Music in the Plays of Samskrita Ranga

in Article
Published on: 09 November 2020

V. Sumithra

V. Sumithra is a reputed Carnatic classical vocalist and researcher.

Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharata, the earliest available treatise on dramaturgy, is believed to be the root of ancient Indian theatre. In this work, the important role played by music (both vocal and instrumental) in the conception of ancient Indian theatre is discussed in detail in about seven chapters (Nagar 2009), apart from contextual references to it, while elaborating on other facets of dramaturgy.

It is known from Dr V. Raghavan’s writings that while Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra is a technical treatise on theatre, it is the plays of Kalidasa and a few others that serve as some of the best exemplars of the prayōga (functional) aspects laid down in it (Raghavan 1954:79-80). This is the reason why Samskrita plays are taken to represent what is referred to as ‘ancient Indian theatre’. This is also the reason why Dr Raghavan founded the ‘Samskrita Ranga’. The main objective of the organization is to bring Samskṛita plays to the stage, and thereby bring back into practice the prayōga elements in the Nāṭyaśāstra, to the maximum extent possible.

The plays produced by Samskrita Ranga present a happy synthesis of the four kinds of abhinaya (āṅgika, vācika, āhārya and sāttvika); which includes a combination of music (both vocal and instrumental), dialogues (which are vital to a drama production), and dance movements.

This article attempts to examine the role of music in the plays produced and staged by Samskrita Ranga. The various contexts in which vocal and instrumental music are employed in general, and some specific cases that serve as examples of how the music has been thoughtfully adapted to enhance the play in terms of content, as well as presentation, will be discussed.

The article consists of two main sections. The first talks about music in ancient Indian theatre, as known from Nāṭyaśāstra, and later commentaries and writings around it, and its practical application, as seen in the examples from plays of Kalidasa and others. The second section deals with conceptualization of the musical element in the plays of Samskṛita Raṅga, by Dr V. Raghavan and his successors, namely Dr S.S. Janaki and Smt Nandini Ramani, who directed the plays.  


Music in Ancient Indian Theatre

gītē prayatnaḥ prathamastu kāryaḥ - śayyām hi nāṭyasya vadanti gītam |

 gītēpi vādyēpi ca samprayuktē - nāṭyaprayōgō na vipattimēti || (Nāṭyaśāstra 32.436)

(effort should be made towards [organizing] the musical aspect as it stabilizes the drama production; when vocal and instrumental music are employed, the play is assured of success)

From the above verse, it is seen that Bharata holds music as an essential component of the theatrical production of his time. He goes to the extent of saying that it is music in the form of vocals and instruments that stabilises the stage production of a play.

First, we will briefly look into some of the salient aspects of stage productions elaborated in the Nāṭyaśāstra:

1. An important aspect is the minimal use of external embellishments like stage props, etc. for effective stage direction. The emotional state, the character that is depicted, etc. are to be made out from the sidelights, references in the dialogues, and other intrinsic components of the production.[1]

2. A concept of total theatre, characterised by the four kinds of abhinaya namely, āṅgika (body movements), vācika (dialogue), āhārya (costume and makeup) and sāttvika (expression of involuntary emotions) is emphasized in many of the contexts, while in others a technique of symbolism is employed. But it is opined that the element that was fully and most effectively used, was music.[2]

3. A seamless combination of action, song, and word, following each other in an unbroken continuity marked the conceptualization of the production.

4. Rasa or aesthetic bliss is considered the ultimate essence and purpose of the play, and hence, the stage production of the same is carefully designed to this end.

A study of the above-mentioned aspects and Bharata’s detailed references to music and its functions show how the two are intimately linked and, thereby, highlights the prominent role played by music in making a stage production out of the text of a playwright.  

To substantiate this, we will now consider each of the four points with respect to the functions laid down for the musical component.

(1) Bharata states that the main function of the musical element is that—once the basic idea of the play has been established, there are many other details that need to be conveyed, but are not expressly said by the dramatist in the form of dialogues. Here, it is the songs that mediate their expression, so as to effectively convey them to the audience.[3] This also helps to make up for the minimal use of external components like stage props in the conception of the ancient Indian theatre.

