Tag Archives: Art

Kolam — Computing and Cosmology within Indian Art

copyright: Indicportal.org

Kolams are curved line patterns drawn by the women of Tamil Nadu every morning in front of their houses after sprinkling water and cleaning the ground. Traditionally, this is done using rice flour and is not intended to be a permanent design. Over the day, birds, ants, and tiny insects feed on it, and the wind and footsteps disturb it. The Kolam is disturbed and eventually erased, and the whole cycle is repeated the next day, and the Kolam is reborn.

Kolam patterns are quite fascinating and have caught the attention of researchers worldwide. ‘Ethnographers’ study the Kolam and compare it to ancient designs from other world cultures, while scientists seek to better understand the computing, linguistic, and mathematical rules embedded within these ‘mysterious’ curved lines. Many admire the aesthetic aspect of this female artistic expression. Some are moved to poetry. But it is the Indian woman, from vegetable vendor to ISRO rocket engineer, who have actually practiced and kept the tradition of Kolam alive across centuries. They are connecting with the sacred and the auspicious while creating a new Kolam in front of their home to start off another busy day.

Here are a couple of beautiful Kolam websites that you must visit. Kolams can be done in a variety of different ways. They can be something really simple that takes only a couple of minutes, or they can turn into serious art projects like the one shown in this video below.

In other regions of India, Kolam, especially with colors (e.g. see above video) is known as RangoliRangavalli, etc.  Each region has its own distinct version of Kolam or Rangoli. An incomplete list is provided below [1].

  • Muggulu (Muggu): Andhra
  • Alpana: Bengal
  • Puvidal: Kerala
  • Chowkpurna: Madhya Pradesh
  • Rangoli: Maharashtra, Karnataka
  • Mandana: Rajasthan
  • Kolam: Tamil Nadu
  • Sanjhi: Uttar Pradesh

Women artists in each of these Indian states create Kolam themes that are distinctive and reflective of their regional culture. However, one cannot fail to notice the commonality and consonance between the Rangoli patterns spread all across India, exemplifying India’s unity in diversity.  In southern India, Kolams are often drawn daily, while in other places, women may choose to do so during festive occasions.  There are also Kolam variations within any given region. For example, in Tamil Nadu, we have Pulli (dot) Kolam, Padi Kolam, etc.  Here is a video of a step-by-step construction of a Padi Kolam.

The Kolam structure naturally lends itself to a rich artistic expression. Indeed, the word ‘Kolam’ itself suggests ‘beauty’. It has certain fascinating mathematical properties, as well as a sacred cosmology associated with its construction. Let’s look at all these ideas after a brief review of its history

History of Kolam

Creating paintings on a natural surface has a really ancient history in India, as evidenced by the Bhimbetka frescoes that are at least 15, 000 years old.  This news article [2] talks about the use of Rangoli in the Mahabharata while another forum mentions the design in the Ramayana. Other floor designs, such as the endearing floor drawing of the footprints of little Krishna walking into the house during Janmashtami are well known in Indian tradition. One of the 64 arts mentioned in ancient India is तण्डुलकुसुमवलिविकाराः , i.e. Tandula (rice) Kusumavali (array of flowers), Vikara (transformation).  This is an art form of organizing an offering of rice and flowers. Rangoli appears to be an instance of this art form. Rangoli is mentioned in the Chitralakshana [3], one of the oldest Indian treatises on paintings, attesting to its ancient origins. In Tamil Nadu, Kolam floor designs were popular during the Chola rule [4].

An article summarizing the amazing work of Dr. Gift Siromoney, a pioneer of Kolam research, comments on the historicity of the Kolam patterns in Tamil literature [5]: “Contrary to popular belief, the common threshold patterns are not very ancient. The practice of decorating the floor may go back to about six hundred years and not more. A few designs may be traced to the Jain temples of South Kanara and at least one to Mahayana Buddhism“. The first conclusion is incorrect. While it may be possible that the usage of the word ‘Kolam’ in Tamil to denote these sacred designs may have been no earlier than 16th century, the actual practice of such floor drawings in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India is ancient, as mentioned earlier. The author is quite right in his second observation that the sacred practice of Kolam is common to all three dharmic systems of India.

Another interesting point mentioned here is that: “To save time in “drawing” the Kolam, many women use devices such as perforated rolling tubes and perforated trays“. We find that attempts to automate Kolam generation were made several decades ago. Of course, such a mechanical device would reproduce a single pattern.

The global research community appears to have noticed the Kolam of Tamil Nadu in 1929 via the work of Mrs. Gnana Durai [3].

Mrs. Durai’s note (source: jstor.org)

A few years later, American anthropologist Layard published a detailed treatise [4] that has been cited extensively. More recent studies done by researchers have covered a wide range of areas including art, computer science, math, sociology, etc.

Kolam Computing

Dr. Gift Siromoney at Madras Christian College co-authored a series of articles on Kolam in the 1970s-80s [5] by analyzing Kolam patterns as a ‘picture language’ in the context of computer graphics, image processing, and theoretical computer science topics. Dr. Siromoney was by all accounts, a remarkable multi-talented personality. His key contributions include:

  • A systematic analysis of Kolam that breaks down the construction of any complex design into a finite sequence of simple ‘Kolam moves’, which remains a key idea in Kolam pattern research even today. Based on this analysis, he was able to develop one of the earliest computer programs that could generate multiple Kolam designs.
  • Identifying the initial placement of Pullis (dots) to create a grid as a key facilitating step toward rapid Kolam creation.
  • A method to determine whether a given Kolam pattern is made up of a single curve (kambi) or multiple lines (multi kambi). He showed how single-line Kolams could be transformed into multi-line Kolams and vice versa, using certain elementary operations that are also noted in Circular DNA Splicing Theory (!). We also note here the single-kambi Kolam connection to an Eulerian graph.
  • Experiments that empirically demonstrate that Kolam creation requires skill that can be learned and improved via experience. Seasoned Kolam practitioners were able to store, recall, and more quickly create sophisticated patterns compared to novices.
  • Determining that a Kolam practitioner’s skill level had little correlation with their attained level of academic education.

