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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Little Clay Cart

(tr. Diwakar Acharya)

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To purchase The Little Clay Cart

Title: The Little Clay Cart
Author: Śūdraka
Genre: Play
Written: possibly ca. 7th cent. (Eng. 2009))
Length: 545 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Little Clay Cart - US
The Little Clay Cart - UK
The Little Clay Cart - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: NYU Press
  • Sanskrit title: मृच्छकटिकम् / Mṛcchakatika
  • Translated by Diwakar Acharya
  • With a Foreword by Partha Chatterjee
  • Previously translated: as The Mrichchakati, or, The Toy Cart by Horace Hayman Wilson (1826); by Arthur William Ryder (1905); as Mṛichchhakaṭika of Śūdraka by M.R.Kale (1924); by Revilo Pendleton Oliver (1938); transcreated by P.Lal as The Toy Cart, in Great Sanskrit Plays (1957); in Two Plays of Ancient India, by J.A.B. Van Buitenen (1968); as adapted for the stage by A.L.Basham, edited by Arvind Sharma (1994); and as The Clay Toy-Cart by Padmini Rajappa (2018)
  • This is a bilingual edition (but with the Sankrit Romanized, rather than printed in Devanagari)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid translation of an appealing, large-scale play

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
J. of the AOS* . 1/1999 Ludo Rocher
The Nation* . 23/11/1905 .
The Nation* . 24/12/1924 J.W.Krutch

[* review of another translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "Basham's translation/adaptation of the Mrcchakatika, preceded by a brief, sensitive program note which he wrote when the play was staged (pp. 17-19), is a joy to read, taking into consideration, of course, that, among other "slight alterations," "[m]uch dialogue has been abridged, and several incidents have been omitted altogether" (p. 18)." - Journal of the American Oriental Society, Ludo Rocher

  • "The ninth volume (1905) of the Harvard Oriental Series contains Dr. A. W. Ryder’s admirable translation of the “Maricchakatika.” or “Little Clay Cart,” an early Sanskrit comedy ascribed lo “King Shūdraka.” The translation, based on Parab’s text, will naturally supersede those of Wilson and Böhtlingk. It is marked by neat metrical renderings and a partially successful effort to imitate the effect of Hindu dialect as used on the stage." - The Nation

  • "Whoever the author may have been, and whether he lived in the fourth century or the eighth, he was a man good and wise with the goodness and wisdom which come not from the lips or the smoothly flowing pen of the moralist but from the heart. An exquisite sympathy with the fresh beauty of youth and love tempered his serenity, and he was old enough to understand how a light-hearted story of ingenious complication could be made the vehicle of tender humanity and confident goodness. His simplicity was not the simplicity which knows little; it was instead the great and final simplicity which is simple because it can take for granted nearly everything about which others fret and wrangle. (...) (T)he charm of lovers' intrigue and the beauty of generous forgiveness -- these form the theme of The Little Clay Cart -- are eternal, and the function of the artist is merely to realize anew their beauty. Nowhere in our own European past do we find, this side the classics, a work more completely civilized." - Joseph Wood Krutch, The Nation

