Bharat has a long continued tradition of theatre based performances. Both the archaeological and literary sources bear witness to this fact
We know Chhattisgarh as a Maoist affected region today. But this is not the real picture of Chhattisgarh. The region has many things besides Maoist insurrection that have enriched the State. Many remains from the ancient times are found here. The region witnesses comparatively less destruction owing to its difficult terrain and that is why some important places have survived.
One of these places is Seeta Bengara cave. This cave is near Ramgarh village in Sarguja district, about 20 kilometres from Raipur, the capital of the State. This is a hilly area, but the road to Ramgarh is in better condition because it falls on Bilaspur-Ambikapur road. Why is this Cave so unique? It is because this Cave is the first known theatre in Asia (and perhaps in the world)!
Based on the pictures on the walls of this cave, it is believed to be dating back to 200 to 300 BCE. The cave has three halls. One of them is large. This large hall is the stage and the place where 50 to 60 persons could sit. It is believed that poet Kaalidas composed his epic Meghadoot sitting here. And we are so unfortunate that let alone common people, many artists mingling freely in the world of art and frequently invoking Greek, Roman, French and British theatres do not know this cave!
The main hall of the cave is 44 feet long and 20 feet wide. The walls are straight while the entrance is circular shaped. Holes have been made at some places in the wall, which is enclosed from all sides, to suppress the echo. Half of the cave forms the stage and another half forms gallery for audience. The stage is lowered and remaining half portion of the cave is cut and shaped in steps. This becomes the audience gallery.
Near the Ramgarh village, where this Seeta Bengara cave is situated, lays another cave—Jogimara. This cave has some colour pictures drawn near 300 BCE expressing various arts. One of them has a danseuse sitting in middle and surrounded by singers and dancers. Besides it also has human figures and auditorium. According to German archaeologist Dr T Bloch, these wall pictures belong to Ashok period that means older than ones in Ajanta caves!
Overall, the caves Seeta Bengara and Jogimara might be the centre of arts during the period. Seeta Bengara might be a cave that was developed as an auditorium. However, some do not concur with this view. In their opinion, Seeta Bengara might even be the centre of arts but it was not an auditorium. Why? Because the design of the cave does not conform to the measurements given in the Natya Shastra of the Bharat Muni!! However, one must understand here that Bharat Muni was almost contemporary to that period. Hence, the cave could never be designed as per Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra. And the Greek theatre followed the same pattern of lowered stage and crescent-like raised steps.
Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra
This only means that drama and other art forms existed in our nation before Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra. This also means that Bharat Muni does not define the science of drama anew, but just puts it in consolidated and concise form before us. It means a mature art of theatre is more than 3000 years old in our country. And this is the speciality of Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra. He presented the existence of drama in India properly and the world came to accept it.
There are only two ancient schools of drama in the world—the Greek theatre and our Indian theatre. The Greece did not see many foreign intrusions because of which remains of the ancient drama there can be seen even today.
The references to Greek theatre are found since 5th century BCE. The grand auditorium built during that time exists even today. The Greek architects too advantage of the hill slope to create steps and make sitting arrangements for viewers. The amphitheatre Epidaurus had the facility of sitting for 6000 viewers on these steps. In the Greek and Roman arrangements of stage, a big circular place was reserved at the base of steps for orchestra. Such an arrangement was found in the Seeta Bengara cave of Ramgarh in the Sarguja district as well.
Then, the question arises—How did exactly same arrangement as that of auditorium in Greece, that was built 400-500 years BCE, come into existence in a remote and difficult area in India within only 100/200 years? So, did the Greeks build their theatres on the basis of information of Indian stage or did exactly opposite take place?
King Alexander of Macedonia of Greece died in 333 BCE. It is proved now that even before his advent in India, India and Greece enjoyed good relations. Author Meena Prabhu has travelled extensively in the world and written beautiful travelogues. One of them is Greekanjali, chronicling their three-week sojourn in Greece. She has written in it that the host, with whom she stayed for few days, was an archeologist and knew a good deal about India. He told Meena Prabhu that Greece had adopted so much from India. Many ancient Greek scholars knew Sanskrit. Not only this, but the Greek language had many loan words from Sanskrit. Meena Prabhu has given a list of those words.
In short, there is scope to believe that many other things like theatre art could have gone to Greece on the lines of Sanskrit language. Nevertheless, even though put aside this comparison for a moment, the fact remains that a rich civilisation existed in our country thousands of years ago that gave equal importance to singing, playing instruments and drama. We have seen in the last chapters that the seeds of the theatre art are found in Samveda and Rigveda. Panini wrote the Grammar of Sanskrit around 500 BCE and it also has references to theatre art. It chiefly mentions two compeers (sutradhar)—Shilali and Krushascha. The reference to Shilali among them is found in the Yajurvediya Shatpath Brahman and Samvediya Anupat Sutra. The experts in the field have put the antiquity of Shatpath Brahman at 4000 years.
In short, the Indian theatre art boasts of an ancient and glorious tradition. Evidences are being found that the first play in the world was written in Indian language. And yet we are unfortunate that the so-called intellectual people in theatre world propel the references of Greek, Italian, French and English plays only. Even today Sartre, Shakerspeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Checkhove are considered to be idols of theatres. All these people are giants, no doubt, but why neglect Bharat Muni, Bhaas, Kalidas and Banbhatta whose talents transcended time?