The Indian conception of aesthetics was propelled by the highest objective of self-improvement. Among the various art forms that emerged, drama was considered to be the foremost on account of it being a conglomeration of dance, music and acting. The aphorism natakantam kavitvam, the litmus test of a poet in being able to prove his highest worth through the creation of drama, shows the importance given to dramatic form.
The origin of Sanskrit drama can be traced to a harmonious blend of music, dance, dialogue, gesture and stories—employed both in religious ceremonies and secular assemblies. The fifth Veda gained a secular nature since it had access to people of all the classes.
A good playwright had to establish an intangible involvement of both the spectator and the performer, where each entered into the inner spirit of the performance on the basis of identification. Such a rapport that culminates into the success of the production, siddhi, can be observed in V. Raghavan’s ten-act play—The Anārkalī. The play is categorised under the prakarana (play in five to ten acts, not based on any epic material) variety of Sanskrit drama. In it, one can find the right combination of music, dialogue gesticulation and imitation—the threefold characteristics of Sanskrit drama. His works enriched the Sanskrit dramatic literature and contributed much to its development.
Aim of Sanskrit Drama
The realisation of the aesthetic bliss of rasa (essence, a concept in arts and aesthetics in Nāṭyaśāstra) is the highest purpose of Sanskrit drama. It can arouse and promote moral consciousness in the spectator. It is intended to achieve harmony out of chaos and produce tranquillity out of disturbances. It plays a pivotal role in popularising the spiritual, cultural and literary heritage of the country. It is a means for the upliftment of society and an instrument to boost its standard of morality. It shows the ways of the world—lokacaritam—and the doings of men in order to enlighten and guide the audience, who with the knowledge can recognise and accept what is good. In Anārkalī, one finds the stress upon the synthesis of various faiths in the form of Akbar’s introduction of a syncretic religion—Din-i-Ilahi, the religion of God. At the third production of Anārkalī on March 30, 1972, at the First International Sanskrit Conference, Dr Jean Filliozat aptly observed that it ‘has clearly given a clear evidence of the capacity of Sanskrit to be adapted to any kind of dramatic expression.’
Plot, characters and emotions are the three important components of Sanskrit drama. The plot can be drawn either from the great narrations, popular tales or from the imagination of the poet. The plot can be related to the principal character or to the minor character. In Anārkalī, one finds Akbar to be the main character, and the emphasis is on the synthesis of various religious ideas as espoused by him in Din-i-Ilahi. The love which blossomed between Salim, the crown prince, and Nadira (otherwise called Anarkali), a palace maid; is used as a channel for the development of the plot to culminate in their union after a brief separation—a common factor seen in many Sanskrit dramas.
The five elements which constitute the plot are bija, bindu, pataka, prakari and karya. An activity is started with a special purpose (karya) in mind. The beginning is the ‘seed’, or bija, the circumstances from which the plot arises. The same turns as ‘object’, or phala, at the end. Bindu or ‘drop’ links one part of the story to another. Pataka helps and furthers the main topic, and prakari is an episodical incident of limited duration and minor importance which also assists the progression of the plot. Karya is the object realised at the end.
Substantiation of characters, ideas, etc. are drawn from various sources such as the biographies of Akbar and Jahangir (Aiyeen Akbari and Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri), Sanskrit adaptation of the Persian texts such as Sarvadeśa-vŗttāntasamgraha (Mahesa Takkura's Sanskrit version of Akbarnama), various Persian translations of Sanskrit works done during Akbar’s time, various historical research papers, and illustrated paintings of Akbar, Jahangir, etc. Special mention should be made about a painting depicting Akbar's minister Abul Fazal in dialogue with followers of various faiths and nationalities found in Abul Fazal’s Persian translation of Mahābhāratha—preserved in the University of Chicago. The dramatist inspired by this painting depicts a similar congregation in the first act of the play wherein he proclaims the new faith Din-i-Ilahi.
To suit the positive picturisation of Akbar—the storyline, which the author himself states to be ‘folklore’, has been suitably adapted to serve the demands of Sanskrit dramaturgy. The author explains in the prologue, in detail, the reason behind avoiding tragedy in the Sanskrit dramatic tradition.
The author justifies the choice of making Akbar the prime subject or the hero of the play by stating that India, from times of yore, has accommodated people from various countries and traditions—such as the Sakas, Hunas and Greeks, who had integrated themselves into the culture of the subcontinent and made it their own. It was Akbar who for the first time attempted to synthesise the various cultures and blew the conch of unity in diversity. Hence, it was apt to adopt him as the hero of the play that attempted to showcase the synthesis of cultures. According to Sanskrit dramatists, the realisation of rasa and happiness are the ultimate aims of the performance. Before the play actually begins, a benedictory verse called nandi is recited. It is meant for praying to the deity for the removal of all impediments that may arise during the performance of the play. In this play, Goddess Parvati, who was reborn as the daughter of Himavan, and who had won over Lord Shiva by her matchless penance, is prayed to. Nandi is followed by an introduction by the sutradhara (narrator). The prologue introduces the author and the play and announces the commencement of performance. The uniqueness of the plot is clearly spelt out in the prologue, for the author mentions that the play attempts to provide for the first time an experience of witnessing an Islamic theme in the Sanskrit language—written, adhering to the tenets of Sanskrit drama tradition. The prologue also alludes to the poet’s literary attainments, the occasion of production, the group of actors producing it and suggests the subject in the form of bija.
In the first act of the play, the audience is introduced to Akbar—a king who is striving to find a means for the peaceful co-existence of his subjects. He is equally concerned about the hate campaign against the Hindu majority, spreading from the minarets of the mosques. He rightly observes to his minister Abul Fazal that the only possible solution to this is the spread of education among the students, encompassing subjects that encourage logical thinking and rational temper along with the reading of religious texts.
