Archetype and Innovation: The Little Clay Cart and Classical Indian Theatre

The rapacious greed of prostitutes robbed you of everything. No age has heard of a prostitute wanting to have compassion on another or to spare the passions which in a certain way they are able to consume.” – Fulco of Deuil to Peter Abelard (12th century CE)

“Such a woman, the jewel of our city, with a hundred ornaments of gold, Vasantasenā herself!” – Mṛcchakatika, Act IX

[An oleographic print of Vasantasenā by Raja Ravi Varma]

Okay, as promised, we’re going to get back into some actual content this week by looking at classical Indian theatre and specifically, the play Mṛcchakatika (मृच्छकटिकम्), or in English, The Little Clay Cart. Written sometime before the 5th century CE, The Little Clay Cart is a study in contradictions: it is one of the oldest extant Indian plays we possess, yet it is known to be an adaptation of an even older script; it is an old play, but one with a confident enough grasp of its theatrical conventions to often completely subvert them; and it is rightly one of the most famous works of its genre, yet it might be the one which we are the least sure of its origins and author. With all those mysteries stirred up, let’s dive into its murky depths as best we can…

Classical Indian theatre, as we’ll discover, obviously has its own conventions and history, but in many ways it shares its roots with the theatre of ancient Greece and Japan that we’ve already taken a peek at. Like both of those cultures, we believe that Indian theatre grew out of religious rituals and festivals. In India, that means out of the Sanskrit Rigveda (ऋग्वेद), the oldest of the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism. The oldest mantras (verses) in the Rigveda, whose name means “praise (ṛ́c) knowledge (ved),” are some of the most ancient words and sounds we have in any language, and are the oldest we have in any language in the Indo-European family of languages. Based on our current understanding of the philological and linguistic evidence, we can trace these mantras to northwestern India in the 2nd millennium BCE (~1900-1000 BCE; i.e., somewhere between the Middle and New Kingdoms in Egypt), but it is possible that the oral tradition goes back even further. Linguists permitted to record the Vedic recitations of Brahmins (the traditional priestly caste) in rural northern India, where the texts have been transmitted only orally from generation to generation, have discovered untranslatable sounds woven into the mantras of the Rigveda that might not only predate formal Sanskrit, but word-based language itself. They’ve noted that the non-words appear to have more in common tonally with the vocalizations of local birdsongs than with Sanskrit or any human language, which may indicate a truly Neolithic origin for the texts.

[Sculpture of Vasantasenā, 2nd century CE]

The Vedas in turn gave rise to the great Sanskrit epics, most famously the Ramayana (7th-4th century BCE) and the Mahabharata (3rd century BCE-3rd century CE). Like the Vedas, the epics are at their heart philosophical works about the cosmos and the gods, and humanity’s place among them. The main difference being that the Vedas are more overtly religious in nature, while the epics weave cosmogony into stories. At the same time, another art form rose out of their Vedic storytelling tradition and that was classical Indian dance and theatre, as laid down in the Nāṭya Śāstra, an encyclopedic treatise on the performing arts. Attributed to the sage Bharata Muni (c. 500 BCE-500 CE), the Nāṭya Śāstra positioned itself as the “fifth Veda,” designed to function as a spiritual guide even more than to establish the arts as entertainment:

Let Nāṭya [drama and dance] be the fifth Vedic scripture.
Combined with an epic story, tending to virtue, wealth, joy and spiritual freedom, it must contain the significance of every scripture, and forward every art.
(Nāṭya Śāstra, 1.14–15)

Just we saw with Nōh and Japanese poetry, it is difficult to separate classical Indian theatre from classical dance. Both rely on similar modes of storytelling that involve a dizzying number of intricate postures and gestures to embellish their dialogue and dancing, respectively. Minute changes in expression and body evoke a cascade of information to the audience about a performer’s emotions and intentions. Almost as important as a performer’s face as an instrument are their hands—both theatre and dance in India use an elaborate sign language (mudras) to convey emotion and status as well as activity. In dance, this hand language replaces speech; in plays, it accentuates dialogue. An actor’s hand placement can even convey stage direction; one of my favorites is an upheld hand with three raised fingers—this is a gesture of privacy that alerts the audience that what the character is about to say cannot be heard by some or all of the other actors on the stage. Compare it with the traditional gestures of the Shakespearean aside, the actor leaning out to the audience with a flat hand shielding the mouth from the view of the stage.

