Although there is no accurate date for when Bhavabhuti actually lived, as Sanskrit authors did not give away any telling information about their personal lives or the age in which they lived, there are many indicators in other Sanskrit literature giving reference to the time when Bhavabhuti flourished (Mirashi 1). The playwright is referenced multiple times in the Rajatarangini (a historical chronical of early India). These verses describe Bhavabhuti as a colleague of Vakpatiraja in the Court of Yasovarman (Mirashi 3), both of which flourished in the early 8th century. In addition, Vamana cites illustrations from Bhavabhuti’s works in 800 CE, from which historians concluded that Bhavabhuti’s work must have been famous prior to this time (Mirashi 9). Through the use of these crucial markers, most historians have approximated that Bhavabhuti lived and did the majority of his dramatic work in the first quarter of the 8th century C.E., specifically from 700 – 730 CE (Mirashi 3).
Bhavabhuti was born to a learned priestly family of Brahmins in Vidarbha, which resulted in a vast knowledge of both language and philosophy (Bhat 155). In the prologue of his play Malati-Madhava, he claimed to have been conversant in Vyakarana, Mimamsa, and Nyaya, besides having extensive expertise in the Vedas, Sankhya, and Yoga (Ramanathan 1). The fact that Bhavabhuti was well-educated was not lost on him, for he references himself as Srikanthapadalanchanah, which means “adorned with rich learning” (Ramanathan 1). Following this reference, historians believe it is unlikely that Bhavabhuti’s name was actually that which was written on his work. The manuscript for Malati-Madhava references the author as a disciple of Kumarila named Umbekacarya. Bhavabhuti’s family surname was Udumbara, so historians believe the name Umbekacarya may have been derived from there (Bhavabhuti 1967: 5).
Because Bhavabhuti was born into the Brahmin caste, he was expected to follow tradition and attempt to strengthen his family’s name. However, he chose not to carry on the rituals and traditions of his family and focused instead on drama. Being a writer in early India was in itself viewed badly as it did not focus on religious traditions set out for individuals, but Bhavabhuti’s association with actors (who were regarded as low-class citizens) as he began writing greatly upset his family (Bhat 155). Vidarbha, and Padmaputa in general, was not a prosperous area and so Bhavabhuti left Vidarbha, where he had grown up, to seek fortune in North India (Mirashi 17). He travelled to Padmavati and resided there for a few years, though he staged his plays at Kalapriya, a city north of Padmavati. Because Bhavabhuti held his plays away from the city and not in the royal court, he did not receive royal patronage there (Mirashi 18). However, King Yasovarman of Kanauj heard of Bhavabhuti’s work as his fame became widespread, resulting in Bhavabhuti becoming Poet Laureate at his court (Mirashi 19).
Although known almost exclusively for his three plays, Mahaviracarita, Malati-Madhava, and Uttara Rama Carita, it is possible that Bhavabhuti had written other pieces. Quotes in Sargadhara’s Paddhati and Gadadharabhatta’s Rasikajibana demonstrate that Bhavabhuti may have had other works that are lost or have yet to be discovered (Bhavabhuti 1967: 8). It is not possible to comment on unknown works, and thus analysts only credit Bhavabhuti for the plays that are commonly known. Though his writing does not contain any humor, he possesses a lyrical element that dominates throughout every play (Bhavabhuti 1967: 13). His mastery of multiple languages resulted in the use of very high-level speech, which, criticized by analysts as “pretentious”, was not at all suited to efficiently convey inner thought or to please audiences viewing the play (Bhavabhuti 1967: 13).
Mahaviracarita is believed to have been Bhavabhuti’s first play, though there is contention over this statement by some historians. The style, ideas, and plot conception lead many to believe that this was his first piece of work, Bhavabhuti’s outline seemed to many Sanskrit literature critics to “need finishing” (Ramanathan 2), and was the mark of an inexperienced writer. Mahaviracarita is based on the early life of Rama, from boyhood to his return to Ayodhya after the Lanka war and his wife Sita’s rescue (Bhavabhuti 1967: 10). Bhavabhuti relied heavily on Valmiki’s Ramayana for a significant portion of the theme, and even copied verses from the Ramayana into Mahaviracarita (Bhavabhuti 1967: 146). This play is known as virarastradhana, where the main sentiment evoked is bravery and/or heroism. Mahaviracarita is available in eleven northern manuscripts and seven southern, however, Viraraghava (the original commentator) wrote that the original book consisted up to only Act V. Most scholars concur that the rest of the play was written by an author that was not Bhavabhuti, but reasoning for this is unclear (Ramanathan 2).
Malati-Madhava is commonly known as Bhavabhuti’s second play, though there is minor contention as to whether this may have been the first play. The theme of love present in this play often arrives in a Sanskrit writer’s works before themes such as heroism, resulting in a theory among some historians that this Malati-Madhava could have been his first completed piece (Bhavabhuti 1967: 9). The play is based on a folktale of Brhatkatha and focuses primarily on the love story of Malati and Madhava. Malati’s love-torment for Madhava grows unbearable, for she is betrothed to Nandana by her father due to the King’s insistence. Her desire for a love marriage directly contradicts the need Malati has to please her family through an arranged marriage (Bhavabhuti 1967: 17). These conflicting desires result in Malati’s childhood friend marrying Nandana while she carries out a secret love marriage to Madhava (Bhavabhuti 1967: 20).