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his Foreword, Partha Chatterjee notes that The Little Clay Cart "is probably the most widely performed Sanskrit play in recent times" -- specifically because of: "its immense potential, virtually unique in the entire range of Sanskrit drama, for innovative production in a modern theatre". The ten-act play is readily adaptable -- and so also many of the translations are re-shapings of the original: the most popular contemporary edition (in the US) is that edited by Arvind Sharma, based on A.L.Basham's adaptation for the stage (SUNY Press, 1994), while that by P.Lal in Great Sanskrit Plays (New Directions, 1957) is billed as a 'transcreation' of the text. (The considerable length of the play also leads it to be edited for most stagings, pared down to something closer to Western play standards, which is reflected in these adaptations.) Four editions, however, do present the full text -- in a variety of ways: the often reprinted M.R.Kale translation, Mṛichchhakaṭika of Śūdraka (1924), which also includes the Sanskrit text, printed in Devanagari (and extensive notes, at least in the original edition); this translation, part of the Clay Sanskrit Library, which also includes the Sanskrit text, but in Romanized presentation; the recent English-only Penguin edition of Padmini Rajappa's translation, The Clay Toy-Cart (2018), and the old standard English-language (rhyming(!)-)verse translation by Arthur W. Ryder.
       The Penguin edition -- contemporary and in a convenient paperback edition -- seems likely to become the default choice for English-speaking readers but is not yet readily available in the US/UK; in any case, this Clay Sanskrit Library -- more readily available outside India -- is certainly also an edition that readers should feel comfortable turning to, even if they have no interest or use for the original Sanskrit text, as Diwakar Acharya's modern English rendering is very accessible and makes for a fine version of the play for contemporary readers (with the bonus of the Clay volume being in their lovely pocket-sized format, making it a handy volume to carry around).
       (The Kale version -- at least in its earlier editions; I haven't seen the latest ones -- is the more 'scholarly' one and remains essential for the reader with a closer interest in the Sanskrit original, but the Clay edition also has a useful apparatus for those interested in the original, both in its appendix of chāyā (Sanskrit paraphrase of the (extensive) Prakrit passages) and useful and thorough endnotes, and these are less obtrusive (i.e. more (English-)reader-friendly than in the Kale edition.)
       The plot of The Little Clay Cart is fairly simple, if somewhat meandering (across ten acts !). The two central figures are the once-wealthy Charu·datta, who now lives in poverty, and the courtesan Vasánta·sena, who are in love. (Charu·datta is married, and his wife, Dhuta, does appear in the play, but she apparently is not any sort of impediment to his romance with Vasánta·sena; indeed, she proves devoted and supportive of her husband, willing to make practically any sacrifice (including the ultimate one); Charu·datta and Dhuta also have a son, Roha·sena.)
       Charu·datta is not too troubled about his impoverished state, but is saddened by some of the consequences, as many treat and regard the rich differently than the poor -- a central concern of the play that repeatedly comes to the fore, including in the scene from which the play takes its title. So Charu·datta laments:

