|The Little Clay Cart|
An oleographic print depicting the female protagonist Vasantasenā, a rich courtesan.
|Setting||Ancient city of Ujjayini
Fifth century BC
Mṛcchakaṭika (The Little Clay Cart) (Sanskrit: मृच्छकटिका; also spelled Mrcchakatika, Mricchakatika, or Mrichchhakatika), is a ten-act Sanskrit drama attributed to Śūdraka (Sanskrit: शूद्रक), an ancient playwright generally thought to have lived sometime between the second century BC and the fifth century AD whom the prologue identifies as a Kshatriya king and a devotee of Siva who lived for 100 years. The play is set in the ancient city of Ujjayini during the reign of the King Pālaka, near the end of the Pradyota dynasty that made up the first quarter of the fifth century BC. The central story is that of noble but impoverished young Brahmin, Chārudatta (Sanskrit: चारुदत्त), who falls in love with a wealthy courtesan or nagarvadhu, Vasantasenā (Sanskrit: वसन्तसेना). Despite their mutual affection, however, the couple's lives and love are threatened when a vulgar courtier, Samsthānaka, begins to aggressively pursue Vasantasenā.
Rife with romance, comedy, intrigue and a political subplot detailing the overthrow of the city's despotic ruler by a shepherd, the play is notable among extant Sanskrit drama for its focus on a fictional scenario rather than on a classical tale or legend. Mṛcchakaṭika also departs from traditions enumerated in the Natya Shastra that specify that dramas should focus on the lives of the nobility and instead incorporates a large number of middle and lower-caste characters who speak a wide range of Prakrit dialects. The story is thought to be derived from an earlier work called Chārudatta in Poverty by the playwright Bhāsa, though that work survives only in fragments.
Of all the Sanskrit dramas, Mṛcchakaṭika remains one of the most widely celebrated and oft-performed in the West, in part because its plot structure more closely resembles that of Western classics than other Hindu plays. The work played a significant role in generating interest in Indian theatre among European audiences following several successful nineteenth century translations and stage productions, most notably Gérard de Nerval and Joseph Méry's highly romanticized French adaptation titled Le Chariot d'enfant that premiered in Paris in 1850, as well as a critically acclaimed "anarchist" interpretation by Victor Barrucand called Le Chariot de terre cuite that was produced by the Théâtre de l'Œuvre in 1895.
Chārudatta is a generous man from the Brahman caste who, through his charitable contributions to unlucky friends and the general public welfare, has severely impoverished himself and his family. Though deserted by most of his friends and embarrassed by deteriorating living conditions, he has maintained his reputation in Ujjayini as an honest and upright man with a rare gift of wisdom and many important men continue to seek his counsel.
Though happily married and the recent father of a young son, Rohasena, Chārudatta is enamored of Vasantasenā, a courtesan of great wealth and reputation. After a chance encounter at the temple of Kāma, she has found that she loves him in return, though, the matter is complicated when Vasantasenā finds herself pursued by Samsthānaka, a half-mad brother-in-law of King Pālaka, and his retinue. When the men threaten violence, Vasantasenā flees, seeking safety with Chārudatta. Their love blossoms following the clandestine meeting, and the courtesan entrusts her new lover with a casket of jewelry in an attempt to ensure a future meeting.
Her plan is thwarted, however, when a thief, Sarvilaka, enters Chārudatta’s home and steals the jewels in an elaborate scheme to buy the freedom of his lover, Madanikā, who is Vasantasenā’s slave and confidant. The courtesan recognizes the jewelry, but she accepts the payment anyway and frees Madanikā to marry. She then attempts to contact Chārudatta and inform him of the situation, but before she can make contact he panics and sends Vasantasenā a rare pearl necklace that had belonged to his wife, a gift in great excess of the value of the stolen jewelry. In recognition of this, Chārudatta's friend, Maitreya, cautions the Brahmin against further association, fearing that Vasantasenā is, at worst, scheming to take from Chārudatta the few possessions he still has and, at best, a good-intentioned bastion of bad luck and disaster.