After the pioneering work of Siromoney, a variety of western and Japanese research contributions were published. One of the common goals was the design and analysis of algorithms that could efficiently generate a variety of Kolam patterns. Innovative ideas from math topics ranging from knot theory to topology were employed to come up with methods for generating valid Kolam patterns. Some others tried to enumerate the number of single-kambi Kolam combinations possible for a given number of dots in a grid (not surprisingly, they grow exponentially).

Since the earliest works, several researchers have remarked on the ‘endless lines’ within some Kolams, which we discuss in the next section. Contemporary research is also trying to better understand how single-strand Kolam patterns can be encoded via a ‘sequential language’, i.e. the sequence of gestures employed by Kolam creators.  Recently (2011), researchers at SASTRA university in Thanjavur patented a steganographic  method  (encrypting and transmitting data using an image or pattern), using a pulli Kolam. Note that FIG 2. below resembles a single kambi Kolam. There may also be beneficial applications in the analysis of the Traveling Salesman Problem, a famously difficult problem in Computational Complexity Theory. Clearly, we have a long way to go before we fully decode its magic.

source: google.com (USPTO)

Whereas the western approach to art, science, and math is based on a separate and independent existence of the material and the transcendental world, the Indian approach sees no such dichotomy. Indian art, including Kolam, is rooted in a sacred cosmology, which we examine next.

Cosmology of the Sacred Kolam

Why do Tamil women draw Kolams daily at the threshold of their homes? Why not do something else?

This informative article poses such questions and provides an explanation from a western universal perspective. I present an alternative point of view from my Indian perspective. The linked article also has a nice discussion of the significance of a Kolam’s location at the point of entry into a home. It is clear from this discussion, as well as the history of Rangoli, that these designs involve a sacred transcendental dimension.  In Itihasa [1], Rangolis were drawn by the Gopis anxiously awaiting the return of their beloved Krishna, and by the joyous citizens of Ayodhya in anticipation of Rama’s return. Why did they do it?

We can see from Dr. Siromoney’s research, that 16th and 17th century Tamil works record Kolams being drawn prior to a puja invoking Ganapati, the deity who is a remover of obstacles. Today, Kolam drawing in front of their houses remains an integral part of daily life for many Indians, and is also a part of sacred Hindu festivals across India. A deeper understanding of Kolam (and Indian art in general) can be obtained via the traditional Indian approach that views art, science, etc. as not merely secular aesthetic-intellectual subjects, but also as a link to the sacred realm and worthy of reverence. We can recall that the Ganita genius Srinivasa Ramanujan employed this approach while generating truly astonishing results.

From an Indian perspective, we can find not one but several key dharmic ideas embedded within the observations made by various researchers about Kolam. We discuss some of them here.

  1. Order and Chaos: The harmonious existence of a Kolam and nature within an endless cycle; a gradual dissolution into chaos followed by an equally inevitable restoration of order the next day. Furthermore, there exists within the seemingly complicated ‘spaghetti’ patterns, some really simple and orderly moves that generate them.
  2. Recursion: for e.g., the fractals identified in the kolam [10]
    • Fractal Kolam: The Anklets of Krishna (source: math.yale.edu)
  3. The idealized Kolam: a single, unbroken line used to create the entire kolam
  4. The embodied skill required to recall and create complex Kolam designs

The reader is referred to [8] to better understand the first idea. As far as the second concept, many have observed a recursive generating rule pervading Indian art. A similar inductive approach is apparent in various fields such as Sanskrit Grammar (Paninian rules), and Ganita (e.g., Pingala‘s Mount Meru, Hemachandra series, etc.). For example, consider the Hindu representation of the cosmos as the Sri Yantra, which clearly exhibits this recursion. Here’s a simple DIY Sri Yantra Kolam.

Sri Yantra (source: sutrajournal.com)

The third feature suggests dharma’s integral unity:  the externally visible plurality of designs in a single-strand Kolam have no independent existence of their own, but exist within and as a single line (cycle) that has no beginning and end. This also represents the cosmological idea of a Brahma Mudichchu, or Brahma’s knot. Dr. Siromoney travel notes mention that “The South Canara district of Mysore region is studded with Jain temples and each temple has an ornamental flag-staff or dhvaja stambha. The Thousand Pillared Basti at Mudabidare built in the fifteenth century has many ornamental pillars. In some of the pillars there are some complicated designs similar to the Kolam patterns made of unending lines….The unending lines are clearly depicted showing a line superimposed and going over another line at the crossings..” Note that idea of integral unity is common to Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist dharma traditions. In fact, it appears that the Buddha may have been an expert at this art.

