Historicizing drama: Was Bengal the matrix of drama?

Term Paper, 2017

9 Pages, Grade: A





Battle of opinions over Evolving Drama

Historicity of Bengali drama

Sanskritization of drama

Emergence of the British era

Drama: Etymology

Stratification of Bengali Drama


Jatra Pala



Historicizing drama: Was Bengal the matrix of drama?


The paper underscores the teleological perspective of the historical process of Indian drama from its inception to its logical conclusion. It unravels the development and ramifications of Bengali drama by juxtaposing it with the popular culture of the region. The paper puts an emphasis on the regional paradigm of drama by interlacing ‘orient’ and ‘occident’ influences. It prioritizes and discerns two-fold model of Bengali drama that is hitherto not emphasized by the scholars. The first segment was the nascent stage of Bengali drama. It explains the development of Bengali drama at the intersection of Greek and Sanskrit influences. The second section was the stage of maturation of Bengali drama. It discusses that English and Russian influences welded to form a new style of drama in Bengal. The paper unfolds the project of internationalization and scientific modification of a regional art.

Key Words: Bengali drama, Jatra pala, Bengali culture and Sanskrit drama


“All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” ---Sean O’Casey

Sean O’ Casey was the popular Irish playwright and the theme of Irish nationalism underpinned his work. His style was avant-garde and edgy that mirrored his work. It is indispensable for all the playwrights to maintain a distinct flair that can be construed in various ways. Every country manifests its cultural potentialities through the framing of literary pieces and stagecraft. Therefore, Bengal is not an exception here. The motherland ideated a literary culture that is entrenched in Bengali society. The literary culture of Bengal has a historic radix. According to Dinesh Chandra Sen, some of the legendary pieces about Ramayana that were enacted in the early modern Bengal originated in the pre-historic age. The age was anterior to the epic of Valmiki.[1]

Battle of opinions over Evolving Drama

There is a hot bed of controversy among the scholars regarding the initiation of dramatic arts in India. As far as the ethereal source of drama is concerned, Lord Brahma gleaned information from the Four Vedas and Shiva Tandava Stotram (the epithet of Shiva as perisher) was inextricably associated with the phase of drama. The Orientalist Frederick Max Mueller opined that the Four Vedas spawned the seeds of Indian drama.[2] Professor Sylvan Levy echoed the sentiment of Max Mueller. In this context, the philosopher Von Schroeder argued that the Shangbad Shukta was the manifestation of Vedic dramatic art. Dr. Hertel claimed that the Vedic Shukta gave a slight hint of the archaic phase of ‘mystic play’. The incantation and mantras of the Vedic period gave an impetus to the birth and the augmentation of Indian drama.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. A.B Keith could not pay much attention to the Vedic Shukta (hymns of Vedas). Scholars like Dr. A. Berriedale Keith claimed that Sanskrit drama completely negated the ritual theory. He argued that the Vedic hymns were purely liturgical in character and hardly exuded dramatic essence. Dr. A.B Keith opined that the Sanskrit drama was born several decades after the establishment of the Vedic age. He believed that the convergence of Mahakavya (Great Kavya or court epic) and theistic devotional trends (invocation of Lord Krishna in sanctified songs) resulted in the development of Sanskrit drama.[3]

Prof. Hillenbrand believed that Sanskrit drama originated from the folk culture.[4] Philosopher Pischel argued that puppetry pulled the strings of Indian drama. Putul Nach (lit. doll dance) entails an indigenous undertone. It refers to puppetry or puppet shows in Bengali-speaking region, spanning from West Bengal to Tripura and Assam.[5]

On the other hand, Prof. Weber refuted the established idea of Sanskritization of Indian drama since the Vedic age. He emphasized that the Greek dramatists profoundly influenced the development of Indian drama.[6] By subscribing to this view, Prof. Weber and Prof. Windish propagated the image of ‘Western influence’ on the growth of Indian drama. According to Weber and Windish, the Sanskrit hegemony relegated to the background.