I am not really worried by the loss of wealth;
Wealth comes and goes with fortune's stride.
But it makes me sad that people slacken
Their friendship as soon as wealth is lost.
       (Compare the second sentence with that in Kale for a sense of the very different linguistic feel of the translations: "But this burns me (as it were), that people become remiss even in their affections towards a person who has lost his support of wealth". Meanwhile, Ryder's bouncy verse translation reads: "My sorrow does not spring / From simple loss of gold; / For fortune is a fickle, changing thing, / Whose favors do not hold; / But he whose sometime wealth has taken wing, / Finds bosom-friends grow cold.")
       Vasánta·sena reciprocates Charu·datta's feelings for her, and is not put off by his poverty. But another man also wants to conquer her: Samsthánaka, generally known here as Shakára -- who is also the brother-in-law of the king, Pálaka. Shakára is not a real rival -- Vasánta·sena has no interest in him -- but is determined to win her, and thus a considerable (and powerful, and wealthy) threat to both her and Charu·datta. He is warned that Charu·datta is widely revered for his goodness, a paragon of men, despite his poverty, but Shakára remains determined to get what he wants.
       Both Charu·datta and Vasánta·sena have a romantic, idealized sense of love -- despite the one already being married and the other working as a courtesan --, with Vasánta·sena, for example, insisting she is not interested in being the beloved of a king or king's favorite: "I want to love, not attend !" Both, however, are slightly hemmed in in their conduct by prevailing decorum and expectations, with Charu·datta concerned that, poor as he is, he can not do justice to the woman he loves. Both repeatedly show themselves to be largely indifferent to material wealth; their love is what matters.
       To have an excuse to visit him again, Vasánta·sena wants to deposit her jewels with him for safekeeping, which Charu·datta reluctantly agrees to; soon, however, a thief, Shárvilaka, comes in the night and -- in an amusing scene involving the person who is supposed to guard the box -- steals the jewels. Charu·datta takes the blame -- Vasánta·sena is told he lost the valuables gambling -- but his wife gives Vasánta·sena her last remaining jewelry as a deposit until the jewels can be returned.
       Thief Shárvilaka wants to use his new-found wealth to buy the freedom of Mádanika, Vasánta·sena's maid, but Mádanika of course recognizes them and has them returned to her mistress. Hearing that Áryaka, the son of a cowherd whom a wizard has predicted will become king, has been arrested by a worried Pálaka, Shárvilaka soon goes off hoping to help the imprisoned rebel. Meanwhile, Charu·datta and Vasánta·sena spend a happy night together, but there is a mix-up when Vasánta·sena is to be picked up in a carriage the next morning: Áryaka, who has escaped from prison, gets in the carriage meant for her, while Vasánta·sena gets in one that ultimately delivers her to Shakára. When she still won't give in to the king's brother-in-law, he throttles her and leaves her for dead -- and then pins the would-be murder on Charu·datta
I'll dump this evil deed on the pauper Charu·datta. And, what's more, he's a pauper, so it's possible to blame anything on him.
       Vasánta·sena is not, in fact, dead, but Charu·datta is tried, convicted, and sent to the execution ground before matters can be cleared up; it's a close call in the end, but everything works out -- including Áryaka assuming the throne, and generously rewarding Charu·datta.
       The story wends its way easily through this slightly convoluted plot. There is some suspense -- notably when Áryaka is escaping in the carriage and there is the danger of him being discovered, and then as Charu·datta is sentenced to death -- but mostly things fall relatively easily into place. Shakára is a good villain, especially when he takes Charu·datta to court -- a case the judge is reluctant to take on (unable even to conceive of: "How could noble Charu·datta commit a crime ?"), but which Shakára keeps turning to his advantage. Arguably typical for the laid-back presentation is also the scene which gives the play its title, where Charu·datta's son is disappointed that he does not have a gold cart to play with like the neighbor boy, but rather only a poor clay substitute fashioned by Charu·datta's maid; Vasánta·sena then hands over some of her jewelry, so that it can be fashioned into a gold cart for the little brat.
       There's a nice use of humor throughout; The Little Clay Cart isn't a comedy, but there are many comic scenes. Helpfully, too, while Charu·datta is presented as a true paragon, he comes across as surprisingly human -- humble, yes, and very well-meaning, but not too sick-sweetly saintly. Others do remark what a remarkable man he is -- including the judge who tries his case, who observes that:
Accusing Charu·datta is like weighing the Himálaya,
Crossing the ocean, and catching the wind !
       But Charu·datta is very much presented as human, rather than super-human.
       In the background a variety of socio-political themes are also addressed, but Śūdraka doses it carefully. There is clearly discontent with the rule of King Pálaka, but the uprising against him and his overthrow -- surely significant events -- are kept very much in the background. His brother-in-law stands in as the representative for a corrupt authority -- effectively so -- and also gets his comeuppance. Meanwhile, there is repeated commentary on poverty and how people who are perceived as poor are treated differently, with the largely carefree Charu·datta then presented as an example of how money doesn't (or shouldn't) matter -- though he too does very well by the end, his rewards including riches. Śūdraka is particularly successful in his presentation of both Vasánta·sena and Charu·datta's casual attitude towards material and other wealth; they are not ascetic but they are basically comfortable with simply accepting what life gives them.
       It makes for a quite charming play, the action quick and engaging. Though long for a play, it doesn't feel that way when read. Some well-formed twists also neatly tie and hold the whole together, as with the reäppearance, late in the play, of a then-reformed gambling masseur whose debts Vasánta·sena had settled early on. Act by act, The Little Clay Cart offers good entertainment, and though (or because ?) things are kept fairly simple there are no longueurs.
       Śūdraka doesn't indulge in flowery, poetic description to anywhere near the extent found in much other Sanskrit drama, with a sequence as Charu·datta's friend Maitréya being led by a maid into Vasánta·sena's mansions, as he admires court after court that they walk through the only really lengthy such excursion. Meanwhile, there are some smaller bits of nicely expressed observation:
Here sets the moon, ceding space to the darkness,
Its elevated upper end still in view,
Like the tip of a tusk, gleaning remnants
Of a wild elephant immersed in water.
       Acharya's translation stands in between Kale's stilted and Ryder's (arguably overly) lyrical ones, though Ryder's probably captures the spirit of the whole thing better. A few missteps aside -- "I bathed in water -- that is liquid H₂O" -- it's a simple, clear rendering of the Sanskrit
       Overall, The Little Clay Cart is a fine version of Śūdraka's play, and certainly preferable to all of the more freely adapted translations; it certainly also reads much more fluidly than the Kale version -- and the presence of the Sanskrit to compare it to certainly works in its favor in comparison to the Ryder translation, though that one too can still be recommended. (I have not yet seen the recent Rajappa translation, so I can not judge how that one compares.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 March 2022

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The Little Clay Cart: Reviews (* review of another translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Śūdraka was an Indian king and playwright.

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© 2022 the complete review

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