Mricchakatikam, the Sanskrit play of the fifth century AD written by Sudraka, has all the element of a Bollywood blockbuster. It is unfortunate that the movies made on this paly in Hindi and other languages did not become so. Hindi movie Utsav was made on this play and it starred Rekha, Sekhar Suman, and Amzad Khan among others.
Mricchakatikam is a fusion (sandhi) of two words mrit and shakatikam meaning clay and cart respectively. This is my representative text for Sanskrit Drama which became a strong genre during post vedic period especially after Bharatmuni wrote Natyashastra. Out of thousands of Sanskrit dramas written, the works of Asvaghosha, Kalidasa, Bhasha, Bhavabhuti, Harsha, Sudraka and Vishakhadatta and a few others have somehow survived and have been rediscovered.
Mricchakatikam is an odd choice to represent Sanskrit Drama because it is not written by Kalidasa or Bhasa who are the most famous Sanskrit dramatists. Secondly, Mricchakatikam does not follow the norm. Most of the Sanskrit plays of classical period are based on specific events of Mahabharata or Ramayana and the main characters are from royal families. To the contrary Mricchakatikam’s main characters are ordinary citizens and it is based on the social and political life of those days.
So the main reason I choose to write about this book is that it brings back pleasant classroom memories of my High School days. I have briefly mentioned about it in one of my earlier posts. Our Odia teacher Shri Surendra Das was a writer and a prolific story teller. He was also our stand by Sanskrit teacher. During the initial months of an academic year he narrated the entire story of Mricchakatikam in an episodic manner. I still remember after entering the class how he used to take out his spectacles and say, “So where were we last time? Yes, Vasantasena … “. We used to wait for his next class with the same eagerness as of those who waited for the next episode of Ramayana on Doordarshan in the eighties.
From Mrichhakatikam we come to know that corruption and nepotism is nothing new in India. The setting for the play is the city of Ujjayini. Ironically the king’s name is palaka which literally means the one who looks after well. His brother in law seems to be the de-facto power center and he roams around the city with a sense of entitlement similar to the ones enjoyed by the relatives of VIPs in our time. He lusts after the most famous courtesan Vasantasena but is frustrated again and again. Vasantasena is quite wealthy and her eyes are set on an intelligent and popular citizen Charudatta who is not that well off financially though he belongs to a Brahmin family. Charudatta in spite of being married falls for Vasantasena.
What about the clay cart? Well I think clay cart is a symbol for Sudraka to tell that the story is about common men. Those days the children of the nobility had the luxury of carts made of gold. But a clay cart is part of the story and plays a very crucial role in creating the climax.
After visiting a rich friend’s house Charudatta’s son is no more interested in his own clay cart. Taking compassion Vasantasena fills the cart with her own jewelry. While Vasantasena and Charudatta are planning to meet in a park Samstahnaka, the king’s spoilt brother in law, finds an opportunity to take revenge. He strangles Vasantasena and taking her for dead dumps the body behind a bush. Further, he accuses Charudatta as the murderer and produced the jewelry inside the clay cart as the motive of the murder. The king holds Charudatta guilty and sentences him to death.
However, Vasantsena who was not actually dead recovers. A rebel who was trying to overthrow the corrupt king has succeeded. Well, now you can join the dots using ‘all is well that ends well formula’ of a Bollywood blockbuster.
When it comes to breaking the norm another play that comes to mind is Bhasha’s Urubhanga. Unlike Mricchakatika, it is based on incidents from an epic. Urubhanga means breaking of the thigh. In Mahabharata war Bhima breaks the thigh of Duryadhona as a mark of revenge for Duryodhan’s previous misdeeds against Draupadi. In the play, Bhasha explores the mindset of Duryodhana and is rather sympathetic to him. It was not the norm to put a negative character as the protagonist or create sympathy for him.
It seems, interpretation of characters from Ramayana or Mahabharata from a different perspective is nothing new. We can find plenty of such works in Sanskrit and other regional languages beginning from the classical period. But modern writers of ‘retelling’ genre often cross the line by altering the major or ‘the turning point’ events and changing the distinctive qualities of a character.
This is the alphabet M post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.