New Rendering of Mrcchakatika
A.N.D. Haksar
August 2007, volume 31, No 8

Tradition holds Kalidasa to be number one while some may contest this honour for Bhavabhuti or Bhasa. But, asked to name the four best dramatists of Sanskrit literature, most knowledgeable readers would doubtless complete the list with Sudraka, an adaptation of whose work is the subject of this review. Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti have earned their  standing with three celebrated plays each, and Bhasa with thirteen not equally well known. But Sudraka joins the august foursome with only a single work. This is Mrcchakatika, which translates into English as The Little Clay Cart. There must be something in this play which got eminent Sankritists of our time, like Arthur Ryder and Moreshwar Kale, to name its author in the company of the other three great playwrights. First, it is very good drama and an excellent comedy. Second, its tone and realism give it a more contemporary appeal. The Little Clay Cart is a play rich in humour and tenderness, and crowded with action in quick changing scenes.Its main story, of love between the poor but noble-minded Charudatta and the virtuous courtesan Vasantasena, is interwoven with another of political intrigue leading to the overthrow of a wicked king.

Apart from sensitive romantic interludes, the scenes range from attempted sexual molestation and virtual murder, a court of criminal justice in session and an execution about to take place. The main players are supported by a lively host of lesser characters, chief among whom is the hero’s adversary, a remarkable and vivid combination of villain and bufoon.

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Besides him there are faithful friends and loyal servants of either sex, a gambler-cum-burglar turned Buddhist monk and a revolutionary with his sympathizers. There are also the hero’s wife, whose cordial meeting with his inamorata was considered by some critics a contravention of traditional literary norms, and his infant son whose demand for a toy gives the play its name. The modern appeal of Mrcchakatika also derives, it must be noted, from its praise and acceptance in the West. According to literary historian Winternitz, while the older Sanskrit works on poetics and criticism did not seem to consider this play important enough for quoting examples from it, in Europe it was well received from the beginning. First publi-shed in Bonn in 1847, its German translations appeared in the subsequent seventies, followed by those in English, French and other European languages, some also enacted on the stage. In the words of Indologist A.L.Basham, ‘to a Western audience, it is certainly the most appreciated of Indian plays’. While the masterpieces of Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti drew from Indian mythology, an understanding of which is necessary for the fullest comprehension of their nuances, Sudraka, to quote Ryder, ‘has a cosmopolitan character’ and his characters are ‘citizens of the world’. Ryder’s own translation was staged at the University of California’s Greek Theatre in 1907, the first ever performance of a Sanskrit play in the USA, of which this year is the centenary. The book under review is a new translation, described as abridged and adapted for the modern English stage. Vidwan Tenneti mentions in his translator’s note that the play has been staged in the original Sanskrit, Bengali and Telugu in the recent past. It also featured in Hindi and Telugu on Doordarshan, Delhi and Akashvani, Hyderabad, and has film versions in Kannada and Hindi. An English translation was staged in New York in 1924. His commendable effort is to create a version for modern presentation in English. This is perhaps the only way for making such classics known today. Tenneti states that as the original play contains lengthy descriptions and soliloquies which impede the ‘dramatic tempo’, he has left out parts of some long passages. In a few places the textual material has also been rearranged for better presentation. However nothing of significance has been omitted. One of the omissions is that of the original prologue, which gives the play’s name and the only known details of its author Sudraka. The adaptor has also rendered in prose all the gnomic and descriptive verses, some of great beauty, with which the play’s dialogue is interspersed in the traitional manner. However neither detracts from his adaptation in conveying something of the original’s pace and tone. But a translation for the stage must eventually be judged by how it reads and sounds. On this score there are some avoidable lapses where archaisms are mixed uncomfortably with contemporary language. Here is an example, the villain Sakara trying to make a pass at the heroine: ‘Stop, Vasanthasena, stop. Why dost thou run, dost thou scamper, dost thou flee? Will you die, if you stop for a moment, my beauty? My heart is burning with love for you, like a piece of meat fallen on glowing coals.’ Such passages could well inhibit worthwhile directors from considering this version for a production. A.N.D. Haksar is a well-known translator of Sanskrit classics, his latest being Subhashitavali—An Anthology of Comic, Erotic and Other Verse (Penguin, 2007).