Greek comedies, Sanskrit drama and Bollywood

30 Sep

This follows a discussion we (a bunch of old goats) had on the ancient drama forms , which led to the question why there are no well known Greek comedies and why there are not many “ Tragedies” in the Indian theatre.


1. The Greek tragedies are of course unsurpassed in their grandeur and in depiction of the failings of the mighty. They are the inspirations for countless works of merit in all other languages.

Before going into the their Dramas ; it appears to me that the ancient Greeks were a rather inward looking people and did not interact with other cultures in their (other’s) terms. You do not come across many instances of ancient Greeks learning the language of the Egyptians, Persians or the Indians. They preferred to look at the world through the Greek prism and turned everything around into a Greek term or a Greek name or Greek pronunciation.

Even, during the times (ca. 500 BCE) when Greece was a part of the Persian Empire and when large number of Greeks served the Empire as its officials , it appears they transacted in Greek and  not in the language of Persia. For instance Ktesias who served the Persian king Artaxerxes Mnemon (404–358 B.C.) as his personal physician for eight years (405-397 B.C.) mentioned that he invariably wrote and transacted in Greek language. The two books he authored on the events in Persia (Persika), and the events in India (Indika) were in Greek. Similarly, Skylax of Karyanda who served as a naval commander in the army of the Persian Emperor Darius Hystargus (512–486 BCE) also managed in Greek.

Old comedies of Greece

2.1. The Greek tragedies are of course widely appreciated the world over. But, what is commonly not known is that the so-called “old comedy” was in fact the favorite entertainment of the common Greeks. It is not that the ancient Greeks loved only tragedies and nothing else. The Greek people witnessed the vicissitudes of life as any other people of those times; and loved all forms of drama. It is just that the Greek tragedies travelled abroad, in translations, and gained great fame.

2.2. The ‘old comedy’ was more popular among common Greeks. The comic plays were performed at the village festivals with jovial gaiety and jesting license in honor of Dionysus the god of wine and fertility. The comedies were    mostly vulgar ballets with male actors wearing masks and gaudy costumes enacting indecent farce and satire about phallic jokes. Sometimes, young fellows disguised grossly as beasts or birds broke out into riotous phallic dances.

2.3. It was however later during the times of Menander, the first of the great writers of Greek comedy, and Aristophanes (between about 456 BCE and 380 BCE) that Greek comedy gained some credibility. It is said that the comic playwrights produced their works for dramatic competitions at two festivals in honour of  Dionysus Lenaius held in the cities Dionysian (in March) and the Lenaea (in January), on the same stage as the tragedies.

Aristophanes and Menander
2.4. At these festivals, comedies were more important and popular than tragedies. It is said, at least five comedies entered the competition each year (except during the Peloponnesian war when only three comedies were performed).The comedies included singing and dancing performances of Dithyramb (hymns in honor of the god of wine Dionysus). It is not clear when these festivals were abandoned; but it is believed the competitions at Lenaea continued into the second century BCE.

Attic relief (4th century BCE) depicts a qulos player and his family standing before Dionysus and a female consort, with theatrical masks displayed above.

Aristophanes and the comedies

3.1. Aristophanes, I reckon was a sort of stand-up comedian of his times. His performances were packed with pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and vulgar innuendo. He was also fond of drinks ; and used to say at his performances  : Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever. 

He was adept in stringing together several words into a long unpronounceable compound word that confounded the listeners .

“In my opinion,” he said , “producing comedies is the hardest work of all.”

” How many are the things that vex my heart! Pleasures are few, so very few – just four -“

Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day. His ridicule was feared by influential contemporaries. Talking about the politicians of the day, he said ” “Under every stone lurks a politician” . 

He described the Characteristics of a popular politician as : a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner. “Politics, these days, is no occupation for an educated man, a man of character. Ignorance and total lousiness are better.”

But , “Ignorance can be cured; but,  stupidity is forever”. 

