The aesthetic theories established in Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra, arguably the most important ancient text of dramaturgy, have informed Indian performance traditions, both 'classical' and 'folk' for thousands of years.

In the course of my doctoral dissertation, I sought to engage (or re-engage) with the text, not in terms of either conventional theatre studies or Indology, as has been its unwitting lot before, but I attempted to use the far more radical tools provided by the field of performance studies, in order to devise, from that engagement, a fresh translation model. This alternative translation model is inspired by concepts of performativity and post-colonialism, even as it employs a complex formula to render the source text into English with a greater sensitivity to linguistics and performance concepts, along with a greater self-awareness of its own unravelling.

One of the chief strategies that many translators before me have experimented with hearkens to the old debate between “domesticating” a translation in the target language or “foreignising” it so that it becomes instantly clear to anyone reading it that it is from a “foreign” source. In other words, that it was not originally written in English. Here, of course, we must acknowledge the relevance of the views expressed long ago by the German philosopher-theologian Friedrich Schleirmacher. It was he who made this distinction within the context of translation between a desire to “foreignize” on the one hand and to “domesticate” on the other.

A perfect example of a domesticated translation is this:

Loving the manly virtues, they delight
To point his faults out in the plainest way;
They'll give their souls to him they love, despite
The fact their eyes will ne'er their hearts betray.
When they most long for love, their affirmation
Is constantly expressed as firm negation.
May Women smile on you: the most perverse,
Delightful creatures in God's universe.
~ Brough

It is anybody's guess whether this is Dryden or Kālidāsa! It is in fact, Kālidāsa. This is the Prologue of Kumāra Sambhava. The translator has domesticated this entirely, so that there is nothing of the source culture or source text extant in it.

What I have done in my resistive-foreignising deliberation is to retain the Sanskrit compound where the English translation would merely have muddied the pools of meaning further. Thus, in my attempts a very large number of Sanskrit untranslatables are retained. Further, there has been much digging around the roots to enable readers to attempt to access the “soul” of the verse through the original “śabda”, as opposed to a yet another intermediate Derridean misreading.

Seed words such “aṅgas”, “japa”, “bhāvās”, “rasas”, “jñāna”, “kāla” as well as “kalā”, “prayoga”, “śāstras”, “dharma”, “artha”, etc. are present in most Indian languages at the moment, and thus, the method I have adopted is to retain the Sankrit śabda and, in extensive notes, provide various shades of meaning in Sanskrit which may not be inherent in the “bhāshā”s anymore.

What follows are excerpts from the first chapter, “Natyotpatti” or The Birth of Drama (without the clutter of the extensive notes or detailing the two steps that led to the translation). The seeming overt simplicity of “educative entertainment” that drama was initially set out to be (verses 1 to 12) ends up getting contested in the very first public performance put up by Bharata’s sons, who constitute the first professional repertoire company.

Staged on the auspicious occasion of the flag-festival of Mahendra, the first dramatic performance ever was initially a great success until the asuras, unhappy with their representation in the play, disrupted proceedings. Their portrayal in the play – and the one-sided depiction of their defeat at the hand of the gods – was what constituted the problem. They did not like the way they had been represented, and how their perspective had been left out from the narrative. This precedent was considered as the cue for the construction of playhouses.

This is a brilliant instance of the sort of self-reflexivity in the Nāṭyaśāstra, whereby it draws attention to its own artifice, and its parallel commentary on power that attracted me to it in the first place. But the Nāṭyaśāstra is not an exception – rather, self-reflexivity is a norm in ancient Sanskrit texts and it is a pity that this aspect is neither highlighted nor analysed more in the translations that are attempted. This would open up a completely different approach to the study of Sanskrit texts.

Verse 1 (Mangalācharana)
With my head bowed in obeisance to the two devas, Pitāmaha and Maheśvara, I am now about to present the Nāṭyaśāstra that Brahmā had articulated.

Verses 2 and 3
Once upon a time in the days of yore, Bharata, the great master of nāṭya, having concluded the japa he was engaged in, was seated at leisure on a day of rest from scholarly pursuits[1], surrounded by his sons. At such time, Ātreya and other prominent munis – mahatmas who had all tamed their minds and senses – respectfully approached him and enquired:

Verses 4 and 5
“Holy sir, how did this Nāṭyaveda, equal to the Vedas, come to be produced by Brahmā – and for whom? How many parts does it have? What is its extent and application? Will you enlighten us on all these in accordance with theoretical principles?”

Verse 6
Hearing these words of the munis, Bharata then narrated, in reply, the Nāṭyaveda chronicles.

