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SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: November 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Mrichchhakatikam | Sudraka | Ashok Kaushik | Shantanu Basu |


National School of Drama

Written By: Sudraka

Translated By:Ashok Kaushik

Directed By: Shantanu Basu

Cast: Sanjiv Jaiswal, Rahul Kumar, Devashri Chakravarty, Ravi Chahar, Pushilemba, Bhagyashree Tarke, Rachna Gupta and others

In the popular Indian imagination, the name Sudraka does not strike a bell. Not surprisingly, though. Pretty little is known about him anyway. Whatever little historical documents that are available place him anytime between 3rd Century Before Christ and 5th Century after him. Whatever little is known of him comes mostly from either the introduction of his own plays or from the then reviews and commentaries (Teeka) of the same. By all accounts, he was not even very prolific writer. In total, he wrote three plays in Sanskrit; namely Vinavasavadatta, a bhana (short one-act monologue) named Padmaprabhritaka and his most famous one, the ten act drama, Mrcchakatika, also spelled as Mrichchhakatikam at times.

Fore a person so little known about, Sudraka has a cult following of his own. And at a place where it would hardly be imagined: the West. Mrichchhakatikam remains the single most performed Indian play in the West till date. It is part of the curriculum of the theatre courses in varied universities and colleges. It has been interpreted and reinterpreted several times, and yet it has continued to remain in vogue.

As far as story is concerned, it appears rather simplistic, but is layered. A good-natured Brahmin who has fallen to bad times, Charudatta, falls in love with courtesan, or Nagarvadhu, Vasantasena. What follows are plots and sub-plots involving intrigues, conspiracies, revolution and what not. The story meanwhile explores the realm of nepotism, corruption and several other socio-political themes. What initially appears as a simplistic tale turns into a layered story as the acts progress.  

So what makes Mrichchhakatikam such a draw? Quite a few actually. First and foremost, Mrichchhakatikam (The Little Clay cart in English) is now widely regarded as the first play and hence the pioneer of the genre of Prakarana plays. Prakarana plays in Indian Natya Shashtra is contrasted against the Nataka plays in that the former consists of fictional themes and stories and consists of middle or lower class characters involved in small conflicts.

Mrichchhakatikam must have created a furore then. Not only many of its characters were common folks with small dreams, they also spoke several dialects of Prakrit, the lingua franca of masses those days as opposed to Sanskrit, which was prevalent among the elites and royalty.

Another aspect of play that perplexes the spectators to no bound is the marital status of protagonist and hero Charudatta. Charudatta is married but still seeks the comfort of Vasantasena. And not the fleeting sexual kind. He actually brings her in his home and gives her the place to stay. It is bewildering that the playwright does not even comment explicitly on the protagonist’s marital status. This is not even a conflict in the play. In fact, to push it further, while Vasantasena is given copious screen time, Charudatta’s wife is not even named. She’s just called Charudatta’s wife. Imagine giving such preference to a courtesan over a legally married wife?     

Vasantasena’s character is no less intriguing. While she’s a Nagarvadhu, she’s not your quintessential prostitute. There’s a degree of independence in her decision making. From the very beginning of the play, it is shown that Vasantasena spurs the advances of Sansthanaka, who’s not only rich but powerful too being king’s brother-in-law. It is through these layered and complex characterisation that Mrichchhakatikam has achieved that fame that has. 

Second year students of the national School of Drama recreated the world of Sudraka recently under the direction of Shantanu Basu. Although the play was shortened a bit to fit the time, Basu remained honest to the original. With limited space for the set, Basu still managed to give the play the scale that it deserved.

One of the high point of this NSD production was the live music that supplements this play. Shyam Rastogi and V Vaitry’s music is the backbone of the play, which explores a rainbow of mood. They are superbly assisted by the voices of Vini Goy, Akasarhasan, Kalamandalam Manikantan, Apoorvannagalli and Vani Rajmohan.

For the second year students, performances are mostly top-notch and it’s a pleasant surprise. Sanjiv Jaiswal as Charudatta manages to bring forth the inherent goodness of a character who has fallen to bad times, and he does it well. His steps are measured, his reaction controlled. Rahul Kumar as Charudatta’s best friend Maitrey, and in another role of Durdurak, impresses in part. He needs to however work on his comedy timing a bit.

Devashri Chakravarty as Vasantasena holds audience in spell. One can see that a lot of hard work has gone into the preparation of her role. She nails the Bhav-Bhangima part of a Nagarvadu splendidly. However, it is when she slips into the character of a lovelorn woman that she takes the performance to a newer heights.

Other minor and major characters are all good, except a few glitches here and there. However, the actor that took audience’s breath away with a very small but powerful performance is Ravi Chahar in the role Sharvilaka, a thief who is the subject of affection of Vasantasena’s maid and aide Madhanika.

In one scene where he breaks into Charudatta’s house to practise the art of “breaking in” takes the breath away. The passion that he brings through his mannerism and gesticulation is consummate. It is very clear that the boy is in for a long haul here.

Pushilemba as Sansthanaka, also known as Shakara, is impressive in parts. While his comedy timing is good, he falters with dialogues at a few places. But it is understandable because for a character that appears right from the beginning of the play till the end of it, he has a lot of dialogue to cram up. Some of his scenes are very long ones as well.

Bhagyashree Tarke as Vasantasena’s maid and confidante Madhanika breezes through her role. Rachna Gupta variously as Charudatta’s maid Vardhamanaka and Chandalika impresses aplenty. Her movements are praiseworthy, especially so because the character of Chandalika is as contrasting from the character of Vardhamanaka as it can be.

However, the hero of the play remains its director who managed to pick up such a layered play for the second year students and still comes out triumphant. Shantanu Basu is one of the permanent faculties at the National School of Drama and tries to bring something fresh in his productions.

This correspondent had the chance to see one of his earlier productions to; Girish Karnad’s iconic play Taledanda, popularly known in English as ‘Death by Beheading.’ With limited budget, even more limited space and non-existent props, Basu still managed to mount that play in a manner that befitted its glory. The best part is, Basu is still very young and we’ll see his brilliance for years to come.

One of the early contemporary productions of Mrichchhakatikam was done by theatre legend Habib Tanvir based on the script of Begum Qudsia Zaidi. It involved theatre greats like MS Sathyu, Sham Bahadur, Shama Zaidi and Rais Mirza. To step into their shoes was always going to be a tough act. But, the aplomb with which Basu and his charges pull it off, is nothing short of remarkable.


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017