(2) Among the four kinds of abhinaya that characterise the total theatre concept, music comes under vācika (verbal), along with dialogues. It is known from writings of scholars that, even in the pāṭhya (dialogues to be spoken) segment, the verses that form a part of the text of the play were invariably rendered musically. Moreover, the stage composers created musical pieces called dhruva songs that were inserted in the main text, wherever they were required, to make an effective stage production. This shows the importance given to music, even among the four kinds of abhinaya.

(3) The maintenance of an unbroken continuity is an essential function of the musical element, as it allows overlap with other kinds of abhinaya. For example, in case of dance movements, they are accompanied by vocal or instrumental music—in case of specific actions that are symbolic in nature, they are aided mostly by instrumental music to heighten the effectiveness; and when verses of the play are rendered musically, many a time by the actor himself, a seamless transition into and out of spoken dialogues is seen.

(4) When it is said that rasa or aesthetic bliss is the essence of the play and its stage production, the prominent role played by music in attuning the audience to the production along with its variety of characters, contexts and emotions, which in turn leads them to complete realisation of the rasa, is inevitable. It has also been explicitly stated that, for a drama to be appealing to all kinds of viewers, the aid of music is necessary.[4]

It is with such a background that Dr V. Raghavan, the founder of Samskrita Ranga, approaches the plays that are part of the vast literature of the classical period of Sanskrit, with specific emphasis on those of Kalidasa. In his detailed writings about Kalidasa’s plays, he emphatically says that these are not to be taken only as literary works of great value, but are meant to be stage productions. He quotes instances from Śākuntalam, from which it is very clear that the dramatist intended it for a stage production. He also refers to a recension of Vikramōrvaśīyam which is clearly a later addition to the original, but has dhruva (symbolic) songs added to the main text. This shows that the play was taken up for stage production, for which the stage composers had created dhruva songs to suit various contexts of the main text of the play. Dr Raghavan felt that producing these plays onstage in the present day, were key to reviving the salient features of the ancient Indian theatre, and enhancing the dramatic content of the plays. Therefore, in the productions directed by him, he took care to have music and dance as essential components, as intended in the Nāṭyaśāstra. It is seen that the modern plays that he revived, and those that he authored and produced himself, were fashioned in a manner that optimized the functions of music and dance in the productions and embellished the value of the plays both in terms of content and emotional appeal.

The application of music in the plays of Samskrita Ranga amply justifies the opinion that music helps to attune the spectator’s heart and thereby leads to complete realization of aesthetic bliss which is the main purpose of a stage production. Dr Raghavan also talks about Abhinavagupta’s statement,[5] that it is music that helps a play to be enjoyable to all kinds of spectators, which is proven by Ranga’s plays that draw large audiences despite the fact that many of them may not know the Sanskrit language.

Many instances have been quoted by the musicians in Samskrita Ranga’s plays, who worked under Dr Raghavan’s guidance, foremost among them being Vidvan Sri B. Krishnamoorthi and Vidushi Smt R. Vedavalli (who are legendary musicians in their own right), of how he would choose appropriate ragas for verses, according to the context, the content of the verse, etc., and the care he took to select the melodies that were to be played in the background, by the instrumentalists, invariably playing the vīṇā and the flute. A classic example is the choice of raga Jhaṅkāradhvani for the verse involving a bee’s movement, in Śākuntalam. Here it is to be noted that the name of the raga (meaning ‘humming sound of the bee’) adds to the aptness of the choice, while the vivādi (dissonant note) in the melody, effectively brings out the hero’s vexation at the good fortune of the bee who is hovering near Sakuntala’s lip.

