Since earliest times, artists from various cradles of civilisation, driven by the pristine urge for “a meeting with the Other”, showed an interest for intercultural communication and dialogue. For European theatre creators and theoreticians, such an encounter with Asian theatre tradition, comprehended in its entire cultural, historical, and esthetic dimension has always been a real opportunity not only for re-examination of their own paths, development lines and concepts but also for “meditation” on a global plan about the greatest enigmas of dramatic art.
In this context, it is nearly impossible to describe the eruptive feeling of “revelation” that spread in cultural public throughout Europe, when in 1789 there appeared the first translation of the play Sakuntala by Kalidasa, the greatest playwright of “the golden age” of classical Indian theatre. The gigantic aesthetic attainments of this play were the main reason for which the epithet “Indian Shakespeare” was immediately attributed to this author from the 4th century. Also, it is impossible not to emphasise the fascination with the theatre language of the various dramatic forms from the Orient, which would play one of the key parts in the establishment of the artistic horizons and in the works of numerous European theatre moving forces of the XX century: from Antonen Arto to Jean Jeunet, from Marx Rheinhardt to Bertolt Brecht, from Julien Becq to Peter Brooke, from Jerzji Grotovsky to Eugenio Barba.
In this sense, a question arises: what made these giants of modern “western” theatre deeply bow and express unreserved, exalted reverence towards the different forms of Asian theatre? If we try to search for one of the possible answers in the book by A. Arto Theatre and Its Double (1938), which, according to Jean Louis Barrot, is “without saying the most important thing written for XX century theatre”, it will be immediately noticed that his vision of “the ideal” theatre of the future is in an essential correlation with the fundamental aesthetic features of Asian drama and theatre. Being against “the dictatorship and tyranny of verbal speech” on scene, typical of western theatre, and being in favour of a new “metaphysical” scenic language, Arto dreams of a theatre “that makes use of all languages: of movements, sounds, fire, exclamations, gestures, and positions having ideographic values (…), theatre found in that moment when the spirit needs a language to express itself”. Just due to this, Arto “recognises” his dream in a performance of a play in Bali Theatre.
Speaking of the specific amalgamate of figures of speech, characteristic of Indian drama and theatre, as a representative of Asian theatre culture, there arises a need for talking about the oldest preserved technical work that sublimes the basics of Indian drama theory and practice. This is the first systematic poetic work Natya Shastra (Bharatiya-natya-sastra), whose importance for theoretical thought of oriental theatre is justifiably compared to the importance of Aristotle’s Poetics for European drama tradition. Natya Shastra is attributed to the legendary author Bharatiya, and about the date of these texts there are hypotheses placing it from 2 century BC up to 6 century AD. Otherwise, the word “natya” etymologically originates from the Sanskrit root “nrt” – which can be translated with play, dance, pantomime, drama, whereas the term “shastra” means “book” or “science” – so the title of the work can be translated as “science for theatre play”.
The best evidence that Indian drama and theatre incorporate many different figures of speech and sign systems (languages) penetrated into a ramified network of interactive relations, which corresponds to the syncretic nature of dramatic art, is the myth of the divine origin of drama, rendered on Natja Shastra’s pages. Namely, according to this text the god Brahma made a kind of connection, a collage, by joining the words i.e. the verses from Rig-veda, the songs (the music) from Sama-Veda, the movements from Jadzur Veda, and the feelings from Atharva Veda. Hence, this creative act of joining several languages brought about the appearance of the fifth veda i.e. dramatic art.
Consequently, the interaction of the various sign systems in the ten basic forms of classical Indian theatre (among which the most significant are Nataka, Prakarana, Vithi, Bhana etc.) that Natja Shastra speaks of is elaborated through the four basic groups of elements, or figures of speech (abhinaya) that unite in a unique artistic whole owing to the creative personality of the actor. The complex relation between the scenario (the text) and the play (the performed text) is canalised through the prism of the four aspects of actor’s play:
1. body expression (anghika abhinaya): play, dance, movement, mimics, psychologically-imitative gesticulation, codified language with the hands;
2. verbally-acoustic expression (vachika abhinaya): dialogue, music, song, sounds, voices;
3. figurative expression (aharya abhinaya): costumes, make-up, scenography elements;
4. internal expression (sattvika abhinaya): psychological states.
