Vasantasena in Mrcchakatika: A ‘New Woman’ in Sanskrit Drama?
By Pritha Kundu
Mṛcchakaṭika, attributed to the ancient Sanskrit playwright Śudraka, falls in the category of ‘Prakarana’ – that is, ‘play of inventions’1. In many ways, Mrccakatika is a successful invention, for it deals with several issues that are ‘atypical’ for Sanskrit drama, including a courtesan’s marriage with a poor Brahmin and a political uprising at the backdrop, which overturns the Brāhmaṇa-Kṣatrīya regime. Instead of godlike characters, epic heroes and legendary noble kings as ‘nāyaka’ (the male protagonist), and idealised, virtuous princesses or noble queens as nāyikā (female protagonist), Śudraka’s play chooses a good-natured but impoverished merchant as its nāyaka, and an intelligent, resourceful and passionate courtesan as its nāyikā. The play handles a number of social, economic and political issues like gambling, prostitution, property matters, crime and corruption and penal justice (daṇḍa-vidhi). This leads to the conception of a play where several ‘new’ things occur– ‘new’ in comparison with other Sanskrit plays. Modern playwrights and directors have found in this text ample scope for reworking, so that it can be adapted to voice contemporary social and political issues.
The title of the present paper suggests that it attempts to read the characteristics of a ‘new woman’ in Vasantasenā, a character in a Sanskrit play. Now, the question is, can we expect to find a ‘foreign’ concept thus conforming to an indigenous text and its characterisation? Of course, that expectation may be too much. However, we can take up a comparative approach as an interesting exercise, while broadening the meaning of the affiliation, ‘new woman’. In general, we understand the term as a late Victorian and early twentieth century description of those educated, professional, Anglo-American women who dared to cross the boundaries of the traditional home, who are not bound to the institution of marriage. They often cross-dressed and indulged in a life of self-sufficient, free behaviour, having necessary intellect and ability to take decisions for themselves. Of course, the term is culture-specific. Now, if we try to find some of these characteristics in the character of a nāyikā of an ancient Sanskrit play, can we really be able to find a new cultural understanding of ‘new woman’.
Vasantasenā is a ‘vāraṇganā’, that is, a courtesan. The position of a courtesan in ancient Indian society was a problematic phenomenon between ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’ – to borrow the terms from Victor Turner (95-130). Such vāranarīs were free from the marital bond, they were nobody’s property; their talents were meant for the entertainment of the public, the community. In this regard, their ‘liminal’ position also gave them a “rite of passage” towards a larger notion of community-service. Their profession of course had the risk of throwing them to a vulnerable position; they were under a threat of being exploited and losing their ‘modesty’ at the hand of some unscrupulous people. However, there had been iconic figures of such courtesans who were so well-trained in fine arts and performance, in knowledge of kāvya and śāstras – that they were considered to be assets to particular cities and honoured by kings and aristocrats. Amrapālī and Sālavatī of the Buddhist era were among such legendary figures in the profession. In Sudraka’s play, Vasantasenā has money and power, she keeps a large house and controls her servants and maids with an efficient hand. She entertains people with her beauty, her singing and dancing – in a professional manner and earns money, but never gives herself to anybody. Her choice of such a profession, while trying to remain steadfast in her dignity and honour, is remarkable. However, before the play actually begins, Vasantasena has already seen Cārudatta, a poor but virtuous Brahmin, on the day of the spring festival and got attracted to him from a distance. Unlike a mugdhā (young, innocent and passive) nāyikā, she does not wait for the nāyaka to come and approach her. Rather she begins to think of an opportunity to meet Cārudatta. The opportunity comes by chance and at a moment of crisis. Samsthānaka, the king’s brother-in-law through some illegitimate relation, is after Vasantasenā. He, accompanied by his followers, Vita and Ceta, chases Vasantasenā in a night of heavy rains. Vasantasenā, carrying a casket of her jewellery, desperate to save her honour, enters into the house of Cārudatta, and using her presence of mind puts out the light with a blow of her flowing garments. Her active nature and intelligence shine out through this dramatic sequence in the play.
The danger being over, Vasantasenā reveals herself to Cārudatta who treats her with honour, addressing her as “Aryā Vasantasenā” (which may be roughly translated as “Noble lady Vasantasena”). Seeking Cārudatta’s pardon for this untimely intrusion into his house, and requests him to keep her jewels in his custody. She knows that the scoundrels are not only after her youth, but they also seek to plunder her wealth. Her trust in Cārudatta, at least at this point, is not a matter of blind love. She decides to entrust her jewellery to an honest man, from a practical perspective. Vasantasenā is the woman of the world; she knows what do, and when; whom to trust and whom to avoid. Her sense of honour, coupled with her practical intelligence, has really given her a position of novelty and uniqueness.
As far as her love is concerned, it is Vasantasenā who takes the initiative. Her handsmaid, Madanikā, recognizes in her some symptoms of falling in love, and questions her with a curiosity to know the name of the man. Here is a glimpse of her conversation.
Madanikā. … But tell me, mistress, is it a king, or a king’s favorite, whom you worship?Vasantasenā. Girl, I wish to love, not to worship. (Śudraka 28; trans. Ryder)
Most of the nāyikās in Sanskrit literature are devoted to their lovers/husbands in a mode of worship. Love is there, but it is generally through the initiative of the nāyaka, that the nāyikā’s expression of love comes to our notice. Bhāsa’s Vasavadattā, Kālidāsa’s Śakuntalā, Bhavabhūti’s Sītā – all of such iconic nāyikās express their love in a way that is almost inseparable from worship. Even Kālidāsa’s representation of Urvaśī, in his Vikramorvaśiyam, is rather mellowed and idealized – very different from that of the disengaged, self-sufficient Vedic Urvaśī or the Urvaśī in the Mahābhārata – a bold and forward woman full of desire. Śudraka’s Vasantasenā chooses her own way, distingushing ‘love’ from ‘worship’.