Today, multiple independent lines are often used to quickly complete Kolams that become too complex to be completed using a single line. However, mathematicians have been able to recreate elaborate integral Kolam instances (e.g. Pavithram (sacred) is the term used to denote kolams that have ‘never-ending lines’. See the Pavithram design below from [9]) by employing the principles of symmetry and recursion. Similarly, in Indian art, reconstruction of lost art traditions (actual examples include classical dance and poetry) is achieved via the resemblance principle of bandhu. In [8] we learn that “integral unity is not expressed only in terms of divinity and devotion; transcendence to such a state is also available through art. Since time immemorial in India, art has been a way to connect the manifest and the un-manifest, evoking through form the experience that is beyond form.

Brahma Mudi

This cosmic knot is not only present in Kolams. The knot that binds the three sacred threads (‘Poonal’ in  Tamil), as well as the joining together of the ends of the garments of the bride and groom during a Hindu marriage ceremony symbolizing their seamless and unending union, are other instances of a Brahma Mudichchu.  The Brahma knot is also present as the deep and sacred Yogic concept of Brahma Granthi in Kundalini Yoga.

A simple answer to the question of ‘why Kolam?’ is ‘why not Kolam’? All Indian art traditions seek to connect with the sacred transcendental and the Kolam is no exception. This reverence has a practical impact. Traditions rooted in sacred practice endure, while those that exclusively rely on the aesthetic or the intellectual become ephemera.  Our closing discussion on the fourth and final point shows how sacred Indian practices such as Kolam are preserved and transmitted.

Here is an interesting statement by a Japanese researcher praising the knowledge of Kolam practitioners [11]: “In southern India, there are many great female mathematicians who solve a complicated line pattern every morning, with white rice powder on the ground. The pattern is drawn around a grid pattern of dots so that the lines minimally encircle each dot, which is so called “Kolam” pattern in Tamil.”

Dr. Siromoney was able to practically demonstrate that a Kolam practitioner’s skill is an outcome of what we recognize today as the important Indic tradition of embodied knowing [8]. Dr. Siromoney’s experiments show: “… Expertise in Kolam drawing is, thus of the nature of a skill and exhibits all the attributes that psychologists associate with skill-acquisition and performance.” However, immediately after saying this, the article concludes that “Although the performance of this skill results in products (i.e., Kolam patterns) that possess complex grammatical properties, the practitioners of the skill are themselves unaware of this fact since a large proportion of the practitioners are nonliterate.”

This conclusion can now be recognized as inaccurate. Such decisive dismissals have been repeated by several western researchers, who, after using sophisticated instrumentation to record the amazing results achieved in Yoga and transcendental meditation by Hindu and Buddhist Yogis and monks, labeled them as eastern ‘mystics’ [8], in direct contrast to academy-trained ‘scientists’. Even Srinivasa Ramanujan was not spared since he did not provide a deductive proof for his results. Later, of course, almost all his results were proven by western researchers to be true to their satisfaction.

This confusion can be resolved when we understand that embodied knowing does not require literacy [8] or knowledge of scriptural text, and can be systematically accessed and transmitted in-person from Guru to Sishya, and mother to daughter. This is exactly how Sangeetam and Nrityam (traditional Indian music and dance) is taught via repeated demonstration-replication, where no dance-move textbook or musical score sheet is essential. Arguably, the depth of awareness, knowledge and skill acquired via embodied learning may be more than that achieved by tunneling through mountains of text.

Embodied knowing also democratizes and decentralizes the transmission and reception of knowledge. In fact, it appears that India’s scientific and technical prowess since ancient times until the 1700s was a result of the embodied knowing traditions being passed down from generation to generation by its artisans and engineering communities [8]. The assumption that text-parsing ability is vital to acquiring the deepest knowledge appears to be more typical of Abrahamic tradition, which has been internalized by both secular and religious scholars trained in western academia.

If you haven’t done so before, draw a Kolam at home and teach your kids. Let us rediscover this beautiful Indian tradition, and bring the sacred right to our doorstep and connect to infinity, and beyond! 

  1. Pongal Kolam. http://www.pongalfestival.org/pongal-kolam.html (2016).
  2. Colourful Tradition http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2003/01/07/stories/2003010700050200.htm (2003).
  3. Rangoli History. http://www.rangolidesign.net/rangoli-history.html. 2014.
  4. Explorations in Applied Geography, edited by Ashok K. Dutt et al. PHI Learning, New Delhi. (2008)
  5. Dr. Gift Siromoney’s work on Kolam. http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Kolam.htm. T. Robinson.
  6. Preliminary note on geometrical diagrams (kolam) from the Madras Presidency. H. G. Durai,  Man, Vol 77  (1929)
  7. Labyrinth Ritual in Southern India. John Layard. Folklore, Vol 158 (1937).
  8. Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins India. 2011.
  9. Reconstruction and extension of lost symmetries: Examples from the Tamil of South India. P. Gerdes,  Computers & Mathematics with Applications, Vol 12 (1989).
  10. Thinking in Patterns: Fractals and Related Phenomena in Nature. By Benoit B. Mandelbrot, edited by Miroslav Michal Novak World Scientific Pub Co Inc. (2004).
  11. Solving Infinite Kolam in Knot Theory. Yukitaka Ishimoto. Computing Research Repository(2007).

Disclaimer: This article represents the opinions of the Author, and should not be considered a reflection of the views of the Indic Civilizational Portal. The Author is responsible for ensuring the factual veracity of the content, herein.

Classical Indic Literature III: Dramatics

rp_basis1.pngPranamya sirasa devau pitamaha-mahesvarau | natyasastram pravaksyami brahmanaya dudahrtam || NS 1.1

With a bow to Brahma and Siva I shall expound the Canons of Drama, as these were uttered by Brahma.

