From astronomy to legal system, music to statecraft, linguistics to mathematics, medicine to architecture, metaphysics to politics, from the art of war to the science of love: apparently not much escaped the ancient Hindus without being committed into the human knowledge in form of the most profound and erudite thesis upon the subject. The world of theatrics and dramatics was no exception. Ancient Hindus evolved a most intricate and detailed theory about performing arts, and centuries before the rest of the world would have any inkling to the subject, they wrote down a complete philosophy of dramatics.
A detailed handbook of drama called nATya shAstra was brought forth by bharatamuni at some ancient point in time, exact dating of which is not known to us today, but speculated by many to be in range of 5th century before the CE to 3rd century after. And even then, it appears to have been built upon the foundation of even earlier works. This elaborate thesis comprising of over six-thousand shloka-s spanning over thirty-seven (or thirty-six ) chapters, covers every aspect of theatrics in its finest details – from the nature of the script and costumes to the language of the dialogs, the kind of music to be played and the lyrics, the qualities of and the do-s and don’t-s for the actors, guidelines for the directors, recommendations on the shape and size of the stage and the auditorium, duration of the play, recommended number of acts in a play, when should the play be performed… and a lot more.
Dramatics was obviously an important part of life in Hindu society not only for its entertainment value, but also as a major instrument of public education and means of social discourse for the entire society. bharatamuni explains in nATya shAstra, that the very purpose for which drama was invented (or descended from bramhA as he says) was public education, and especially to provide the fourth varNa and women access to learning and knowledge.  (this would of course fly in the face of those mlechCha Indologists and their Indian protégés, who insist that performance of drama in Hindu society was limited to the exclusive elite audiences with knowledge of saMskR^ita. )
Springing from the solid bedrock of this profound theory of theatrics, countless plays were produced and enacted in the public theaters of India over centuries, and demand of drama by the society was met with nourishing and plentiful supply from a galaxy of several brilliant play-writers… shUdraka, danDI, kAlidAsa, bhAsa, harSha, bhavabhUti… to name a few.
Let us turn to bhavabhUti, who occupies a unique place in the world of the Hindu drama, even though the number of plays written by him is miniscule compared to the works of other literati of his time. Despite being small in volume, bhavabhUti’s plays stand out for a remarkable finesse of language; and indeed as some of the best examples of the eloquence in the spoken-saMskR^ita, so much so that there is probably no writer who came up to bhavabhUti in his wonderful command of saMskR^ita, its fluency and elevation of diction. His plays also stand out for representing a careful balance of all the rasa-s, including interestingly his liking for the genre of bhayankara one – horror – which is otherwise generally ignored by the other dramatists. bhavabhUti followed the established framework and norms set forth by the nATya-shAstra of bharatamuni, even as he experimented with many a novel techniques of language and alaMkAra-s.
He was born in the 7th century vidarbha, in house of nIlakaNTha udumbara, a taittirIya kAshyapa brAhmaNa – to these details he himself attests. His given name was shrIkanTha, and he went on to became a genius play-writer as a protégé of the king yashovarman who ruled from kannauj between CE 725 and 752.
Now, as we mentioned earlier, the very philosophy of Hindu nATya was to not only provide a cheerful and jolly entertainment to public on occasions but also depict rich ethical values and learning. To achieve this, many dramatists built their themes upon the prevailing social traditions and popular tales, with which audiences were already familiar, drawing often from mahAbhArata, purANa-s, rAmAyaNa, and particularly from the latter.
bhavabhUti was no exception. bhavabhUti, like kAlidAsa before him, chose to render in drama the popular saga of rAmayaNa. Of the three known works of bhavabhUti, mAlatI-mAdhava is a fictitious romantic love story mired in royal intrigues, while the remaining two – uttara-rAma-charita (“the story of rAma’s later life”) and mahAvIra-charita (“the story of the highly courageous one”) – are the dramatic narratives of the life of rAma.
