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Published on: 26 September 2017

Bharathi Ramasubban

Bharathi Ramasubban is a Carnatic vocalist, disciple of Seetha Rajan and P.S. Narayanaswamy.

How will the work of a modern poet named Kalidasa impress this learned assembly, which is used to the compositions of well-established poets such as Bhasa, Kaviputra and Saumillaka?[1]

———Kalidasa, Malavikagnimitram, Act 1.


Mahakavi Kalidasa, in the opening act of his first play, Malavikagnimitram, makes the earliest reference to Bhasa, extolling him as a poet par excellence, widely popular among discerning audiences.[2] The saga of Bhasa is one fraught with controversies and juxtaposed with suppositions, all in the hope of translating a mere name from apocryphal tales to a real person, a genius and a worthy predecessor to the likes of Kalidasa and Sudraka.


Bhasa is one of the oldest known classical playwrights in the history of Sanskrit literature and may well be known as the father of Sanskrit drama. A prolific poet and dramatist, he was venerated by Kalidasa, Banabhatta[3], Rajashekhara and critics such as Abhinavagupta. His master-piece Svapnavasavadattam was oft-quoted in commentaries from the 9th-12th century CE. Unfortunately, no authentic information, regarding the identity of Bhasa, is available. He is thought to be a devotee of Vishnu, probably a brahmin and obviously lived before the time of Kalidasa (approximately between 1st century BCE and 6th century CE). There is no conclusive proof as to who his patron king was although there is a reference to a King Rajasimha in some of his plays. It is not even known if ‘Bhasa’ was indeed his original name or a pseudonym. His compositions, like those of Saumillaka and Kaviputra, were thought to be lost forever until the early 1900s. 


The Natyashastra of Bharatamuni (circa 200 BCE) is a treatise that lays down the basic rules governing the staging of a play (rupakam/natakam). In this text, Bharata describes 10 different categories of plays based on the length of the play, the content, the nature of the hero, the sentiment (rasa) conveyed, etc.[4] He obviously based this classification on a multitude of plays belonging to each category. However, no dramatic works from that period have survived.


The history of Sanskrit drama begins with the 13 Trivandrum plays ascribed to Bhasa. Scholars and historians were actively engaged in compiling literary and scientific works to chronicle the history of Sanskrit literature. The natakas of Bhasa were thought to be lost just like the compositions of poets such as Saumillaka and Kaviputra until Mahamahopadhyaya T. Ganapati Shastri of the Oriental Manuscript Library, Trivandrum discovered the manuscripts of 13 plays, written in archaic Malayalam script. He established Bhasa’s authorship though a sequence of arguments from both historic and literary perspectives. He eventually published them in 1912.


The 13 natakas (now collectively known as Bhasa-natakachakram) found were:

  • Pratima-natakam, Abhisheka-natakam—based on episodes from the Ramayana;

  • Balacharitam—describes the birth and childhood of Krishna based on Harivamsa in Vishnupuranam;

  • Karnabharam, Dutavakyam, Dutaghatotkacham, Madhyamavyayogam, Pancharatram, Urubhangam—based on episodes from the Mahabharata;
  • Charudattam, Avimarakam—semi-social dramas said to be original plots;

  • Pratijnayaugandharayanam and Svapnavasavadattam—both describe instances from the life of King Udayana, drawn from Brihadkatha and Kathasaritasagara. The excellence of Svapnavasavadattam played a clinching role in substantiating Ganapati Shastri’s claim.



The Bhasa Controversy

The Trivandrum plays were all abridged, with no title and no mention of the author’s name anywhere in the body of the texts, thereby making the assignation of authorship a highly controversial exercise. Several questions were raised. Were all these plays penned by the same author? Was there only one playwright named Bhasa? Were the plays of the original Bhasa subsequently adapted and re-written by someone else? Several historians attribute these plays to another playwright named Shaktibhadra or the Pallava king Narasimhavarman or the Pandya king Tenmaran. Some sceptics still strongly believe that these plays were written by the Chakkyars of Malabar, albeit adapted from Bhasa.[5]


In the introductory verses of his composition Harshacharita, Bana (author of the magnificent romantic prose work, Kadambari) describes Bhasa’s stage-craft, 'Bhasa attained great fame through his splendid plays with introductions performed by the stage-manager (sutradhara), with a wide variety of characters and with interesting twists in the plot.'[6]