[Six mudras from Bharatanatyam (Tamil: பரதநாட்டியம்)—a classical dance form native to the eastern state of Tamil Nadu. Each dance form has their own mudras, that in turn can be different than those used on the stage, but the style of gesturing is similar, as is the use of red makeup or dye to highlight a performer’s fingers for the audience.]

Gesture and costuming in Indian theatre retain the same importance as they do in most ancient theatre for denoting a character’s ethnicity, class, and personality. Unlike Greek theatre and Nōh, Indian theatre does this with makeup rather than masks. Indian dance is similar, with the exception of kathakali—a classical dance form native to Kerala—which uses masks much in the way Nōh does. Kathakali does this in part for the same reason early Greek and Japanese plays did: because all of the performers were initially male and some artifice was required to present female characters. By contrast, Indian theatre appears to have always been a mixed-gender affair. The Nāṭya Śāstra itself makes note of the presence of actresses on the stage, particularly suggesting not to load them down with too much heavy jewelry even when they’re playing higher-class women in order to avoid fatiguing the artists.

Like with Nōh, Indian dance and theatre were meant to invoke particular moods in the audience above the specific plot of a production. Certain plays were designed with a particular time of day or year in mind, just as much of classical Indian dance and music arose out of specific festivals and times of year. Audiences could be and often were mixed by class, but plays were usually performed at the instigation of an upper class patron who could pay for the staging. In addition to codified gestures meant to convey social rank, classical Indian plays use a multi-lingual text to further delineate caste within the story. Nobles and Brahmins speak in Sanskrit, while other castes speak in a variety of regional Prakits, that is, vernacular Sanskrit derivative languages. As only upper caste men would be likely to be fluent in Sanskrit, the general opinion of the Nāṭya Śāstra and other authorities consider those members of the audience as the only ones capable of truly understanding all of the literary and spiritual nuances of a play. Lower caste people could watch any play, but would have had to rely on the Sanskrit actors’ gestures because they wouldn’t have been able to understand their dialogue.

[Kathakali actor]

In addition to these language conventions, the vast majority of plays involve a repertoire of stock characters who serve roughly the same purpose in every play. There is the hero; his love interest, the heroine; the buffoon who serves as the hero’s sidekick; the villain; and the villain’s sidekick, the libertine (the buffoon and the libertine are sometimes switched between the hero and the villain). Aside from this, like in a Shakespeare play, there are stock character types of servants, priests, and courtesans, who like the main stock characters tend to be fairly one-note in personality. We’ll get a little deeper into this one in particular in a moment, but for example, the classic courtesan character in an Indian play is similar to the general depiction of prostitutes in western theatre: greedy, duplicitous, and out for Number One—the archetypal femme fatale bent on ruining the hero.

The stage itself was minimal with no backdrops or props (hence the importance of the actors’ ability to evoke settings and activities). The Nāṭya Śāstra advises not making the stage any larger than a hundred feet by fifty feet, in part because a staging that accommodated more than four hundred or so spectators would prevent those at the edges from being able to see the necessary mudras and expressions clearly. The back curtain created the barrier between onstage and off, but the offstage space could be used to create noises for the actors onstage to respond to and some plays call for a character to interact with those onstage by sticking their heads out from behind the curtain, for example. Plays would typically start with the director coming onto the stage to deliver a benediction to a presiding deity—usually Shiva, who as Naṭarāja (Lord of the Dance), was the patron god of dancers and actors—and doing a short skit with one of the actresses to set the scene for the action of the play and to presumably get the audience settled in for the performance. Then the play would begin, and continue for somewhere between six to ten acts before concluding with another benediction to the gods that would tie the theme of the play to a Vedic message. Like their modern-day counterparts in the sprawling Indian film industry, classical Indian plays almost universally have happy endings: virtue is rewarded and the hero achieves love and/or worldly success because they honor the gods and the prevailing social order. The hubristic pathos of the Greek theatre is almost entirely absent and Indian plays mean to model exemplary behavior rather than issue warnings for misbehavior.

