In my memoriam essay on Girish Karnad’s death, I had remarked that Girish Karnad was a mediocre director and a terrible playwright. Starting with this piece, we will examine a few prominent plays and cinema of Girish Karnad if only to puncture the hot-air balloon of unearned fame that he enjoyed throughout his career and life. To put the critique in perspective, I admire Girish Karnad as a fine actor, a fame he justifiably deserves. I also do not doubt his genuine love for theatre and films but what that translated into in practice for over fifty years is the source of my critique.
The 1984 Hindi film, Utsav produced by Shashi Kapoor is a good place to begin. Girish Karnad wrote the screenplay and directed it. It was based on the eternal classic Sanskrit play, Mricchakatika, authored by Sudraka who lived sometime in the fourth or fifth century. Utsav is a brazen rape of Sudraka’s sublime work, to put it mildly.
Mricchakatika is a compound word, which can be translated as “The Clay Toy Cart.” The title is significant at many levels. Mricchakatika has a pretty complex plot. The complexity lies chiefly in terms of the events, situations, and characterization. But given its complexity, it moves at a very quick pace. The several sub plots that pepper the entire play are skillfully but logically interwoven with the main plot. The entire play is crafted around the life of Cārudatta, the protagonist while the sub plots feature prominent secondary characters. It is impossible and futile to narrate the entire story of Mricchakatika in this space.
Instead, the attempt here is to examine each character in the hope that the essence of the original play can be reasonably delivered and then contrasted with Karnad’s vandalism of it.
Mricchakatika comprises ten acts and reveals with two major motifs: the society during Cārudatta’s time, and the political upheavals in his country, Ujjaini. Both themes are inextricably linked. Some scholars opine that the description of Ujjaini’s political conditions in the play form invaluable (albeit indirect) primary sources to study the history of India of the period. It is also important to remember that the playwright, Sudraka was himself a king. Mricchakatika is peopled by the weak king, Palaka (literally: ruler) and his overbearing and villainous brother-in-law, Shakara (or Samsthanaka) whose reign impoverishes the economy and generates a seething rebellion.
Cārudatta the protagonist, is a Brahmin who was once a prosperous businessman engaged in overseas trading but has fallen on bad times. Cārudatta is respected by everybody for his generosity. We get an idea of his flawless reputation in the incident when Aryaka the rebel, sneaks into Charudatta’s chariot. At the palace gates, the guards don’t do a security check because it is Cārudatta’s chariot. Cārudatta’s character epitomizes the difference between life and living.
The other main character is Vasantasena, the renowned courtesan famed for her beauty and noble qualities. In the first act, Shakara, the king’s brother-in-law, who lusts after her, approaches her when she’s strolling in the garden. When he tries to force her, she begins to flee, and manages to escape by hiding in Cārudatta’s house. She hands her jewelry to Cārudatta for safekeeping. The jewelry is then stolen by Sharvilaka so he can free his beloved, Madanika who’s employed as Vasantasena’s maid. However, Madanika realizes that the jewels belong to Vasantasena and tells her that Cārudatta sent them through Sharvilaka instead of telling her the truth about the robbery. Yet, Vasantasena releases Madanika from her services after she listens to the lovers’ conversation and is moved by it. When Cārudatta learns of the theft, his wife gives him her own necklace so he can compensate for the loss. Maitreya, Cārudatta’s close friend and assistant–who also lives with him–agrees to deliver the necklace to Vasantasena.
Sudraka also tells us about an ex-servant of Cārudatta, who is a compulsive gambler. When creditors bay for his blood, he hides himself in Vasantasena’s house. Vasantasena on hearing that he was employed with Cārudatta, is pleased and pays off his debts. This causes a transformation in the gambler, and he renounces the world to become a Bhikshu, a Buddhist monk. The dialogue and the situation leading up to his transformation is an extraordinary literary feat that evokes Rasa akin to a fine delicacy.
In the fifth act, love fully blossoms between Cārudatta and Vasantasena when she again visits his house on the pretext that she had gambled away the necklace (belonging to Cārudatta’s wife). In place of the necklace, she offers him her own jewelry. The next morning as Vasantasena gets ready to leave, she notices Cārudatta’s son Rohasena throwing a tantrum. He doesn’t want the toy clay cart, which Cārudatta’s maid has brought him; he only wants a toy cart made of gold. Moved, Vasantasena places her jewelry inside the toy cart, and the child is pacified.
The subsequent acts narrate how:
What also interests us in this play is the superb characterisation. Cārudatta is a symbol of all that is magnanimous in this world. It is a magnanimity that inspires, spreads, and sustains goodness among other people. We have a few instances of this in Mricchakatika.
The first is the character of Vasantasena’s mother, a despicable woman. She has an opportunity to help convict Cārudatta unfairly but doesn’t do so the moment she looks at him. One is reminded of DVG’s immortal line, “the flicker of goodness that shines in people at times is the translation of the Brahman.”