All the plays of the natakachakram (except Avimarakam and Dutaghatotkacha[7]) begin with the entry of the stage-manager (sutradhara). This feature is deviant from the prescribed format of Bharata’s Natyashastra according to which the sutradhara enters after the benedictory verse (Nandi Shloka).[8] Yet another peculiarity is that the prologue following the nandi verse, known as prastavana, is referred to as sthapana in the natakachakram. All the plays have numerous characters and embrace a myriad variety of themes from tragedy to farce and from romance to social-drama. Pratima-natakam and Svapnavasavadattam end with a verse in praise of one King Rajasimha instead of the usual bharatavakya.[9] Verses quoted from Bhasa in other texts figure in these plays.[10] The repetitive occurrence of certain verses in these plays and consistence of language, expression and style suggest that they have all been penned by a single person.


Svapnavasavadattam is deemed the best amongst the 13 plays. Rajashekhara (880–920), in his Kavyamimamsa, thus eulogizes Bhasa’s tour de force, 'When the Natakacakra of Bhasa was cast into fire, Svapnavasavadattam, like pure gold, came forth, untarnished by the fierce flames.'[11]


Rajashekhara’s critique of Bhasa’s work not only endorses the excellence of Svapnavasavadattam but also establishes that the dramatist wrote several plays collectively called the Natakachakram. Therefore, it may not be too presumptuous to infer from the above arguments that the Trivandrum plays were indeed Bhasa’s own creations.



Date of Bhasa

Scholars are unequivocal about the date of Bhasa. The exact time of Bhasa, like his identity, is clouded by uncertainty. Once again scholars and historians had to draw clues from his plays to arrive at a solution.


Bhasa’s allusion to a certain King Rajasimha and the extent of his kingdom (from the Vindhyas to the Himalayas) is too ambiguous for identification.[12] However, a few historians claim that Chandragupta Maurya and some of his successors assumed the title Rajasimha thereby narrowing down Bhasa’s era to the fourth century BCE or thereabouts.


Bharatamuni laid down the guidelines to Sanskrit drama in his Natyashastra approximately around 200 BCE. Bhasa’s theatrical works take great liberties and do not adhere to the tenets of Bharata’s treatise. For example, the Natyashastra prohibits the portrayal or suggestion of death on stage.[13] However, Bhasa’s plays flout this rule by portraying the elaborate and dramatic deaths of Dasaratha in Pratimanatakam, Vali in Abhisheka-natakam, Mushtika, Canura and Kamsa in Balacharitam and Duryodhana in Urubhangam. This would allow one to deduce that Bhasa was either before Bharata’s time or that he was a contemporary yet unaware of Bharata’s work.


Grammatical irregularities and anachronisms in the Natakachakram lead to the supposition that Bhasa might have lived in a period prior to the great grammarian Panini[14] or atleast before his text (Ashtadhyayi) gained universal acceptance.


The Prakrit employed by Bhasa is much more antiquated than that of Kalidasa or subsequent poets. Bhasa’s simple yet forceful usage of Sanskrit suggests that he came from a time when Sanskrit was a spoken language. Also, he does not mention Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu in any of his plays. It is possible that he existed before the inclusion of Buddha as one of the Dasavataras of Vishnu. Therefore, it might be safe to place Bhasa somewhere around 300–200 BCE.


A few instances in Bhasa’s plays offer us a fleeting glance into his times. Bhasa had made references to several cults and religious orders. He seems to be particularly irreverent towards monks belonging to the Buddhist and Jain order.[15] He alludes to Naganashramanika (a nude female ascetic of the Jain order) in Avimaraka. In Svapnavasavadattam, he pays his tribute to Balarama, a cult whose members were probably addicted to intoxicating drugs. In Balacaritam, he mentions the names of the cow-herd girls (gopis such as Ghosasundari, Vanamala, Chandralekha and Mrigakshi) who performed rasa-krida with Krishna. However, there is no mention of Radha.[16]



Natakachakram: An Appreciation

Bhasa’s plays show a profound understanding of the contours of language (be it the aristocratic Sanskrit or the more popular Prakrit) and also the nuances of human nature. His style is facile yet effective and resembles the Vaidarbhi style of classical Sanskrit. His dramas show a very high degree of theatrical values. Bhasa seems to have been very shrewd at editing and adapting tales from epics by only retaining familiar characters or episodes and presenting them on an altogether fresh canvas. His dialogues are short, succinct and sparkling.[17] At no point in his plays does he give in to the temptations of a poet and sacrifice dramatic urgency for contrived poetic artifices. He employs silence to convey much more than can ever be said. A classic example of this is the dynamics between a statue and Prince Bharata in Pratima-natakam. The statue, by its mere presence, conveys to the young prince the news of his father’s demise.


