Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:6 October 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


Natya Sastra is a classical work in Sanskrit on dramaturgy. Indian traditions claim that the sage Bharata composed Natya Sastra. Some have questioned the traditional belief that it was written by the sage Bharata. Haraprasad Sastri and other scholars suggested that this work belonged to 200 B.C. Manomohan Ghosh who made an excellent translation of this work (Ghosh 1961) says "it may be reasonable to assume the existence of the Natyasastra in the 2nd century A.C." (Ghosh 1961:23). Adya Rangacharya, on the other hand, suggested, "the book of 36 (or 37) chapters available now, is not an early one, but may be as late as the seventh or eighth century AD" (Rangacharya 1996:xv). We shall not enter into any discussion of the work in terms of its age. But we should remember that even if we assume that it was written in the seventh or eighth century this work is of great significance for Indian poetics, drama, and fine arts. Generations of Indians have been influenced by the thoughts adumbrated in this treatise. Even our movies follow the same aesthetics suggested as appropriate to the Indian nation in this excellent treatise! Certain stereotype notions that an average Indian now has about his and other ethnolinguistic communities are found discussed and used in this interesting work on drama. The work is a mine of sociolinguistic information of the past and the present.


As already indicated, the work consists of 36 or 37 chapters. The first chapter describes how drama came to be introduced. It is claimed that although the Vedas are good and pleasing, these are pleasing only to the ear. Could we not have something that pleases the eyes as well? Moreover, the Sudras are prohibited from learning the Vedas or listening to them. So, we should have something that even the Sudras could see, listen, and enjoy. So went the argument. The request was made to Brahma to create a fifth Veda that would fulfill this desire.

The purpose of this work (on drama) according to Brahma was "to show good and bad actions and feelings of both the gods and yourselves (rakshasas, etc.). It is the representation of (the ways of) the entire three worlds and not only of the gods or of yourselves. Now dharma, now artha, now ka:ma, humour or fights, greed or killing; right for the people going wrong; enjoyment for those who are pleasure-seekers; restraint of the ill-behaved or tolerance of the well-behaved; putting courage into cowards or the exploits of the brave; knowledge for the un-knowing or the wisdom of the wise; enjoyments of the rich or fortitude of the grief-stricken; money for those who want to make a living and stability to disturbed minds; na:tya is the representation of the ways of the world involving these various emotions and differing circumstances. It gives you peace, entertainment and happiness, as well as beneficial advice based on the actions of high, low and middle people. It brings rest and peace to persons afflicted by sorrow or fatigue or grief or helplessness. There is no art, no knowledge, no yoga, no action that is not found in na:tya" (Rangacharya 1996:4).


One of the questions raised in the early chapters (chapter four on ta:NDava nritya) is the relationship between gesture that carries meaning and movements that are introduced in the performance with no explicit meaning. Why should there be this movement without specific meaning unlike the abhinaya (gesture) with specific meaning? The nrtta introduced in a song does not convey any specific meaning. The answer given is that the function of this movement is not conveying any specific meaning, but to create beauty and attraction to the performance.


Thirumalai (1987) identifies six ways in which the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication can be understood.

  1. The relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication is one of the latter playing a supplementary role to the former.
  2. The relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication is also one in which the former plays a supplementary role to the latter.
  3. The relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication is one of equal correspondence between the two. That is, an expression in one level can be translated into an expression at the other level.
  4. Yet another relationship between a verbal act and a nonverbal act is one of dependence.
  5. Verbal and nonverbal acts can function independent of one another. In a single communicative act, part of the message may be in verbal form, and the rest in nonverbal form, in an alternating way. Each part is independent of the other.
  6. Another relationship between verbal and nonverbal acts is one of non-relevance.


