The Tradition of Saṭṭaka Literature

Posted: 30.05.2018

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


There is a dramatic genre called saṭṭaka ("a [short love] drama"), which is unique among the traditional plays, first of all in terms of its language. It was entirely written in Prakrit, and not alternating Sanskrit and Prakrit dialects, as most of the classical Indian plays. Five saṭṭakas, written between the 10th and the 18th centuries, have come down to us in manuscripts, each of them following the pattern of the very first representative of this genre: Rājaśekhara's Karpūramañjarī. In my thesis, defended in December 2017, entitled "Contribution à l'étude du genre saṭṭaka, pièces en langue prakrite: la Karpūramañjarī et ses successeurs," I investigated all theories about this genre and analysed the five extant plays themselves. This work was necessary, because the saṭṭaka has been defined on the basis of a very low number of criteria. Several studies have been published on some aspects of the Karpūramañjarī, but the other saṭṭakas have not yet been thoroughly analysed; what is more, most of them have not even been translated so far. Assessments were made mostly according to Viśvanātha's Sāhityadarpaṇa, considered as the theory of dramaturgy par excellence, and according to him, the saṭṭaka is an uparūpaka ("minor genre"), while most of theoreticians say that it is a rūpaka ("major genre"). In my thesis I tried therefore to elucidate doubtful points and give a solid framework on the following question: What is a saṭṭaka?

Although the name of this genre was known at the time of Kohala, a contemporary of Bharata (2nd-4th centuries), the first definition can be found in the prologue of the Karpūramañjarī of Rājaśekhara (9th-10th centuries). According to him, the saṭṭaka is a dramatic genre related to the nāṭikā ("a [short love] drama"), which are fouract romantic comedies, characterized by the use of many female characters, as well as dances, songs and music. However, according to the definition quoted by Rājaśekhara, the saṭṭaka omits the viṣkambhaka (a kind of interlude introducing the first act) and the praveśaka (a kind of interlude introducing each following act), two mandatory explanatory devices in the nāṭikā.

Dancing girl with musicians in the palace of the young prince Siddhārtha Gautama. Ajanta, 2nd century BCE (Photo: Melinda Fodor)

Five authors followed in Rājaśekhara's footsteps. Nayacandra Sūri, who lived in the 14th-15th centuries in Gwalior, even if he kept Sanskrit in his saṭṭaka for the speeches of high-ranked men, he wrote his Rambhāmañjarī on the model of the Karpūramañjarī. Mārkaṇḍeya, a 15th-16th century grammarian in Triveṇī, composed his Vilāsavatī, a saṭṭaka that we know only by the reference in his Prakrit grammar. The Candralekhā is the only work to have come to us from Rudradāsa who lived in Calicut in the 17th century. This play bears another title too: Mānaveda-carita. Viśveśvara Pāṇḍeya wrote his Śṛṅgāramañjarī in Kāśī in the 17th-18th centuries. Finally, Ghanaśyāma, minister of Tukojī I in the 18th century in Thanjavur, composed three saṭṭakas. Only the Ānandasundarī was passed down to us in manuscripts. In his works, Ghanaśyāma mentions the Vaikuṇṭha-carita, a saṭṭaka about Kṛṣṇa's life, and another untitled one.

It seems that the genre saṭṭaka existed before the Karpūramañjarī as a kind of nāṭikā, and except the omission of the two explanatory devices, it followed the rules of the Nāṭyaśāstra, including the multilingual rules of Indian Classical Theatre. The combination of several elements allowed Rājaśekhara to break away from the tradition of classical theatre and to replace multilingualism with monolingualism in his saṭṭaka. Rājaśekhara composed his Karpūramañjarī towards the end of his life, having acquired a certain renown, becoming a kavirāja ("the king of poets") free in his choices, independent of his patron. This play was commissioned by his wife, an expert in poetry, and not by a royal patron. The nāṭikā was very popular in his time. It has been scrupulously defined in the Nāṭyaśāstra, including the linguistic rules to be applied, and well known through Harṣa's plays; the tradition forced authors to keep strictly to the rules. On the other hand, as the saṭṭaka was neglected by theoreticians and poets, it was easier to introduce novelties. Bharata himself exempts authors from applying the multilinguistic rules of classical theatre, on condition that any discrepancy should be well founded.

Concerning Rājaśekhara's choice for Prakrit, he gives only a general answer [Karpūramañjarī I.07], designating his four literary languages, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Paiśācī and Apabhraṃśa, as being able to convey poetic expressions [cf. Kāvyamīmāṃsā III, VIII, Bālarāmāyaṇa I.11]. According to him, by the progressive evolution (pariṇāma) of the poet in poetic art, the latter manages to compose more and more beautiful expressions. Nevertheless, the true poetry emanates from the talent being capable of giving a particular aspect to its expressions (ukti-viśeṣa) [Karpūramañjarī I.07]. These can be only appreciated by an equally talented public who are able to relish in them [Kāvyamīmāṃsā IV]. Rājaśekhara, by applying the vṛttis ("phonetic styles") of Udbhaṭa and Rudraṭa, designates the Prakrit language soft by nature [Bālarāmāyaṇa I.11], and therefore the most appropriate to express love in the human world (āryāvarta) [Kāvyamīmāṃsā X].

