Theatre-Architecture in Ancient India





(Late Dr. V. Raghavan was an eminent scholar and critic on Arts and a prominent writer of yester years. He lent his support to the All India Competitions in Music and Dance, when these were started in 1961. We reproduce below one of his articles published in the TRIVENI of July/August 1933. Ed)


The sources of information on the subject of theatre-architecture in ancient India in Tamil are of two kinds: Kavya (Poetry), and Sastra (Poetics or Dramaturgy). Of the former class, the Silappadikaram of Ilankovadikal, a dramatic composition (Nataka Kavya), is the only Kavya which helps us largely in getting glimpses of the nature of the stage or theatre in times past.


Chapter III of this dramatic poem, Silappadikaram, is called Arangettrukkadai, i.e., the gatha describing the first dance performance presented for the approval of the king and the learned men. The place is the famous Kaverippumpattinam, the place of Kovalan, the hero of the poem. Madhavi, a courtesan of that city, gives her maiden dance performance before the king who has invited the chief citizens, Perunkudihal, of whom Kovalan is one. The chapter opens with a description of Madhavi and then her troupe, consisting of a very learned natyacharya or Nattuvan (Adal Asiriyan), a sangitacharya or musician (Isai Asiriyan), the player on the drum, the mardangika (Tannumai Asiriyan), and an accompanying orchestra of a flutist and a vainika, (Kuzhalon and Yaz Asiriyan). The accompaniment at that time thus consisted of a vocal musician, a drum-player, a flutist, and a vainika. This corresponds to what Bharata has given, there being in his Natya, besides the vocal songster, three orchestras, the Avanaddha Kutapa (drums), the Sushirakutapa (flutes) and the Tata Kutapa (stringed instruments). It is only recenily that conditions have changed. We can even now see some Tevaram Goshthi, singers of Tevarams, having the flute accompaniment. The Mukha Veena was accompaniment for sometime in the Sadir performances, but soon the clarionet displaced it. The accompaniment of the stringed orchestra of the Veenas, the Tata Kutapa, disappeared long ago. Now a clarionet, a Mridanga, and a vocal songster support the Natya today.


After describing the qualities of these accompaniments, the poem describes the stage on which Madhavi gave her performance. The text, now and then, says that the stage was built according to the Sastra, the text on Natya. What are the works on Natya on which Ilankovadikal based his description of the stage? Adiyarkkunallar, in the beginning of his commentary on the poem, gives a list of nine works on dance, drama, and music as authorities for the text of the Silappadikaram. None of these works are available now. Ilankovadikal, in his description of the stage, is very meagre, but still this little section of nineteen lines (95-113) is very valuable as being the only means of our having some clear view of the stage in ancient India.


Firstly the measuring pole is described. There is some difficulty in the interpretation of the text on the length of this pole. A good bamboo must be chosen and 24 Virals, i.e. Angulas must be taken as a unit for further measurement. An Angula is given as the measurement of the thumb of a Mahapurusha. Directly from Angula the text passes to a Kol, i.e. Danda and by itself the text here would mean that a Kol or Danda is 24 Angulas. In that case, the stage becomes very small. The text, however, contains nothing more. The commentary adds nothing more except giving a name Muzham i.e., Hasta for 24 Angulas. Neither the second commentary nor any of the treatises on Natya Sastra quoted by it add anything more. The scale of measurement given in Tamil from the small speck of dust called Ter Tuhal, (Skr. Rajas) up to Viral or Angula corresponds to what Bharata has given in the same context in his Natya Sastra. But Bharata gives it thus: 24 Angulas (Tamil, Viral)=1 Hasta (Tamil, Muzham), and 4 Hastas=1 Danda (Tamil, Kol). In adopting this scale of Bharata, the dimensions of the stage in Silappadikaram become sufficiently enhanced. This problem was finally solved for me by Mahamahopadhyaya Swaminatha Aiyar. He said that the text of Silappadikaram gave the measurement of a Hasta or Muzham only, and that the Kol or Danda, which was very well known as 6 ft., i.e., 4 Hastas, was not described in the text. This interpretation solves the difficulty. Thus the scale of measurement given by Silappadikaram and all other Tamil works on Natya corresponds to that given by Bharata in Chapter II of his Natya Sastra: 24 Angulas=1 Hasta; 4 Hastas=1 Danda; Hasta=l.5 ft; Danda=6 ft.


