Bhasa: A Literary Rebel of the Ancient World

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    In 1912, the discovery of a codex of palm leaf manuscripts in a small town in Kerala set off a sensation in the Indian literary world. It would be described by commentators and scholars as "the most important event in 20th century Sanskrit literary scholarship". And this discovery was connected with someone called ‘Bhasa’, a name unknown to most Indians.

    Mahakavi Kalidas (5th century CE), Ban-Bhatta (7th century CE) and Dandin (8th century CE) are some of the big names in the world of ancient classical Sanskrit literature. But all these literary giants revered one man as one of the greatest kavis (poets) of all time. This was Bhasa, one of the most elusive and enigmatic poets of ancient India.

    Bhasa remained a mystery for so long because, except for references in the works of ancient Indian greats, none of his plays were believed to have survived the vagaries of time. Only his memory lingers in the pages of several plays by writers spanning 15-20 centuries or more. We know nothing of the time or place that he lived in, or the story of his life. And still, Bhasa is one of the most celebrated, discussed and inspiring literary giants of ancient India.

    Bhasa is the one who inspired Mahakavi Kalidas (5th century CE), as he mentions him in the preface of his play Malavika-Agnimitra. 10th-century playwright Rajshekhar, the creator of Sanskrit dramas like Bal-Ramayan, BalBharat and Karpoor Manjiri refers to Bhasa and his Natak-Chakra (Circle of Plays). Ban-Bhatt, the famous creator of Kadambari– a Sanskrit romantic novel dating to the 7th century CE, mentions Bhasa with great reverence.

    10th century CE writer Vakpati also refers to Bhasa as the “greatest of playwrights ever”. Renowned 8th century CE Sanskrit Grammarian, Dandi, of the famous Dash Kumar Charit, mentions Bhasa. So, we have generations of playwrights referring to Bhasa with great respect, names of his plays are mentioned in their own works, and some have even included a few lines from Bhasa’s plays to make a point. Such is the legacy of Bhasa, the elusive poet-author!

    A Series of Discoveries

    10th century CE Sanskrit dramatist and critic Rajashekhara, in his work Kavyamimansa (A Guide for Poets to Compose Poems), referred to Bhasa having written a play titled SwapnaVasavdatta (स्वप्नवासवदत्ता) or ‘Vasavdutta’s Dream’. It was an intriguing tale of love, deception and courage but only fragments of it were known to have survived till the 20th century in various libraries across India.

    In 1905, Pant Anadalvar of the Mysore Archaeology Department discovered a palm leaf manuscript in the collections of the Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras (now Chennai). It was a complete version of SwapnaVasavdatta. This triggered a flurry of activity among historians and Sanskrit scholars to discover more.

    In 1912, another, and even more sensational, discovery was made in a corner of Padmanabhapuram, the old capital of the princely state of Travancore. Renowned Sanskrit scholar, Mahamahopadhyaya T Ganapatishastri (1860–1926) found a treasure trove of palm leaf manuscripts in which along with SwapnaVasavadatta, was a set of 13 plays written by an unnamed author. These were Sanskrit plays written in the Malayalam script.

    After intensive study and research, Ganapatishastri concluded that all the plays were those of Bhasa. The discovery sent shockwaves across the Sanskrit literary world and a new chapter of Indian literature was uncovered.

    So how did Ganapatishastri conclude that these works were those of the famous Bhasa?

    Prose and Structure of his Work

    The explanation is a little technical and involves the nuances of ancient classical Sanskrit literature, which is replete with the ‘Natya’ type of literature. This is non-prose, poetic verse and is studded with Sanskrit ‘Alankar’, depicting a story. Often taken from the Puranas or the Mahabharata, the poet-author creates his own world with his own prowess and command over the language, enthralling readers by keeping them engaged in the storyline.

    Apart from Kalidas, there are many celebrated literary greats such as Magh, Bharavi and Shreeharsha who created lasting impressions with their works. The most important among them was Mruchhkatik or ‘An Earthen Cart’ by Shudrak, supposedly the oldest surviving play in Indian literature dating to the 3rd century CE.

    Another important milestone is the Natya-Shastra by Bharat Muni dated to around the 2nd-3rd century BCE. It is a comprehensive treatise on all the performing arts including drama, dance and music. The greatest contribution of Natya-Shastra is the introduction of the concept of ‘Rasa’ (Shringar, Hasya etc) and ‘Bhav’ and their inter-relationship.

    Bharat Muni has elaborated on different types of ‘Natya’ and laid down rules of creation, depiction and performance. These rules touch upon various aspects such as the use of Prakrit and Sanskrit, breaking down a play in terms of acts or guidelines or showing certain events such as war or procession in a drama.