Bhasa identified great scope for dramatic story-telling in the Mahabharata. This is probably why a majority of his plays are based on this epic. He has taken liberties with the characterization, added original sub-plots and included unique story-telling devices to render the episodes suitable for the stage. These plays are action-packed wherein he introduces wrestling, fights and killings in several scenes. He is especially adept in the portrayal of vira rasa (heroic sentiment) in these plays. In Dutavakya, Krishna comes to the Kaurava court as an emissary of peace and the arrogant Duryodhana insults him. In this play, Bhasa has employed the ancient art of story-telling through pictures (Mankha vidha).[18] Duryodhana narrates the episode of the game of dice with the Pandavas and the subsequent disrobing of Draupadi through a series of paintings. Yet another interesting feature is the use of humanized weapons. In the final scene when an enraged Krishna assumes a terrifying and infinite form (Vishvaroopa), his weapons (Sudarshana chakra, the discus, and Kaumodaki, the mace) are depicted as human forms (Ayudha purushas) to lend a more dramatic effect.


Karnabharam (the burden of Karna) is a one-act play which opens with a brooding Karna on the battle-field. He is anguished by the dark secret of his birth, his preceptor’s curse and the treachery of Indra who comes disguised as a Brahmin seeking Karna’s impenetrable armour as alms. This is, in essence, a one-character play. Karna’s internal turmoil creates an atmosphere of impending tragedy on stage.


Bhasa seems to have particularly enjoyed portraying characters very differently from how they had been conceived in the Puranas or perceived by audiences so far. He places known characters in a framework which is largely original thereby bringing out a heretofore unseen angle. In Urubhangam, Duryodhana (the antagonist in the Mahabharata) plays the main lead, which in itself is unusual. It is set towards the end of the Kurukshetra war and all the Kaurava heroes including Bhishma, Drona and Karna have fallen. Duryodhana is the sole survivor amongst King Dhritarashtra’s 100 sons. The play opens with a chorus of soldiers who sing about the futility of war. Duryodhana lies fatally wounded, his thighs shattered by Bhima’s mace. In the finals throes of life, the Kaurava Prince turns noble. He asks his son Durjaya to obey Kunti, serve the Pandavas and treat Draupadi like a mother. Bhasa has treated Duryodhana no less than a Greek hero and his ignoble death evokes both compassion and a heightened sense of pathos (Karuna rasa). In the third act of Pancharatram, he even goes as far as showing a fair-minded Duryodhana agreeing to give half his kingdom to the Pandavas as promised!


Similarly, Bhasa shows Kaikeyi in a whole new light in Pratima-natakam. According to this play, Queen Kaikeyi claims her bride’s price (shulka) of King Dasaratha by asking him to stop Rama’s coronation and banish him to the forest for 14 years. At the time of his marriage to Kaikeyi, Dasaratha promised her a bride price (shulka) which stipulated that her son would be King. By claiming her shulka at this juncture, Kaikeyi was only reminding Dasaratha of his promise and saving his from breaking his vow. Also, Kaikeyi’s demand was merely instrumental in the fruition of an old curse.[19] She also nobly bears Bharata’s enraged taunts when he comes to know of Rama’s exile. Bhasa has used the shulka and the curse (both mentioned in the Ramayana under different contexts) to absolve Kaikeyi of any blame. Unlike the original, Kaikeyi does not perform the cruel task of giving bark garments (valkala) to Rama and Sita. This is achieved by a beautifully conceived scene, which is entirely Bhasa’s innovation. A curious Sita is trying on a bark garment when Rama enters the room. He also wears a similar garment and the two of them stand before a mirror admiring their ascetic garb. Before long, Rama is informed of his exile to the forest. Bhasa, thus, also introduces an element of dramatic irony (patakasthanaka).