While the soul of our culture and civilization is Dharma, the body of it verily is the arts—the alankara of culture. Perhaps no extant text more deserves the title of “Fountain of the Arts” than that masterpiece by Bharata Mahamuni: Natya Sastra. This article is, therefore, a proper introduction to both it, and its composer.

Natya Sastra is an expansive text that deals with a variety of topics such as Nrtya (Dance), Chitra (Painting ), Silpa (Sculpture), Vaastu (Architecture),  Kavya (Poetry ) all under the umbrella of  Natya (Performance Arts or Histrionics).  Due to its originations of such concepts as Rasa, it is referred to as a work on Aesthetics and Beauty as well. Those of you who are long time readers would recall our articles on Classical Indic Literature. We previously dealt with Literary Theory (Saahithyalochana) and Poetics (Alankara Sastra or Kavya Sastra). This article will continue that series started over at Andhra Cultural Portal with Classical Indic Literature III: Dramatics (Nataka Sastra). It will focus more on the literary aspects of the illustrious work as well as its direct applications for literature (drama in particular), leaving performance aspects for another time.



It is said that ” No activity in a Society can remain unaffected by the Philosophy of that Society, be it a literary, or social or cultural or scientific activity.” [3, 1]  The elite Literature of Bharat, Saastriya Saahitya, is no different.  An important note: “the recent use of the term sastra as adjective, sastriya nrtya or sangita, it suggests quality of performance, sometimes genre, with an implied translation of the term ‘classical’ in English, as a qualitivative and not historical period category.” [1,43] Thus, our heritage is very old, but very much alive, and rather than secular, is sacred in nature. While our tradition maintains that Dharmic Civilization’s musical and theatrical canons originate with the Saama Veda (the fourth of the Vedas–the other three being the Rig, Yajur, and Atharva), and “[a] re-reading of the Upanisads is convincing proof of the concrete imagery of the senses, the sense perceptions and sense objects of these highly abstract metaphysical texts”[1, 54], India’s first great known treatise specifically on these canons is the Natya Sastra.

The origin of Classical Indian literary theory, as such, is traced to the Sanskrit treatise of Rishi Bharata. Natya translates to the performance arts (Histrionics). Conservatively dated to 200 B.C.E, but very likely much earlier,”[i]ts comprehensive treatment of artistic experience, expression and communication, content and form emerges from an integral vision which flowers as a many-branched tree of all the Indian arts”. [1]

Considered the earliest extant work on Dramaturgy, Natya Sastra is most famous for Bharata Muni’s rasa theory, and its pervasiveness in not only dance and music, but literature as well. He has sanctioned the use of all the rasas without reservation (NS, 19.147).

Not much is known about the author himself. There are several legends associated with him. There is strong reason to believe, however, that  Bharata Muni hailed from Kashmir.

The Natya Sastra in fact touches on the life of the great Sage ever so briefly. It mentions that he had 100 sons. They are said to have misused their skills and capacities to ridicule sages and other such dharmic personages (something very common even today).  They are therefore cursed by rishis who say, ‘as due to pride in your knowledge (jnana)  you have taken to arrogance (avinaya), your ill knowledge (kujnana) will be destroyed’ [1,9]. This is an appropriate warning not only to those who take interest in learning the fine arts, but also those today who have grown arrogant of their knowledge, and are misusing it for their own ends.

“Bharata’s initial statement that ‘I am creating a theory and text of performance, of practice and experimentation’ acquires crucial importance. The composer of the text consciously creates a fluid text. He calls it a sastra of prayoga i.e. a theory of praxis.”[1,38]

An important point is that “sastra is distinguished in literature and the arts as being a category distinct from the creative. While in the English language, we can easily use the terms ‘creative and critical literature’, ‘creative and technical literature’, when the terms are transferred to the sphere of the Indian, for that matter, the Asia arts, there is difficulty. “[1,40]

What’s more, artificial separateness does not characterise Bharata or the Indic tradition. There is a clear interrelationship between all the various artforms. “The  themes which the Indian dancer portrays are not only the raw material of literature, but are also the finished products of literary creation; the music which seems to accompany the dance is actually the life-breath of its structure and, indeed, dance interprets in movement what music interprets in sound; the postures and the stances it attains are the poses which the sculptor models; all these the dancer imbues with a living spirit of movement in a composition of form which is both sensuous and spiritual. The body is the medium to transcend the ‘body’. [1,112]

As such, teleology again becomes important. The sophisticated audience or refined reader (sahrdaya) recognises that each movement, each word, even each omission is filled with meaning and symbology. Therefore, merely dividing and subdividing to attempt to fathom is merely learning more and more about less and less. To gain a proper understanding, an holistic and systemic approach is required to understand what is very clearly an intentional methodology. All this was done with a specific design. It was not art for the sake of art or poetry for the sake of debauchery, but a system of aesthetics designed to not only be transcendant, but to transcend.

“Bharata had inherited a ‘vision’; he gave it form as concepts and framework. The creative artist, in turn, internalized the vision of the inner and outer life he had experienced. The principles of structure enumerated by Bharata were inherited directly or assimilated as part of a larger ambience, gave the artist the tools for creating a variegated world of ‘forms’ and multiple forms only to evoke the beyond form (pararupa).”[1,112]


How old exactly is Bharata Mahamuni and his Great Tradition? According to Manomohan Ghosh, the Sage of Natya doesn’t mention the Arthasastra of Kautilya, but rather that of Brihaspati. This, therefore, leads to the logical inference that Bharata pre-dates the Maurya Empire, which puts him before the 3rd Century B.C.E, and some would say even earlier than the 5th. [6]

Per our Pauranic accounts, the origin of Natya is attributed to Narada muni. In fact, it is he who is said to have brought music and the arts from Brahma to the world of men. Nevertheless, this Sastra itself is a product of the intense Tapas of the present Muni, who refers to other authorities.