[Actors from the Nirupama Rajendra Dance Theater demonstrating classic theatre mudras]

Now that we’ve discussed some of the origins and conventions of Indian theatre, let’s get into The Little Clay Cart specifically. The director during his opening scene tells us the play was written by Śūdraka, a wise poet-king who lived to be 110 years old, and was well-versed in Vedic and scientific knowledge (Prologue). There is no such king of that name in India’s vast historical record, though some scholars have tied the name Śūdraka to the west Deccan Abhira dynasty of the 3rd century CE (Biswanath Banerjee 1999, p. 4)), in part because the play takes place in Ujjayinī, Madhya Pradesh, in the Abhira’s territory. But it is still the prevailing academic view that this was merely a mythical pseudonym used by the play’s real author to give the work weight. This stance is bolstered by the fact that The Little Clay Cart is known to be an adaptation/remake of an older play called Daridra-Charudatta (Cārudatta in Poverty) by the famous 1st century BCE playwright Bhāsa. Bhāsa’s version of the play comes down to us incomplete beyond Act IV, and Śūdraka’s Clay Cart pretty much maintains Bhāsa’s version intact while adding its own six acts to round out the story. Further bolstering this blended authorship is the name of the Clay Cart playwright: “Śūdraka” means “little servant,” which is an odd name for an ancient philosopher king, but a perfect nom de plume for a writer who sees themselves as a disciple of the revered Bhāsa. J.A.B. van Buitenen, the translator for the version of Clay Cart I read, even goes a step further and suggests that the somewhat idiosyncratic title of Śūdraka’s adaptation points to this as well (intro, p. 32). The titular cart is only a minor plot point in the story—the hero’s son is sad to have to play with his own cheap clay cart after seeing the little golden chariot of a playmate’s— but Śūdraka might be using it to compare his work to Bhāsa’s. I.e., Bhāsa is a great, golden chariot of literature, and next to his genius, Śūdraka only sees himself as a humble cart.

As more obvious in Bhāsa’s title, the hero of the play is a young, down-on-his-luck Brahmin named Cārudatta, who is enduring the sort of genteel poverty familiar to a Jane Austen heroine along with his wife and young son. He once was very rich, but has fallen on hard times because of his excessive generosity, and like Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, has largely been abandoned by his hangers-on now that he can’t give them handouts anymore. The exception to this is his friend (the buffoon) Maitreya, who despite his stock position in the play and his grumbling about missing the good old days where Cārudatta had more to give him, remains by his side. Cārudatta’s general reputation in Ujjayinī is also intact, as he is seen to be a gentleman of excellent lineage and character despite his recent misfortunes. This is in part because although he cannot afford to give material aid anymore, and he sighs about his diminished situation, Cārudatta remains a kind person with a gallant, generous spirit toward everyone. Indeed, the only person who seems to have a bad word to say about him is the king’s worthless and stupid brother-in-law, Samsthānaka (the villain). But Samsthānaka is necessary to the plot because it is through him that our unlikely heroine enters the play, running through the streets of Ujjayinī trying to get away from him: Ujjayinī’s richest and most beautiful courtesan, Vasantasenā.

