Let us briefly examine the literary scene prevalent in Sanskrit when Bhavabhūti began writing plays. While dramatists respected the compositions of past masters such as Bhāsa, Śūdraka and Kālidāsa, they mostly took to writing risqué ‘causeries’ (bhāṇa) and ‘harem romances’ (nāṭikā). Examples include such plays as Padma-prābhṛtaka, Pāda-tāḍitaka, Dhūrta-viṭa-saṃvāda, Ubhayābhisārikā (collectively termed as Caturbhāṇī), Priyadarśikā and Ratnāvalī (both by Harṣavardhana). Playwrights largely did not choose social themes, did not depict valour and pathos sufficiently and did not move away from their comfort zone of pre-set patterns.
These bothered Bhavabhūti. He wrote Mahāvīra-carita and Uttara-rāma-carita with valour and pathos as the predominant rasa, respectively. In a bid to revive the social play, he wrote Mālatī-mādhava. Its well-knit plot, to speak in contemporary terms, has all the ingredients of a successful ‘mass’ movie. In all these plays, he introduced flavours of fear and disgust that most poets avoid. Indeed, he revelled in picturing grisly and grotesque details.
He was incensed by the way poets portrayed women, by crass humour that teased the patience of polite taste and by irreverence shown towards language. He had the gumption to take initiative and raise his voice against these execrable practices. As a mark of positive protest, he banned the vidūṣaka from his plays, wrote in a scholarly and stately style and treated women characters with unreserved respect. Taking a bold step against the accepted norms of convention, he made women characters speak in Sanskrit. He openly denounced the comical play: ‘Dhik prahasanam,’ ‘Fie upon farce!’
Even while charting his own course, Bhavabhūti had nothing but unmixed respect for his predecessors.
It looks like Bhavabhūti had a problem with another thing that poets had beaten into a convenient mould: description of Nature. Historians aver that Padmapura, the birthplace of our poet, was full of dense forests. Naturally, Bhavabhūti had ample time to observe Nature in all its raw glory. Because he had this rich first-hand experience, it is likely that he was nettled by most of his peers who had reduced Nature to a pretty list of rhyming words. He is angrily accurate while describing the natural world comprising plants, trees, birds, animals, rivers and mountains. 
While most Sanskrit poets think of—sometimes invent—birds and animals only to tame them to the service of poetic conventions, Bhavabhūti brings them in because they are an inalienable part of his poetic world. He names only the rarest of the lot; all of which, doubtless, he has seen and known intimately: mallikākṣa, dātyūha, koyaṣṭika, pratisūryaka, pūrṇika, and so on.
Sample these verses on Janasthāna picked from the second act of Uttara-rāma-carita:
र्घर्मस्रंसितबन्धनैः स्वकुसुमैरर्चन्ति गोदावरीम्।
कूजत्क्लान्तकपोतकुक्कुटकुलाः कूले कुलायद्रुमाः॥(2.9)
On the banks of Godāvarī, trees that are home to nests worship the river by offering their own flowers. These flowers fall in heaps with their stems loosened by heat when elephants shake them up by rubbing their itchy temples against the trees. In these trees, heat-afflicted pigeons and fowls shriek while birds scratching about in the shade for food draw out insects with their beaks.
निष्कूजस्तिमिताः क्वचित्क्वचिदपि प्रोच्चण्डसत्त्वस्वनाः
सीमानः प्रदरोदरेषु विलसत्स्वल्पाम्भसो यास्वयं
तृष्यद्भिः प्रतिसूर्यकैरजगरस्वेदद्रवः पीयते॥ (2.16)
The borders [of Janasthāna] are eerily silent in one place and resound with frightful roars of animals in another. Huge, hideous snakes sleeping with abandon hiss to ignite forest fires. Scant water sparkles deep within crevasses where thirsty lizards suck the sweat off pythons.
Here mountain brooks flow with water cool and clear. Impassioned birds perched atop vines cause flowers to drop and in turn make the stream fragrant. Loads of ripened berries fall from clusters of Jambu bowers, introducing sound to the strong current.
दधति कुहरभाजामत्र भल्लूकयूना-
शिशिरकटुकषायः स्त्यायते सल्लकीना-
Bear cubs residing in caves give out gargling growls that are amplified by resounding echoes. Elephants tear Sallakī leaves from their stems. These scattered leaves emanate a scent—at once cool, sharp and pungent—that spreads all round.