“To return to the inheritance the lineage of Bharata, as also those who inherited from him—we have already referred to Bharata’s indebtedness to the Vedas, the Upanisads and Brahmanical yajna practices. He incorporates the system of puja later codified in the agamas, draws freely from contemporary practice, and considers loka, the ‘people’, as the final authority.” [1,113]

There were other attempts of course. Even a certain celebrated grammarian touched on the topic and how there were other such treatises.“The Natasutras referred to by Paanini have been cited as examples. The Astadhyayi (IV.3.110-111) refers to them and the schools of Silaalin and Krsasva. Although the works are possible irretrievably lost, perhaps, this was the first attempt to codify some rules of dramaturgy.” [1,114]

The key takeaway however is that while Bharata may be the greatest in our present era, he may in fact not have been the first. “The fact that there was a flourishing tradition of poetry, dance and music, even of architecture, sculpture and painting, is evident from innumerable references in the Vedas and epics. Patanjali’s Mahabhaasya and Arthasastras, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata provide interesting details of theatre halls, recitals, social status and training, but of the works of writers Acaryas or rsis of the arts we learn little. Bharata provides a list of his gurus (teachers) and contemporaries. Apart from Pitamaha Siva and Mahesa, he mentions Kohala, Dhurtila (Dattila), Salikarn, Baadaraayana (Badari) and others.” [1,114]

Nevertheless, whatever his biography and lineage, Bharata Mahamuni managed what others have not:

“From amongs those that have received attention of scholars from the fields of literature, poetrics and dramaturgy, music, dance, architecture, sculpture and painting, it is possible to surmise that Bharata’s text provided the single unified source for a theory of art.”[1,115]

It is therefore, a complete theory of Aesthetics and provides an Adhyatmik approach to Beauty.


As seen above the Natya Sastra commences with a salutation to Siva and Brahma, and it credits knowledge behind the work to the Supreme. Bharata tells the munis of Brahman’s state of yoga, that is his concentration, and determination (sankalpa) which produced the fifth veda, or Natya Sastra. [1,8]

“Obviously the authority of the Vedas was recognized at this stage. This alone could enable Bharata to cull out a theory of aesthetic and a structure of drama from the Vedas. Important is the fact that he identifies paathya, the arti-culated spoken word, not just the word (sabda) with the Rgveda.”[1, 13] It explicitly cites the traditional four aims of life, or Purusharthas of Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha as ends of literature.

His assertion that he is creating a fifth Veda which will be accessible to all castes and classes at the same time likening it to the Vedas (i.e. creating a fifth Veda and the analogy of a ritual) transcends the accepted boundaries of hierarchy as also norms of inclusion and exclusion.[1,21]

Bharata emphasized the synthesising role of drama with respect to all spheres of knowledge from the sacred scriptures to arts and crafts to geography. This is what makes it open to all. Indeed, its written versions were a matter of history as well, as between 1900-1926 a hunt was on for more manuscripts. As a result, there was a sizeable find of 40 manuscripts and two recensions. This is fascinating as the Natya Sastra, like much of real Indic literature, was transmitted via the oral tradition. To have such an expansive written reach demonstrates its influence, both North and South.[1, 34]

Kapila Vatsyayan, noted authority on the Natya Sastra, had this to say on the matter:

“the division of many manuscripts into southern and northern recensions has been in many cases a superimposition of a tacit acceptance of marked differences in northern and southern recensions. In this case, the fact of the matter is that Abhinavagupta was a northerner but the closest approximation to his text is a manuscript in the Trivandrum collection. Other instances can be given. The more pertinent question to be asked is as to the manner and mode of transmission of a single text to different parts of India—ranging from Nepal, Almora to Ujjain, Darbhanga, Maharashtra, Bengal, Andhra, Tamilnadu and Kerala. All these manuscripts can be dated roughly between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries with the exception of those of the commentator—Udbhata. One of his works was found in the Gilgit manuscript (tenth to eleventh century), now edited by Gnoli. The earliest manuscripts come from Nepal in Newari script. The text is available in many scripts—Newari, Devanagari, Grantha, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.”[1, p. 36]

Despite the Pan-Bhaarata reach of Bharata Mahamuni, Kerala is considered the strongest inheritor of Sanskrit drama and dramaturgy. Forms such as Kutiyattam and even the classical dance Kathakali all resonate with the influence of  the Natya Sastra. This is not only due to the genius of native Kerala son Kulasekhara, but also due to just how foundational the fifth Veda was and is.

Perhaps the single most interesting aspect about the Natya Sastra is that it is in fact one of many. Much like there were Arthasastras before Kautilya there were Natya Sastras before Bharata Muni. “Previous authors reputed to have written on Natya Sastra as a discipline include Kohala, Dattila, Tandu, and Salikarna.“ [1,8]

Interestingly enough, there is an hypothesis that ‘Bharata’ is an acronym for the syllables Bha, Ra, and Ta (standing for Bhava, Raga, and Tala respectively).“Bharata occupies a supreme place for being the master-developer of ‘categories’ for all the arts, particularly drama, dance, poetry, music. His distinction lies in his acumen for an uncanny precision in evolving a system of correspondence between the material, physical and the psychical, ethical and even spiritual”.[1, 25]


The Natya Sastra itself is of expansive structure. It consists of 6,000 slokas (verses) spread among 36 chapters. As with all else in the Indic tradition, this number too is rife with symbology. According to Subhash Kak, the 36 chapters are said to correspond to the 36 tattvas of Kashmiri Shaivism. [7] What’s more, “The thirty-six chapter of the Natyasastra can be grouped from the point of view of (i) artistic experience, (ii) the artistic content or states of being, the modes of expression through word, sound, gesture, dress, decorations and methods of establishing correspondences between physical movement, speech and psychical states, as also communication and reception by the audience, readers and (iii) structure of the dramatic form, popularly translated as ‘plot’. The itivrtta is, however, a more comprehensive term for structure and phasing.”[1, 58]

While 5 chapters are dedicated to music, certain key chapters give us insight into his dramatic methodology.

