Bhsa’s writing, sophisticated and courtly, foreshadowed the golden age of drama written in Sanskrit. The Classic Period, as it is generally called, lasted from about 300 c.e. to 800 c.e. Considered the highest achievement of Indian literature, the Sanskrit drama drew its support and audience from the courts that flourished until the Muslim invasions eventually destroyed them between 1000 and 1300.
Because the plays aim to be both pleasing and instructive, they contain a mixture of the worldly and the unworldly, an approach that characterizes much of Hindu art. Further, the drama reflects, specifically, Hindu thought. The loftiest plays, called ntaka (heroic drama), draw from the same repositories of Hindu mythology as Bhsa’s work does. Devotional stories, in one sense, their action often revolves around the exploits of the gods Vishnu and iva. Suffering or disaster never befalls these heroic characters, be they gods or kings, because it was unthinkable that such personages could meet defeat and death. This requirement, to which playwrights adhered faithfully, explains the absence of tragedy in Indian theater. Other plays, equally popular, are those called prakarana (social or bourgeois drama), which re-create domestic life and stress the ideal of family. A subtle eroticism pervades these works to heighten the Hindu emphasis on fertility and reproduction.
Considering their twofold aim, to delight and to instruct, both kinds of plays employ a mixture of comedy, pathos, spectacle, and elegant language to make the lesson palatable. Whereas the comedy usually focuses on human foibles, the pathos most often arises from sentimental scenes, such as a great favorite among audiences: the reunion of long-separated family members, friends, or lovers. Music, an essential part of the play’s structure, adds to the spectacle provided by elaborate costumes, set pieces, and, sometimes, the design of the theater itself, which was treated as an important element. Although decorative, Sanskrit staging prefers to permit unhampered movement of time and place. Above all, the language reigns, with poetry assigned to the gods and kings, prose to the women and lesser male characters.
The dramas also follow a strict code of decorum; for example, eating or kissing never takes place onstage, because such actions are considered not only vulgar but also offensive to the gods. Neither do the plays rely heavily on conflict or suspense, but more on an unfolding of events that appears endless, the past melding into the present, the present into the future. As Western critics familiar with Sanskrit drama often point out, the plays resemble their Western counterparts to the point that they can be understood and appreciated by Westerners, even in translation, but only on one level—for the dramas remain firmly rooted in the Hindu view of the world, a view dominated by a concept of reality and unreality rarely grasped by the Western mind. No matter how worldly, how farcical, or how political the play’s action, the intent is ultimately metaphysical and religious. It is noteworthy that each performance begins and closes with a prayer to the gods.
The Little Clay Cart
Numerous Sanskrit plays are extant; in fact, they far outnumber those surviving from the golden age of Greek drama. Several of these dramas have established themselves in theatrical repertory, being performed currently both in India and in the West. The resurgence after independence in 1947 of Indian culture at home and abroad accounts for the renewed interest in Sanskrit theater. Two of the most widely read and performed dramas are Mṛcchakaṭik (c. 300-600 c.e.; Mrchhakatika, 1898, also known as The Little Clay Cart) and Abhijn̄nakuntala (c. 45 b.c.e. or c. 395 c.e.; akuntal: Or, The Lost Ring, 1789).
Although attributed to King draka, the authorship of The Little Clay Cartremains unknown. For that matter, so does historical evidence to...