Language in Theatre

January 24, 2017 § Leave a comment

My maiden venture into writing plays started with ‘Rains’  and it was all about the psychological conflicts in an upper middle-class family , centering round father, daughter and son. There is a fourth character, who is outside the family, a doctor. It is common in such western-educated families in Tamilnadu, while discussing things or issues, English is liberally used in conversation. While writing the play, I wanted to keep the natural flow of arguments and as such, I did not attempt to translate the common English words used on such occasions into Tamil. I thought the dialogue would lose its natural stream and look artificial. One of my friends, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, remarked that he liked the play and that  he  would like to translate it into Tamil..

One thing striking about the ancient Sanskrit theatre is the multi-lingual character, a feature one cannot find in any other language play in the world in the past or in the present.  Though, for conventional reasons, a play by Kalidasa is classified as a Sanskrit drama, many of the characters may be speaking different dialects   befitting their station in the society. There are rules and regulations spelt out in the manual for theatre ‘Natya Sastra’)  in regard to the language of the dialogue  of the characters, which are  in  strict relation their social rank.

Dramatic persons of the higher and middling status such as kings, Brahmins, officers  of royalty, army generals  and high-bred persons speak Sanskrit, the language of the elite.. The rest of them, including   women both of higher and lower birth , irrespective of the fact whether they are queens and princesses, speak Prakrit.

Prakrit (Skt.’Prakrta’)  appears to have been derived from ‘prakrti’, which  means ‘common folks’.  Sanskrit , which means ‘ cultivated’ was the language  of literature and for theatrical usage spoken by the high and mighty, excluding all women, who apparently did not belong to that classification, according to our ancients. But Queens and royal courtesans could converse in Sanskrit in exceptional circumstances.

As ‘Prakrti’ also means ‘original’, some argue that the spoken language of all sections of the people was Prakrit , which does not denote a single language as such but refers to the  various  dialects  spread over a vast area of the country. But this excludes   the dialects ‘Barbaras’(‘Milechas’), Kiratas, Andhras and Dramidas(Tamil)  as ‘Natya Sastra clearly stipulated these languages did  not belong to the Prakrit family and as such forbidden to be spoken in a Sanskrit play. The reason could be, the spectators of a Sanskrit play might be able to understand the kindred dialects(Prakrit) of the Sanskrit family, spoken by the lesser mortals but they  would be all at sea, when non-Sanskritic  dialogues  in tongues belonging to a different group of languages , were delivered.

The allocation of Prakrit dialects to females and lower male characters may be regarded as an attempt at  giving the drama a realistic touch.’ But if a spoken language is used in as a literary medium, it cannot evidently retain its volatile character, but needs to be controlled by  a code of binding rules’, according  to Natya Sastra . This has, perhaps, led to stylization of the dialogues in Prakrit in the Sanskrit theatre. We see this reflected also in our own ‘Therukoothu’,  where, not only acting styles but also dialogues and their delivery are highly stylized. In this rural form of Tamil theatre, the main male characters may be seen speaking a  Sanskritized (mispronounced) form  of  Tamil,  and the rest of them  speaking spoken Tamil  with an artificial intonation, perhaps, to give them the creditability of a ‘literary stature’.

The first modern Tamil play ‘Pratapachandra Vilasam’ ( 1879)  by Ramaswamy Raju  written for the proscenium stage but never performed,  has characters speaking Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu, English and Urdu, befitting their station  and regional  nativity.  Considering the composition of this play, one can find it strictly conforms to all the rules and regulations spelt out for theatre  in ‘Natya Sastra’  .

One advantage in Sanskrit theatre is that the acting, miming and improvisation  play such a significant part, that following the dialogue is not such a big deal. Natya Sastra has allowed a large number of Prakrit dialects, belonging to the Devanagri group  in a Sanskrit play,  that if one reads  a drama by Kalidasa  in Sanskrit,  the dialects spoken  by different characters (according to their social status)  in that play, are no distraction. Moreover, Kalidasa  like Shakespeare, is a poet  of words, which also ‘act’, in the sense, they can be aesthetically and visually experienced.








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