Then the Silappadikaram gives the dimensions of the stage. The length is 8 Kols; the breadth, 7 Kols; the height of the stage-platform is 1 Kol; and the height of the stage-space from the floor of the stage up to the beam is 4 Kols. That is, the stage is 48 ft. X 42 ft.; the height of the platform is 6 ft., and that of the stage-space, 24 ft. This stage then approaches the nature of the rectangular stage of Bharata, of the middle size, approximately.


The stage is given two doors. The commentator adds that one door is for entrance and one for exit. After the erection of the stage, it is said that the figures of the Bhutas for worship must be drawn on the floor of the stage. The commentary says that the Bhutas are the figures representing the four castes and that they are drawn on the floor and propitiated. The second commentary adds that further information of the painting of these four VarnaBhutas, of their anatomy, dress, decoration, etc., can be had in a further context in the section of the poem called Azhar Padu Kadai.


The lights are then spoken of. It is said that they must be so arranged as not to make the pillars cast shadows on the king and his party or the other spectators in the audience hall. The lights are said to be big and beautiful. The curtains are then described. The text mentions three curtains; Oru Muha Ezhini, Poru Muha Ezhini, and Karanduvaral Ezhini. The first-mentioned curtain is one which is pulled along to one side, the next is a double curtain, cleft at the middle, the two bits shrinking separately at the two sides, enabling entrance. The last-mentioned curtain is one that rolls upwards and downwards. The, first commentary gives some more details as regards these three curtains. The single curtain shrinking to one side is said to be fixed on the left side, the double cleft-curtain on the right side, and the rolling one in the front. Thus the right side having the double curtain, has the gate of entrance for the danseuse. The second commentator says that the rolling curtain is for occasions of Akasa Charins, those appearing in the sky, such as the Devas. These pertain to drama and not to dance. This mystifying reference, however, shows us that there are other texts which describe a stage completely from the point of view of not only dance, which is performed by one person, but from the point of view of drama also, which has many persons personating in it, and consequently needs greater equipment about the stage.


The last thing mentioned of the stage by the poem is the beautification of the stage. Bharata says that the stage and the audience hall must be lavishly decorated with wood-carvings and paintings. The Silappadikaram also says that the stage must have a painted canopy above, that it must have the appearance of a newly built one, and that hangings of pearl and other garlands must beautify it.


The text then passes on to the dancing, Purva Ranga, etc., with which we have nothing to do at present. In the above account we have a few details about the stage, its length, breadth, height, its two gates, three curtains, lighting, and decoration. Only the stage proper, as much as is enough for dance, is described, and not the theatre completely. In connection with lighting, there is just a passing mention of a portion of the audience hall accommodating the king, but of the audience hall itself nothing is spoken. In the stage itself we do not hear of the green-room, etc. But there is a small word in the text ‘Etra,’ which the second commentator takes to refer to the other features of the complete theatre which, though not described by the text of the poem, he gives from the texts on Natya. Thus this small description of the bare stage must not be taken to mean that the stage of those times itself was not well-built or was crude, but it means only that, for his poem, the author had no necessity to describe more.


Among poems none else gives even this information. However, the idea of a well-built stage being a fact, there are sundry references to certain parts of it in some other poems also. Thus the Jivaka Chintamani says that the curtains are three and are called single, double, and single rolling. The Manimekhalai says that the single curtain should be glass-like. There is reference to stage and dance on it in the Manimekhalai, but we have no details of the stage architecture given there. These references are given as footnotes by M. M. Swaminatha Aiyar in his edition of the Silappadikaram.


