24 June, 2024


Bharatha Muni & Bertolt Brecht: Two Theatre Semioticians 

By Michael Fernando –

Dr. Michael Fernando

As Bertolt Brecht correctly observed: “From the first it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people, as it also has of all other arts.”[1] Hence, understanding the arts mainly concerns awareness of the ability of a work to achieve this goal. Art is a human activity  that exists as a process (creation of a work of art for the purpose of the creation of meaning). In other words this is a process of creation, communication and reception/consumption of – meaning. At the same time art -also coexists eternally with other human activities that mutually affect each other. 

The western world since the early 20th century has used a system called semiotics to explain the functions of the creation and communication of meaning semiotics. This method has reached the status of a science that encompasses all natural and applied sciences, even though its origin can be traced to study of the humanities, especially linguistics. 

As Keir Elam says (and as this author also believes); “Semiotics can best be defined as a science dedicated to the study of the production of meaning in society. As such it is equally concerned with processes of signification and with those of communication, i.e. the means whereby meanings are both generated and exchanged”[2].

The purpose of this paper is to examine the importance of  Sanaskrit  poetics as the first attempt to apply a semiotic approach toward the arts, and also the importance of semiotic aspects of Bertolt Brecht’s work with special reference to theatre.

However, from the beginning, or more correctly, according to the available historical evidence, the arts and artists have usually been looked at, criticized and accepted or rejected based on the socio-political effects of works of art as understood by the recipient. The most famous example of this is Plato’s condemnation of artists in his Republic. This condemnation reflects Plato’s view of the possible effects of the arts on human society. However, the main drawback of Plato’s view is that he did not consider the main function of art; that is to entertain. It is also necessary that Plato’s main concern was politics and not aesthetics.

Aristotle, who apparently intended to defend the arts and artist against his teacher’s condemnation, wittingly or unwittingly took a moral standpoint in describing the qualities of the hero of the “tragedy”. According to him the ideal form of art is tragedy, and the purpose of tragedy is to create a sublime mental status in the spectator by purging (catharsis) and making him free of such emotions as fear and pity. Aristotle in his poetics did not try to explain the ways and means of achieving this goal through the form he calls “dramatic”. He tried to explain the forms of art by citing works by Sophocles  and Homer. Other than his mention of “mimesis” the three “unities” (action, time and place) and the structure (in six elements (plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle and melody) of the tragedy, other details given are mostly references  to the qualities of characters, especially the “tragic hero”.

Bharatha Muni (who apparently lived between the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE) seems to have been the first theoretician to attempt to analyze the art of theatre from a semiotic point of view. The system of signs categorized as the four abinayas (gestures) āńgika (gestures of limbs), vāchika (verbal display), āhārya (representation through costumes, sets, etc.) and sātvika (facial expression of emotions), including the concept of rasanishpatti“[3] is the most successful scheme to encompasses the whole sign system necessary for the realization of a dramatic presentation. Theorists of the 20th century, such as Tadeus Kowsan, have also tried to compile a system of signs ( 13 categories) to explain the signification process of theatre, but without much success. The superiority of Bharatha Muni’s abhinaya system lies in its openness and potential to encompass any dramaturgy, regardless of time, space and style. Abhinava Gupta, the 10th-century commentator of Natyashastra further developed the rasa theory explaining the causes of rasabhanga (the causes that bar the realization of rasa) by the spectator.

It should be noted that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) of England observed the “distancing power”  of the arts, and Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) of Germany stressed the importance of “disinterestedness” (Uneigennützigkeit) in making a work of art entertaining. The concept sādhāraņikaraņa developed by Abhinava Gupta analyzes the method  to avoid a taking over of the spectator by emotions, by means of preventing an identification of oneself with characters on the stage.

Bharatha Muni stressed that in the process of creating the rasas (a higher mental state based on emotions) such as śrńgāra (erotic emotion) and karuna (sympathy) the experience of the spectator has to be accompanied by the emotional state (sthāyi bhava) called nirvēda or non-feeling which seems to be close to the disinterestednessa suggested by Kant. Abhinava Gupta, in commenting on Bharatha Muni said that when the spectator is over overtaken by rathi (the erotic emotion) he wishes to experience the emotion further. With regard to karana rasa if the spectator is overtaken by the sthāyi bhava “of shoka(sympathy), he wishes to leave that mental state as soon as possible baring the achievement of karuna rasa. According to Abhinava Gupta that was the reason why Bharatha Muni wanted to accompany the process of the achievement of some rasas with the emotion of nirvēda or a non-feeling.

It is not out of context here to consider  that the concept of Verfremdung Effekt (estrangement effect), developed by the 20th-century German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, has some common features with the sādhāraņikaraņa concept of Abhinava Gupta. According to Brecht “the first condition of the Verfremdung Effekt [estrangement effect] application to this end is that stage and auditorium must be purged of everything ‘magical’ and no ‘hypnotic tensions’  should be set up … the audience was not ‘worked up’ by a display of temperament or ‘swept away’ by acting with taunted muscles; in short no attempt was made put it in a trance and give it the illusion of an ordinary unrehearsed event[4]. Abhinava Gupta also suggested the necessity to avoid the same mental status described by Brecht in order to achieve the result of rasanishpatti (the creation of rasa)

Whether one agrees with the rasa theory and the aesthetic theory of Sanskrit poetics as a whole, the validity of the semiotic approach and the categorization developed in Natyashastra is unchallengeable. The details given in regard to the specific signs to be used in the creation of different rasas, and the categorization of all meanings creatable on stage into eight rasas ( hāsya, karuņa, raudra, vīra, bhayanaka, bhībatsa and adbhutha) can definitely be considered somewhat mechanical.