He quipped : “they looked like rascals when seen from the heavens and, seen up close, they look even worse”.

And , when Amynias who had lost money in gambling was appointed ambassador, Aristophanes sang:

Way up there in Thessaly /  Home of the poor Penestes/ Happy to be where everyone/Is as penniless as he is.



3.2. Plato, as all know, was a studious philosopher. But his favorite dramatist was Aristophanes the writer of comedies. Plato, it is said, endorsed to his friends the comedies of Aristophanes. Plato in his symposium made Aristophanes deliver a discourse on love, which the latter explained in a sensual manner. Aristophanes in his work the clouds ridiculed Socrates and in his lyrical-burlesque the frogs he lampooned Euripides. Yet, Aristophanes was well regarded and his plays were very popular.

3.3. The ‘old comedy’ survives today in the form of about eleven plays of Aristophanes. The later historians described those plays as ‘the last of the great species of poetry Greece gave to the world’.

3.4. The philosopher Aristotle (c.335 BCE) was, however, not much amused by the antics of the ‘old comedies’. He wrote in his Poetics that those plays were representations of laughable people, their blunders and their ugliness. He softened the blow by adding that the comedies did not however cause pain or disaster.

3.5. If the Greek tragedies notably of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are better known and admired world over, it was because of their superior script, treatment of the subject and the conflict they depict between the human will and the Greek idea of fate. Had the conflict been between the will of two humans it would have turned the play into a social drama or even a comedy. [Perhaps, it is  here the genius of Shakespeare shines forth].

The ancient Sanskrit drama

4.1. The ancient Indians did not consider catharsis as a legitimate purpose of a play. The tragic plays did not flourish as they did in Greece or in England. The reasons for this are many.

But, the prime objective of a Drama was considered to be to  provide entertainment (ananda) . Dhananjaya, in his Dasarupaka,  taunts; and mocks at one who naively believes that Drama, like history (itihasa), is there only to give knowledge. He wryly remarks ‘ I salute  (tasmai namah) that simpleton  (alpabuddhih) who has averted his face from what is delightful ..!’

anandanisyandisu rupakesu / vyutpattimatram phalam alpabuddhih/ yo ‘pitihasadivad aha sadhus/  tasmai namah svaduparah mukhaya//DR.1.6//



4.2. The ancient Sanskrit drama  distinguished one form of drama (Rupaka)  from its other forms  on the basis of its Vastu (subject-matter), Neta (Hero) and Rasa (sentiment) – vastu neta rasas tesam bhedako .

It did not recognize classification based on how the drama ended, on whether the characters lived happily ever after or whether the characters struggled in vain against almost impossible odds and eventually failed. There is no clear classification of happy or sad ending.

For instance, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata end in a somber note; the evil undoubtedly was vanquished in the end, but the virtuous victors were neither jubilant nor at peace. It is not a tragic ending in the sense the evil did not triumph; and it is not a comic ending either because the heroes did not seem to have ‘lived happily ever after’. Rama, Krishna and Pandavas, all ended their earthly sojourn on a rather solemn note, and returned to their heavenly abode.

4.3. The struggle depicted in the ancient dramas based on the epics was not about a persons’ comfort, but it was about what they stood for and the values they represented. The pith of the story was in the manner the virtuous men and women faced their adversaries and adversities, within the frame work of Dharma and finally triumphed after sustained fighting. At the end, it was hailed as the triumph of the Dharma.

The object of the play was to demonstrate the proper way to live, a way which the generations to come can follow and adopt as a benchmark or a norm of attitude and behavior while grappling with the conflicts confronting them in their lives.

4.4. It also had to do with the perception of life in general. Ones view of death is related to what he regards as life. One way of looking at death is as a dreaded terminator which irrevocably puts an end to ones relation with all existence. There are however beliefs that prefer to treat “life” not as an interval between two extremities but as a continuum in space and time; and that space could be elsewhere and not necessarily here on earth.

