Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The myth of the origin of theatre in India, told at the very beginning of the Natyashastra, or the Drama Manual, shows the central role of theatre and dance in Indian culture. Natya, the art of theatre (including dance), was the work of God Brahma, the creator, who was asked to give mankind a fifth Veda, which, unlike the four earlier Vedas, could be understood by everyone, even those who did not know Sanskrit (i.e., the two lowest casts). Thus Brahma created the Natya Veda, with the assistance of other gods. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Natya was then taught by God Brahma to the mythic sage Bharata, who is said to have recorded this teaching in the Natyashastra. The origin of the book is thus shrouded in mythology, but the work itself is indeed living reality. The Natyashastra is probably the world’s largest and most comprehensive theatre and dance manual, and it still forms the foundation of the classical forms of theatre and dance in India. /=/

“The instructions of the Natyashastra became established through centuries of practical theatre work. The compilation of this treatise dates back most probably to the second century AD, although the tradition formulated in it was older. Most probably it preserves information and practices that for generations had already originally been conveyed orally. /=/

Text of the Natyashastra

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Natyashastra’s 36 chapters give instructions on almost all aspects of theatre and dance: the theatre building, the stage, the theory of poetry, the use of the voice, make-up, costume, acting styles, dance techniques, and even theatre criticism. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Bharata points out that the word or text is the basis of theatre. The Natyashastra thus gives much space to the construction of a play. Its chief protagonist is usually a hero, often a king or a prince, and the five stages of the play are seen from his point of view. They are (1) the beginning, (2) the effort, (3) the possibility of attainment, (4) the possibility of resolution still overshadowed by conflicts and/or obstacles and, finally, (5) the fruition. /=/

“The Natyashastra gives four different styles of natya or stylised acting: (1) the graceful, (2) the energetic, (3) the grand, and (4) the verbal. The last one is probably is the nearest equivalent to Western spoken theatre. In the Natyashastra the dance is divided into two basic categories; they are nrtta or the abstract, “pure” dance, which does not convey any story or specific mood, and nritya or dance with rasa moods, often serving as a medium to convey a story. Nritya is also often called abhinaya and this term will also be used here. The nrtta is constructed of the technique of rendering the rhythm (tala) through movements that do not have any specific meaning, and the skill of projecting frozen, sculptural poses within a given rhythmic cycle. /=/

“In the present dance traditions a dance number or a whole recital often combine nrtta dances and abhinaya numbers. Abhinaya technique in itself is a complicated “science” of body language, hand gestures, and facial expressions culminating in the eye movements. The term abhinaya indicates all that which “brings the thing to the audience”. /=/

Theory of Rasa

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ The Natyashastra introduced the theory of bhava and rasa, so central to Indian aesthetics. It had a profound effect on most of the traditional art forms of India. Bhava means an emotional state or mood, portrayed by the dancer-actor. Rasa, “taste” or “essence”, refers to the sentiment that the bhava, manifested by the actor, should evoke in the audience. The rasas were originally eight in number, but the post-Natyashastra tradition added a ninth one: 1) The Erotic (srngara); 2) The Comic (hasya); 3) The Pathetic (karuna); 4) The Furious (raudra); 5) The Heroic (vira); 6) The Terrible (bhayanaka); 7) The Odious (bibhatsa); 8) The Marvellous (abhuta); and 9)The Tranquil (santa). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“According to this theory, one of these permanent sentiments should govern any good work of art. According to Bharata, the actor-dancer should be able to elicit the rasa experience in the audience through the stahyi bhava or permanent emotion, which is supported by the determinants (vibhava) and stimulants (anubhava). These are further elaborated upon through different transitory states of mind. If all goes well, the spectator then receives these various signals, which awake the particular sentiment in question in his or her mind. However, not everyone is able to experience it. In order to be able to recognise or receive the rasa, or the “essence”, the spectator should be a sensitive and cultivated person, a rasika. /=/

“The rasa theory has been discussed above only in simplified outlines. In fact, the process of creating the rasa sentiment is more complicated. An often used example is the creation of rasa of love on the stage. When a character on stage is in love, the sentiment of love is the ruling and continuing emotional state or stahyibhava manifested by the actor. The context for this emotional state is provided by text describing the lovers, appropriate music, costumes, make-up system etc. The emotion of love is further manifested by facial expressions, such as amorous glances, smiles, flirting etc. These physical actions are called anubhavas. /=/

“The manifestation of love needs to be elaborated. Accessory feelings, such as hope, doubt, jealousy, longing etc. are intermingled with the basic emotion of love. These rising and falling supporting emotions are called vyabhicaribhavas and they are 37 in number. All these leading and accessory emotions, as well as voluntary and involuntary actions, aim to create the sentiment of love in the audience.” /=/