This also reflects how popular the saga of rAmAyaNa must have been, back in bhavabhUti’s time as much as earlier during the time of vAlmIki, or as popular it is amid the Hindus of present time too. On the popularity of the saga of rAmAyaNa, swAmI vivekAnanda had aptly commented: “Rama, the ancient idol of the heroic ages, the embodiment of truth, of morality, the ideal son, the ideal husband, the ideal father, and above all, the ideal king… and what to speak of Sita? All our mythology may vanish, even our Vedas may depart, and our Sanskrit language may vanish for ever, but so long as there will be five Hindus living here, even if only speaking the most vulgar patois, there will be the story of Sita present.” 
bhavabhUti’s dramatic narratives of rAma’s life, while not straying too far from the main storyline of vAlmIki rAmAyaNa, still make clever innovations of format, to make the script suitable for the requirements of theatrics and an effective staging before audiences.
One good example of this is how bhavabhUti presents the episode of setu-bandhana in his play mahAvIra-charita. Unlike vAlmIki who could afford to describe that complex tale in a direct narration, bhavabhUti is obviously concerned more about the effective staging of the scene in a theater. And the original format, as in vAlmiki’s narration, would make it very challenging for the play-director to present that scene before audiences. Imagine the trouble to the director in depicting a scene involving a large number of actors in vAnara’s role carrying large rocks throwing into a thundering ocean… and the bridge progressively coming about… and army then crossing over, and so on.
Therefore, to the directors rescue, bhavabhUti makes use of a clever literary work-around. He presents the story of setu construction to the audiences not directly, but through a dialog between rAvaNa and his noble wife mandodarI. In this episode which occurs in the sixth act of mahAvIra-charita, mandodarI would narrate the tale of setu-construction to her husband.
Let us now turn to how he presents the script of this scene, and may be, enjoy with our imagination how more than a millennium back this scene would have been enjoyed the then audiences.
(Picture a stage with a background depicting a palace-balcony overseeing the lush gardens, and rAvaNa standing in the center, apparently lost in thoughts of how to win over the sItA’s heart.)
Entry of mandodarI with a maid.
Maid (speaking in prAkR^ita): Here, Queen, here is the silver staircase for you to climb.
Mandodari (climbing the stairs while looking at rAvaNa, addressing audiences in prAkR^ita):
Why! Isn’t that our Ten-Headed Emperor himself! (then looking more directly at him as she reaches closer – ) Alas! Why does he gaze towards ashoka vATikA!! (now with sorrow in her voice – ) Why! Even during the times of invasions by enemy, does Emperor remain indifferent like this? (finally reaching near rAvaNa, addresses him – ) Victory to the Ten-Headed Emperor! jedu jedu mahArA.a dasakandharo!!
rAvaNa (as if fixing his posture): Why! mandodarI? (and sits down to the left)
mandodari (also sits down): mahArAj, what did you decide?
rAvaNa: about what?
mandodari: About the enemy army’s invasion.
rAvaNa (with sarcastic surprise): Why! Enemy! enemy’s army!! Invasion by enemy’s army!!! All the strange stuff you tell me today devi!
(changes tone for this ode: – )
That me — who in battlefield could hold two enraged elephants with two hands —
and then with the other four, block the dikpatI-s coming from all the four directions —
Mighty blows of indra’s vajra etc. were only good enough to leave slight bruises upon the skin of whose chest —
that me — now has got some enemy! Surely, an amusing thing I hear today!
(back to normal tone) so be it! Let us hear that too devi, say, who is that?
mandodarI: Followed by all the vAnara-s, marching ahead of sugrIva, matched in step by his younger brother, that son of dasharatha — rAma — so I hear.
RavaNa: a mendicant with a younger brother, devi!! So, what to speak of him! he would have gone away by now.
mandodari: Emperor! Better to be careful from this group. and there is more –
Encamping on the sea coast, rAma invoked sea-God. When he did not turn up – then –
(falling back to saMskR^ita, sings this ode -)
He then deployed certain prayoga-s of weapons, by which, in less than half a moment –
Entire water started revolving in a vortex, and also turned as red as blood –
The alligators began to fall unconscious, and the shells of tortoises started rupturing-
All creatures indeed of the ocean became unconscious, conch shells started exploding with thundering sounds.
rAvaNa (indignantly): So what?
mandodari (back to prAkR^ita): Emperor! After that, hounded by the arrows of rAma, Sea-God came forth from the waters, and falling to the shelter of rAma’s feet, told Him the path of how to cross over the ocean. And I hear further, that the Courageous One has even got that path constructed.
rAvaNa (quipping sarcastically): Very well! Let us then also hear devi, how is that path constructed!!
mandodari: Emperor! They are constructing a bridge by using the mountains brought by thousands of vAnara-s.
rAvaNa: devi, you have been conned by someone! This ocean knows no limits. The mountains found in the entire continent of jambU, and even those of all other continents too, would surely not be able to fill even a part of this ocean!!
