Origin of Drama in Ancient India and Egypt

Ramayana in Indonesia with Ravana

Research paper written by London Swaminathan
Research article No.1463; Dated 6th December 2014.

Where did dramas originate? Did the first play was enacted in Egypt or India? We have dialogue hymns in the Rig-Veda and several scholars believe those were the first theatrical plays. We have similar dialogues in Egypt. Greek dramas that became popular in the fifth century BCE belonged to different genre. Plays of Bhasa, Kalidasa, Asvagosha, Shudraka and many more playwrights became popular in India from third century BCE. We have discovered fragments of Asvagosha’s plays beyond India.

Mahabharata in Indonesia

Dramas in the Vedas
After long Yajnas (fire sacrifices) lasting for several days, Vedic Hindus had dance, music and drama to entertain the public or the attendants.

The Natyasastra of Bharata, claims a divine origin for itself. It styles itself as a fifth Veda, accessible to all, including those who were precluded from the study of four Vedas. In its present form it came after Kalidasa’s plays. It is possible that the author of the Natyasastra sat down to compose his treatise with Kaliidasa’s plays before him, says Chandra Rajan, translator of Kalidasa’s works .

She adds, “the origins of drama could be traced back to the Vedas. In the Rig Veda we find a number of poems with dramatic elements in them: dialogues such as the lively debate between Sarama, the Hound of Heaven and the Panis (traders or demons of darkness) over wealth or tribute; the dialogue between Urvasi, a celestial nymph and the mythic king Puruvas, which is the distance source of Kalidasa’s play Vikrama Urvasiyam; monologues like the declamation of Vac proclaiming her role in the creation of the universe; soliloquies like Vasistha’s”.

“In some of the poems in this group, there are three or more voices speaking; and the few contain the germ of a story or a cryptic reference to an event, that could develop in to a plot in the hands of a great dramatist. Kalidasa used the Urvasi-Pururuvas dialogue and made a great play.

Cambodia 1
Hindu drama in Cambodia

“The Vedic hymns were chanted and sung by several voices and the presence of refrain in some suggests a choral element. The rituals themselves of the great sacrifices have a dramatic character. The rituals are re-enactments of cosmic events. It is possible priests officiating played the roles of gods and seers in re-enacting the cosmic events.

“There is mention in Vedic literature of maidens beautifully dressed and jewelled, singing and dancing and circling the sacred altars with jars of holy water in their hands. A chariot race is mentioned, as well as a contest between a Vaisya and a Shudra for the possession of a white skin symbolising the Sun (light).

“It is suggested that Urvasi-Pururuvas poem was a staged dialogue, a dramatic substitute for what was originally the sacrifice of a male in a fertility rite after a sacred ritual wedding.

“The Mudras (hand gestures) used and the stances adopted during the performance of Vedic rituals were incorporated later into classical drama. Often the stage directions in a play indicate miming, and call for a specific Mudra, as for instance, in Sakuntala 6-3 Kapota Hastaka- the dove shaped hand gesture that conveys adoration or supplication.

“The Binding of Bali and Kamsa’s Slaying are two plays referred to in the literature of Second century BCE.

Ramayana in Indonesia

“Bharata’s Natyasatra assumes the close association of Siva with the performing arts. Bharata, in his dialogue with Brahma, the creator, speaks of having witnessed the Dance of Siva ‘full of feeling’ and expressive of the sentiments of Srngara (love) conveyed through graceful sequences of movement and gesture.

“And Siva, highly pleased with the performance of two plays, The Churning of the Ocean and The Burning of the Triple City, composed by Brahma and performed by Bharata and his troupe, instructs his disciple Tandu to teach Bharata certain dance sequences.

“Bharata is obviously an assumed name. The Bharatas were originally the rhapsodies or the bards of the powerful Bharata tribe celebrated in the Rig Veda. Dancing figure discovered in Mohenjo-Daro point to the antiquity of dance as an art form in India”.
–From Introduction in the book “ Kalidasa The Loom of Time” by Chandra Rajan.

Mahabharata in Indonesia

Drama in Egypt and Sumer
In all the ancient civilisations dance and drama were inseparable. We see such things in Sumer, Egypt and South India. Silappadikaram, Tamil epic, describes scores of dances based on stories in Hindu mythology. In Sumer, all festivals had rituals involving kings and priests. Sacred marriages between Gods and Goddesses were enacted. Priests and Kings played their roles as Gods. In Madurai Minakashi Temple of Tamil Nadu, every year the sacred marriage between God and Goddess (Siva and Parvati) is enacted where priests and their children play the roles.

In the Rig Veda, we have Yama-Yami dialogue and Vasukra dialogue. These may be theatrical performances. We have such plays in Egypt as well. All the dance and dramas started as religious rituals. Later it took secular turns as we see in the Greek dramas of fifth century BCE.

tamil drama
A scene from Tamil Drama

Michael Rice, in his book the Egypt’s Making says,
“Conflict of Horus and Set” is one of the great plays of ancient Egypt. This is the ritualized version of the mythical struggle between the opposing dualities which made up Egypt’s historical personality. The very fact that this conflict is conventionalized into the form of a drama with carefully presented dialogue and action is very remarkable. Then there is the “Mystery play of Succession” known for its great antiquity, for it is known from First Dynasty. It included a mysterious group of characters called the Spirit Seekers who disappeared after the first Dynasty.

At his coronation, likewise, the king played through a complex and numerous series of rituals designed to signify his assumption of the sovereignty over Egypt.
( In Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the great Nayak king Tirumalai Nayak, used to receive the sceptre from Goddess Minakshi every year. This is renacted even today)


My comments
Horus of Egypt may represent in a Hindu context, positive forces or Shakti, or Vishnu or Kinetic Energy or Mitra of the Vedas.

Set may represent Siva or negative forces or Varuna or Potential energy.
Like the Deva and Asura participation in the Churning of the Milky Ocean, we need two sets of people representing opposites or dualities (like Light and darkness, Good and Bad, Hot and Cold).
If one reads all the dialogues and dramas of ancient Egypt and Sumer, then one will understand better the dialogues in the Rig Veda. I have come to the conclusion that most of them are theatrical plays staged during the sacrifices that lasted for days or weeks.
Following are some of the dialogues:

RV 10-51: Agni and Varuna
RV 10-10 Yama- Yami
RV 1-179 Agastya and Lopamudra
RV 10-95: Pururuvas and Urvasi
RV 10-86 Indra and Vrsakapi
We have such conversation hymns in RV 10-135; 10-124; 4-26; 10-108; 10-28 and many more.
So we may conclude that dramas originated in India provided one accepts the antiquity of the Vedas. B G Tilak and Jacobi dated them to 6000 BCE.


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