(Last Updated on : 06/03/2010)
There are a number of explanations regarding the social position of the characters in Indian theatre. Bharata gives a mythological account where he says that the actors in a comic vein, made fun of certain holy sages and were cursed with the loss of their status, which, thereafter, came to that of Sudras. This story of the curse on the actors shows that at the time of Bharata actors as a class had become infamous and their unclean habits were disliked and shunned by the refined society. There was no mourning on their death. The actors were considered as the outsiders of society till a very long time. It was much later that the actors and actresses enjoyed social recognition.
According to the Natyashastra
, the pleasure houses or natyasalas for natas, nartakas, instrumentalists and reciters of stories and actors should not be built in the heart of villages, lest their plays should hinder the work of the residents of the place. Manu seems to have been aware of the influence which the stage exerted on people and he was vehement in disapproving the vocation of actors. In fact, he proscribed Brahmanas from becoming actors. Manu
imposes only a minor punishment on illicit connections with the views of actors because they were themselves willing to hand over their wives to others for profit. According to Manu, the professions of natas, athletes, and the boxers are the lowest means of livelihood and no Brahmana should accept food from stage artists. The wives of actors who served as actresses were considered as of low morals. This is illustrated in the Mahabhasya, which says that the women of natas mix with different persons as vowels with consonants. The reputation of actors and actresses was low and derogatory.
On the other hand, however, actors enjoyed the acquaintance of great kings and renowned dramatists. Traces of a brighter side of the profession are found and this without a doubt can be related with the steady elevation of the art from humble origins to the rank of distinguished poetry. Bharata is considered as a muni or a holy sage. As he is the creator of the dramatic art, actors are called Bharataputras or sons of Bharata. Almost everything connected with drama or the stage is named after him. The oldest and most trustworthy treatise on dramaturgy, the Natyashastra, is attributed to Bharata. An actress was often, if not necessarily, one of the courtesans. In the Mrichakatika
, Vasantasena is accomplished in acting and has in her house maidens learning the art. Vasantasena is liberated from her profession as a courtesan and allowed to marry Charudatta, a learned Brahmana, by the king Sarvilaka. Thus the social metamorphosis was mirrored in the plays.
Actors are cited as welcome guests of princes and close friends of poets of status. Bana enumerates actors and actresses among his friends in the Harsacarita. Bhartrihari refers to their friendship with kings. Girls belonging to the higher echelon of the society, like Malavika, were instructed in the art of representation. Malavika was made a present to the queen by her brother, Virasena, believing her fit to be initiated in fine arts. In the play Ratnavali, the manager was treated with great respect by kings and requested to act the drama. These instances reveal that the actors were treated with great respect by the kings.
Thus, it is seen that though in the beginning the actors and actresses were deemed as social outcast but the respect for the position of actors and their profession was gradually rising.