In chapters I and II, Bharata appears to lay a conceptual and physical foundation that is nevertheless redolent in the sacred. The origin of drama is attributed Brahman with various actors such as Vishnu, Shiva, Sarasvati, the Daityas and Bhutas, and Yakshas, all as actors–either protagonist or as agitators . In some ways, Indra can be conceived of as the hero, as his dhvaja or pole (jarjara) provides the fulcrum of the stage. Sarasvati is the heroine, as she is the embodiment of speech, and Shiva is the energizer.

“Two statements by Bharata at the end of chapter XXI are clear indication of his approach to all that he has suggested. After describing the characteristics and components of the dramatic form, called nataka, he emphasizes the fact that drama presents, re-narrates (anucaritam) through abhinaya (expression), but its success is possible only when the actor has overcome, suppressed, his personal self (svabhaavas tajyate: chapter XXI, v.12-1234).” [1,80] As one can see, the spiritual is very much immanent in this, the most dramatic of artforms.

The spiritual is therefore not only intertwined with the psychological and the conceptual, but even the sensual. We find that true the highly sophisticated use of various ornaments or devices or archetypes, specific reactions are catalysed.

“Pertinently, it is in this context that he describes the different types of graces (alamkaara) or women, namely, feeling (bhaava), emotion (haava) and passion (hela). These are not autonomous categories: they are psychic states with their emotional and involuntary reflect physical response co-ordinates in relation to the opposite sex (XXIV, verses 6-11) and in the sphere of kaama (normally, most inadequately translated as erotic). The underlying foundation of the entire chapter is thus kama and sense, body, mind and consciousness relationship. Logically, at the level of perception and expression, these are either inner or outer (aabhyantara and baahya) or indirect, implicit or invisible (paroksa) and direct and explicit (pratyaksa). Another group of terms, namely, suci (pointing needle), ankura (sprouting), saakha(branches) indicate the feeling, body and word-gesture relationship in different sequential order or concurrency, suggested or proliferated. It is on these foundations of perception and insight, that Bharata narrows down his concern from the generic character and personality types of women to the categories of heroines (naayika).”[1, 85]

Perhaps it is not for nothing that he is referred to by some as the first neuromarketer.

Key Concepts

Na tajjaana na tacchilpa na sa vidya na sakala|
Na sa yogo na tatkarma yanna tyesminna drsyate ||  NS 1.116.

There is no wise maxim, no learning, no art or craft, no device, no action that is not found/reflected in the drama.

“Only India believed that literature is efficacious in ‘sivetara-ksati’ or countering inauspiciousness”. [2, 7] The notion of mangalam, is a constant throughout the Dharmic tradition, and even drama is supposed to contribute to this idea of auspiciousness.

In Indian dramatics there is also a formal rule against tragedy (likely on account of the inauspiciousness of the genre). The celebrated dramatist Bhasa, however, set this rule aside in his famous Urubhanga, a one act play on the episode of the shattering of Duryodhana’s thigh.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: “Bharata wants drama to not only enterain, but to teach and ennoble. The fruit which the hero desires being difficult to attain, the final success of the hero is an inspiration and exhortation to the spectators”. [2,205]

While lakshana(secondary meaning) is discussed by some as the most important concept to stem from the Natya Sastra, an interesting point is that tattastha seems to be the most underlying one. Literally meaning “spacing”, it becomes apparent that in poetry, music, dance, and the visual arts, the unsaid is frequently as important as the said. In fact, there is a legend that while Manavas prefer the direct, the Devas prefer the indirect. Lakshana and tattastha are both interrelated concepts that not only emphasise the importance of the idea but demonstrate the sophistication of Bharatavarsha’s Natya.

Although musical theory obviously dates back to the Saama Veda, Subhash Kak asserts that acting and indeed elements of the theatre tradition can in fact be found in the Yajur. “Since the four Vedas come together in the dramatic performance, natya is the Fifth Veda”.[6] As such, the sacred and sanskritic is very much a part of the Indic tradition of dramatics and histrionics.

He goes on to assert that the Natya Sastra took paathya (recitation) from the Rig Veda,  abhinaya (acting ) from the Yajur, rasa (sentiment) from the Atharva, and sangeeta (music) from the Saama.

The Play or Nataka was a very sophisticated matter. Generally, a rupaka (dramatic composition)was recommended to consists of between 5 and 10 acts. It would begin with  a Prastaavana (prologue) sanctified by a Svastivachana (benediction) which is part of the Naandi (introductory portion which suggests the plot). Acts were not to be too long, inauspicious events (such as wars) only indicated rather than portrayed, and the play was to end as it began, with another benediction. In this cause, it was fittingly named Bharatavakya.[2] Typically, the vasthu (plot) was based on pauranic or historical events.

