Just out: a new edition of The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays, an English translation (by A N D Haksar) of six plays by the great Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa. These are all based on episodes in the Mahabharata. Reading “Pancharatram” (“Five Nights”), which begins with Duryodhana, having performed a great sacrificial ceremony, seeking the blessings of his elders, I was struck by déjà vu. From the opening page:
Duryodhana: Preceptor, my salutations.
Drona: Come, my child. But that is not in order.
Duryodhana: Why, what is the order?
Drona: Don’t you see? You should first salute the blessed Bhishma. I don’t consider it in order to be saluted before him.
Bhishma: No, no, sir. You have precedence over me for many reasons. I am born of a mother, your birth was immaculate...
For more on “immaculate” births in the Mahabharata, see this post. One must wonder now if the Kuru elders spent all their time discussing each other’s fantastic origins and precisely where they should be placed in the respectability hierarchy.
Bhasa is one of the major names in classical Sanskrit literature. Though there is no consensus on when exactly he lived, it’s known that he preceded Kalidasa, who praised him in the prologue of one of his own plays. (It was a somewhat backhanded compliment though: Kalidasa asked the rhetorical question “How can the work of the modern poet Kalidasa be more esteemed than that of established worthies than Bhasa etc?” and then supplied his own answer: “Everything is not more praiseworthy just because it is old, nor should a poetical work be dismissed just because it is new.”)
Reading The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays, it’s interesting to see how Bhasa uses creative license to extrapolate dialogues and imagine scenes that were not in the original text of the Mahabharata, but which are largely consistent with the tone of the epic. This is, of course, something that interpreters of the vibrant epic continue to do more than 2,000 years later (Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni is one example among many of books that tell the story through the eyes of a particular character; and there are more conventional translations, such as the beautiful one by Kamala Subramaniam, which expand the dialogues and internal dilemmas). Also notable is his treatment of the characters – for instance, Duryodhana is frequently depicted as a noble, generous prince mindful of family honour (he is also the tragic hero of the title play, "Urubhanga") while Bhishma sometimes comes across as manipulative. It’s a recognition of how complex and many-sided the people in the epic are, something you won’t find in some of the condensed translations (such as the overrated one by C Rajagopalachari) or in that TV soap made by B R Chopra in the late 1980s.
The one notable deviation Bhasa makes from the original story is in “Pancharatram”, where Duryodhana agrees to return the kingdom to the Pandavas after their exile, provided their whereabouts can be discovered within five nights. This play appears to end on a reconciliatory note, but subsequent plays like “Duta Vakyam” (“The Envoy”) and “Karnabharam” (“Karna’s Burden”) indicate that the great war did take place after all. Much of Bhasa’s work has been lost; I wonder if he had dealt with the Mahabharata more comprehensively and if perhaps there were other works that bridged the gap between the events recounted in “Pancharatram” and those in the later plays. We'll never know, of course.