Bhāsa is one of the earliest and most celebrated Indian playwrights in Sanskrit. However, very little is known about him.
Kālidāsa in the introduction to his first play Malavikagnimitram writes - Shall we neglect the works of such illustrious authors as Bhāsa, Saumilla, and Kaviputra? Can the audience feel any respect for the work of a modern poet, a Kālidāsa?
Bhāsa is dated between the 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE. Based on the language used, his date is also supposed to be around 5th century BC. The plays of Bhāsa had been lost for centuries. He was known only from mention in other works like the famous text on poetics Kavyamimamsa written during 880-920 AD by Rajashekhara a famous poet, dramatist and critic. In the Kavyamimamsa, he attributes the play Svapnavasavadatta to Bhāsa.
Discovery of his plays
In 1912, the Mahamahopadhyaya T. Ganapati Sastri came upon 13 Sanskrit plays at a nampoothiri home named Manalikkara Madom (present Kanyakumari District) that were used in the Koodiyattam plays. Unlike other classical plays, none of them mentioned the author, but one was the Swapnavāsavadatta. Comparing the style of writing and techniques employed in these plays and based on the knowledge that Swapnavāsavadatta was Bhāsa's work, all of them were credited to him. Some scholars have disputed Bhāsa's authorship of all the plays but over the years the plays have generally come to be ascribed to Bhāsa.
Plays of Bhāsa
Bhāsa does not follow all the dictates of the Natya Shastra. This has been taken as a proof of their antiquity; no post-Kālidāsa play has been found to break the rules of the Natya Shastra's. Bhāsa allows scenes that contain signs of physical violence to be shown on stage in plays like Urubhanga.This is strictly frowned upon by Natya Shastra.
The Uru-Bhanga and Karna-bhara are the only known tragic Sanskrit plays in ancient India. Though branded the villain of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is the actual hero in Uru-Bhanga shown repenting his past as he lies with his thighs crushed awaiting death. His relations with his family are shown with great pathos. The epic contains no reference to such repentance. The Karna-bhara ends with the premonitions of the sad end of Karna, another epic character from Mahabharata. Early plays in India, inspired by Natya Shastra, strictly considered sad endings inappropriate.
The plays are generally short compared to later playwrights and most of them draw the theme from the Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana.Though he is firmly on the side of the heroes of the epic, Bhāsa treats their opponents with great sympathy. He takes a lot of liberties with the story to achieve this. In the Pratima-nataka, Kaikeyi who is responsible for the tragic events in the Ramayana is shown as enduring the calumny of all so that a far noble end is achieved.
Plays based on Ramayana
- Pratima-nataka: The statues
- Abhisheka-natka: The coronation
Plays based on Mahabharata
- Panch-ratra: The five-nights
- Madhyama-vyayoga: The middle one
- Duta-Ghattotkacha: Ghattotkacha as envoy
- Duta-Vakya : The envoy's message
- Urubhanga: The broken thigh
- Karna-bhara: Karna's burden
- Harivamsa or Bala-charita: Hari's dynasty or the tale of Childhood
The Duta-Vakya and Bala-charita are perhaps the only Sanskrit plays by a famous playwright with Krishna as the central character.
His other plays are not epic based. Avimaraka is a fairy tale, which later became part of a Mani Kaul film, The Cloud Door (1994). The unfinished Daridra-Charudatta (Charudatta in poverty) tells the story of the courtesan Vasantasena and is interesting for the same story was developed by Śhudraka into the more famous Mrichakatika on which 1984 film, Utsav by Girish Karnad is based.
His most famous plays Pratijna-Yaugandharayana (the vow of Yaugandharayana) and Swapna-vasavadatta (Swapnavāsavadatta) (Vasavadatta in the dream) are based on the legends that had grown around the legendary King Udayana, probably a contemporary of the Buddha. The first play tells the story of how the king Udayana married the princess Vasavadatta (his first wife).The second play tells the story of how the king Udayana, with the help of his loyal minister Yaugandharayana, later married the princess Padmavati, a daughter of the king of Magadha, and thus made this king his ally rather than enemy.
Though his plays were discovered only in the 20th century, two of them Uru-Bhanga and Karna-bhara, have become popular due to their appeal to modern tastes and performed in translation and Sanskrit.
Many of Bhasa's plays are staged in Koodiyattams even now, like parts of Pratijna-Yaugandharayana,Abhisheka-nataka etc.
The first person to revive Bhasa in modern Indian theatre was a Professor of Ancient Indian Drama at National School of Drama, and theatre director, Shanta Gandhi, who first directed productions of Madhyamavyayoga (1966) (The Middle One) and Urubhanga (The Broken Thigh) in Hindi. A decade later, his work was approached by playwright Kavalam Narayan Panikkar and theatre director, Ratan Thiyam using Manipuri dance and theatre traditions, and traditional martial art of Thang-Ta, who first performed Karna-bhara (Karna's burden) in 1976, and later Urubhanga.
The legendary Natyasastra scholar and Koodiyattam maestro Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar choreographed and started to perform Swapnavāsadatta and Pancharātra for the first time in the history of Koodiyattam.
Swapnavasavadatta was produced in Marathi by Panaji(Goa) based theatre group;Prabhakar Sanskritik Sanstha in the year 2003 & was presented as per the conventions of the Natyashastra.The play was scripted & directed by Anagha Deshpande while the production was designed by Saish Deshpande.A separate Poorvarang was also designed.
- Thirteen Trivandrum plays ascribed to Bhāsa( 2 Vols), translated by H.C.Woolner, Lakshman Sarup, 193
- Māni Mādhava Chākyār (1975), Nātyakalpadruma, Kerala Kalamandalam, Vallathol Nagar
- Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava (2005). Theatres of independence: drama, theory, and urban performance in India since 1947. University of Iowa Press. ISBN 0-87745-961-4.
- Encyclopaedia of Indian Theatre: Bhasa, by Biswajit Sinha, Ashok Kumar Choudhury. Raj Publications, 2000. ISBN 81-86208-11-9.
- A.D. Pusalker : Bhasa - a study. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi, India 1968
- V. Venkatachalam : Bhasa (A monograph in the ‘Indian Men of Letter Series’), Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1986; Second Edn. 1994; (pp. 16+192) (Translated into Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada and Telugu-Pub. By Sahitya Akademi)