Malati-Madhava consists of 10 acts and multiple prakari, which are small incidents that assist with the progress of the play (Bhavabhuti 1967: 1). The earliest and, according to critics, most crucial prakari in Malati-Madhava is the conversation between Kamandaki and Malati as Madhava overhears, for this first alerts Madhava to the mutual feelings shared by the couple (Bhavabhuti 1967: 33). This play belongs to a division of dramatic compositions called prakarana; the subject matter of a prakarana must be drawn from worldly life and must be a work of pure invention. Bhavabhuti’s theme of love throughout Malati-Madhava fulfills the requirements of a prakarana (Bhavabhuti 1967: 31).
Bhavabhuti’s Uttara Rama Carita is widely known as his “masterpiece” (Bhavabhuti 1967:10). In this piece, Bhavabhuti chose to focus on one particular incident: Sita’s banishment, and Rama’s feelings throughout the event. Bhavabhuti attempts to depict karuna (pathos) and finds more success and applause in doing so than almost any other poet of classic India (Bhavabhuti 1967: 11). The portrayal of both Rama’s ruthless heart in banishing his wife and tender heart as he weeps for her gained audience approval that had been lacking in much of his previous work (Ramanathan 3). In addition to the use of karuna, the tone of Uttara Rama Carita is lofty but without any obscenity or humor: there is not a single work in all of Sanskrit literature that is completely free of these two elements (Bhavabhuti 1895: 11). Due to a “positive rule” in Sanskrit literature prohibiting tragedy in said literature, the ending of Uttara Rama Carita was adapted so that Bhavabhuti’s work could be shared with the public. Whereas the original story concluded with tragedy, the modern ending shows a happy reunion of Rama, Sita, and their two sons, which added to critical acclaim of his final known work (Bhavabhuti 1895: 7).
Each of Bhavabhuti’s three plays has different main themes, though the concept of love maintains a constant presence in every one. In both Uttara Rama Carita and Malati-Madhava (and briefly in the beginning acts of Mahaviracarita) Bhavabhuti emphasizes the concept of love, specifically monogamous relationships. Bhavabhuti flourished in a period in which polygamy was gaining popularity but expressed monogamy in high regards (Ambardekar 80). Bhavabhuti uses the concept of “love at first sight” in both Mahaviracarita and Malati-Madhava when Rama and Sita meet, and when Malati first sees Madhava (Ambardekar 83). An expert of high-level speech, Bhavabhuti goes beyond simply portraying a couple in love by also describing the afflictions associated with love in Malati-Madhava, feelings such as despair, disappointment, and frustration (Ambardekar 83).
Despite serious events often covered in Sanskrit drama, playwrights of the time would use simple diction mixed with sections of entertainment for the sole purpose of entertaining an audience. In contrast, Bhavabhuti’s work was completely serious. Though he used themes of love, Bhavabhuti did not include lighthearted conversation or thought, but instead used a serious tone and philosophized on the concept of love itself (Bhat 154). As previously mentioned, Bhavabhuti had mastered a high-level writing style that would only be understood by well-educated classes, which, combined with a consistently solemn tone, was ill-received by audiences and critics alike. The harshest criticism, however, came from Bhavabhuti’s relatives and residents of his native Padmapura, who disapprove of Bhavabhuti’s journey into the dramatic arts and his abandonment of the prestige and tradition of his family (Bhat 156). While most early Sanskrit writers used the prologue of their plays to introduce themselves and the play itself, Bhavabhuti’s introductions (specifically Mahaviracarita and Malati-Madhava) replied to the critics themselves. It is unclear why Bhavabhuti chose to reply to negative criticism in the prologues of his first two works, but this unusual introduction did not occur in Uttara Rama Charita (Bhat 152). Despite harsh criticism of Bhavabhuti’s non-traditional style of writing, modern critics applaud his unique works and view him as one of the best playwrights of early India.
References and Further Recommended Reading:
Ambardekar, R.R. (1978) “Bhavabhuti’s Concept of Love.” Indian Literature. 21:2-16. Accessed February 1, 2016. doi: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/23334393.
Bhat, G.K. (1979) “The Detractors of Bhavabhuti.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. 60. Accessed February 2, 2016. doi: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/41692300.
Bhavabhuti (1895) Uttara Rama Charita with Sanscrit Commentary. Translated by Vinayak Sadashiv Patvardhan. Nagpur: Nyaya Sudha Press.
Bhavabhuti (1967) Malatimadhava: With the Commentary of Jagaddha. Translated by M.R. Kale. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Mirashi, Vasudev Vishnu (1974) Bhavabhuti. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Nandi, Tapasvi (1996) Bhavabhuti and Sanskrit Literary Criticism. Bhandarkar: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Accessed February 21, 2016. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41702167
Ramanathan, C. (1985) Bhavabhuti: a Brief Sketch of Life and Works. Bangalore: W Q Judge Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Uttara Rama Carita
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Article written by: Ashley Steenbergen (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content