The Little Clay Cart

by Sudraka

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The Little Clay Cart Summary

The Little Clay Cart is a Sanskrit play about a Brahman named Chārudatta who has given all his wealth to those in need.

  • The married Chārudatta falls in love with Vasantasenā, a courtesan, and the two begin an affair.
  • The jealous Sansthānaka tries to kill Vasantasenā and blames the crime on Chārudatta, who is sentenced to death.
  • Vasantasenā reappears in time to save Chārudatta, whose wealth and status are returned by Aryaka, the new king.

Summary

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Last Updated November 17, 2023.

The Little Clay Cart is a ten-act play most often attributed to the fifth-century writer Sudraka. The Sanskrit drama takes place in the ancient city of Ujjayina, India, and follows the interwoven lives of Chārudatta—a Brahmin impoverished by his boundless generosity—and his wife, son, and mistress, as well as the vindictive man who plagues their lives. The Little Clay Cart is unconventional in its rejection of contemporary literary convention; rather than writing about popular mythology and fables or relying on noble or royal characters, the play focuses on the mundane events of common life. Characters are neither magnificent nor high-ranking: they are simply people struggling to navigate the complex caste hierarchies and social conventions of fifth-century India. In writing in this way, Sudraka distorted the expected structure of Sanskrit dramas. While the play does not focus on nobility, the characters still reflect the conventional sense of virtue and goodness. In short, The Little Clay Cart finds value in lower-class lives and sees nobility in even the meanest citizen.  

Despite being in a high caste, Chārudatta lacks the wealth of his station because he gave it away to others in need. Although he is embarrassed by the state of his life and home, Chārudatta continues to serve as a paragon of the community; those around him know him to be honest and kind, and they seek his aid and advice. The good-hearted Brahmin is married and the father of a young son, but he soon becomes enamored with Vasantasenā, a wealthy and attractive courtesan, and Vasantasenā returns Chārudatta’s affections. However, the machinations of Sansthānaka, the king's brother-in-law and Vasantasenā's obsessive suitor, disrupt their burgeoning romance. 

After a particularly terrifying encounter with Sansthānaka, Vasantasenā flees to Chārudatta. From this moment, their relationship blossoms. The poor Brahmin introduces his paramour to his son, Rohasena. The young boy cries because the little clay cart he has to play with feels inadequate compared to his friend’s solid gold toy cart. In a gesture of goodwill, Vasantasenā fills the cart with gold jewelry, and the boy is briefly satisfied. As Vasantasenā leaves, she accidentally enters a cab owned by Sansthānaka, who remains irate at her disinterest. Enraged and jilted, the unstable man orders her killed, but his servants refuse. Sansthānaka takes matters into his own hands, strangling Vasantasenā and dumping her body in a nearby park. 

Still seeking retribution for the perceived slight, Sansthānaka accuses Chārudatta of the murder. The poor Brahmin, whose son now possesses Vasantasenā’s valuable jewels, is quickly indicted. He is found guilty and readies himself for his execution. However, Vasantasenā arrives just in the nick of time, saving her lover from certain death. The body discovered in the park was not hers, so the pair happily reunite. After Chārudatta is freed, events move quickly. Chārudatta, his wife, and Vasantasenā unite, calling themselves a family. 

Word arrives that the prince has deposed the king, and Sansthānaka is brought to Chārudatta for judgment and pardoned. The play ends as the noble characters are rewarded for their good deeds and virtue; in a reversal of convention, the wealthy royals are punished for their corruption, and the lower-class citizens are recognized for their quiet nobility.  

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