The Karpūramañjarī provoked discussions, including its language. All, theoreticians and later authors of saṭṭakas, explained this choice of language by the sweetness of Prakrit, considered to be the most appropriate language for a love story. Apparently, the stanza I.08 of the Karpūramañjarī is a later addition expressing exactly this idea, based on Rājaśekhara's concept [Bālarāmāyaṇa I.11] mentioned above. The language of the Karpūramañjarī is called a-saṃskṛtaprākṛta ("not [alternating] Sanskrit and Prakrit"), ekabhāṣā ("one [homogeneous] language") or simply Prakrit. Some theoreticians tried to define its dialects and gave Māhārāṣṭrī, Śaurasenī and Māgadhī. Indeed, the Prakrit of Rājaśekhara, according to his Kāvyamīmāṃsā, incorporates these three grouped together by their common feature: the phonetic softness. Thus, the authors of the saṭṭakas do not follow the rules of the dramatic art that indicate the use of the Māhārāṣṭrī in the stanzas and Śaurasenī in prose. These two dialects, as well as others, are present in the saṭṭaka in a mixed form, either in prose or in verses; we call this language a "Literary Hybrid Prakrit".

Not only the language, but some scenes of the Karpūramañjarī also served as a model for later writers. Nevertheless, they have interpreted it in two ways that we call "typical" or "atypical" saṭṭaka. A typical saṭṭaka is the most faithful to the Karpūramañjarī. At the same time, it gets closer to the nāṭikā in some respect. The Candralekhā replaces the carcarī (a kind of popular dance) with a lāsyāṅga (a kind of song defined in classical Indian theatre) and omits the wrath and the vulgarity of the jester. The Śṛṅgāramañjarī borrows many passages from the works of Kālidāsa and also omits any vulgarity. On the other hand, an atypical saṭṭaka is not up to the pattern, wanting to surpass the Karpūramañjarī. The Rambhāmañjarī is a kind of pastiche, the beginning of which is the imitation of the Karpūramañjarī, the end is a musical show with many erotic scenes. Nayacandra Sūri explains this divergence by the example of the maturity of the mango, whose taste is flavourless at the beginning but sweet at the end. The Ānandasundarī is a comedy rather than a romantic play. Ghanaśyāma decomposed the Karpūramañjarī and used some of its elements in a crooked way. The novelties the authors introduce into their plays are strongly influenced by the literary, cultural and historical trends of their time.

The saṭṭaka is a hybrid genre of classical theatre (saṃkīrṇa-rūpaka), and not a minor one (uparūpaka). Firstly, it is related to the nāṭikā, which is a popular genre of soft type, a mixture of two major genres (rūpaka), the nāṭaka ("a [long heroic] drama") and the prakaraṇa ("a [long fictitious] drama"). Secondly, most theoreticians adhere to this concept and this is the most accurate classification. In their volume and complexity, the saṭṭaka and the nāṭikā stand fourth among classical dramatic genres. Finally, the saṭṭaka is intended for being recited (pāṭhya) and imitated (nāṭya) on stage, it is soaked with the rasa, the sāttvika ("natural") states are duly represented, and passages of diverse dances (nṛtya "dance with mimicry", nṛtta "pure dance") and songs are integrated into the play. Their structure corresponds to the theory of dramatic art, including visible and invisible preparations (pūrvaraṅga), prologue, acts, dramatic links, their subdivisions, and other structural elements. The two omitted explanatory devices are replaced by other dramatic elements. Their omission is not a characteristic of minor genres, as they are omitted in the satire (prahasana) too, which is one of Bharata's major genres.

Finally, the saṭṭaka has never been "popular" as the minor genres. The poetic language of these works is sophisticated and complex in accordance with the rules of poetic art. Poets' aim is to delight the spectator and gain a certain renown. The double meanings in Ānandasundarī and the philosophical discourses in Śṛṅgāramañjarī have not been designed for a modest audience. The language of the saṭṭakas, far removed from spoken languages and little cultivated in the circle of scholars versed in Sanskrit between the 10th and 18th centuries, make the composition, recitation and understanding of the text more difficult. It is for this reason that Rudradāsa stated that a saṭṭaka is the touchstone of experimented poets and actors. Ghanaśyāma expresses the same idea, when he confirms that only a true poet can compose a saṭṭaka. An ordinary audience would not have been able to enjoy a saṭṭaka.

Melinda Fodor completed her PhD at the EPHE, Paris (2017). Having specialized in Prakrit, Pali, Sanskrit, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and classical Tibetan languages, her research fields include kāvya literature, alaṃkāra ("ars poetica") theories and Buddhist philosophy. She has been granted a Gonda Fellowship in Leyden (2018) where she will be working on a critical edition of Ghanaśyāma's Ānandasundarī.

Share this page on: