If a story has lasted for more than 2,000 years, it has to be good, right? Shanti Mathias watches a new production of The Clay Cart, on now in Auckland.
Is the goal of art to be realistic, coherent and self-contained? Or is it to resonate: to call to emotions that the audience might not have words for? रस (rasa) is an ancient theory of art that comes from a Sanskrit text written before the birth of Christ. To drastically simplify it, it suggests that the purpose of artistic entertainment is to operate at the level of emotion, not realism: to compel the ras of the audience. Ras means essence, or, more literally, juice: I’ve always liked this, because thinking about juiciness offers a different way to understand the intent of artistic endeavour, and because it’s the only way I am able to enjoy Bollywood movies. Also, talking about classical Sanskrit theories of drama is a good way to make you sound smart.
I had this in mind as I watched The Clay Cart, a translation of the ancient Sanskrit play Mricchakatika, which is being performed by Prayas Theatre at TAPAC in Auckland this week. The play dates from the fifth century BC, around the same time as the rasa theory. Its promotional materials sell it as “an ancient epic brought to life”, with a sepia-tinted image of a couple with a lush garden and ornate pillars in the background. It’s one of the oldest surviving works of Indian theatre that is fiction, rather than being based on a myth.
Before newspapers, social media and widespread literacy, performances were one of the few ways for messages to be broadcast to a population, so many ancient texts aimed for mass appeal. Accordingly, Mricchakatika has a love story, a political prisoner plot, bawdy jokes and social commentary. It tells the story of courtesan (read: sex worker) Vasantasena and noble poor man Charudatta, who fall in love – even though Charudatta has a wife and Vasantasena is being pursued by the obnoxious, entitled brother-in-law of the king.
Visually, the production was gorgeous. A simple set accentuated by the costume design palette of brown, white and red – convenient when minor characters double as part of the set, becoming a wall when necessary. The lighting, by Calvin Hudson, and sound, by Moushumi Das and Ritesh Vaghela, were especially lush. The sound of a garden for a pivotal scene was excellent, and the sunset-silhouette that marks the end of the first act was gorgeous: a gift for the audience, to be in a medium sized room opposite Auckland Zoo and also long ago, and far away.
That’s the outline of the play, then. But is it juicy?
Keeping in mind the idea of ras, I tried to simply let the story of The Clay Cart wash over me. I didn’t look at Wikipedia beforehand. The story is somewhat chaotic and non-linear, but that’s part of the fun. Precious items keep getting stolen and returned in ironic ways. There’s no clear timeline. In the action-packed second half, a side plot unexpectedly renders the whole story deeply political. Some threads are tidily resolved, others less so.
To interpret the play for a contemporary audience, the production adds a meta layer to the story, where the ancient story keeps disappearing and the actors become actors, discussing the meaning of the play in rehearsals. The success of this approach was mixed. The cast discuss the difficulties of funding Indian stories, with references to TVNZ success reminiscent of The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom.
One character says that it’s important to make a connection to contemporary injustices in India, where the play originates, while others suggest that avoiding Indian politics was a motivator to move to Aotearoa. A character reads a letter that imprisoned Jesuit activist Stan Swamy wrote from prison in Mumbai before his death, a reminder that for the original audiences of this play, it would have been a way to understand and interpret political news. Theatre can do the same thing in the 21st century. With a central character being a courtesan, the present-day framing adds some context around the social status of sex workers, while a “MeToo” subplot involving an actor is left unresolved, messier than the ends-tied approach of the original.
But while I appreciated the effort to speak to potential criticisms of staging a millennia old play, I also felt like Mricchakatika’s endurance speaks for itself. People 2,500 years ago were also asking hard questions about what it means to be moral and obedient when the systems of power are corrupt, the burden of debt, the reality of falsely accused prisoners, the threat of violence against women.
Before it even happened, the present-day actors were discussing a pivotal monologue from the final scenes of the play, proclaiming that the systems of power are more precarious than kings and ministers lead us to believe. But as an audience member, I could’ve made connections by myself. A character compares Sūdraka, the original playwright, to Shakespeare. But even though his plays are also centuries old, performances of Shakespeare don’t always keep stopping to explain themselves.
Perhaps, in an ideal world, there would be enough performances of Indian plays in Aotearoa that some could feature self-aware explanation, and some could be post-modern and entirely silent and some could have elaborate traditional costumes, and some could be entirely in Indian languages, not translations. Instead, The Clay Cart tries to do a little of everything, and mostly succeeds. There are snippets of Hindi, but never enough that someone who doesn’t understand that language would be confused. There are multiple dance scenes, another way to convey emotion, and certainly full of rasa. There are slightly awkward rhyming couplets from an older Sanskrit translation within a very slick and modern production that can both comment on Indian politics and transport you to a land of pleasure gardens and absent kings.
Did I feel the juice? Yes, I did.
The Clay Cart is playing at TAPAC until 8 December. Tickets can be bought here.