The relationship between abhinaya and nritta is not a relationship of irrelevance or non-relevance, although the latter does not convey any specific meaning. There is a function identified and this function is drawn from the effect nritta has on the audience. What is most interesting to me is the understanding that just as we have several relationships posited between the verbal and nonverbal communicative acts, the nonverbal communicative acts themselves may have several interesting relationships between them. It is not necessary that a gesture-like act may always have some meaning attached to it. Such an act could become an identity marker of the character or the event.

In chapter five, the sage Bharata warns us that dance and music should not be overdone. If overdone the performers as well as the spectators would feel exhausted, and not enjoy the work. We all know that too much nonverbal activity does indeed hamper the progress of communication. Some teachers think that, by doing things nonverbally, students learn the material better. Verbal explanations and activities do have an important place even in a technical shop.


Jarjara sloka consists of words that have no meaning. The sloka is sung in praise of the flag-pole Brahma used to drive away the demons who started disturbing the performance of the first play. Vidu:saka is characterized by his irrelevant talk.

In chapter six, two important notions relating to language use are discussed or defined: ka:ri:ka: is in sutra style. It briefly explains a subject using fewer words. Scientific definitions may be considered ka:ri:ka:. Nirukta is a process using which we may explain the connotation of a word based on its root-meaning.

While an understanding of rasa and bhava is important for an appreciation of literary works, chapter 8 (Acting of the subordinate parts of the body), chapters 9 and 10 (abhinaya of the hands and of the major limbs), chapter 13 on the stage walk of the characters, chapter 14 on the regional styles and nature of plays, and chapter on verbal representation help us understand the language use of the bygone days in India. The entire work is a valuable contribution to an understanding of both nonverbal and verbal communication.

Chapters 18 and 19 deal with sociolinguistic usage. Take for example, the dictum as to when and who should use Sanskrit and Prakrit. The heroes of dhi:ra should use Samskrita, whereas a person intoxicated or broken by poverty should speak in Prakrit. Children, persons possessed by evil spirits, mendicants, ascetics, persons in disguise, et al should speak in Prakrit. The sages, brahmins, and Buddhists should speak in Samskrita. Persons from the linguistic communities such as Kirata, Dravida, and Andhra should be given the dialects of Saurasena, or the dialect of the area in which the play is enacted. Sellers of spirits, guards of prisons, and diggers of underground constructions are given the speech of the Odri:, etc., etc. We are given an amazing list of speech identities and the occasions and characters that should use such speech identities. Then on chapter 19, we are given the modes of address suitable for different characters. This list also reveals the sociolinguistic assumptions of the period of Natya Sastra.


Traditional Indian studies of nonverbal behavior link the nonverbal behavior of everyday life with those of performing and other aesthetic arts and see these behaviors in terms of their exploitation and function in these arts. In other words, nonverbal behaviors are seen as something that occurs in nature, in normal communication and as something not fully at the conscious level. These unconscious acts are studied to reveal their communicative nature and to bring out their functions and patterns. In this process, the roots of nonverbal behavior in language, social acts, and biology are emphasized. While every act of nonverbal behavior has its basis in language, society, and biology, their exploitation, use, and the manner of their use is based on the psychological need and state of the individual. The ultimate goal of the study of nonverbal behavior is their exploitation for effective communication in aesthetic arts, for enhancing the aesthetic value of the communication.

Because the study of nonverbal behavior is tied to the performance in drama and dance, the physical manifestation of the nonverbal behavior in the body and the intent of these manifestations to represent underlying psychological needs and states are emphasized. Since Indian studies see a unity of purpose between poetry and drama, indeed, between all arts, physical manifestation of nonverbal behavior as representations of underlying psychological needs and states is included in every art, in poetry through appropriate description and metaphor using language, in sculpture through direct, indirect and oblique representation of nonverbal acts, and in dance combining both poetry and sculpture, adding to the combination the dimension of movement and symbol.