Body Language and Mudras (Symbolic Hand Gestures)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ There are two main styles of conveying drama, the stylised or symbolic one, natya, and the realistic one, loka. The stylised way, natya, combines dance or dance-like movements with facial expression. Dance was an integral part of stylised acting, while later it also became an independent form of art, as described in several post-Natyashastra treatises. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The classical Indian dance technique described in the Natyashastra is one of the most detailed and complex in the world. It includes 108 karanas or basic dance units, four ways of standing, 32 movements of the feet and hips, nine neck movements, seven movements for eyebrows, 36 types of gaze, and symbolic hand gestures, 24 for one hand and 13 for both hands etc. The dancer-actor’s whole body, from the soles of his or her feet to the eyelids and fingertips, are trained to be a versatile means of expression through years of work in order to be able the express the rasa. /=/

“The use of mudra (also hasta), the symbolic hand gestures, is especially characteristic of Indian dance and theatrical expression. The mudras most probably developed from the magic gestures of the ancient Veda rituals. In Indian theatre and dance, various combinations of mudras permit the dancer-actor to express himself or herself with distinct and nuanced language of gestures. /=/

“The need for such a form of expression appears to have been based on the fact that the early drama texts were in often in Sanskrit, which was understood only by the two higher casts, while the gesture language could be, at least in principle, comprehended by all. In South-East Asia, symbolic hand gestures are also an essential feature of dance, but they did not develop into a specific gesture language. For example, Javanese, classical dance involves only four gestures of the hands, which have different meanings in various contexts or no specific literary meaning at all. /=/

Physical Storytelling and the Lasya (Feminine) Style

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The Natyashastra mentions two different dance styles. They are lasya and tandava. Tandava is related to the powerful creative and destructive cosmic dance of God Shiva, while lasya is said to have been created by Shiva’s spouse, Goddess Parvati. Traditionally these terms are used to indicate the style of dance, i.e. lasya is a soft and graceful style, while tandava is strong, even aggressive, in style. Both styles can be performed by either male or female dancers. Lasya also indicates a performance style in which a solo performer enacts a text sung by a singer by means of gestures and mime. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The facial muscles, eyes, eyebrows, etc., are trained and developed as consistently as the body, hands, and feet. Facial technique is central to the expression of the rasa mood, and it can even be developed to the level where the actor can express joy with one half of his face and sorrow with the other. In fact, the culmination of the whole acting happens in the eyes of the performer. His or her gaze must follow the hand movements, while the facial expression then gives meaning to the gesture. Thus, when a dancer, with his or her hand movements, depicts, for example, the opening of a lotus flower, his or her eyes are able to give different emphases to the gesture. /=/

“For example, if the flower is especially beautiful, the facial expression and the eyes may express the sentiment of wonder. However, if there is a poisonous snake in it, the actor’s eyes and face may express horror. Thus the eye and facial movements in general, with their ability to convey a mood, are able to give almost endlessly different meanings to the symbolic hand gestures. If it is compared with the traditional Western acting technique, the natya differs from it in one particular aspect. In the West the focus is on the action manifested by the actor while in classical Indian acting technique the focus is on the character’s reactions to that action. The whole complicated process of conveying the rasa through the natya technique is crystallised in the famous dictum: Where the hand goes, eyes follow. Where the eye goes, there the mood follows. Where the mind goes, there arises the sentiment.” /=/

Natyashastra on the Actor’s Tools

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ According to the Natyashastra the actor has four principal “toolboxes” to aid the acting process. They are 1) aharya or costumes and make-up; 2) vacika or spoken or sung words; 3) angika or the various aspects of the actual body language; and 4) sattvika or the expression of inner emotions. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The natya acting technique described above relies thoroughly on the angika body language and the aharya expression of inner moods. This acting/dancing technique can be regarded as the margi style, meaning the classical tradition, still represented by the present classical styles, such as bharatanatyam, odissi, kutiyattan, kathakali etc, all discussed later. The opposite to the margi style is the desi style, indicating “regional” or “lesser” styles, not so closely connected to the Natyashastra tradition. This classification into the “classical” and “folk” styles is not found in the Natyashastra but was created later when several dance manuals concentrated on regional styles. /=/

“The Natyashastra clearly indicates that there were already several styles of theatre as well as different acting techniques during the time of its compilation. This is also very true at the moment. The way in which the four “toolboxes” are used in each tradition varies greatly. For example, in some traditions the actor speaks or recites his lines, while in another style the actor only embodies the role character while a singer or a narrator takes care of the vacika or verbal aspect of the performance. The same is also the case with the aharya or the outer aspect of the acting, i.e. costumes, make-up etc. In some tradition the actor wears standard make-up and a standard costume regardless of what role he or she is acting, while in some traditions there are clear role types with their characteristic costumes, make-up or masks.” /=/


Kathakali is a form of dance-drama that mean "story acting." Indigenous to Kerala and one of the oldest continually-performed forms in theater in the world, it resemble the pantomime acting of Japanese noh, in that actors wear elaborate masks, and features men doing martial arts like movements to the rhythm of drums. Kathakali is usually performed outdoors, often in temples. temples often host shows that are free to the public. Sometimes several thousand people sit through the nine hour performances that last all night.