Chitra-abhinayaa (translated, special enactment, special representation, mixed pictorial, a category of different types of enacting through speech and movement) was a key aspect to stage craft itself.[1,p.86] Indeed, it lays the foundation for histrionics, which stems from the dramatic.

The sutradhara (stage-manager) would frequently introduce the play, along with a host of other characters. Other important figures/concepts include prayokta (producers), prayoga (dramatic production) and saadhaka (creator-artist with inner control and discipline). There were in fact a whole set of rituals including puja performed in what was called the purvanga (preliminaries).

“Bharata reminds us that the entire act of creation and presentation is a saadhana where impersonalization, de-personalization and detachment is primary.”[1, 91]

Slokas from the critical chapter XXVI discuss some of the specifics of natya.

The triple basis of drama is discussed in slokas 118-119 as being the people (loka), the Vedas, and the spiritual faculty (adhyatma). [1,88] Indeed sloka 124 goes on to state that “Whatever sastras, laws, arts and activities are connected with human conduct (lokadharma) may be produced (literally called) as a drama).”[1, 89]

The prekshaka, or audience, also had its own dharma.

“As for the audience and spectators, they too must be attuned, trained and initiated. The demand from them is no less exacting. Preparedness of both attitude and initation into some technicalities is an essential pre-requisite.”[1,91]

Bharata goes on to lay the criteria for critics (samalochakas) and judges, laying down the qualifications for the jury. The last, as typical with the sastras, is near exhaustive. Experts in ritual (yajnavit), in archery (isvastravit), in dance (nartaka), in prosody (chandovit), in grammar (sabdavit), in painting (chitravit),  and music (gandharva) are all required. A king (rajan), king’s officer (rajasevaka), and interestingly even a courtesan (vesya) are all listed as well, likely due to their extensive training in The 64 Arts. [1,91]

Of course, no discussion of the Natya Sastra, indeed dramaturgy itself, is complete without mention of Rasa.


As a refresher on Rasa, here are some introductory concepts we discussed in previous articles. Rasa theory is the outstanding contribution of Classical India to World music, dance, and above all literature. This sentiment is the lasting impression or feeling of the author that he/she aims to impress upon the audience. These are nine in number (hence the term Nava Rasa): Sringara (Romantic), Vira (Heroic), Haasya (Comedic), Karuna (Pathos), Raudra (Furious), Bhayaanika (Frightful), Bibhatsa (Loathsome), Adhbuta (Marvelous), and finally Shaantha (Calming).

The Sthayibhaava is the leitmotif or permanent sentiment of a composition. There are generally eight in number, based on eight of the nine rasas. They are as follows: rati (erotic), haasa (comic), shoka (sorrowful), krodha(angering), utsaha (enlivening), bhaya (frightening), jugupsa (disgusting), and vismaya (amazing). A ninth, sama (tranquility), is associated with Shaantha.[2]

Bhaava is the complete affecting of the heart by any emotion. Rasa means sentiment, sthayi bhava means dominant emotive state, and vyabhichari bhava means transitory or transferable stages.”They are the instrumentalities of conveying and communicating intangible but real states of mind.”[1,9]

Literature (Saahitya) in Sanskrit has typically been divided into drusya (what can be seen or exhibited on stage) and sravya (what can only be heard or read).

Dramatics falls into the first category. Nataka is the word for a play, while rupaka is the term applied to dramatic compositions. Minor or short dramas, such as the Ratnavali of Sri Harsa Deva (Emperor Harsha Vardhana of Kanyakubja (Kannauj), are called Natikas. While there are 17 other classes of these Uparupakas (minor dramas), they needn’t be examined for our purposes.

The 3 main aspects of a Rupaka are (1) The Plot (Vasthu) (2) The Hero (Neta) (3) The Sentiment (Rasa).

Bharata muni avers that literary artists should seek to use adhbuta rasa (sentiment of wonder) in the nirvahana samdhi (denouement). He gave highly sophisticated almost scientific sanction to dramaturgy. Indeed, so much care and preparation is allocated to the stage itself that modern (usually western/westernised) commentators wonder at how tenable its implementation was.

Bharata classifies drama into ten types. Each one has differing aims, length, and magnitude. “The structure of drama, according to Sanskrit dramatic theory, is the scheme of avasthas (Stages/phases) and samdhis (juncture) and samdhyangas (parts of junctures). These form the infrastructure of the drama.” [2,202]

Some hold that Lakshana (indirect expression or secondary meaning) is in fact the most important contribution of Bharata to literature in general and Poetics in particular. They believe that it is a “lost master-key which opens all the locked mansions of alankara [rhetorical device], guna [merit/quality], riti [diction], vrtti [mode of expression/style], chandas [metre], dhvani [resonance] and vakrokti [twist in expression] and aucitya [propriety]”. [2,5]

Whether via rasa or lakshana or tattastha (or all 3), the Natya Sastra is the conceptual foundation for the Indic Literary and Performance Arts.


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“The arts provide both pleasure and education and are a vehicle of beauty, duty and conduct” [1, p .25]

The legacy of the Natya Sastra cannot be minimised. Scholars and commentators from Abhinavagupta to Manmohan Ghosh have all propounded its centrality not only to literature and the performance arts, but the Classical Indic Tradition itself.