Verse 7
“Let the (account of) the appearance of the Nāṭyaveda, as crafted by Brahmā, be heard by your noble selves, with pure and attentive minds.”

Verses 8-12
“Oh sages, when the Kṛtayuga of Swāyaṃbhuva (Manu) elapsed, as the wheel of time turned, the Tretāyuga of Vaivasvata (Manu) set in[2]. Then common people, impelled by grāmyadharma[3], under the hypnotic grip of desire, greed, envy and rage, lived lives of joy and sorrow. Jambūdvīpa[4], where the lokapālas were established, was also overrun by devas, dānavas, gandharvas, yakṣās, rākṣasas and maha uragas. At such a time, certain devas led by Mahendra approached Pitāmahaḥ and spoke with certitude, ‘We desire a mode of entertainment which is dṛśya-śravya – playful, something approximating that. Since recital of the (four) Vedas is not common among the śūdra jātis, please create a somewhat different fifth Veda that is suitable for all varṇas.’”

Verse 13
“Saying, ‘Let it be so,’ to them, and sending Devarāja on his way, He Who Knows the Essence of Truth took recourse to yoga and recalled the four Vedas to mind.”

Verses 14 and 15
“I shall create a fifth Veda called ‘Nāṭya’ which, in accordance with dharma, artha, glory, itihāsa, good counsel and other enumerations, shall offer guidance to people in the future, in all their actions; it will be imbued with the meaning and essence of all śāstrās and will exhibit all manner of śilpas.”

Verse 16
With this resolve, Bhagavān called to mind all the Vedās and shaped the Nāṭyavedā from the four Vedās and Vedāṅgas.

Verse 17
[He] made it with content from the ṛgvedā[5], only songs from sāma, different kinds of abhinayā from yajurveda, and rasās from atharva veda.

Verse 18
Thus was the perfectly crafted naṭyaveda created from the vedās and upavedās by the all-knowing noble bhagavān Brahmā.

Verses 19 and 20
Having created the nāṭyavedā, pitāmaha also instructed śakra, “This itihāsa that has been crafted by me – let it be placed in front of the suras. Let this vedā named nāṭya be transmitted to those who are skilful, knowledgeable, bold, and inured to hard work.”

Verses 21 and 22
Having heard these words articulated by Brahmā, Indra, palms folded together, head lowered properly, replied to pitāmaha: “O bhagavan, first and best, the devas are infirm, incapable of receiving, upholding and truly knowing or also applying the dramatic arts; they are not suitable to the sphere of nāṭya.”

Verse 23
“The munis who who-know-the-hidden-knowledge-of-the-vedas, who have attained the fruits of devotion (i.e. who can keep their commitments), they are able in the receiving, upholding and also the application (of nāṭya).”

Verse 24
Hearing these words of Śakra, the One Who Was Born from a Lotus, called me, “You, Sinless One, together with your hundred sons, must be the master practitioner of drama.”

Verse 25
Thus commanded, I acquired the Nāṭyavedā from Pitāmaha, and having learnt, I taught its appropriate application in accordance with theory to my sons.

Later, on the occasion of the first ever staging of a play, a lot of not anticipated drama resulted:

Verses 53(b) to 55(a)
Having heard this speech pitāmaha replied, “The momentous occasion for the application of nāṭya has arrived. Mahendra’s glorious dhvaja-festival is about to commence. Now let the nāṭyaveda be applied here.”

Verse 64
However, when the representation of the destruction of daityas and dānavanas commenced, then all the daityas who were present there were infuriated.

Verse 65
Virūpākṣa and other vighnas, egged on by this, declared this: “We refuse to see nāṭya such as this! Let’s go.”

Verse 66
Subsequently, those asuras along with vighnās, taking recourse to māyā, did paralyse the speech, movements and also the memory of the performers.

Verse 67
Having thus witnessed the destruction, deva-rāja wondered, “How have such differences crept into the performances?” He began to meditate upon this.

Verse 68
Then he observed that the assembly was surrounded on all sides by vighnas, and the sūtradhar and his other associates were rendered unconscious and inert.

Verse 69 and 70
Arising quickly in rage, his eyes scanning every direction, his bejewelled form shining, the king of the devas, śakrah, took up his unique standard. He wielded the jarjara and smashed into smithereens the vighnas and asuras present on the stage.

Verse 71 and 73 (a)
Then, the dānavas and vighnas, having gone, all the divine residents felt very happy again, and the following words were said (to Indra): “Ah! Through you this glorious weapon has been gained, with which all those enemies of nāṭya were made jarjara; therefore, now this thing will also be named ‘Jarjara’...”