The eponymous Pratima (statue) scene is one of the highlights of the play. Yet again this scene is a figment of Bhasa’s imagination and not found in the Ramayana. Bharata (son of Kaikeyi), oblivious of father’s demise, is returning home from his uncle’s kingdom. At the outskirts of Ayodhya, he halts at a memorial building (pratima-mantapa) with exquisitely crafted statues of his fore-fathers. He adoringly gazes upon the life-like statues of his ancestors including Dilipa, Raghu and Aja and suddenly stops dumb-struck before a mannequin bearing an uncanny resemblance to King Dasaratha, his father. Bhasa’s dramatic prowess is in his ability to translate stories (passed on in an oral tradition) on to a visual medium. An otherwise ordinary incident is transformed into an extra-ordinary moment that works theatrically. The scene is also successful in bringing forth a multitude of rasas such as Bharata’s awe (ashcharya) on seeing the statues, the temple-keeper’s anger (raudra) towards Kaikeyi and pathos (karuna).


Jayadeva, in the prologue of Prasannaraghava, says, 'If poetry were personified as a beautiful maiden, then Bhasa would be the luminous laughter on her lips…’[20]

The primary source for this suggestion is Bhasa’s congenial humour and witticism and how deftly he switches over from romance or heightened drama to comedy. Comic artistry certainly seems to have one of Bhasa’s strengths. Humour is woven into a scene either through pun (slesha), political innuendo, irony (as in Madhyamavyayoga) or through repetition, erroneous utterances, drunken exchanges (in Pratijnayaugandharayanam) and misquotations. For example, in Charudattam, the vainglorious Sakara boasts to Vasantasena, 'I am like Vishnu, lord of the corpses or Kunti’s son Janamejaya. I will hold thee by thy lovely locks and abduct thee, as Dusshasana did Sita!’[21]


Svapnavasavadattam ('the vision of Vasavadatta') and Pratijnayaugandharayanam ('Yaugandharayana’s vow') are both drawn from the Udayana legend and Gunadhya’s Brihadkatha. Both plays recount the tale of King Udayana and his beloved queen, Vasavadatta. Unlike the Mahabharata-based plays, the hero (Udayana) is not portrayed as a fierce warrior. Instead he is principally a lover (dhiralalita nayaka) and a patron of the arts. The reigning rasa is shringara (love). Prataijnayaugandharayanam is about the oath of the minister, Yaugandharayana (the central character), to rescue King Udayana from the clutches of the enemy. Interestingly, both Udayana and Vasavadatta do not appear on stage for the entire duration of this play. The audience is only informed of their activities from back-stage. This play is in essence a political thriller packed with skirmishes, shrewd stratagems, kidnappings, espionage and counter-maneuvers. The kidnap of Udayana by enemy agents is achieved by a device a la the Trojan horse.[22] The play ends with the marriage of Udayana and Vasavadatta.


Svapnavasavadattam takes off from where the previous play ends. Udayana overpowered by his love for Vasavadatta, has, for long, neglected his political duties as king. The kingdom, now vulnerable, is attacked by a neighbouring kingdom. The minister, Yaugandharayana, is keen on contracting a marriage of convenience for the King in order to strengthen their ties with King Darsaka. He, with Vasavadatta’s consent, spreads a rumour that the queen has perished in a fire accident. The conflicting aspirations of Udayana (as a love-sick, aggrieved husband) and Yaugandharayana (a shrewd minister who desires the best for the kingdom) are well-exploited.


Avimaraka is a simple love story replete with all the exigencies of a potboiler romance and supernatural and mythical complications thrown in for good measure. The initial separation, pining and eventual happy reunion (vipralamba-shringara) of the principal characters is said to have inspired Kalidasa to write Vikramorvashiyam.


The extant manuscript of Charudattam is incomplete and abruptly cut off at the end of the fourth act. This play is believed to be the same as Daridra-Charudatta mentioned by Abhinavagupta. This is considered to be the last of Bhasa’s plays. The absence of a final act or climax is seen as a great opportunity for dramatists to extrapolate their imagination and create a virtual ending. Charudattam is said to be the seed (bija) for Sudraka’s labour of love, Mrichchhakatikam.


The mystery of Bhasa’s identity may never be wholly resolved but his plays continue to enrich the hallowed portals of Sanskrit literature. Like Dandin says in Avantisundarikatha (seventh to eighth century), 'Bhasa continues to live through his plays which constitute his body which has manifested as innumerable incarnations.'[23]





[1] Prathitayasasam Bhasa-kaviputra-saumillakadinam prabandhan atikramya vartamanakaveh kalidasasya kriyayam katham parishado bahumanah?