Besides, by calling him brave and courageous you make a misjudgment about our own courage! Careless about the streams of blood flowing from the veins of our severed heads – nay! – smiling with the eyes filled with the tears of joy – had we performed our offering of our heads at the feet of Lord shiva. He, who pleased with us had accepted such our offering, that Lord Shiva himself is witness to our courage!!!”
mandodari: Emperor! Please do not dismiss this without paying a serious thought. This construction of setu is a unique event! By the earlier puNya-s of a certain vAnara, it seems even the stones are floating at the surface of the water!!!
rAvaNa (shaking his head in denial): To this stupidity of women – that stones can float over water – what can be said!!! What more to say devi than this:
(sings this ode — )
about our knowledge of scriptures, knows bhamhA himself, the propagator of vedA-s,
about our command, knows indra himself, the commander of Gods,
about our strength, knows vajra, and about our glory the whole world,
about our power knows mount kailAsha; and what is more —
about our courage knows none other than shiva Himself —
whose holy feet we had lavishly washed with our own blood!
(thundering sounds from the background)
mandodari: Emperor! Protection! Protection! (acts to be terrified, looks at him in fear)
rAvaNa: devi! Fear is baseless.
===(In the background, chorus makes more clear noises this time that inform the audience that rAma-lakshamaNa with sugrIva’s army have arrived at the gates of laMkA.)===
As the curtains would fall in a few more dialogs and the scene comes to an end, imagine now a vidUShaka probably appearing in front of the crowds to entertain them with his antics, amid the applause (or booing) from the audience. Behind the curtains the manager and his staff would get busy to hurriedly re-arrange the stage for the next scene – which happens to be a scene of a council meeting in the court of rAvaNa. That discussion should be of good interest to war-historians, since it provides many hints about how garrison was managed in event of a siege in near-abouts of 7-8th century India. The scene also provides many a details about prevailing social customs and etiquettes – sugrIva is mentioned walking behind rAma, while lakshamaNa is mentioned walking by his side; mandodarI’s extremely respectful conduct of an argument without really being argumentative with rAvaNa, and so on.
One would also easily notice that the characters of mandodarI and the maid are speaking in prAkR^ita, while rAvaNa responds in saMskR^ita. Therefore, the bilingual dialog is a significant hint that not only the characters but also audiences understand both the languages. Also notice, how mandodarI falls back to saMskR^ita at times, particularly to sing the odes, and then such transitions between the two tongues are sudden yet perfectly natural.
To understand this intriguing yet interesting usage of saMskR^ita-prAkR^ita bi-lingual dialog, we need not go any farther than nATya shAstra itself, in which bharatamuni spends one complete chapter upon the nature of language to be used in the dialogs. In the seventeenth chapter known as bhAShA-lakshaNaM, he describes in intricate details how prAkR^ita must be utilized along with saMskR^ita in the drama. Here in fact, he begins by describing the details of prAkR^ita tongue, and explains the forms of root words and etymology by examples. It is here, that he lays down the thumb-rule about choice of tongues for different characters.
By default, saMskR^ita is to be used for higher and medium types of characters, whereas minor characters should speak prAkR^ita. However, even for the higher and medium ones, if a character is illiterate, “intoxicated by prosperity”, “depraved in mind with poverty”, he should be assigned dialogs in prAkR^ita. Likewise, for those in disguise, jaina ascetics, children, persons possessed by evil spirits, ladies, men of feminine qualities, low-lives, intoxicated ones – for these the language should be prAkR^ita. saMskRita on the other hand is appropriate for sannyAsI-s, bauddha monks, and brAhmaNa-s of ukSha and shrotriya varieties. 
Therefore, bhavabhUti is following this edict of nATya shAstra, when he makes mandodarI speak in prAkR^ita. But then why does he makes her switch occasionally to saMskR^ita as well?