4.5. The life jivita on this earth, according to their beliefs, is a continuum propelled by causes and effects (karma) spread over several jivitas. The disappointments and misery that one has endured in this life can be put behind, and one can always look forward with hope. There is no “End” or “Finis” to life.

Take for instance; Banabhatta’s classic novel Kadambari (c.seventh century) re-rendered by Ms. Kalpita Raj as PunarmilanThe reunion… (Love-story From Ancient India) , a torturous love story filled with frustrations , disappointments and failures as each character passionately strives for love. The story spills into three re-births; and finally love triumphs. It is perhaps a way of saying that love defies death. In fact, it is the persistence of love through a series of re-births that holds the story together.



4.6. The ancient Sanskrit plays generally portray four categories of heroes: dhirodatta (ideal person like Rama); dhiralalitha (lover boy like Dushyantha); dhirashanta (calm and collected like Charudutta); and dhirodhhata (the tragic hero like Ravana, Duryodhana or Karna).

The tragic hero is endowed with all virtues such as good looks, wealth, strength and power but is afflicted with a single gnawing flaw in his character, which brings about his ruin.

For instance, Ravana with lust; Duryodhana with greed and jealousy; Karna with embitterment were the classic examples. The tragic hero is all the while aware of his tragic flaw; he fights with himself and nevertheless embraces his fate, death and destruction in a strange mixture of detachment and bravado.

He is heroic in most ways and he is very important to the play; but he is a counterpoint to the hero. And, In Sanskrit drama, the good always triumphs over the evil.


It was Bhasa the celebrated playwright (ca. 2nd century BCE to 2nd century AD) who in his plays uru-bhanga and karna-bhara treated Duryodhana and Karna with great sympathy and appreciation. Bhasa was the first to break away from the conventions of Natyasastra to show physical violence on the stage; and to end his plays in pathos and in the death of his heroes. In his prathima natakam he treats Kaikeyi, the deluded queen of the old king, with sympathy and understanding. Bhasa was the first significant Indian writer of tragic plays.



5.1. Though the Sanskrit plays are virtually dead in India, they live and thrive in the spirit of the Indian movies, popularly labelled as Bollywood movies.

5.2. In the structure of their plots, depiction, treatment and conclusion of the story , most Indian movies that have done well at the Box office follow , consciously or otherwise, the time-tested formula prescribed by the ancient Sanskrit theatre.

Just as in the Sanskrit plays, our movies too are stuffed with navarasas; embellished with virtuous heroes having comic sidekicks; good-hearted loving mothers blessed with obedient sons; adorable heroines with plain-Jane friends; good-looking  and powerful villains toying  with vamps and sometimes providing comic relief ; loose script studded with chorus, songs and dances as also some fights; and the story always ends on a happy note with the good and love triumphing over the bad and loveless.

The initial scenes are always auspicious and happy –feeling (adi-mangala); and as the story unfolds , unbearable miseries are unjustly mounted by the crafty villain on the virtuous hero or at times the unsuspecting good-hearted hero walks into a snare specially designed for him by the  dark-hearted bad guy. In the midst of all the heart wrenching misery, near about the mid-point of the story, inevitably, something good happens to the hero or his family (madhya-mangala); and after a bitter and suspenseful struggle in which the gentle heroine, for no fault of her, is somehow drawn in. Eventually the good and love triumphs; and all ends well (antya-mangala).

Somewhere in the second-half of the story when the hero is wedged in a tight spot, the usually inept, food and fun loving sidekick, the vidushaka  (immortalized by Rajendranath and tribe) comes handy and aids the struggling hero.



5.3. The Sanskrit plays are thus the forerunners of the Bollywood formula movies. Now, any film that deviates from that time-honored formula stands out like a sore thumb ; and , acquires the unenviable title of an offbeat. And , what is even worse is that it might be dubbed an art film.

5.4. The song and dance “item-numbers” which are unique to Indian movies, also seem to be inspired by the ancient Sanskrit drama.