    Natya-Shastra codified the rules of drama and dance and was followed by all classical writers over the centuries in their plays.

    As generations of Sanskrit poets and writers had eulogised Bhasa, they had mentioned certain characteristics of his writing style in their works. For example, he would start every play with the statement ‘ नान्द्यन्ते तत: प्रविशति सूत्रधार ‘ . Another commonality is the anchor delivering a shloka which had the names of all his characters woven in. All the plays would end with same final statement (भरत वाक्य) (‘Bharat Vakya’). Studying such similarities, Ganapatishastri concluded that these plays belonged to none other than Bhasa.

    A Literary Non-Conformist

    Once we look at the subjects handled, and the treatment given to these 13 plays found at Padmanabhapuram, it is not difficult to be impressed by the intellect and talent of this almost forgotten literary heavyweight. Pratima(प्रतिमा) and Abhishek(अभिषेक) are based on the Ramayan. Panchratra(पंचरात्र), Urubhang(ऊरूभंग), Karnabhar(कर्णभार), Dootvakya(दूतवाक्य), DootGhatotkach(दूतघटोत्कच) and Madhyam-Vyayog(मध्यमव्यायोग) are inspired by the Mahabharata. Bal Charit(बाल-चरित) is based on the childhood of Shrikrishna. Pratidnya-Yougandhrayan(प्रतिज्ञायौगंधरायण) and Swapna Vasavdatta(स्वप्नवासवदत्ता) are possibly true stories, their kernel also seen in Brihtkatha. Avimarak(अविमारक) and Charudatta(चारुदत्त) are Bhasa’s original works.

    Bhasa comes across as a non-conforming playwright with novel ideas and a fertile imagination. His plays, usually based on the Mahabharata, take the germ of the story from an incident in the epic, which he gives an imaginative twist and creates a masterpiece, each time.

    The play Karnabhar is about Kunti and Karna; Urubhang is about Duryodhan in his last days with his thighs broken; and Madhyam Vyayog is about the love story of Bhim and Hidimba. Bhasa also takes poetic liberties and changes the course of events and creates another world. In Pratima-Natak, he displays a side of Kaikeyi and her justification for exiling Ram. Panchratra has him change the course of events in the epic and he makes Duryodhan give way to the Pandavas’ demand and avoids war.

    ‘Swapna-Vasavdatta’ is about Vasavdatta, daughter of king Pradyot of Ujjaini falling in love with King Udayan of Vatsa country, while he taught her how to play the veena. But then Udayan had to marry Ratnavali for political reasons, but he cannot forget Vasavdatta. The play is about Vasavdatta’s dreams and Udayan’s pursuit to unite with his true love.

    ‘Pratindya-Youghandrayan’ is about a minister of the same king Udayan who helps Udayan escape the custody of Pradyot and makes him marry the princess of Magadha to consolidate his position in the political arena. It is important to note that Udayan and Pradyot are historical figures and their time coincides with that of the Buddhist era which is the Fifth century BCE.

    Charudutt is about Charudutt and Vasantsena, a gold-hearted ganika or prostitute. This story was further developed in Mruchhkatik or ‘An Earthen Cart’, one of the oldest and most important Sanskrit plays in India.

    Bhasa is a rebel. He dared to show what was traditionally unacceptable. He dared to deviate from what Bharat Muni advised as classical Natya. For example, defying the rules of Natya-Shastra, he showed death on stage. He showed war and violence and hunting on stage, supposed to be taboo. He even showed his characters sleeping on the stage, which Bharat Muni had warned against in Natya-Shastra.

    According to tradition, Bhasa is said to have been a Brahmin and a devotee of Vishnu. One of Bhasa’s plays (Pratima) refers to ‘Devkul’. Scholars think this is a reference to a temple. Bhasa refers to a certain king named ‘Rajsimha’, whose kingdom extended from the Himalaya to the Vindhya.

    But to what period does Bhasa belong?

    He is praised by Kalidas, so he must have lived before the 4th-5th century CE. Bhasa’s play Charudutt is original and hence he would have to predate Shudrak, which is before the 3rd century CE. Bhasa has never really followed Bharata’s Natya-Shastra rules, so in all probability, he existed before the Natya-Shasta was written.

    The manuscripts discovered by T Ganapatishastri are preserved in the Manuscript Library at the Government Sanskrit College, Tripunithura, in Kochi, Kerala. Bhasa is still quite a mystery and we can only that more evidence of the celebrated dramatist comes to light so that we can fully appreciate his genius.


    Manisha Chitale is a Pune-based senior-level IT professional with a keen interest and a Masters degree in Ancient Indian History.
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