Coming to the Sastra, treatises on dance, drama, and music, we have little of the vast Natya literature of Tamil now available. Three of them are said to have been secured by the editor of the Silappadikaram, M. M. Swaminatha Aiyar. The Silappadikaram itself now and then refers to the rules laid down in the treatises. The first commentator quotes many extracts in his commentary, but none with either the name of the author or of the work. Only one quotation has been given by him with the author's name and it is Seyittriyanar. The second commentator, a later writer who follows the first commentary, is ample in the information he gives. At the beginning of his commentary he gives a list of Natya and Sangita works upon which Ilankovadikal based his Silappadikaram, and another list on which he says he depends for his own commentary. The works thus mentioned as authorities for the Silappadikaram are Peru Narai, Perunkuruhu, Pancha Bharatiyam of Deva Rishi Narada, (3 works on Music) Bharatam, Ahattiyam (Agastya’s work), Muruval, Sayantam (Jayantam, named after Indra's son Jayanta, for whom it was written), Guna Nool, and Seyittriyam, named after its author, (6 works on dance and drama). Those given by the commentator Adiyarkkunallar as the authorities he used are thus given by him: -


Isai Nunukkam of Sikhandi, pupil of Agastya. This work was written for the education in music of Sara Kumaram, born of the half-divine Pandya of the second Sangam called Anakula, and the Apsaras Tilottama whom the king met while riding in the air.


Indrakaliyam of Yamalendra.

Pancha Marabu of Arivananar.

Bharatha Senapatiyam of Adivayilar.


Madivananar Nataka Tamizh Nool of Pandyan Madivananar, a Pandyan king of the last Sangam who was a recognised poet. This work is said to be distinguished prominently by

treating of Puhazh Kootthu (literally, eulogistic dance to glorify the victor-king: Vettriyal) from the earlier works which treated of Vasaik Kootthu (literally, satyric dance with reference to the defeated king: Poduviyal). None of these works are available now. However, we have fragments of these quoted by Adiyarkkunallar in his commentary, and when one peruses this portion of his commentary, one sees clearly that, to a large extent, the Tamil Natya Sastra is not only based on the Sanskrit Natya literature but also that the former borrows freely from the latter.


On the subject of theatre-architecture, some fragments of these works are available to us in the quotations of Adiyarkkunallar. The works quoted by him in this section on stage-architecture are Bharata Senapatiyam, Seyttriyam (an older work, being given, as noted above, as an authority for Silappadikaram itself) and the work of Madivananar, the Pandyan king. Besides extracts from these three, there are other valuable quotations which are anonymous.


The Natya Sastra of Bharata, in its treatment of the theatre begins with the choosing of the ground itself, giving the qualities of the ground that should be chosen as the plot for the building of the theatre. It says that the ground must be even and firm, and the soil sweet in smell and taste. The same things are mentioned in a long quotation from some unknown work, given by Adjyarkkunallar. It says that the soil of the ground should be sweet in scent and taste, and free from pebbles. The ground must not be moist or swampy. One of the characteristics of good soil is that when a pit is dug, the mud dug out, on refilling the pit with it, must not remain as surplus. One must take care that he does not destroy for the sake of building a theatre such institutions of Dharma, like temples, monasteries, Brahmins' settlements and public wells. The most valuable part of this quotation is the locality it gives as the most proper place for the theatre. The theatre described by the Silappadikaram is a theatre in the Rajadhani or the Capital, and it is in the city and not in the palace. It is, however, patronised by the king. The use of the theatres is much spoilt by their locality. This quotation says that the theatre shall be built in the very centre of the city, facing one of the four main streets along which the car of the temple of that city runs:


“Urin Naduvinadahi,

Ter odun veedihal edirmuhamahi.”


Another writer is quoted here, and the qualities of good soil and the evils resulting from the choosing of bad soil are rather elaborately spoken of by Adiyarkkunallar. Another anonymous quotation gives the scale of measurement referred to at the beginning.


Another valuable quotation is from Seyittriyanar, who is the only writer who gives slightly different dimensions for the stage. All the texts available give the same dimensions, and refer to the same details, two gates, three curtains, etc. Seyittriyanar, while not changing the length, breadth and height of the stage-platform, gives the height of the stage-space between the floor of the stage and the beam, not as 4 kols but as 3 kols:


“Mukkol Tanum uyarvum uritte.”


Another anonymous quotation here refers us to rules laid down by treatises in Sanskrit on the subject of the stage. Madivananar and Bharata Senapatiyar are quoted on the curtains, that they are three in number.