Before the firm establishment of Greek hypothesis, Prof. Levy ascribed Saka or Salivahana influence to the development of Indian drama. According to Prof. Levy, the Saka epoch witnessed the growth and expansion of Sanskrit literature and language. The period envisaged a cultural efflorescence and the cascade of Sanskrit literature in the courts of Saka rulers. However, the Saka theory of Sanskritization of Indian drama hardly received any recognition.[7]

Historicity of Bengali drama

The development of drama was occasioned by a concatenation of social forces, which were rampant in Bengal. The initiation of drama can be traced back to the ancient period. Before the emergence of the English regime, the Bengal drama developed at the interstices of Greek, Sanskrit and folk styles of drama. During the high noon of the English ascendency, the Bengali drama was heavily Europeanized, which culminated in the development of English and Russian styled theatre in the metropolis of Calcutta.[8]

Sanskritization of drama

As far as Sanskritization of drama is concerned, two mythical poetries ‘Amrita-mantha’ or ‘churning out honey’ and ‘Tripuradaho’ or ‘burning of Tripura’ gain grounds. These two mythical pieces emerged from Bharat natya shastra. These two poems are considered to be the jewels of Indian drama. During the 4th century B.C., the book ‘Ashtadhyayi’ manifested quixotic lyricism, which was a prelude to the development of the style of drama. The period 5th -11th century signalled the glimmering phase of the growth and expansion of drama. Kalidasa occupied a colossus space in the cultural and social spheres of India. He was the iconic figure of the Gupta epoch. The pieces composed by Kalidasa, ‘Abhighyana Sakuntalam’, ‘Malavikagnimitram’ and ‘Mrichhakatikam’ are considered to be the Magna Carta in the domain of art and literature.[9]

Emergence of the British era

The English and Sanskrit dramatic styles were condensed into the early phases of Bengali drama. In 1831, Prasanna Kumar Thakur deliberated on the making of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ at Hindu theatre. Prasanna Kumar Thakur founded the Hindu theatre. In 1833, Nabinchandra Basu endeavoured to organize ‘Vidyasundar’ in Kolkata.

Before Michael Madhusadan came into the limelight, the Sanskrit dramatic style pervaded the cultural topography of Bengal. During the mid 17th century, the prolific playwrights such as Ramayana Tarkaratana, Umesh Chandra Mitra and Shyama Charan Sreemani followed the Sanskrit styles and produced immortal plays. The dramatic pieces composed by the early Bengali playwrights involved ‘nandipath’ and ‘sutradhar’, which were endemic in the Sanskrit plays. During the middle phase of Bengali drama, these two styles seamlessly coalesced into one connected whole. In the first segment of the British period, the composition of Bengali drama saw the melding of both orient and occident trends.[10] The indigenous dramatic approach (Sanskritization of drama) was not attuned by the western (English and Russian) influences.


[1] Sen, Dinesh Chandra. Bangla Bhasa O Sahitya. Dasgupta et Company, 1949.

[2] Dharwadker, Vinay. "Orientalism and the study of Indian literatures."Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (1993): 158-85.

[3] Keith, Arthur Berriedale. The Sanskrit drama in its origin, development, theory & practice. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1992.

[4] Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: The True Story of Three Men and a Racehorse (Text Only). HarperCollins UK, 2014.

[5] Lal, Ananda, ed. The Oxford companion to Indian theate r. Oxford University Press, 2004.

[6] Radkau, Joachim. Max Weber: a biography. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

[7] Pace, David. Claude Lévi-Strauss: the bearer of ashes. Vol. 2. Routledge, 2015.

[8] Tandon, Neeru. Perspectives and challenges in Indian-English drama. Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 2006

[9] Schwartz, Susan L. Rasa: Performing the divine in India. Columbia University Press, 2004.

[10] Srinivas, Mysore N. "The cohesive role of Sanskritization."India and Ceylon: unity and diversity (1967): 67-82.

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Historicizing drama: Was Bengal the matrix of drama?
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Bengali drama, Jatra Pala, Bengali culture and Sanskrit drama
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Prabir Bhattacharya (Author), 2017, Historicizing drama: Was Bengal the matrix of drama?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/372502


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