Kathakali in its present form originated in the 176h century and is based on ancient temples carvings. Dancers act out episodes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata to the music of singers and percussionists.Hand gestures and facial expressions are important, with particularly emphasis on the dancer-actor’s eyes and finger motions. The movements and footwork are smooth and slow and take great effort to execute correctly. Performers do not jump or run around much. Kathakali is performed to the rhythms of the chenda, a loud thunderous drum, and a the maddala, a instrument which produces softer and more relaxed sounds.

Kathakali dancers paint their faces green, yellow and red and wear huge headdresses and jewelry on almost every inch of their body. Different colors suggest the temperament of the gods portrayed, with green representing godliness and back evil. The eyes are often reddened by placing irritating flower or eggplant seeds under the eyelids and a layer of mica flakes is placed on the skin. The make-up of the face is over a centimeter inch thick and takes hours to apply, during which time that actor can not move out of concern of making the make-up crack. Actors receive foot massages before the make up is a applied and meditate or sleep during much of the process.

Kathakali costumes are quite heavy and voluminous. A single costume is comprised of about 55 meters of material. Several ankle-length skirts are worn with a decorated red wool or cotton jackets and a long white scarf with white and red cotton lotus blooms. The outer layers are all highly decorated. The dancers wear large headdresses shaped like a temple with a halo, studded with gold and jewels. The soles of the feet and the palms are died pinks. Female roles are played by boys with false breasts.


Yakshagana: Dance Opera from Karnataka

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Yakshagana (music of the heavenly yakshas) is a colourful form of popular theatre, which combines singing, dancing, energetic dance, and acrobatics. There are three variations of it, and all of them are performed in the southern state of Karnataka. Yakshagana is dominated by battle scenes and thus its dominating rasa or sentiment is the heroic. Although yakshagana is often regarded as a form of “folk” theatre, it is, however, a complex form of art with its classical melodies and references to Sanskrit literature. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The earliest extant yakshagana play, in the form of a palm-leaf manuscript, dates back to 1564. More written evidence from the following centuries throws light on its history. In the early 20th century yakshagana was taught in the village schools in Karnataka. It served as a tool to memorise the mythological stories on which the plays are based. Yakshagana mostly deals with heroic sequences from the Puranas and the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The language is mainly local folk language, although quotations in Sanskrit are frequent. /=/

“Yakshagana evolved into three subtypes. Here the focus is on the grandiose outdoor form performed during the dry season. A kind of “chamber form” of yakshagana evolved in coastal Karnataka. It is performed indoors and no make-up and costumes are used. In some of the northern parts of the state there is a yakshagana-influenced theatre form, doddata (big play). Its themes may be derived from mythology, but it also deals with love stories and satirical themes. /=/

“The costuming has a central role in giving yakshagana its overwhelming baroque character. The exaggerated, huge turban-like headgear (mundasu) of the central characters dominates the costuming. The mightier the character, the bigger his black turban glittering with golden ribbons. The actors in the male roles wear thick dhotis wrapped as trousers, while the upper body is covered with red, green or black jackets. The heavy chest ornaments, ear decorations, necklaces and epaulets are made of gilded wood. The make-up of important male characters includes a conch-shell design of the sides of the cheeks, and a U-shaped mark on the forehead. Many of the main characters wear black moustaches made of threads of cotton.” /=/

Yakshagana Performances

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “A troupe or mela of the outdoor type of yakshagana may have as many as twenty members and it is usually named after a village or a temple. The troupe consists of actors, dancers, singers, musicians, and stage assistants. The chorus and the whole performance are led by a troupe leader, a feature already common in the classical Sanskrit plays. In yakshagana he is called bhagavata. The rich music employs classical ragas and folk melodies. Some of the ragas, however, are found only in the yakshagana repertoire. The troupe leader has an active role in the performance. He acts as the narrator, sings, and leads the orchestra with cymbals. The orchestra only consists of drums and pipes. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Outdoor yakshagana is performed during the cold season, from November to May. The performances usually start at around 9 pm and end when the sun rises. The performance space is a square at ground level, while the audience sits on its three sides. Two large oil lamps illuminate this temporary stage. /=/