The answer is, he does so to follow another finer edict of nATya shAstra. That is explained explicitly by bharata muni, that the queens, courtesans and female artistes should speak in devavANI depending upon the situation, particularly when describing something of a technical subject matter such as war, politics, diplomacy, or astrology etc. So, we know why mandodarI switched occasionally to saMskR^ita, when talking to rAvaNa about enemy’s invasion.
To conclude our note, let us finally turn again to rAma setu which is mentioned at one more place by bhavabhUti in mahAvIra-charita. In the seventh act, this scene is about rAma, sItAdevI and lakshamaNa returning back to ayodhyA from laMkA in the pushpaka vimAna. sItAdevI gets the aerial view of rAma setu and in her amazement, she inquires her brother-in-law about it as follows:
सीता : जो अम्हाणं जेट्ठससुरेहिं किदनिम्माणो त्ति वुड्ढपरंपराए सुणीअदी। एदस्य मज्झेवि किं एदं दूरप्पसारिदं धवलंसुअं विअ अहिणवतिणच्छण्णासु भूमिसु दीसइ।
sItA (in prAkR^ita): I have been hearing that ancient tradition, that this massive flood in ocean came into existence by efforts of our Great-Grand Fathers-in-law.  Now, even in the heart of that ocean, what is that thing, which is shining as if a bright strip of cloth spread over greenery?
लक्षमणः : देवि!
सोत्साहं धृतशासनैः सकुतुकैवृक्षौकसां नायकैः
कल्पांतावधिवन्दनीयमहिमा लोकस्य सेतुर्नवः
कीर्तिस्तम्भ इवायमार्यचरितस्याम्भोनिधौ लक्ष्यते ॥
That, which was constructed by those great vAnara heroes cheerfully —
By bringing the rocks from the great mountains in all the directions —
That new Bridge whose fame is to remain till the last day of this universe —
Behold this! that Pillar of Glory of the character of our Arya!
The approving applauses from the audience.
 Manmohan Ghosh dates him to 5th century BCE. AB Keith dates him to 200s of the CE.
 pANini, the great grammarian of the sixth century BCE, records in aShTAdhyAyI that shilAli and kR^ishashva compiled naT-sUtra-s : पाराशर्यशिलालिभ्या भिक्षुनटसूत्रयोः(aShT.4.3.110). Unfortunately this compendium is not found so far. bharatamuni himself acknowledges the earlier AchArya-s of dramatics, mentioning them by name: shilAli, kR^ishashva, dhUrtila, shANDilya, vAtsya, kohala and sadAshiva. Further, abhinavagupta mentions padmabhU as another earlier AchArya, and dhana~njaya mentions drohiNI and vyAsa too to have been pre-bharat masters of theatrics. — quoted from ‘Bhavbhuti ki kratiyo ka Natyasastriya vivechan’ by Ashok kumar Dubey, 1999, Allahabad University Press.
 “Whether there are thirty-six chapters in the nATya shAstra or thirty-seven – This debate has been going on since long time. Even in the twelfth century, the great savant AchArya abhinavagupta too was burdened with this dilemma. In his commentary on nATyashAstra, known as abhinavabhAratI, he writes in the preface that, ‘I begin now commentary upon the thirty-six chaptered nATya shAstra.” However in the end of his commentary he says, ‘Thus completes the thirty-seventh chapter’. Today there are two versions of manuscripts of nATya shAstra: one containing the thirty-six and the other thirty-seven chapters”. — quoted from Hindi book ‘bharat aur unakA nATyashAstra’, Braj Ballabh Mishra, 1988, Publisher: Uttar Madhya Kshetra Samskritik Kendra, CSPSingh Marg Allahabad.
 नेमे वेदा यतः श्राव्याः स्त्रीशूद्राद्यासु जातिषु। वेदमन्यत्ततः स्रक्ष्ये सर्वश्रव्यंतु पंचमं॥
धर्म्यमर्थ्यं यशस्यंच सोपदेश्यं ससंग्रहं। भविश्यतश्च लोकस्य सर्वकर्मानुदर्शकं॥ (nATyashAstra 1.14)
bharatamuni narrates that the drama descended from bramhA as a fifth veda, just like the earlier four veda-s descended from Him. However unlike the rest of the four veda-s, study of which was denied to the women and shUdra-s, the very purpose of the fifth one – nATya – was for being of utility to everyone, including especially these sections, for education and instruction into the right ways of dharma, besides spreading happiness, enjoyment and merriment in the society.
