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A History of Sanskrit Literature by MacDonell

The greatest of all is Kalidasa


There were no special theatres in the Indian Middle Ages, and plays seem to have been performed in the concert-room (samgita-cala) of royal palaces. A curtain divided in the middle was a necessary part of the stage arrangement; it did not, however, separate the audience from the stage, as in the Roman theatre, but formed the background of the stage. Behind the curtain was the tiring-room (nepathya), whence the actors came on the stage. When they were intended to enter hurriedly, they were directed to do so "with a toss of the curtain." The stage scenery and decorations were of a very simple order, much being left to the imagination of the spectator, as in the Shakespearean drama. Weapons, seats, thrones, and chariots appeared on the stage; but it is highly improbable that the latter were drawn by the living animals supposed to be attached to them. Owing to the very frequent intercourse between the inhabitants of heaven and earth, there may have been some kind of aerial contrivance to represent celestial chariots; but owing to the repeated occurrence of the stage direction "gesticulating" (natayitva) in this connection, it is to be supposed that the impression of motion and speed was produced on the audience simply by the gestures of the actors.

The best productions of the Indian drama are nearly a dozen in number, and date from a period embracing something like four hundred years, from about the beginning of the fifth to the end of the eighth century A.D. These plays are the compositions of the great dramatists Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti, or have come down under the names of the royal patrons Cudraka and Criharsha, to whom their real authors attributed them.

The greatest of all is Kalidasa, already known to us as the author of several of the best Kavyas. Three of his plays have been preserved, Cakuntala, Vikramorvaci, and Malavikagnimitra. The richness of creative fancy which he displays in these, and his skill in the expression of tender feeling, assign him a high place among the dramatists of the world. The harmony of the poetic sentiment is nowhere disturbed by anything violent or terrifying. Every passion is softened without being enfeebled. The ardour of love never goes beyond aesthetic bounds; it never maddens to wild jealousy or hate. The torments of sorrow are toned down to a profound and touching melancholy. It was here at last that the Indian genius found the law of moderation in poetry, which it hardly knew elsewhere, and thus produced works of enduring beauty. Hence it was that Cakuntala exercised so great a fascination on the calm intellect of Goethe, who at the same time was so strongly repelled by the extravagances of Hindu mythological art.

In comparison with the Greek and the modern drama, Nature occupies a much more important place in Sanskrit plays. The characters are surrounded by Nature, with which they are in constant communion. The mango and other trees, creepers, lotuses, and pale-red trumpet-flowers, gazelles, flamingoes, bright-hued parrots, and Indian cuckoos, in the midst of which they move, are often addressed by them and form an essential part of their lives. Hence the influence of Nature on the minds of lovers is much dwelt on. Prominent everywhere in classical Sanskrit poetry, these elements of Nature luxuriate most of all in the drama.

The finest of Kalidasa's works are, it cannot be denied, defective as stage-plays. The very delicacy of the sentiment, combined with a certain want of action, renders them incapable of producing a powerful effect on an audience. The best representatives of the romantic drama of India are Cakuntala and Vikramorvaci. Dealing with the love adventures of two famous kings of ancient epic legend, they represent scenes far removed from reality, in which heaven and earth are not separated, and men, demigods, nymphs, and saints are intermingled. Malavikagnimitra, on the other hand, not concerned with the heroic or divine, is a palace-and-harem drama, a story of contemporary love and intrigue.


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