Many critics have pointed out that Sudraka’s The Little Clay Cart is more like Western drama than any other Sanskrit play, in structure, characterization, and tone. This may account for the fact that Indian critics have been less enthusiastic about the work than have those of the Western world. The Little Clay Cart is noteworthy for being the only known Sanskrit play to show a courtesan in love with a Brahman, as it is also the only known one to contain important characters from various strata of Hindu society rather than from the upper castes only. It is the realistic and vivid presentation of these characters that probably has appealed most to Western readers.
Hindu philosophy places less emphasis on individuals’ power to alter their own lives or destinies than does Western, Christian philosophy. Throughout The Little Clay Cart, nearly all the characters speak of destiny and fate. Hindu thought also tends toward seeing life and history as circular, moving in cycles of such opposites as destruction and creation, growth and decay, rather than the Western view, which tends toward a linear interpretation. The title is a summation of this wheel-of-fortune concept, although the section of the drama dealing with the cart is extremely short. Chrudatta’s young son has been playing with a gold cart belonging to a friend, and the friend wants it back. In his impoverished state, Chrudatta can afford only to have his servant make a clay cart for the boy. When Vasantasen sees the boy crying for the gold cart, she gives him jewels with which to buy one for himself. Thus the circle is complete.
Many other circles are also seen in the plot. ryaka, an exiled prince, is imprisoned but escapes. The mad king is killed and ryaka becomes king. A gambler who has lost his money and owes much is rescued and becomes a friar. As all turns out well in the end, he is asked what ambition he might have, and he replies that, having watched the instability of human fortune, he prefers to remain a friar.
The overall circle that encloses all the rest is the story of Chrudatta and his lover, Vasantasen. The Brahman has become poor because he has given away his fortune to help others in need. To add to his troubles, he is accused of the murder of Vasantasen, whom he loves, and actually is very nearly executed before Vasantasen appears and points out the attempted murderer, Samsthnaka, who is arrested while Chrudatta is freed. ryaka, the new king, whom Chrudatta had protected when he escaped from prison, names him viceroy of the city of Kusavati.
The opening and closing dialogues by Chrudatta bring the total drama to its complete circle. In the beginning dialogue he is scattering grain for the birds and notes that when he was wealthy his offerings were of better quality; swans and cranes fed upon his terrace. Now even wrens shun the poor seed he throws into the tangled grass. In the ending dialogue he remarks that “destiny, as it plays with us, teaches us that the world is a union of opposites, an alternate recurrence of fortune and misfortune.”
When presented properly, The Little Clay Cart is a delight. In a traditional staging of the drama, the story is acted out in mime, with no stage settings. A minimum number of props are used, and each may represent a number of things, from an altar to a tree or a carriage. The tempo is rapid, with one scene following the next so quickly that illusions created by the actions, gestures,...
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and speeches of the players are of prime importance. The actions are carried out like a ritualized dance. Emotional reactions are played down, so that the viewer has a continuous feeling of repose and enjoyment at the finale. There is no catharsis as in Western drama.
Readers of The Little Clay Cart learn about the characters through what they say and what is said about them. No physical descriptions are given; one knows only that the courtesan is beautiful. The characters are from all walks of life, and the lines they speak are appropriate to their stations. Vasantasen comes through as the strongest and most astute character; Samsthnaka is the most pompous and ridiculous. The play has much wit, humor, and buffoonery as well as wisdom, which appears in similes and metaphors, aphorisms and maxims.