Indian studies include the nonverbal behavior in the study of grammar. For example, Indian traditional grammars include not only the description of intonation patterns and their functions within their scope but also other paralanguage features meant for sarcasm, doubt, emphasis, contradiction, and specific identities of registers. This is sought to be achieved in two ways - one, by a direct description and analysis of utterances in terms of their functions in communicative contexts just as in linguistic description which present how segmental sounds and sentence intonations get elliptical in the speech of certain professional groups; secondly, by identifying linguistic mechanisms that carry these nonverbal acts, as in the case of prolonging the pronunciation of consonants for certain effects. Also, Indian traditional grammars have developed so as to include separate chapters on nonverbal behaviors, and their import for poetry and other aesthetic arts. The incorporation here with linguistic facts is sometimes peripheral, at times not relevant, but many a time highly relevant for effective communication, choice of diction, and standard speech.

Thus, by incorporating chapters on nonverbal manifestations, the grammars focus on the performative factors of speech as well, apart from forming a bridge between the language of everyday discourse and the language of poetry and aesthetic arts. Then, by the mere inclusion of the study of nonverbal acts, the overall goal of grammar and its learning is changed. History has not, however, seen to it that what began originally as a descriptive-cum-prescriptive approach to account for the then prevailing practices grew wide and dynamic enough to develop the system further. We could have certainly developed an Indian sign system for use by the hearing impaired people.


In the Sanskrit school of grammar, nonverbal behavior is prominently discussed within the rasa theory. The theory of rasa is intimately connected with the theory of dhvani. It forms the most important foundation of Sanskrit poetics. It first appears in the dramatic theory of Bharata; originally in connection with drama (explicit nonverbal behavior), then as one of the essential factors of poetic theory (description of the nonverbal as suggestive of the underlying intent). While the theory of rasa itself is older than Bharata, the general conditions of the theory as fixed by Bharata continue to be accepted as the basis.


The exploitation of the modes of nonverbal communication for aesthetic purposes is clearly seen in the concept of abhinaya in the treatises on drama and dance. Theatrical performance helped investigate the role and function of abhinaya.

Abhinaya, according to the sage Bharata, has four kinds of histrionic representation, or shall we say, that communication is carried on through four kinds or means in dance and drama. These are a:ngika, which deals with bodily movements in their subtle intricacies, va:cika which refers to vocal delivery, a:ha:rya that is communication via costume and make up, and sa:ttvika that is communication via the accurate representation of the mental and emotional feelings. All these are physical manifestations. The a:ngika:bhinaya is the visible form of communication through bodily gestures and facial expressions. It is primarily a nonverbal communication mode. The author insists upon the need for the gestures and facial expressions to be in consonance with one another.

Communication through perceptual factors such as costume and make up, and the physical manifestation of mental states and emotional feelings are also emphasized for the successful performance in drama and dance. The role of vocal delivery is not minimized either in the process of communication.


Natya Sastra recognizes two different types of representation: realistic, natural and popular representation called lo:kadharmi, and the conventional, theatrical innovation that is used conventionally called na:tyadharmi. In other words, the communication in aesthetic arts is carried on both by natural (realistic) and conventional signs.


The dances performed in the literate Indian communities may be broadly classified into folk and elitist dances.