Bharata, the author of Natyasastra and also a producer of plays, in the middle of one of his plays introduces a song and dance sequence that apparently had no relevance to the narration of the story. The learned among the audiences are promptly confused. They inquire Bharata “We can understand about acting which conveys definite meaning. But, this dance and this music you have brought in seem to have no meaning. What use are they?”- 

yadā prāpty artham arthānāṃ tajjñair abhinayaḥ kṛtaḥ / kasmān nṛttaṃ kṛtaṃ hyetatkaṃ svabhāvam apekṣate । na gītak ārtha sambaddhaṃ na cāpy arthasya bhāvakam ॥ 262॥

Bharata agrees that there is no meaning attached to those dances and songs; and goes on to explain calmly “yes, but it adds to the beauty of the presentation and common people naturally like it. And, as these are happy and auspicious songs people love it more; and they even  perform these dances and sing these songs at their homes on marriage and other happy occasions”(Natyasastra : 4.267-268)

maṅgalamiti kṛtvā ca nṛttame tat prakīrtitam । vivāha prasavā avāha pramodā abhyuadayādiṣu ॥ 4.265॥ vinoda kāraṇaṃ ceti nṛttame tat pravartitam । ataś caiva pratikṣepā adbhūta saṅghaiḥ pravartitāḥ॥ 4.266॥

5.5. And, finally what is remarkable about Bollywood is that it is notional or abstract; it exists only in the mind and has no physical location or existence. Yet, it is close to all. Its primary form exists in what used to be called Bombay; but it has no specific location and could be anywhere in India, since the outside world has come to know all branches of Indian cinema as Bollywood. Truly, Bollywood is closer to Indian concepts of abstraction and phenomenon, than anything else we know.


Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Art, General Interest


Tags: , , , ,

5 responses to “Greek comedies, Sanskrit drama and Bollywood

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 6:00 am

    Dear Rao,

    Interesting information on Sanskrit and Greek Drama.The first full tamil drama was ” Manonmaniyeem : by Sundaram Pillai – in Shakespeare style around I870. ( have to check the year). which is my favourite book in tamil poetry.

    I am historian only out of interest.not a trained one.It was my dream subject and was lucky I was blessed with time and resources.( not inherited – a self made man )

    My profession was finance – worked long enough with an MNC ( 25 years at Dubai ) – retired at 50 and settled at Mumbai.My both daughters had early education at Dubai – now they are very able professionals – one a Doctor and another an Engineer – well placed.My wife is a teacher and continues top work.

    I have great admiration for Sanskrit language and its treasures.Spent all my life dabbling with Tamil literature and poetry as a hobby and pursuit.

    I enjoyed your previous write up in 4 parts – it was excellent and gave me such a information and knowledge.

    Knowledge is like a water source in the well – the more and more you dig – the more and more you get in abundant supply.I am indebted to every one who provides it.You are one such guy.( in American style )

    Love and Regards .


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 6:01 am

      Dear Shri N K Ravi, Thank you for reading and for the appreciation. Wow… You are a many sided wonder; One time actor, producer of plays, a trained historian, and interested in a bouquet of subjects. I am privileged to have known you.Regards

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 6:01 am

    i liked the detailed work on greek tragedies..
    the linkage to bollywood was interesting…

  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 6:03 am

    An excellent essay….informative and analytical.

    Perhaps you could have included a more thorough discussion of the role of the rasas in Sanskrit literature. (My acquaintance with Sanskrit literature and knowledge of Greek literature are entirely through translations in English.)

    Enjoyed the essay very much.

    Raj Armugam

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 6:03 am

      Dear Raj, Thank you for reading and for the appreciation.

      As regards Rasa and its interpretations; as also Sanskrit poetry and drama of old, I had earlier discussed it in fair detail (I think) in three articles. Please check the following links, read them and do let me know. (I hope the links work; else please let me know)

      Warm Regards.



      Kavi , Rishi and poet


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