Verse 73 (b) to Verse 75 (a)
“…The envious who obstruct and also begrudge (performances) will only see the jarjara, and thus be deterred, and will leave.” At this, Indra said to the gods, “Indeed, let this be. The jarjara will be a protector of all performers.”

Verse 75 (b) to 76 (a)
So when performance commenced at the śakra-festival and swelled surely, the (envious) vighnās attempted to evoke fear in the performers again.

Verse 76 (b) to 78 (a)
Having seen their determination after the (perceived) insult, for my sake, together with all my sons I went to Brahmā, “Bhagavan Sureśvara, the vighnas are determined in the destruction of nāṭya. Therefore, do instruct me in suitable protection strategies.”

Verse 78 (b) to 79 (a)
Then Brahmā said to Viśvakarmā, “Oh genius! Do build with care an auditorium with fine features.”

While the auditorium was the temporary suggestion, Brahma called a contingent of asuras to discuss what was troubling them, and then the matter of representation was discussed at length.

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, one doctoral dissertation and most recently, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat with Saurav Jha.


[1] Purnima and Amavasya were anadhyayana tithis – or a time of rest from scholarly pursuits.

[2] The universe in the ancient Indian cosmology perishes just as it takes birth, and so does its creator (“created creator”, the demi-urge) Brahmā. The period between the birth and death of a Brahmā is known as a “Mahākalpa”. According to the Purāṇās, one kalpa or one day in the life of Brahmā is divided into fourteen parts. The master or ruler of each of these divisions is a Manu. The life-span of each of these fourteen Manus is a “manavantara”.

Each manavantara is supposed to have seventy-one caturyugas. The four yugas are Kṛtayuga, Tretāyuga, Dvāparayuga, and Kaliyuga. At the end of seventy-one caturyugas, or two hundred and eighty-four years, each Manu completes his lifespan. Along with that, the devas who were born at the time of the birth of a Manu also come to the end of their lives.

[3] Refers to “a villager's dharma”, which has many associations: rustic and mundane activities linked to householding, ordinary pursuits. It is also used as a synonym for sexual intercourse. In a more general sense, grāmyadharma can mean the entire gamut of mundane activities that keep people tied to the minutiae of their lives, without allowing them to reflect or question.

[4] Before the battle of Kurukṣetra commences, Dhṛtarāśtra asks Sañjaya to describe to him not only the armies that have come from far and wide, but to also re-tell the story of the earth, with its mountains and rivers, its regions and inhabitants. In the Mahābhārata, this account is called the “bhuvana koṣa”. What Sañjaya describes is a circular world called Sudarśana, with six mountain ranges stretching from east to west, separating the seven regions or varṣas of the earth. The southernmost is Bhāratavarṣa. Sañjaya describes four lands or islands, dvīpās, one in each direction from Mount Meru in the centre of the earth. The southernmost island is called Jambūdvīpa or the Rose Apple Island. It is nameed after the jambū tree which grows to a great height on the flank of the mountain, and is a native of south and south-east Asia. Finally, Dhṛtarāśtra tells Sañjaya, “Tell me about this land for which the kings, especially Duryodhana, are so covetous, and being covetous have come to fight with each other.” At this Sañjaya gives long lists of the mountains, rivers, and, later, the clans and peoples of Bhārata. This is in keeping with all ancient Indian texts (including the Nāṭyaśāstra), which all have long, deeply systematised and obsessively categorised lists.

Diana Eck sums up succinctly in India: A Sacred Geography:

“From this and other passages in the epic, it is clear that the Mahābhārata’s vision of the land of Bhārata extends from the Himalaya Mountains that stretch across the north to the Malaya Mountains that provide the backbone of the peninsular south and fall into the sea at Kanyākumāri. The land extends from the Sahyādri Mountains of the Western Ghāts to the Mahendra Mountains of the Eastern Ghāts. It includes not only the great rivers of north India and the Deccan – the Gangā, the Sindhu, the Narmadā, and the Godāvari – but also the Kāveri and the Tamraparṇī of the south. Here, as in the pilgrimage section of the Mahābhārata, there is no doubt that the term Bhārata gestures toward the whole subcontinent.”

[5] One of the examples that has often been quoted in this context is a dialogue between Yama and his sister Yami, which occurs in the Ṛgvedā, and is said to be the basis for dialogue. Yami tells Yama that she desires him and they should initiate a physical relationship.

Yama: Sure, there will come succeeding times
When brothers and sisters will do acts unmeet for kinsfolk.
Not me, O fair one, – seek another husband, and make thine
arm a pillow for thy consort.
Yami: Is he a brother when no lord is left her?
Is she a sister when destruction cometh?
Forced by my love these many words i utter.
Come near, and hold me in thy close embraces.

(Griffith 391-394)