We have already mentioned that Adiyarkkunallar gives information about the other parts of the theatre. No quotations are given by him as regards these. He himself says that the other parts of the theatre not mentioned in the Silappadikaram must be taken as understood. Those he thus mentions are: -


Karandu Pokkidam – Place to retire into, or place on the sides into which, after acting, the actor passes. This place perhaps served not only as verandahs to retire into, but also as green-room.


Kannular Kudijnaippalli – cloth tents housing the actors. These tents may suggest that the actors were travelling troupes, or that these tents were closely attached to the stage as substitutes for green-room.


Mannar Mandarodirukkum Avai Arangam – the portion of the sabha as audience for the king and his party.


Ivattraiccoozhnda Puvi Nirai Mandar – The audience portion for the citizen spectators. From this we see that the king sat with his attendants in the centre, and the other spectators, the chief citizens, sat round him in a semi-circle.


There is one more Tamil treatise on Natya to be dealt with. It is called the Suddhanandaprakasam and is with M. M. Swaminatha Aiyar. It seems to be later than all the works referred to above. On the dimensions of the stage, it not only follows but reproduces also the words of the Silappadikaram. Extracts from this work are given by the Editor as footnotes. From these extracts we see that this work draws most upon the Sanskrit treatises. On the subject of stage-building, two extracts from it are given by the Editor. These two extracts show the indebtedness of the work to the Silappadikaram and the Sanskrit Natya literature. Bharata says that the erection of the stage must be attended with auspicious ceremonies, feasting, music, and dance. The Suddhanandaprakasam also says that Adal, Padal, Kottu and Pani must mark the construction of the theatre. The extract further directs the stage builder to avoid places near temples, monasteries, birds’ nests, ant-hills, and not to destroy these for building the theatre. Similarly it says that proximity to the quarters of elephants, the horse-stables, the battle-field and the hamlet of the low people must be avoided. In the second extract, the work says that besides the Varna Bhutas drawn on the floor of the stage for worship, there must be established on the stage the deity called Nandin. This is clearly due to Sanskrit influence, Nandin being one of the heads in the Sanskrit Natya pantheon. The extract further says that the theatre must be decorated with carvings of animals and birds.


There is a treatise in palm-leaf manuscript in the Adyar Mss. Library called Sangita Sangraha Chintamani by one Appalacharya of Srimushnam village, which is in South Arcot district. The work is in Sanskrit and Tamil; there are verses written in ungrammatical Sanskrit and upon them long comments are made in colloquial Tamil. The treatise is not very recent.


One of the chapters of this work treats of Natya, in connection with which the erection of a theatre is described. I have got a copy of this chapter made for me and the following account of the stage is given in it. Temples, monasteries, and Brahmin settlements should be avoided; and a good place for a theatre must be chosen within a park or an island in the midst of a tank. Such soil as is rocky or is full of ash, bones, and pebbles, must be avoided. The best soil is that in which, when a pit is dug and mud dug out is again put into the pit, we have some more mud left out; when there is no mud left out, the soil is not bad; but when the mud is insufficient to fill the pit, the soil is bad. The soil of bad taste should be avoided. The text gives the evil results of various bad tastes of soils.


The treatise gives two types of stages, one measuring 64 x 32 Karas or Hastas or Muzhams and the other 32 x 16. Thus, in Bharata's words, both the types are by shape Vikrishta; and by size the former is Jyeshtha than the latter which is smaller. Sixteen pillars are then mentioned, after the erection of which Vastupuja is to be done. The decoration of the house and the arrangement of the king's seat in the audience are then described. In this section the text quotes a Sanskrit treatise called Nritta Ratnakaram. From the above we see the similarities of details given in this work, which bases itself on the Sanskrit Natya literature, to those found in the Tamil texts above dealt with.


Thus this survey of the fragments of the Tamil Natya literature not only proves largely the subject on hand, viz., the existence of well-built theatres in ancient India, but incidentally proves the fundamental unity that underlies Indian literature and art, the indebtedness of all vernaculars to Sanskrit, and the close way in which provincial literature and art are knit to Sanskrit, the Himalayan source of all the currents.