[2] Some historians believe that the Tamil poet Ilangovadigal (author of the magnum opus Silappadikaram) has made a reference to Bhasa, even before Kalidasa.


[3] Bana compares Bhasa’s plays to victory flags on a beautifully built temple.


[4] Rupakas are broadly classified into ten types, namely, natakam, prakaranam, bhana, prahasanam, dima, vyayoga, samavakara, vithi, anka, utsrshtikanka and Ihamrga.


[5] King Kulashekhara Varman (10th century CE) of Kerala introduced the practice of performing Sanskrit plays by engaging Chakyar artistes. This came to be known as Kutiyattam.


[6] sutradharakrtarambhairnatakairbahubhumikaih l

  sapatakairyaso lebhe bhaso devakulairiva ll


[7] These open with verses in praise of Lord Vishnu.


[8]nandyante pravisati sutradharah.’


[9] Bharatavakya is a concluding verse, recited by the actors, either in praise of the gathered audiences or praying for peace, prosperity and glory.

Yatha ramasca janakya bandhubhisca samagatah l

tatha lakshmya samayukto raja bhumim prasastu nah ll – Pratima-natakam, Act 7.


[10] The following verse (from Balacharitam and Charudattam) is quoted as a standard example for utpreksha (poetic fancy), a figure of speech:

    limpativa tamongani varshativanjanam nabhah l

    asatpurushaseveva drshtiraphalatam gata ll


[11] Bhāsanatakacakresmin chekaih kshipte parikshitum l

   svapnavasavadattasya dahako abhunna pavakah ll


[12] imam sagaraparyantam himavadvindhyakundalam l

   mahimekatapatrankam rajasimha prasastu nah ll – Act 6, Svapnavasavadattam.


[13]na karyam maranam range natyadharmam vijanata l’


[14] Author of Ashtadhyayi, an authoritative text on the syntax and semantics of Sanskrit grammar.


[15] In Charudattam, the Vidushaka tells Charudatta that he has been unable to sleep just like a Buddhist monk who had a clandestine appointment with a maiden.


[16] The first available reference to Radha is from the Gatha Saptasati by Hala Satavahana (c. 1st century CE).


[17] D. Appukuttan Nair, thus, describes the quality of Bhasa’s dialogues, ‘I don’t remember who it was that said Bhāsa is terse and sparse in expression. He tells us more by things he does not say…He is a master of silence. This silence is eloquent.’


[18] This technique was later used by Bhavabhuti in his Uttararamacharitam.


[19] Dasaratha, during a hunting expedition, had accidentally killed a young hermit named Shravanakumara. The lad’s father, a blind sage, had in turn cursed the King that one day he too would suffer the pangs of a similar bereavement (putrashoka).


[20] yasyascorascikuranikarah karnapuro mayuro

    bhaso hasah kavikulaguruh kalidaso vilasah l

    harsho harsho hrdayavasatih pancabano banah

    kesham naisha kathaya kavitakaminI kautukaya ll


[21] A similar verse is found in Act 8 of Sudraka’s Mricchakatika, when Sakara uses threats to force Vasantasena to reciprocate his love,

    canakyena yatha sita marita bharate yuge I

    evam tvam motayishyami jatayuriva draupadim II

('I am going to kill you just as Chanakya killed Sita during the Mahabharata war and as Jatayu murdered Draupadi!')


[22] The King is lured out of his secure camp by a beautiful blue elephant which is actually hollow and filled with enemy agents.


[23] ‘paretopi sthito bhasah sarIrairiva natakaih’




Further Reading


Aiyar, Ramachandra T.K. 1989. A Short History of Sanskrit Literature. R.S. Vadhyar & Sons.


Ayyar, A.S.P. 1942. Bhasa: Indian Men of Letters Series. Madras: The Madras Law Journal Office, Mylapore. Online at the Internet Archive (viewed on September 26, 2017).


Dasgupta, S.N. 1947. A History of Sanskrit Literature Classical Period, vol. I. University of Calcutta.


Pusalker, A.D. 1940. Bhasa: A Study. Lahore: Meharchand Lachhman Das Publishers. (Online at the Archaeological Society of India’s Scanned Sanskrit Documents Collection, at:


Sastri, Gaurinath. 1998. A Concise History of Classical Sanskrit Literature. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.


Varadpande, M.L. 2005. History of Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.