It is unequivocal that right in the field of body expression, Indian theatre – and theatre art of the Orient in general – achieved its aesthetic zenith. In this respect, Natja Shastra provides very precise information on the role of body parts in theatre expression: the lower part of the body (legs) is in charge of the rhythmic background of the performance, the middle part (the hands and torso) primarily have a narrative function, and the role of the face (through mimics) is to depict the spiritual states of the drama hero. It is a particularly codified language and system of instruments: there are 80 basic face grimaces, 36 basic types of looking, 7 basic positions of eyelids, 32 basic leg positions, 13 basic head positions, etc..
But what is most specific in the context of body “language” is the unusually developed symbolics of hand movements. The comprehension of this language of the hands (hasta) and of the gestures (mudra– seal) is indispensable prerequisite for reception of the exquisite semantic nuances in the drama action. Natja Shastra describes approximately 40 fundamental mudras: 24 gestures for one hand and 13 for two hands altogether. Every movement or gesture has its own technical term and meaning, which is quoted accurately in the context. For instance, “one of the crucial mudras pataka (flag), accompanied by appropriate body movements, face expression and movements with the eyeballs, eyelids and eyebrows, conveys about fifty different objects, functions and ideas, such as sun, cloud, wave or peace.” In Katakali-Theatre, one of the most representative Asian theatre forms, which, though it developed in 17 century in Kerala, south India, shows extraordinary consistency with the postulates of Natja Shastra, the number of the basic gestures, codified in a theory compilation Hastalakshana Dipaka reaches the figure of 900, so that by means of them the actor can utter over 3,000 words!
As far as the possibilities of this language of gestures are concerned, the theatrologist Milena Salvini says: “In space the approximately 900 ‘hastas’ that make up the language of the hands portray a geometry composed of circles, angles, curves, and broken lines supplemented by the vibrations of the fingers and rotations of the joints. The movements are in a constant asymmetry. Each and every gesture simultaneously corresponds to the dramatic intention and rhythmic demands, and is accompanied by speedy or slow eye movements in a certain direction”. But the aim of this language of the hands is not only to put across messages but also by means of them “the actor broadens the meanings and exalts the emotional contents of the word”, so that according to Suresh Avashti – “the speech with the hands permanently illuminates verbal speech”.
Very similar to Ancient Greece, where one of the greatest playwrights (Echill) emphasised that his drama texts are “only crumbles from the sumptuous Homer’s table” and in classical Indian drama, playwrights draw the basic thematic material from the great Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The various types of verbally-acoustic articulation of the dramatic text dominate in the different Indian theatre forms. In Katali and in Kutijatam the actor is not at all in a position to pronounce the text verbally as well due to its fascinating transposition through the body speech. Therefore, for the presentation of the dramatic text two reciters are in charge. On the other hand, in one of the most famous forms of Chinese theatre, music interpretation is prevailing, i.e. the “singing” of the cues, hence the name “Peking Opera”. It could be freely said that the suggestive power of music has one of the key roles in the depicting of the expressive nuances of the dramatic text.
It appears that the best illustration for the visual language not only of the Indian theatre but also of Asian theatre in general is Kalidasa’s definition, according to which theatre represents “visual sacrificing (chakshu – yajna)”. The costume, seen as a kind of “emanation of body and soul” and the make-up, seen as a “living mask” (Eugenio Barba) are the main protagonists in the visual articulation of Indian classical theatre. On the other hand, the subtlest shadings of the spiritual states by means of the mask are realised in Japanese No-Theatre, so the scenographic solutions of Japanese Kabuki-Theatre can leave us breathless even nowadays.
Eventually, the inner expression of the various psychological states, among whom Natja-Shastra refers to 8 basic feelings (bhava) and 8 analogous moods (rasa) with the viewers (love, joy, sorrow, anger, courage, fear, disgust and wonder), as well as other 33 “secondary” feelings and moods, is articulated exactly through the interactive, symbiotic relations of all the quoted factors and sign systems.
Translated by Kristina Zimbakova