“Yakshagana is performed by an all-male cast, while boys play the female roles. But actors may appear in several roles. The leader of the whole performance, bhagavata, has a crucial role, as he takes care of the narration, much of the singing and leads the orchestra. Another important figure is the buffoon, who, like his counterpart in the Sanskrit plays, moves freely among the mythological characters of the play. /=/

“A portable curtain is used, as in many of the forms of South Indian theatre, but otherwise the stage is empty. As the plays deal mostly with heroic battles, the acting technique is characterised by energetic dances and powerful jumps and kicks, which give yakshagana its acrobatic character. The acting technique refers to the classical abhinaya mime technique, although only sketchily. /=/

“The evening starts with the necessary preliminaries in the dressing area and on the stage during which God Ganesha is venerated. The next rituals are dedicated to Krishna, after which follows the opening dance. The actual play usually starts with an audience scene at the king’s court. It introduces many of the central characters in a grand style. When the sun rises, the leader of the troupe sings his concluding song. After that the actors return to the dressing area carrying the two oil lamps with them.” /=/

Raslila: Devotional Dance-Opera

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Raslila (ras, dance or blissful state; lila, play) is a form of devotional operatic play dedicated to Krishna’s story, particularly to his childhood and amorous youth. It evolved in the regions south of Delhi, in villages and cities related to Krishna’s life. Its main characters, those of Krishna, his beloved one, Radha, and the gopis, the cowherd girls, are played by young boys. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“It is believed that the tradition of enacting important moments of Krishna’s life as raslilas started in the regions connected to Krishna’s mythology at about three hundred years ago. Three significant Vishnu bhakti saints, Ghumand Dev, Hitharivansh, and Naryan Bhatt are believed to have created the tradition, basing it on older folk traditions and kathak dance technique. /=/

“Raslila is still today very much a living tradition, performed mainly by amateur groups during different kinds of religious festivities in the regions south of Delhi, particularly in Vrindavan. A troupe usually consists of a group of five musicians, a swami or a leader of the group, two 11–13-year-old boys playing the roles of Krishna and Radha (Krishna’s beloved one, who became an inseparable character of Krishna’s mythology in the 6th century), and a group of 8–10-year-old boys playing gopis, or cowherd girls, so prominent in the adventures and miracles of Krishna’s youth. Adult men, often members of the orchestra, play the roles of the clown and minor characters. /=/

“Raslila is based on bhakti literature written in the Braj language, which is renowned for its sweetness and devotional pathos. Almost every important event of Krishna’s life has been turned into a lila or a play. The leader of the group, the swami (who is always a learned Brahman priest), sings out the verses, which the actors then enact on the stage. During the play various characters, such as the clown, speak their own lines.” /=/

Raslila Performances

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Raslilas are divided into two sections. It starts with ras dance, which is followed by the lila play. The whole performance lasts about three hours. There are several lilas to be chosen from, according to the needs of the particular performance. The performance is preceded by rituals and fasting. The members of the orchestra are not allowed to eat or even drink during the performance, which is regarded as a sacred offering. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Secular raslila can be performed in the streets, while the actual sacred raslila is usually enacted in the temple courtyard. The acting space is divided into two spheres: Krishna’s and Radha’s throne and the actual acting area. Painted backdrops with fantastic lotus ponds and fabulous forest scenes are often employed. Stylistically they are related to the miniature paintings of the region. The enactment also bears similarities to the region’s visual arts. The drama is punctuated by tableaux in which the action freezes into kinds of still pictures, clearly resembling similar scenes seen in miniature paintings and altar installations. /=/

“Krishna’s and Radha’s costumes and make-up are lavish and glittering. Krishna, for example, wears a shiny tunic, a large peacock-leather crown, and several flower garlands around his neck. His make-up is heavy, while large flower designs decorate his chins. Raslila is usually accompanied by five musicians sitting in a semicircle between the acting area and the audience. They play a sarangi (a stringed instrument), a hand-drum, cymbals, and a harmonium. The music represents the bhakti tradition of the region. /=/

“Ras, or dance, has a central role in the performances because it also has such an important part in Krishna’s mythology. In fact, the dance part in a whole raslila performance may be longer than the actual play. The dance technique is based on kathak dance, which evolved in North India during the Mughal period. The dynamic footwork and raised hands with elegantly extended finger positions, which are derived from Kathak, dominate the movements and poses. However, as the main performers are child amateurs, the kathak is usually performed with a certain touching clumsiness.” /=/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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