  1. The occurrence of gesture is more frequent and varied in elitist dances than in folk dances.
  2. Conventionality and arbitrariness mark the elitist dances.
  3. Most gestures in the folk dances are an accompaniment tot he rhythmic recurrence of sounds whereas the gestures in the elitist dances generally accompany the 'sense' and/or is an illustration of the sense conveyed.
  4. The gestures in the elitist dances require conscious learning, in addition to unconscious imitation, whereas gestures in the folk dances are acquired more or less in an unconscious, natural manner.
  5. The learning of the elitist dances is thus more institutionalized than the learning of the folk dances. 6. Although the elitist dances may be performed in consonance with the seasons and occasions, they are not really tied to any one particular space and time. On the other hand, the folk dances are usually tied to the seasons, geographical contexts, professions, and occasions, etc.
  6. Elitist dances may function as pure entertainment.
  7. Gestural communication is less conventional and less arbitrary and more iconic and indexical in folk dances.
  8. Elitist dances function more as a code in the sense that they lend themselves for manipulation through addition, deletion, change, etc., in deliberately contrived processes initiated by the individuals, whereas the folk dances generally focus more on preservation.
  9. Gestural communication in elitist dances is more advanced in the sense that the gestures employed in them are more numerous than the gestures employed in folk dances.
  10. While the upper limbs play a more crucial role in elitist dances to further accentuate the gestural communication processes, it is the whole body and the movement of the whole that dominate the performances in folk dances.
  11. Those who perform the elitist dances are almost always aware of their use of the gestures. The learning processes give them the meaning and rationale of the gestures they use. These people know the meaning of the gesture, as conveyed to them by their teachers and the text and/or interpreted by them. They can repeat the gestures when asked to do.
  12. The use of gestures in elitist dances is an intentional, deliberate effort to communicate, but the focus in folk dances appears to be more of self-expression and participation.
  13. Most Indian elitist dances are religion-based in the sense that music and dance have been traditionally seen as a medium to please gods. In other words, the ultimate goal of dances in the elitist tradition is to worship gods. This may not be case with folk dances.


The gestures used in dance and drama form more or less a closed system. Both natural and conventional gestures are used. Since the gestures form a closed system, most gestures are polysemous. The gestures are mostly an accompaniment to either a poetic composition sung or a pantomime of a well known story, and thus the polysemous ambiguity is resolved.

The distinction between the natural (lo:kadharmi) and conventional (natyadharmi) is recognized by Bharata in several contexts. For example, while discussing the different kinds of head gestures (which are considered conventional), Natyasastra reports that there are other gestures of the head that are based on popular/natural practice. Conventional and natural gestures are distinguished in this statement. Conventional gestures are used to create an ornamental effect. Bharata is not against mixing the conventional and natural gestures in drama and dance.


The movements of gestures are governed, among other things, by the social status of the individuals. In histrionic representation of gestures, the social status of the individuals determines the quantum as well as the placement of the gestures, according to Bharata. The hand gestures of the individuals of the superior rank move near their forehead, whereas the gestures of the individuals occupying a middle social status move around or at about their breasts. The individuals of inferior social rank move their hand gestures in regions below the breasts. Further it is stated that the persons of superior social rank will have very little movement in their hand gestures, whereas the individuals of inferior social rank should be portrayed as having profuse movements of hand gestures. In the case of individuals occupying a middle social rank, the movement of hand gestures should be of a medium frequency.

In addition, Natyasastra prescribes that the hand gestures of persons of superior and middle levels of social rank should conform to the characterization of gestures as given in the Sastra (thus ascribing elitist status along with a dose of conventionality) in contrast to the hand gestures of persons of inferior rank which follow popular practice and the individuals' own natural habit (Ghosh, 1967, IX:61-66). However, when occasions demand, wise people would make contrary uses of hand gestures to suit the occasions (Ghosh, 1967, IX:167). There are also certain restrictions as to the use of hand gestures for the expression of certain emotions. That is, for representation of certain emotions hand gestures are not seen proper and thus other means are to be used (Ghosh, 1967, IX:168-171). This, indeed, is a very significant allocation of functions. In it we find an implicit recognition that the parts of a the body are generally allotted differential functions in the conduct of nonverbal communication involving the use of gestures. This provision makes the use of gesture in aesthetic arts as well as in natural, realistic world different from the use of gesture as an independent mode as found in the sign languages such as American Sign Language, or in the language of deaf-mutes. Finally, hand gestures in the acting are dependent on the expression of the face, the eyebrows and the eyes. There should be a proper coordination between hand gestures and the look of the gesturer in the sense the gesturer's eyes and the look should be directed towards the points at which the hand gestures are moving, and there should be proper stops so that the meaning may be clearly expressed (seen) (Ghosh, 1967, IX:207, 172).

Natyasastra is, indeed, an interesting work on aesthetic arts and communication.

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