Equally, the very mention of Cārudatta’s name saves the gambler, and causes him to pursue higher goals, which in turn saves Vasantasena’s life.
Cārudatta’s finds humour even in his miserable condition. It is not hard to imagine the plight of a person used to a life of luxury suddenly reduced to penury. In the first act, Cārudatta laments at length on his loss of wealth but that lament is not for selfish reasons or out of self-pity. His anguish is because he suddenly finds himself unable to help those less fortunate than himself.
Such is Cārudatta’s zest for life that he appreciates Sharvilaka’s (the thief) ingenuity in carving a hole in the wall of his own house. He knows he has lost the jewels entrusted to his safekeeping, but doesn’t grieve. At another level, it shows that he lives only in the present: he neither craves for the luxurious times he used to live in nor hopes for better days ahead. His large-heartedness, although taken to the extreme, comes to the fore when in the final act, he asks the (new) king to pardon Shakara.
Mricchakatika ends on a happy, hopeful note. It continues to remain an enduring classic of world literature and has earned world renown. It has been translated into multiple languages both in India and the world and has seen repeat performances across the globe including in England, France, Germany, and the US.
Girish Karnad however, has singularly eroticised the whole of Mricchakatika vulgarizing it to the level of soft porn. Its commercial failure was well-deserved.
Karnad neither captures the uplifting essence of Cārudatta’s character nor Vasantasena’s nobility. Worse, he has reduced Charudatta’s wife, Dhutadevi to a nagging, complaining housewife who runs to her mother’s house on the slightest pretext. In the original, Dhutadevi stands by Charudatta for better or worse; she hands him her necklace–a wedding gift from her mother–so his honour is saved.
For Karnad, the relationship between Cārudatta and Vasantasena is one of pure lust. The justification for this crass portrayal is perhaps because even in the original, Vasantasena is a courtesan. I don’t need to elaborate that courtesans in India till the advent of the Muslims and later the Victorian British, weren’t looked down upon. They in many instances, were excellent counsellors even to the king and were extremely knowledgeable in several branches of learning.
However, for Karnad, Vasantasena is only a voluptuous courtesan. What in contemporary parlance is known variously as a sex worker and prostitute who sells her body for money. So what motivates this expensive courtesan to fall in love with Cārudatta, a destitute householder? This is never explained in Utsav. When you watch the elaborate love-making scene at Cārudatta’s house, you only conclude that it is merely an outcome of mutual lust, a scene designed to sexually arouse the viewer. In later scenes in the movie, love “somehow” develops between them.
Mricchakatika’s Vasantasena falls in love with Cārudatta’s guna or innate character and conduct. He reciprocates this love because he too, recognizes her worth as a person, and treats her profession as only incidental.
However, Vasantasena’s depiction as a prostitute in Girish Karnad’s perverse cinematic concoction provides him the perfect opportunity to show Rekha’s back in all its nude glory. Not to mention a lengthy song sequence with Shekar Suman and Rekha cozying up in a bath tub. Nowhere in Mricchakatika is even a trace of the physical description of love.
The love between Vasantasena and Cārudatta is conveyed to the reader or audience via situations, which more than adequately nuance it.
The other area where Girish Karnad’s perversity becomes turgid is when he brings in Vatsyayana, the author of Kamasutra. He is depicted as a cheap voyeur and peeping tom who spies on couples copulating and makes notes of various sexual positions. In Karnad’s jaundiced eyes, Vatsyayana is not the venerable sage, which is how our tradition treats him. The goal of the Kamasutra, as Vatsyayana visualized it, was the attainment of Moksha. In other words, the third Purushartha culminating in the fourth.
A Scene From Utsav
But Karnad doesn’t bother with such notions. It would after all, dilute his soft porn movie. Vatsyayana’s character, not present in the original Mricchakatika is obscenely introduced in Utsav. Because it perfectly aligns with the Marxist theory that there are only interpretations, there is no truth and all facts and values are merely subjective. And here is his precise sleight of hand: Vatsyayana’s character is required in Utsav if Karnad has to vindicate the various pornographic scenes in the movie. Thus, the scene where Neena Gupta tries to copulate with her lover against a pole is noted with due diligence by Vatsyayana; so also various other sexual activities that occur in Vasantasena’s house, a grotesqueness that solely is a product of Karnad’s convoluted mind.
Not only does Karnad corrupt the entire play, he has not dwelt upon the significance of the title itself: Clay Toy Cart. But then this is too much to expect from him.