 Professor Horace Wilson, ‘The Dramatic System of the Hindu’, 1830s: “The Hindu Theatre is distinguished from every other by a most remarkable peculiarity ; it is not in the vernacular tongue ! … The explanation of this peculiarity is to be found in the constitution of Hindu society — not only the highest offices of the state, but the highest branches of literature, being reserved for the privileged tribes, or Brahmans. … The Brahmans in the boxes had it all to themselves; and some even of them may have had no great share of Sanscrit. Even among them, as Prof Wilson says, but a small portion could have followed the expressions of the actors so as to have felt their full force, and the plays of the Hindus must therefore have been exceedingly deficient in theatrical effect.”
 Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
 Dr. S. Kalyanaraman has considered nATya shAstra an important source of historic information on Indic linguistic studies. Commenting upon this subject of bharata-recommended choices for language, he writes: “While discussing the choice of Samskr.ta and Prakr.ta, Bharata notes that Sanskrit should not be employed to those (characters) who are intoxicated by prosperity, depravd in mind with poverty and those who are illiterate even though they belong to the uttama type. (Abhinavagupta gives the example of Arjuna in the disguise of Br.hannala_ for the last type). For those who enter in disguise, Jaina monks, mendicants and wandering ascetics, the Prakr.t language may be employed. So also for children, persons affected by evil spirits, ladies, those possessing feminine qualities, persons of low characters, intoxicated ones and mendicants who professed religious marks, the language should be Prakr.t. (18.38-39). Wandering ascetics, sages, Buddhist monks, uks.as (consecrated Brahmins), s’rotriyas (learned Brahmins) and those who wear religious marks should be assigned the Sanskrit language. For the queen (consecrated as Maha_devi_), courtesans, female artistes, Sanskrit should be employed depending upon the situation. The queen is expected to know the connotation of words relating to matters of alliance, martial preparation, the auspicious or inauspicious movements of planets and stars and the notes of birds foreboding good or bad omens. Hence she should be assigned the language of Sanskrit on the appropriate occasions. (18.40-43). Bharata then goes on to enumerate others such as courtesans who should use Sanskrit, cestial nymphs who come down to earth who should use Prakr.t” (Dr. Kalyanaraman refers to the chapter 17 of NS as lakshaAAlankArAdivivekaH and chapter 18 as bhAShAvidhAnaM. However, in the version of NS that I have access to, chapter 17 is titled bhAShAlakShaNaM and chapter 18 as dasharUpanirUpaNaM. shloka # mentioned by him also differ in my version.)
 sItA here refers to the ancient paurAnika tradition of king sagara and his many descendants having undertaken the enterprise of bringing mighty river ga^ngA to the plains of jambUdvIpa. BhAgIratha, his worthy descendant, at last succeeded in this endeavor. ga^ngA eventually merged with the ocean at the place known as ga^ngA-sAgara (in bay of bengal). The traditions says that this way king sagara and his descendants caused “another sea”. (affected a water level rise in sea?) As rAma descends from the lineage of that king sagara, sItA is referring to those ancient kings as jeTTha-sasure (jyeShTha shvashuraiH) – senior fathers-in law.
Original text of this scene from mahAvIra-charita :
ततः प्रविशंति मन्दोदरि चेट्टी च।
चेट्टी: इदो भट्टिणी एदं अ राआसोअवाणमग्गदुआरअम।
मन्दोदरी (सोपानं नाटयित्वा, रावणं निरूप्य) : कहं एसो महाराअ दसकन्धरो उवट्ठिदो वट्ठदि। (निर्वर्ण्य) कहं असअवणिआसम्मुहंपुलोएदि। (सखेदं) कहं इरिसे वि रिउवक्खा हिओए संवुत्ते राअकज्जाणवेक्खो लक्खीअदि महाराअदसकन्धरो त्ति। (उपसृत्य) जेदु जेदु महाराअदसकन्धरो!!