The gorgeous Vasantasenā is India’s prototypical hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, and she is by far the most famous character in the play, easily outshining the earnestly banal Cārudatta. As previously alluded to, Indian plays usually took a pretty dim view of courtesans as a class, and their usual role in the plot is to seduce the young hero and teach him throughout the story to avoid such women of questionable morality. Bhāsa and Śūdraka flip this script and rather than having the hapless young man snared by treacherous Love into the clutches of the rapacious courtesan, they have the beautiful courtesan hopelessly smitten with the young man. Vasantasenā is very much in love with Cārudatta, but it’s not just this that makes her an unusual theatre courtesan. She is also depicted as unfailingly kind and generous, not just to Cārudatta, but also to other characters throughout the play—freely giving away her riches to help a number of people out of tight jams. She plays hardball with the dreadful Samsthānaka because she doesn’t like him and no amount of money can induce her to give him her favors.

We are told that prior to the events of the play, Cārudatta and Vasantasenā happened to meet at a temple festival and secretly neither of them have been able to put this chance meeting out of their minds, though neither has acted on these emotions. Cārudatta assumes (rightly) that he could never afford the rates of a high-class courtesan like Vasantasenā in his current financial straits, and Vasantasenā is somewhat intimidated by Cārudatta’s high reputation. But Vasantasenā happens to slip into Cārudatta’s house to escape the unwanted attentions of Samsthānaka, and this chance circumstance reintroduces the pair to each other and they fall deeper in love. Now, some of you might have remembered that Cārudatta is already married, but don’t worry—India of this period is polygamous, and Vasantasenā and her lover’s unnamed wife have nothing but respect for one another. Various hijinks ensue, including a burglary of Vasantasenā’s jewels by a charming Sanskrit-speaking thief, but everything culminates in a furiously jealous Samsthānaka strangling Vasantasenā and pinning the murder on Cārudatta. Assuming that the poor Cārudatta killed the courtesan for her wealth, he is nearly executed for the crime and is saved only at the last moment by a very-much alive Vasantasenā reappearing, having been rescued after her botched murder by a gambling priest she’d bailed out earlier in the play. Cārudatta is exonerated and Samsthānaka is arrested by an exiled prince who’s just defeated the old, corrupt king with the help of his friend, the burglar, who turns out to have been on temporary hard times too, hence the life of crime. Cārudatta is restored to wealth and given a title, Vasantasenā becomes his second wife, and everything is right with the world. Even Samsthānaka is set free at Cārudatta’s request. See? Happy endings all around.

[Fun fact: some people think the fictional musical that is the climax of Moulin Rouge! is meant to be an homage to Clay Cart, with Satine as a French Vasantasenā]

Like the plebs of its original Indian audiences, those us reading in translation lose some of the language nuances of the play, including much of its secondary mudra language, but the van Buitenen text tries to leave one with the sense of it nonetheless. You still can understand that Samsthānaka is a pretentious, ridiculous character because, for example, he’s constantly making mythological allusions, but those references are always wrong. Additionally, the Libertine character (he has no other name in the play), is ostensibly Samsthānaka’s sidekick, but he makes endless asides that make it clear he despises his master. He even occasionally helps Vasantasenā escape Samsthānaka’s notice out of the latter’s attention—another example of Bhāsa and Śūdraka playing with audience expectations for how every character is meant to behave. Samsthānaka’s bumbling adherence to his role as villain only looks more ludicrous as most of the other characters subvert their stock genre in one way or another. Perhaps that’s why he’s so bad at his role—even in a rage he can’t manage to finish off Vasantasenā properly because he’s out of place in his own play.

Many of the classical Indian plays remained about epic episodes from the Mahabharata, the ancient kingdoms, and a heroic past. The Little Clay Cart’s enduring popularity stems from, in part, its comic extraordinary ordinariness. While there is a royal usurpation plot in the background, it’s mostly a play about the common people. But with a poor rich man, a noble prostitute, a gentleman thief, a shepherd prince, a conscientious libertine, an unenvious wife, a loyal sponger, and a terrifically unscary villain as its core cast, one begins to question just how common these common people really are.

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