period (though the play has not been dated) in Bharat Ek Khoj (based on Nehru’s Discovery of India) on Doordarshan. Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1985) was based on Mrcchakatika.


Mrcchakatika - a play based in ancient India’s cultural capital Ujjaini- had great élan. It proves ancient India was a vibrant place rather than a metaphysical abstraction. It had well-groomed courtesans like Vasantsena, impoverished philanthropists like Charudutt, parasitic brother-in-law of the king like Sansthanak, and a shepherd who becomes king through revolt. But the play confirms an essential trait of Hindu culture, which comes down from the forefathers of Sri Rama to Raj Singh, grandson of Maharana Pratap - protect a person who comes to one for refuge. Mrcchakatika is a genuine work from ancient India. It was published in the original (with a German preface) from Bonn in 1847; its English translation by Arthur Ryder was published as part of Harvard Oriental Series in 1905.


The rich heritage of Sanskrit drama indicates the high level of civilization attained in ancient India. Drama was considered the supreme form of art as it involved all other forms - writing, acting, singing, dancing, instrumental music, scene-painting, set designing (carpentry), costume designing etc. Greece was the only other civilization of the ancient world that produced drama. But the great philosopher Plato banished artistes from his envisaged ‘republics’. Artistes – painter, sculptors, and dramatists – were illusion-workers according to him; they took our minds away from the created world.


But the palpable world, in Indian tradition, is merely a station in the cosmic scheme. The truth of creation doesn’t preclude the truth of creativity. Drama, a medium of self-expression, becomes a means of self-realization. Shiva is the overlord of drama as Nataraj, lord of dances - he recreates the drama of the universe at a subtle plane.


The decline of drama in the medieval ages reflected the spatial shrinkage of Hindu civilization, resulting from the upheavals of Turkish invasions and subsequent Muslim rule in India. The concussion suffered by Hindu civilization was enough to shred many of its efflorescences.


The temples of arts, and not just temples of deities, fell before Islam’s iconoclastic fury. Vigraharaja IV of Ajmer, better known as Bisala Deva Chauhan, (predecessor of Prithvi Raj Chauhan), was no less adept in letters than in swordsmanship. Author of Harikeli Nataka (a copy of which is preserved in Rajputana Museum, Ajmer), he founded a school of arts in Ajmer in the 12th century. Dr. Keilhorn has bestowed rich praise on Hindu kings of yore: “Actual and undoubted proof is here afforded to us of the fact that powerful Hindu rulers of the past were eager to compete with Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti for poetic fame.” This school building was ravaged by Mahmud Ghori in 1193 and a mosque erected as its place.


In the previous century, the illustrious Bhoja, king of the great Parmar dynasty, commissioned a Sanskrit college in Dhar (Madhya Pradesh), the Saraswati Kanthabharana. There, works on drama, history and other subjects were inscribed on stone slabs. It was destroyed by Turkish invaders who reared the Kamal Maula mosque in its place.


Muslim conquest negatively impacted drama. “The drama doubtless took refuge in those parts of India where Muslim power was slowest to extend” A.B. Keith noted in Classical Sanskrit Literature, “but even there Mohammedan potentates gained authority, and drama can have been seldom worth performing, or composing, until the Hindu revival asserted the Indian national spirit, and gave encouragement to the renewal of an ancient national glory”. Maharana Kumbha of Mewar (15th century) is credited with writing plays, alongside books on music and commentary on Jayadev’s Gita Govind. One doubts those were meant for performance.


But drama was deeply ingrained in India’s folk tradition, centred on religious and mythological themes. Tulsidas innovated the Ram Lila in the Mughal era. Its enduring charm is testimony to its deep impact on the Indian psyche; every year there are tens of thousands of Ram Lila Maidand across the country where Ram Lila is performed.


But Prakarana, or social drama like Mrcchakatika, revived at the end of the Muslim era during British rule, first in Calcutta and later in Bombay, both maritime cities that witnessed efflorescence in the 19th century. The first playhouse of Calcutta was established in 1775 called ‘The Calcutta Theatre.’ Interestingly, the first Bengali play was written, produced and directed by Russian scholar Gerasian Debedeff (1749-1818) and the playhouse enjoyed some patronage from the Russian Czar! The first edition of Mrcchakatikam was printed in 1825 in Calcutta, the Ujjaini of modern India.


Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi (1907-1979) was a great classicist, respected widely for his erudition. I had the opportunity to work with his grandson K.K. Pandey for over four years. Banbhatt was a product of that part of 20th century when our fascination with ancient India was still fresh. We owe this to the recovery of knowledge about ancient India through the historiography of the 19th and 20th century. Banbhatt is no less significant than Mrcchakatikam.


In pre-Independent India, drama was an expression of the nationalist spirit, but in independent India drama became a handmaid of Leftist thought. Communists, who put great emphasis on persuasion through culture, came to dominate theatres just as they dominated academia and media. Yet it was not that there were no other voices. An art-form so ingrained in the Indian psyche has great resilience. A true artist, like a true scholar, refuses to bow to ideology. Our classical heritage of drama is so rich that we can never be divorced from our moorings. The cause of our heritage is well served by our classical dramas.


The writer can be contacted at priyadarsi.dutta@gmail.com

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