Cārudatta’s son, Rohasena who probably was used to playing with expensive (gold) toys earlier, doesn’t understand why he cannot play with them any longer. Vasantasena’s small act of recompense is a sign of her goodwill, and the harbinger of hope that she aspires to bring to Cārudatta’s penurious condition. At another level, the cart itself is symbolic of Life itself as signified by phrases like “the journey called life,” or as a DVG’s lyric goes, “life is a cart.” The implicit message is that we need to emphasize on the journey, and not on the vehicle whether it be made of mud or wood or clay or gold. When we encounter potholes on the road, how does it matter whether we are travelling in a bullock cart or a bike or a BMW?
Girish Karnad’s characters in Utsav are truly hideous. But they don’t bother him because his eye is firmly, meditatively gazing on the Western pot of gold. Or the money shot, in pornographic parlance. He knows the kinds of reviews he’ll get by reviewers who’re equally depraved and ill-informed as he is. Here is an excerpt from one such review from the University of Iowa for your reading pleasure.
..turning one of the most beloved of classical plays, the ca. 5th century “Little Clay Cart” (ascribed to Shudraka) into a contemporary spectacle with A-list stars and music by major filmi composers. Lavish sets and costumes, jewelry and hairstyles, all inspired by classical paintings and sculptures, evoke the glories of the Gupta age, while saucy dialog in contemporary (if properly Sanskritized) Hindi recreates the playwright’s satirical vision of the demimondaine world of the city of Ujjayini.
To this reviewer, lavish sets, costumes, and saucy dialogue make Utsav a noteworthy movie. And he’s equally impressed by Karnad’s “satirical vision,” which in reality is Karnad’s perversity I spoke about in the preceding passages. Vasantasena’s world is supposedly “demimondaine” in this ignorant reviewer’s opinion. Which is truly opposite of what is depicted in Mricchakatika.
Vasantasena was a compassionate, kind, courageous and honest woman who didn’t choose to be born a courtesan. Nor does she feel guilty about her profession. The sort of courage she possesses is illustrated by her encounter with Shakara. Despite being the real power behind the throne—like Kichaka was to Virata—he has to physically force a supposedly-demimondaine woman to succumb to his lust. If she was really the cheap prostitute that this reviewer–and Karnad–makes her to be, she would have readily complied with Shakara in return for fabulous wealth. When he fails in his violence, he strangles her. To Vasantasena, Cārudatta’s penury hardly matters; but she’s supposed to be a woman who sleeps with anybody in return for money. But the truth is that she recognizes greatness when she sees it: Vasantasena sets her maid free for the sole reason that she loves Sharvilaka, a learned scholar who has fallen on hard times. Towards the end of the play, in a touch of a crowning glory of sorts, the new king, Aryaka honours Vasantasena as a Vadhu, a respected bride recognising her innate dignity of character.
But this myopic Iowa University reviewer only sees the character-assassinated Vasantasena of Utsav. He also calls Vatsyayana a “pompous monk.” Which is correct because he draws this conclusion based on the repulsive caricature Girish Karnad makes of the sage.
What people who have studied Mricchakatika properly will despise, turns into a “clever touch” (sic) in the hands of Karnad. Utsav has intentionally placed most of the action in Vasantasena’s house (brothel is too crude a word) to serve its pornographic purposes. The action in the original takes place at numerous locations: Cārudatta’s house, in a street, in a temple, at the palace gates, in Vasantasena’s house (of course), in a secluded garden, in a cemetery, and inside the palace itself. Generally speaking, in Mricchakatika, the time is uniformly, optimally distributed in all these locations, in a play of ten acts. The lecturing and voyeurism are purely figments of Girish Karnad’s dreadful imagination.
The aforementioned review is what I meant when I said Western pot of gold. Cultural vandals like Karnad who received “higher education” on a Rhodes scholarship keenly understand the way the West operates: who and what it favours and what is the precise tune that will generate him a few coins. The gushing praise from Iowa—among several others in the same vein—is not based on understanding or true art appreciation. It is a praise for turning a sublime classic into a grotesque monstrosity.
This is also the kind of review based on which Westerners continue to form opinions of Indian culture and art because they refuse to forgo their deep-rooted racist biases about India, which are further reinforced by mentally colonized Indians like Girish Karnad. It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle.
Thus, if a braindead reviewer calls Utsav as Girish Karnad’s “satirical vision” of Mricchakatika, so it must be. As a result, people who watch Utsav will tend to think that Mricchakatika must probably be the same, Vatsyayana’s character included. How many will really bother to find out what really is in the play?
Those who have the time and patience, please Google for the terms “Girish Karnad Utsav” or any combination of these terms. Read each review or material in the search results and do tell me if you find one review, which actually compares the original with Girish Karnad’s Dracula. One synopsis describes Utsav as a “film notable for its highly charged love scenes and popular songs.”
Which is actually true because nothing else is noteworthy in Utsav apart from these. In reality, Utsav is and remains Girish Karnad’s first (and probably the last) experiment at pornography in mainstream Indian cinema. The deplorable part is that he had to shoot his smut by raping a true, immortal classic.