Refusing to take this advice, Chārudatta makes Vasantasenā his mistress and she eventually meets his young son. During the encounter, the boy is distressed because he has recently enjoyed playing with a friend's toy cart of solid gold and no longer wants his own clay cart that his nurse has made for him. Taking pity on him in his sadness, Vasantasenā fills his little clay cart with her own jewelry, heaping his humble toy with a mound of gold before departing to meet Chārudatta in a park outside the city for a day’s outing. There she enters a fine carriage, but soon discovers that she is in a gharry belonging to Samsthānaka, who remains enraged by her previous affront and is madly jealous of the love and favor she shows to Chārudatta. Unable to persuade his henchmen to kill her, Samsthānaka sends his retinue away and proceeds to strangle Vasantasenā and hide her body beneath a pile of leaves. Still seeking vengeance, he promptly accuses Chārudatta of the crime.
Though the Brahmin proclaims his innocence, his presence in the park along with his son's possession of Vasantasenā's jewels implicate the poverty-stricken man, and he is found guilty and condemned to death by King Pālaka. Unbeknownst to all, however, the body identified as Vasantasenā’s was actually another woman. Vasantasenā had revived and befriended by a Buddhist monk who nursed her back to health in a nearby village.
Just as Chārudatta faces execution, Vasantasenā appears and, seeing the excited crowd, intervenes in time to save him from execution and his wife from throwing herself onto the funeral pyre. Together the three declare themselves a family. Reaching the courts, Vasantasenā tells the story of her near death and, following her testimony, Samsthānaka is arrested and the good Prince Āryaka deposes the wicked King Pālaka. His first acts as the newly declared sovereign is to restore Chārudatta’s fortune and give him an important position at court. Following this good will, Chārudatta demonstrates in the final act his enduring virtue and charity, appealing to the King for pardon on behalf of Samsthānaka who is subsequently declared free.
- Play adaptions: The play was translated into English, notably by Arthur W. Ryder in 1905 as The Little Clay Cart. (It had previously been translated as The Toy Cart by Horace Hayman Wilson in 1826.) Ryder's version was enacted at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley in 1907, and in New York in 1924 at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which was then an off-Broadway theatre, at the Theater de Lys in 1953, and at the Potboiler Art Theater in Los Angeles in 1926, when it featured actors such as James A. Marcus, Symona Boniface and Gale Gordon. The play has been adapted in several Indian languages and performed by various theatre groups and directors, like Habib Tanvir.
- Film adaptations: The first silent film of Kannada film industry, Mricchakatika (Vasantsena) (1931), starring Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Vasantasena, a 1941 Indian Kannada film directed by Ramayyar Shirur, and Utsav, a 1984 Hindi Bollywood film by Girish Karnad was based on an adaptation of this play.
- The Indian play depicted in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, "Spectacular Spectacular", may have been based on The Little Clay Cart.
- Richmond, Farley P. (1990). Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann, and Phillip B. Zarrilli, ed. "Characteristics of Sanskrit Theatre and Drama." in Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. pp. 55–62. ISBN 0824811909.
- Oliver, Revilo Pendelton (1938). Rozelle Parker Johnson and Ernst Krenn, ed. "Introduction to 'The Little Clay Cart.' " in Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 23. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 9–44.
- Basham, A. L; Intr. by Robert E. Goodwin (1994). Arvind Sharma, ed. The Little Clay Cart: An English Translation of the Mṛcchakaṭika of Śūdraka, As Adapted for the Stage. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791417255.
- Śūdraka (1938). Revilo Pendelton Oliver, Rozelle Parker Johnson and Ernst Krenn, ed. "Mṛcchakaṭikā, The Little Clay Cart: A Drama in Ten Acts Attributed to King Sūdraka." in Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 23. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 45–210.
- Wohlsen, Marcus (2005). "The Greatest Show on Earth: The First Indian Play Performed at UC Berkeley -- And Anywhere in the United States -- Took the Stage of the Greek Theater in 1907, Along with Elephants, Zebras, and a Cast of Hundreds". Illuminations. University of California Berkeley. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
- "Prof. A. W. Ryder, of Sanskrit Fame; Head of That Department at University of California Dies in Classroom". New York Times. 22 March 1938.
- Bracker, Milton (7 June 1953). "Story of a Determined Lady: Terese Hayden, Sponsor of New Play Series at Theatre de Lys, Is Undaunted Despite Disappointments in the Past". New York Times. p. X3.
- Schallert, Edwin (9 December 1926). "'Clay-Cart' Hero Wins: 'Twas Ever Thus—Even in the Sanskrit". Los Angeles Times. p. A9.