स्तम्बाडम्बरमूकमौकुलिकुलः क्रौञ्चावतोऽयं गिरिः।
एतस्मिन् प्रचलाकिनां प्रचलताममुद्वेजिताः कूजितै-
रुद्वेल्लन्ति पुराणरोहिणतरुस्कन्धेषु कुम्भीनसाः॥(2.29)
Here is Mount Krauñcāvata, where owls hoot in the bowers of bamboo trees whose collective din silences clusters of crows; snakes coil higher round the branches of ancient sandalwood trees, alarmed by the cries of peacocks strutting about.
एते ते कुहरेषु गद्गदनदद्गोदावरीवारयो
मेघालम्बितमौलिनीलशिखराः क्षोणीभृतो दक्षिणाः।
रुत्तालास्त इमे गभीरपयसः पुण्याः सरित्सङ्गमाः॥(2.30)
These here are the southern mountains. Clouds hover on their peaks and render them dark. The waters of the Godāvarī splash and gurgle in their clefts. These here are the sacred spots where rivers meet. As the gushing currents collide head on, their deep waters roar with the relentless rise and fall of billows.
Evidently, my scrawny translation is nowhere close to the brawny original.
 These are a few illustrative verses:
द्व्यालोलस्तनभारभैरववपुर्दर्पोद्धतं धावति॥ (महावीरचरितम्, १.३५)
उत्कृत्योत्कृत्य कृत्तिं प्रथममथ पृथूच्छोफभूयांसि मांसा-
आत्तस्नाय्वन्त्रनेत्रः प्रकटितदशनः प्रेतरङ्कः करङ्का-
दङ्कस्थादस्थिसंस्थं स्थपुटगतमपि क्रव्यमव्यग्रमत्ति॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, ५.१६)
स्रोतोनिर्गमघोरघर्घररवा पारेश्मशानं सरित्॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, ५.१९)
 सर्वथा व्यवहर्तव्यं कुतो ह्यवचनीयता। यथा स्त्रीणां तथा वाचां साधुत्वे दुर्जनो जनः॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, १.५)
 Uttara-rāma-carita, dialogue after 1.1
 इदं कविभ्यः पूर्वेभ्यो नमोवाकं प्रशास्महे॥ (उत्तररामचरितम्, १.१)
 Ref: Bhavabhūti (Kannada), pp. 48–49
 He knew the exact influence that seasonal and geographical variations have on plants and animals. These are a few verses that showcase his keen observation of flora and fauna:
काश्मर्याः कृतमालमुद्गतदलं कोयष्टिकष्टीकते
तीराश्मन्तकशिम्बिचुम्बितमुखा धावन्त्यपः पूर्णिकाः ।
दात्यूहैस्तिनिशस्य कोटरवति स्कन्धे निलीय स्थितं
वीरुन्नीडकपोतकूजितमनुक्रन्दन्त्यधः कुक्कुटाः॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, ९.७)
पर्यन्तेषु च यूथिकासुमनसामुज्जृम्भितं जालकैः।
उन्मीलत्कुटजप्रहारिषु गिरेरालम्ब्य सानूनितः
प्राग्भारेषु शिखण्डिताण्डवविधौ मेघैर्वितानाय्यते॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, ९.१५)
शैलाभोगभुवो भवन्ति ककुभः कादम्बिनीश्यामलाः।
उद्यत्कन्दलकान्तकेतकभृतः कच्छाः सरित्स्रोतसा-
माविर्भूतशिलीन्ध्रलोध्रकुसुमस्मेरा वनानां ततिः॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, ९.१६)
धारासिक्तवसुन्धरासुरभयः प्राप्तास्त एतेऽधुना
घर्माम्भोविगमागमव्यतिकरश्रीवाहिनो वासराः॥ (मालतीमाधवम्, ९.१७)
I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Śatāvadhānī R Ganesh. Apart from providing incredible insights into the works and personality of Bhavabhūti, he handheld me throughout this essay. I extend my heartfelt thanks to Prof. L V Shantakumari, G S Raghavendra, Sandeep Balakrishna and Hari Ravikumar for their valuable inputs. I am indebted to several scholars from whose valuable works on Bhavabhūti I have benefited immensely. Of them, I must name V V Mirashi and G K Bhat. While Mirashi’s work is instructive and comprehensive, Bhat’s book is insightful and eminently readable.
To be continued.