Vasantasenā is a professional courtesan, she knows the art of her profession quite well. In most cases, Sanskrit plays depict the nāyikās talking to their sakhīs (confidantes) about their love-interest, or how to dress up, and, as for general topics – the beauty of nature. Vasantasenā is remarkably ‘new’ in this regard: she initiates professional talks with her maids. Illustration from a portion of such a conversation may be helpful to appreciate the character:
Vasantasenā. Madanikā girl, do you say this because courtesan courtesy demands it?
Madanikā. But mistress, is the courtesy of a girl who lives in a courtesan’s house, necessarily false?
Vasantasenā. Girl, courtesans meet so many kinds of men that they do learn a false courtesy. (58)
However, Vasantasenā knows how to draw a line between professional courtesy and true love. At first, she was attracted to the poor Brahmin Cārudatta’s kindness and honesty. The jewels she entrusted to Cārudatta, have been stolen, and Cārudatta, out of his noble nature, sends a necklace of his own wife to repay Vasantasenā’s loss, asking forgiveness for his inability to keep her jewels safe. Vasantasenā appreciates his goodness, and gets determined to have such a man. Thus, her choice is marked by a perfect balance of passion and reason. Now, the loss and restoration of the casket of jewels marks an important turn in the play. Śarvilaka, basically a good man who turns a thief for sheer want of money, wishes to marry Vasantasenā’s maid Madanikā. He steals the jewels from Cārudatta’s house, without knowing that they are actually Vasantasenā’s. With those jewels, he goes to buy the freedom of his beloved, who recognizes them and asks him to return them to her mistress. Overhearing their conversation, Vasantasenā releases Madanikā to marry Śarvilaka. In this, she behaves like a figure of authority. Praising her maid’s honesty, she calls her a “free woman”, which indicates how much importance she herself sets upon the freedom and dignity of a woman. At the same time, she prepares herself to meet Cārudatta. She sends him a message and goes to meet him like a bold, abhisārikā2 – at night, through thunder and rains.
Vasantasenā’s courage speaks volumes about her character. At one point, when Samsthānaka tries to molest her for a second time, she escapes, kicking him off. Outstanding are her words even at the face of death: when the villain finally catches her, and is about to strangle her in a solitary grove, she uses her calm of mind and gathers all her faith and courage, to overcome her instinct to cry out, because “It would bring shame on Vasantasenā, should she scream for help” (125). However, she is saved and appears on stage right at the moment to save her lover as well. Though she enjoys becoming a ‘wife’ at the end, that title does not belittle her strong individuality. In fact, she is not a ‘chosen’ bride: she herself chooses her man, saves him from dishonour and death, and finally marries him, demanding the approval of a ‘changed’ society, under the leadership of a new ruler who rises from the populace.
Vasantasenā, however, is a strong woman who also longs for family-life and motherhood. Spending one night with Cārudatta, in the morning she finds that his son is weeping because he does not have a golden toy-cart like the one belonging to a rich neighbour’s son. Vasantasenā come forward and fills the little clay-cart of Cārudatta’s son – with all her golden ornaments, to enjoy the bliss of motherly affection. Thus the free-willing courtesan of the last night becomes a ‘mother’ in the next morning. Though not submissive and passive, she is nevertheless faithful and passionate in her love, and her desire for motherhood, which even Cārudatta’s first wife Dhūta has to accept and appreciate at the end. Her steadfast love and motherly feelings place her in the tradition of ideal womanhood as traditionally depicted in other Sanskrit play-texts.
It may be argued that such ideally ‘feminine’ characteristics, notwithstanding all her boldness, independence and professionalism, finally mark her basic difference from the Western notion of the ‘new woman’ – and this is very natural indeed. A comparative approach to literature and trying to compare different cultural notions , and seeking to understand a dynamic literary representation of womanhood in a particular text using that comparison – all these do not point towards any exact claim of affinity between cultural patterns, ideas or conception of characters. The ‘new woman’ in Anglo-American literature is a character-type corresponding to the topical cause of women’s emancipation in society, whereas Vasantasenā is sui generis as an individual character, who is both traditional and unconventionally dynamic at the same time. She is indeed what we may call ‘abhinavā nāyikā’ (a heroine with uniqueness and novelty), if not a ‘new woman’ in a culture-specific sense.
- “Prakaraṇa’ is the type of a play based on a laukika vṛtta (tale of a common life), presented through the poet’s imaginative invention” – this one of the characteristics of such plays (Sāhityadarpaṇa, p. 434, my translation)
- The woman who makes her lover come to her, through messengers, or herself goes alone to meet his lover (Sāhityadarpaṇa, p. 127, my translation)
Kavirāja, Viśvanātha. Sāhityadarpaṇa. Ed. Ācārya Kṛṣṇamohan Śāstrī. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, 1967. Print.
Śudraka. Mṛcchakaṭika (The Little Clay-cart). Trans. A. Ryder. Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard University, 1905. Forgottenbooks.com. Web. 25th April 2018.
Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas”, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti- Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969. 95-130. Print.
Pritha Kundu is an Assistant Professor of English in Hiralal Mazumdar Memorial College for Women, Kolkata. She has done her Ph.D. on Medical Humanities. Her other areas of interest include Indian classics, Women’s Studies and Comparative literature.
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