रावणः (आकार संवरण नाटयित्वा) : कथं मन्दोदरी (इति पार्श्वे समुपवेशयति)
मन्दोदरी (ततः कृत्वा): महाराअ किं एत्थ चिन्दिदम?
रावणः : कुत्र?
रावणः (सोत्प्रासं) : कथं रिपुस्तत्पक्षस्तदभियोगश्च एत्यश्रुतं श्रव्यते देव्या!
योहं द्वाभ्यां भुजाभ्यां मृधभुवि युगपन्मत्तदिग्दंतिदंतान
रुद्ध्वा दोर्भिश्चतुर्भिः सरभसमजितान्दिक्पतिइनप्यरौत्सम।
तस्यापि प्रातिभाट्याद्रिपुरिति कलितः कोप्यपूर्वः प्रमादः॥
भवतु। तथापि श्रोतव्यं देवी स कः?
मन्दोदरी: णिखिवलमुक्कणुगददसुग्गीवाग्गेसरो सहकणिट्टो दासरही रामो त्ति सुणीअदि
रावणः : किं सहानुजस्तापसः? देवि! किं गतेन तेन तैर्वा सः?
मन्दोदरी: महाराअ! समुदाओ क्खु संकीअदी। अवरं अ साअरवेलासु सेणां विणिवेसिअ आहूदो णेण साअरो ण णिग्गदो भवणादो त्ति । तदा तु!
प्रायुंग्तास्त्रं स किंचिज्जलनिधिकुहरे यन्महिम्ना क्षणार्धा-
दावृत्यावृत्त्य चक्रभ्रममखिलमभूत्काथतः शोणमम्भः।
उन्मूर्छन्नकचक्रं झटिति परिदलत्कच्छपौधं प्रमुह्यद-
भूयः पाथोमनुष्यः स्फुटदतुलरवं प्रस्फुटच्छंखशुक्ति॥
रावणः (सावज्ञं) : किं ततः?
मन्दोदरी: महाराअ! तदो अ पुंखमेत्तपेक्खिज्जमाणतिक्खसरणिअरपह्मलिदसरीरेण णिक्कमिअ सलिलादो सवादवडणं अव्भत्थिअमग्गो उवदिट्ठो। साहसिएण उण तेण साहिज्जवित्ती सुणीअदि।
रावणः (सहासं) : अस्तु श्रूयते। देवि! कीदृशः?
मन्दोदरी: महाराअ! वलीमुहासहस्साणीदेहि महीहरेहिं सेदू णिम्मीअदि।
रावणः : देवि! विप्रलब्धासि केनचित! अकलितगाम्भीर्यमहिमाकिलायं पाथोनाथः।
जम्बुद्वीपे-थवान्येषु द्वीपेष्वपि महीधराः।
यावंतस्तैः कुक्षिकोणो-प्यस्य न भ्रियते किल॥
अपि च – साहसिकेनेति वदंत्या देव्या विस्मृतप्रायम। मत्साहसेतु उत्पुष्यद्गलधमनिस्फुटप्रसपैत्प्रत्यग्रक्षतझरोनिवृत्तपाद्यः।
हर्षाश्रुप्रचुरमधुस्मितस्फुटश्रीवक्वाब्जाचिंतचरणः शिवः प्रमाणम॥
मन्दोदरी: महाराअ! ओधारेहि किं वि अन्णारिसी रअणा कस्स व विलीमुहस्स हत्थपुण्णदो उवरि ज्जेव चिट्ठिन्दि ते महीधरा जलम्मि त्ति।
रावणः (सशिरःकम्पम) :
इदं तदप्रतीकार्य मौग्धमबलानां यद्ब्रावाणोपि प्लवंत इति। देवि! किं बहुनोक्तेन?
श्रुतं मे जानाति श्रुतिकविरथाज्ञां सहचरः
स शच्या धैर्यं चाशनिरथ यशोदस्त्रिभुवनम ।
बलं कैलासाद्रिः किमपरमहो साहसमपि
क्षरत्कीलालाम्भःस्नपितचरणः खण्डपरशुः ॥
(नेपथ्ये महान कलकलः )
मन्दोदरी: महाराअ! परित्ताहि परित्ताहि! (इति सत्रासमुदीक्षते)
रावणः : देवि! अलं शंकया।