The Āścaryacūḍāmaṇi of Saktibhadra, staged by Samskrita Ranga members, under the direction of Dr S.S. Janaki, allows ample scope for employing music to effectively bring out some interesting innovations made by the dramatist. The important role played by music in this production is highlighted by Dr Janaki in her article.[6] She says that the use of real and pseudo characterisations of Rama, Lakṣmaṇa, Sita, Ravaṇa, and some others, by the dramatist, in order to enhance the effect of ‘adbhuta rasa’ (sentiment of wonder); and the swift transformation from real to pseudo and back, portrayed in the play, make its production very challenging. As Samskrita Ranga believes in reviving and retaining the conceptualisation of the stage as given in the Nāṭyaśāstra, with minimal stage effects and props, the challenging task is achieved by employing music and dance appropriately. Another example is seen in case of a verse in Act III (III.5) where Rama talks to Sita about the omen of the throbbing of his left arm. The descriptive parts of the verse are sung (in raga Āhiri), and then the last part which is a statement of the throbbing of the left arm is alone spoken as a dialogue. Here it is noteworthy that the introduction of music to communicate the content of the verse helps to retain, rather enhance, the effectiveness of speaking the last line as a dialogue. The list of details of the contexts and the respective ragas chosen for them—both with respect to the singing of verses, and the instrumental background score,[7] shows the importance given to the selection of appropriate melodies. It is noteworthy that Bharata also elaborates on the appropriate notes, and melodies, that are generally suited for the different kinds of rasas and bhāvas.

Anārkali’ of Dr V. Raghavan, first staged under the direction of the author himself, is one of the best examples of Samskrita Ranga’s productions where music is given great prominence. In fact, the author has skillfully embedded a lot of information on various aspects of Indian music, including descriptions about the South Indian and North Indian classical music systems, as part of the discussions that take place in Akbar’s court. It is noteworthy that this production involves musical elements, not only for enhancing the expression of verses and the dramatic contexts, and not only in the scene where Anarkali performs in the South Indian style of music and dance, but also as an essential component of the content of the dialogues, as seen from the above-mentioned discussions. The author has aptly employed characters like Tansen and Paṇḍarika Viṭṭhala who contribute to the informative and engaging discussions on music. Interestingly, this serves as an effective ruse to establish the historic context in which the play is located and, at the same time, gives a contemporary feel by employing raga names that are in vogue till date.

The detailed note on two of Samkrita Ranga’s plays, Āścaryacūḍāmaṇi and Anārkali presented above, helps in understanding the prominent role played by music in them.

It may be mentioned here that this writer has had the privilege of being a regular singer for Samskrita Ranga’s plays, under the direction of Dr S.S. Janaki and Smt Nandini Ramani. It has been a learning experience to participate in the production of these plays and understand how musical elements function in the context of Sanskrit drama. It may be said that while singing for these productions, one is reminded of Bharata’s visualisation of the function of music (both vocal and instrumental). According to him, music is essential for the successful production of a drama, but at the same time it is to be strictly employed to contribute to the holistic dramatic effect and, hence, excessive musical ornamentation is not recommended. Similarly, in the productions of Samskrita Ranga, the ragas are chosen to suit the dramatic context—the singers would have to render the verses in such a way that there is a creativity of expression, and at the same time, the meaning and context of the verse are highlighted appropriately. The instrumentalists (playing the viṇā, flute and percussion) play a vital role in the background score for the productions, which include special effects or beats that highlight the actors’ movements. Crisp ālāpana and brisk tāna renditions (particularly on the viṇā) enhance the musical and dramatic experience in a very subtle manner.


[1] Raghavan, V. ‘Music in Ancient Indian Drama’. In Journal of the Music Academy XXV. Madras: Music Academy. 1954. 79.

[2] Raghavan, V. ‘Indian Classical Concept of Total Theatre’. In Samskrita Ranga Annual V. Madras: Music Academy. 1967. 89.

[3] Raghavan, V. ‘Music in Ancient Indian Drama’. In Journal of the Music Academy XXV. Madras: Music Academy. 1954. 79-82.

[4] ibid. 80-82.

[5] ibid. 81.

[6] Janaki, S.S. ‘Stage Presentation of Ascarya Cudamani’. Souvenir, Samskrita Ranga. 1987. 23-30.

[7] ibid. 27-28.



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