Natyashastra gives a clear indication of the purpose of theatre in the story of its origin (Natyaveda). According to the story this art form was introduced as a “pastime” that could save people from jealousy, wrath and misery and make them happy[5]. Hence, according to Bharatha Muni’s interpretation, theatre’s purpose is multifaceted. It contains the elements of avoidance of suffering gaining knowledge and entertainment. Bharatha Muni suggested and described the sign system that can be used to create and communicate the above meanings effectively for the benefit of an audience. In other words his system explains the ways and means by which a particular human activity is in the position to create a complex that offers  a multifaceted entertainment to members of human society. Albeit his special area of interest was theatre, his system of signification laid the foundation for a broader aesthetic tradition encompassing other genres of art. 

In the more than 000- year old history of world theatre, great drama has been produced under different national, regional, temporal, socio-economic, political, moral and aesthetic conditions. Most theorists and artists were mainly concerned with one or more aspects of art but rarely with the totality of the process of the production of meaning through signification and of communication, i.e. the means whereby meanings are both generated and exchanged. 

In the western worldphilosophers, especially those of linguistics such as Ferdinand Saussere and James Piers, laid the foundation of a semiotic approach to the study of the humanities. Within about 100 years semiotics has become a science applied to all natural and social phenomena of the universe. It is necessary to re-evaluate the contributions made by Sanskrit theoreticians such as Bharatha Muni, Panini and Abhinava Gupta.

Both Bharatha and Abhinava Gupta tried to explain the sign system specific to the genre of theatre. Bertolt Brecht of 20th-century Europe also made an attempt to experiment with a sign system and to establish a theory that could create and communicate a meaning that he thought was the noblest function of  a theatre in the scientific age, that is to entertain people. According to him ” we should still have to say that the theatre setup’s broadest function was to give pleasure. It is the noblest function that we have found for the “thatre” In developing a dramaturgy that he called episches Theater (epic theatre) for the purpose of depicting the “present day society” (heutige Gesselshaft) he stressed that “the Asiatic theatre even today uses musical and pantomime effects. Such devices were certainly a barrier to empathy, and yet this technique owed more, not less, to hypnotic suggestion than to those by which empathy is achieved[6]. It is also well known that he was deeply influenced by the “alienation effects” of Chinese acting[7]. Brecht never rejected the ability of other dramaturgies that he termed “Aristotelian” In this regard his approach was very open. In other words Brecht was also a semiotician theoretically and practically.

[1] Brecht, Bertolt (1975) Brecht on Theatre John Willett (trans & ed ), New York: Hill and Wang, 180.

[2] Elam, Keir (1984) The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama New York: Methuen & Co. 1.

[3] English translations of Sanskrit expressions are from Natayashasytra, Delhi Sri Satgujgju Publications (date not available)

[4] Brecht, Ibid., 136-140 

[5] Natyashastra, Ibid., 1-2 

[6] Brecht, Ibid., 192

[7] Brecht, Ibid., 91

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Latest comments

  • 1

    It is a pity that in this learned effort my friend Michael does not include a para or two on how Shakespeare fits in. The Bard of Avon is by far the greatest dramatist and poet, at least in the English language if not universally, and one that some people in Sri Lanka are familiar with.

    On reading MF’s study I think by not doing so he has missed something huge between Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, Baratha Muni (of whom I was ignorant till now) and 20th-C Brecht.

    • 3

      Thanks for your comments ! My purpose was to compare Bharatha Muni and Bertolt Brecht as semioticians. That’s why I did not mention about Shakespeare in my essay. I also agree with you when you speak about him. There is no doubt that Shakespeare was one of the greatest dramatists of the world!

    • 3

      You have a point.
      But the purpose of the author was to compare two approaches to theatre– one ancient and the other modern. No other dramatist is invoked.

  • 0

    Thank you, Dr Michael Fernando.
    I’m sorry that I can’t formulate anything that amounts to a perceptive response to your thoughts on the Theory of Literary Criticism. It seems rather an abstruse subject to deal with given all the chaos around us.
    Like “eeakdavi” above, I, too, have to plead ignorance of Bharatha Muni, but the effects aimed at by Bertolt Brecht are known to most of us, Sri Lankans. Henry Jayasena’s productions were as good, I’m sure, as anything outside Germany.
    Also, the plays of the ancient Greek Dramatists are studied in Sinhala (and, I should imagine, Tamil) translations by many students of Drama in Sri Lanka, although my reading has been mostly in English. However, Aristotle has always been difficult to fathom; your article drove me to read up a little more of the Internet now makes available. It not only confirmed what I had been taught, but made me aware that what I had gathered is correct. Nobody will probably ever understand what he really thought, unless what has been lost of his writing is discovered. That is most unlikely! Ironically, what we have in the Poetics are his technical notes; what he wanted published, has been lost.
    The same for much else of value. Thanks for continuing with these studies.

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