“Natyasastra lays down the foundations of a theory and practice of the Indian arts which was adhered to by theoreticians and practicising arts” for thousands of years. This was done consistently throughout the subcontinent. [1,26]

And yet, despite the best efforts of many motivated men to muddle not only its importance but to limit it to Kashmir, the impact of it was not only pan-Indian but Pan-Asian as well. “It had validity and applicability outside the country, especially in Asia, and continues to have relevance today for articulating a theory of art which can be clearly distinguished from Aristotelian or subsequent theories of aesthetic and art in the post-Renaissance West.”[1,26]

Above all, above even rasa and lakshana, was the uniquely spiritual quality that the Rishi of Natya brought to dramatics and histrionics. As many artistes in disparate fields such as dance and art and music attest today, to perform based on the structures and tradition of India is not merely an experience of the senses, but an experience of the spirit:

“Bharata’s adherence and debt to this world-view is clear when he repeatedly speaks of the ‘eye’ and the ‘ear’ and purification. It is not only ritual purification; it is the constant endeavour to arrive at a greater and greater degree of subtlety and refinement. The theatrical universe is the world of the ‘audible’ and the visible’. The senses and sense-organs and perceptions play a crucial role in the evolution of the theory, as also the techniques of each of the four instrumentalities of expression—sound, word (vacika) and body language (angika), décor and dress (aahaarya) internal states (sattvika)”.[1,55]

The imprint of Bharata is felt, therefore not only in Classical Ancient India, but even in the medieval period and across regions. From the Manasollasa (Kannadigas) to the Dhvanyaloka (Kashmiris) to the Sangita Kaumudhi (Odias) to the Sangitaraja (Rajasthanis), the influence of his work is irreplaceable and undeniable, crossing centuries and corners of India. Even the Ain-e-akbari, Risala-i-Ragadarpana, Sangita Mallika, and Kitab e Nau Rasa all rely heavily on, and some would even say attempt to digest, the pioneering work of Bharata muni. Notably, however, this influence was neither regimented nor haphazard. [1,120]

Jayasenapati’s Nrttaratnavali from Andhra (thirteenth century) also reflects both adherence to and departures from the Natyasastra. While it follows the basic principles it focuses much greater attention on training vyaayama and a full account of the desi type of karanas.We gather very important information from this text on many matters, including the basic techniques of training, including those on the bar. Unlike others, he includes a section on construction of theatres.”[1,122] True integral unity with diversity. The canon itself provided general principles which were adapted to the local style and needs of the region. Indeed, Jayasena’s text was instrumental in reviving not only Andhranatyam but Perini Siva Thandava as well.

The reverbations of the ancient and medieval period, therefore, can still be felt today. Most importantly, vrtti (style) and pravrtti (regional school) both had their place and space, as opposed to regimented standardisation. Perhaps that is what makes the Indic tradition so dynamic. Appropriate flexibility exists to not only provide for the civilizational and the regional, but also the material (laukika) and the spiritual (adhyatmika). The spirit of dharma, therefore, can seamlessly move from school to school, region to region, and artform to artform.

The body and beating heart of a tradition and its values is in the arts. Study of the Natya Sastra is crucial because those prejudiced against Indic Civilization…real Indic Civilization…have long pretended that there is no classical canon. The same sophists who call India a british invention say this about classical Indian music.

The British and their elite academic atlantic relatives have historically taken pro-pak positions, pretending a variety of falseties for propagandic purposes. One theory that was floating around was that there was no true performance music before turks came and took “vedic chants” from the temples to create Hindustani music. This ignorant (or self-serving) view has no historical basis, as even the most committed hinduphobe knows the Natya Sastra is dated to 200 BCE, if not earlier.

It is also one of the reasons why adarsh liberals have always given such step-brotherly treatment to south India, long before l’affaire Jallikattu. This is because foreign influences are difficult to divine or impose on Carnatic. Even recent additions like the European violin have been adapted to suit the Indic taste, much as Hindustani and Kathak were merely modified Indic artforms to suit the Turkic taste.

To bring things back full circle, however, perhaps the best rebuttal came from a scholar of literary theory himself:

In my opening remarks I referred to narrow nationalism as going against the spirit of Comparative Literature…Narrow nationalism, however, is not the problem here; rather its opposite is the problem; and its opposite is not wider nationalism; it is absence of national feeling. We Indians are often unnecessarily apologetic about ourselves and about our national heritage. We unnecessarily feel guilty of jingoism, of cultural expansionism in such matters. This peculiar feeling has its roots in respect of some students of literary not in the thorough knowledge of our heritage, but in its opposite, namely, complete ignorance of our heritage. [3,185]

Understanding the root helps us learn where all the branches are. That is the importance of the Natya Sastra to Indic—real Indic—music, art, poetry, dance, and drama.“The Mahamuni provided the basic framework and a pan-Indian vocabulary which was to guide the theory and practice of the Indian arts for two millennia”,and likely more .[1,100]

Bharata’s work influenced millions directly or indirectly. For these reasons alone, Natya Sastra is one of the most important books ever written [6,19]


  1. Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata: The Natyasastra. Sahitya Akademi.2007
  2. Kale, M.R. Dasakumaracarita of Dandin. New Delhi: MLBD. 2009
  3. Pandey, Sudhakar and V.N.Jha.Glimpses of Ancient Indian Poetics.Satguru Publications: Delhi, 1993 .
  4. http://natyasastraced.blogspot.com/
  5. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/cultural-research-complex-on-natya-sastra-planned/article3149469.ece
  6. Kak, Subhash. Early Indian Music. http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/manila.pdf
  7. Kak, Subhash. The Wonder that was Kashmir. http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/wonder.pdf
  8. Malhotra, Rajiv. Sulekha. 2002. http://creative.sulekha.com/the-axis-of-neocolonialism_103313_blog