To the European mind the history of the Indian drama cannot but be a source of abundant interest; for here we have an important branch of literature which has had a full and varied national development, quite independent of Western influence, and which throws much light on Hindu social customs during the five or six centuries preceding the Muhammadan conquest.
The earliest forms of dramatic literature in India are represented by those hymns of the Rigveda which contain dialogues, such as those of Saramā and the Paṇis, Yama and Yamī, Purūravas and Urvaçī, the latter, indeed, being the foundation of a regular play composed much more than a thousand years later by the greatest dramatist of India. The origin of the acted drama is, however, wrapt in obscurity. Nevertheless, the evidence of tradition and of language suffice to direct us with considerable probability to its source.
The words for actor (naṭa) and play (nāṭaka) are derived from the verb naṭ, the Prākrit or vernacular form of the Sanskrit nṛit, "to dance." The name is familiar to English ears in the form of nautch, the Indian dancing of the present day. The latter, indeed, probably represents the beginnings of the Indian drama. It must at first have consisted only of rude pantomime,