Natya Shastra

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NĀTYA SHĀSTRA Nātya Shāstra (nātya, Sanskrit, "drama" + shāstra, Sanskrit, "treatise"), is one of the earliest Indian treatises on the varied aspects of drama, including important sections on dance and on music (particularly instrumental music) with passages on tuning, scales, modal patterns and functions, instrument types, performance techniques, and accompaniment styles. The core parts of the treatise are the work of the dramatist Bharata, who compiled them around the beginning of the first millennium of the common era. The work is probably a compendium of material by different authors, some of whom may predate Bharata, as he clearly describes a flourishing tradition that is already well developed. The Nātya Shāstra serves essentially as a manual on how to organize and to perform a drama, complete with passages on the characteristics of particular character types and their demeanor, how they move, and the music that should accompany them. As such, the work is perhaps the most important reference text on Indian musical practice in this era. The Nātya Shāstra continues to have importance today for musicians and scholars, some of whom reference contemporary practice with ancient models.

Musically, Bharata speaks of dhruva (Sanskrit, "fixed"), a category of song type that probably served both as a dramatic device to help establish and reinforce character and mood as well as a vehicle for commentary and diversion. Dhruva is one of the earliest Indian references to the notion that a listener might link sentiment and music. The principal melodic concept of this period of ancient Indian music was jāti (Sanskrit, "family"), a mode (that is, an identifiable pattern of notes in which some pitches are more important than others) set in a scale (mūrcchana). A mūrcchana, however, derives from either of two possible heptatonic and intonational parent scales: the shadjagrāma (a scale based on the note shadja) and the madhyama-grāma (a scale based on the note madhyama). The only difference between these two parent scales was the placement of a microtone, the shruti. The shruti (Sanskrit, shru, "to hear" or "that which is heard") is one of the most enigmatic ideas of this musical system. Bharata recognizes twenty-two possible microtonal divisions within an octave, although he does so in the context of mūrcchana. The distances between notes in a scale, consisting of intervals of three sizes—four, three, or two shrutis—formed the basis for ancient scales (most probably derived from the intonation patterns associated with Vedic chant). Later authors such as Venkatamakhi preserve the notion of shrutis in their systems, even if the implications of Bharata's musical system had not been in effect for well over a millennium. Modern musicians still use words such as shruti to describe their playing.

Gordon Thompson

See alsoBhajan ; Music ; Rāga


Bharata. The Natyasastra: English Translation with Critical Notes. Edited and translated by Adya Rangacharya. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1961.

Rowell, Lewis. Music and Musical Thought in Early India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.