Mention here is made of the punishment meted out to a Sunni maulvi Abdun Nabi for his crime against a Brahmin in Mathura. The king then goes on to list the nine gems who adorn his court—namely Abul Fazal, Abul Faizi, Abdur Rahim Khankhan, Mulla Dufiyasa, Abul Hassan, Hakim Human, Todarmall, Raja Mansingh, Tansen and Viravara (Birbal, as he is popularly known, is referred throughout in this play by his proper name). There is a congregation of religious leaders of all faiths at the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) in the palace and Akbar announces his new order, Din-i-Ilahi. He initiates Salim, Viravara, etc. into it. The act comes to a close with a soulful rendering of a verse espousing the oneness of all faiths and the creator.
The second act depicts the clear unhappiness of the Muslim clergy led by Abdul Khadir Badauni, against Akbar’s favouring the Hindus. There is also an incident depicting Viravara’s wit and humour for which he was renowned.
We are also informed about the various literary achievements made during Akbar’s reign. The various translations such as that of the Mathematical treatise Lilavati and spiritual classic Yoga Vasistha in Persian, and original compositions such as Surya Sahasranama at his behest, are mentioned. Akbar’s interest in painting is also espoused. Towards the end, we are introduced to Puņdarika Vittala, who is entrusted with the education of Anarkali in the art of Bharatanatyam dance. This introduction also paves the way to the understanding of Puņdarika's statement ‘akbaranŗparucyartham’ in his dance treatise Nartana Nirnaya. Following the line of Mālavikāgnimitram, wherein the nuances of dance are explained, here too there is a detailed exposition on the sastric tradition of music and dance. There is also a brief description of the differences in approach between Hindustani and Carnatic music traditions during the course of a dialogue between Akbar and Puņdarika.
The third act introduces Anarkali as the palace maid of Queen Man Bai, the daughter of King Bhagavaddas, and the wife of Salim. In the fourth act, the dramatist uses the story of the blossoming love between the crown prince, Salim (Jahangir), and the palace maid, Anarkali, to further develop the plot. The description of the beauty of nature finds a very unique position. The beautiful exchanges between the two in the palace garden, the rhyme in the words of their exchange are so beautifully portrayed that one is reminded of Kalidasa’s classical works such as Mālavikāgnimitram.
In the fifth act, we come across Rahim Khan, a friend of Salim, who does not approve of Salim’s interest in a palace maid. In coalition with Ismat Begam, who dreams of getting her daughter Meharunnisa married to Salim, Rahim Khan plots to foil the love of Salim and Anarkali. In the sixth act, we find a brief encounter of Anarkali and Salim, when she is sent by Queen Man Bai to his chambers. In the seventh act, we find that Rahim Khan tries to provoke Salim to rebel against Akbar for the throne and also for winning Anarkali, which otherwise both of them know would not be approved by Akbar. But Salim rejects the proposal and proceeds to the court to witness the dance recital of Anarkali.
Music and instruments also play an important role in this drama. Bharata says that the presentation is the union of song, instrument and action. The way a painting does not look beautiful without colours, drama without music is similarly incomplete. It is also stated that in a well-composed play—the music, orchestra, dialogue and action should flow in an unbroken sequence. In the eighth act, the dramatist here skillfully brings in the character of Puņdarika Vittala, the author of Rasamaňjarī (a treatise on Indian classical music). There is a dance performance by Anarkali at Akbar’s court, an incident having its parallel in Mālavikāgnimitra. Another important aspect of this dance scene is the introduction of Bharatanatyam style of dance in Akbar’s court through Puņdarika’s performance, which serves to be another instance of the synthesis of cultures. This inclusion plays a key role in the furtherance of the plot. The king is informed of the love between Salim and Anarkali during this dance recital by Rahim Khan. He brings to the king’s notice the slew exchange of glances between the two lovers and the hidden meaning behind the words employed in the verse sung by Anarkali. Angered by this impudence, Akbar orders the imprisonment of Anarkali, and her execution.
Even if tragedy is evidently absent in the play, tragic situations are developed with great skill. In the ninth act, the pathetic soliloquy of Anarkali is followed by her attempt to end her life by consuming poison stored in her ring. But this attempt too is thwarted by Akbar, who comes to the prison at the right time.
In the tenth act, we are informed of Akbar’s decision to revoke Anarkali’s death sentence, upon the request of Queen Man Bai. In a usual generosity exhibited by the devout Hindu wife of Sanskrit classics, she too accepts Anarkali and presents her to Salim on the occasion of his birthday. The performance of the play ends with a benedictory verse, bharatavakya, wishing the welfare of all. The author offers his prayers, through Tansen, to his chosen lord of Tiruvarur, Tyagaraja—for the social harmony and well-being of all living in India—and above all prays for everyone’s deliverance from the cycle of transmigration.
Through this monumental play, Anārkalī, Dr V. Raghavan delivers one of the finest pieces of Sanskrit literature without an iota of loss of its classical charm and values. Not just the stylisation, but also the harmonious integration of the various elements that define Indian culture—such as religion, language, fine arts, social fabric, etc.,—is emphasised without making the play sound preachy. The dramatist’s expression on the production of the play at the first International Sanskrit Conference, 1972, in New Delhi best sums it up:
A contemporary Sanskrit play which showed the living character of the language as a medium of creative expression today, the presentation of a Muhammedan story in Sanskrit and the over-all ideology of integration and harmony, all these made the production of Anārkalī most appropriate at a gathering at which scholars from every part of the world had assembled to place flowers at the altar of the supreme integrator, Sanskrit.
Raghavan, V. Anarkali. Madras: Samskrita Ranga, 1972.