The pleasing news that Shashi Kapoor is to receive the Dadasaheb Phalke award for his many contributions to cinema brings back his courage in producing Utsav (1985), the film based on the ancient Sanskrit play Mrichhakatikam or The Little Clay Cart.
Said to be written by Sudraka around the 5th century CE, Mrichhakatikam enjoyed a vogue in Europe before it was enacted in modern India. Parisians saw it in French translation in 1850 and 1895 and it reportedly drew crowds in Germany in 1892-93 and in the 1920s. Although some Indian theatre veterans presented regional adaptations in their day, it was thanks to Shashi Kapoor that many modern Indians picked up on this play.
Set in ancient Ujjain, Mrichhakatikam is about ordinary people, its lively plot introducing us to a cross-section of ancient society. It gives us a picture of a multi-cultural India in which Hindus and Buddhists helped each other and social boundaries were possibly more fluid.
It was not, of course, a century for women - the heroine is a nagarvadhu, the supporting actress is her slave and the respectably married woman is a minor character driven to the point of sati.
It was because of Shashi Kapoor (right), that we got to see something like Rekha-starrer Utsav (left) in Hindi cinema.
Of the men, Sarvilaka, the under-class character who tries to free his slave girl-friend, is far more likeable than the feeble, not-so-virtuous hero, Charudatta, while Samsthanaka, the bad king's brother (played by Kapoor in Utsav) is a social misfit. These things make the play interestingly different from the regular epic-depic. The 'hatke' attitude in the story declares itself at once in the tricky Sanskrit verse of the naandi or pre-play invocation.
Loosely translated, it goes: May the abstract meditation of Shiva protect you - that Shiva who sits in the knee-bound 'paryank' yogic posture; whose inner life-force is so controlled within that all movement has ceased; and who, with his eye of truth, perceives himself as the universal soul with no duality between the two (the creator and creation)'.
The challenge of this verse is that it states the human-divine relationship the other way around. As everyone knows, the prescribed spiritual goal of human beings is to realise their oneness with their imagined creator and through that, their unity with all creation. But here, it is God who is depicted as the Mahayogi who sees that all creation is part of 'Him' - implying that 'He' should therefore be good to all.
Sudraka then sets the stage for the interwoven human love stories in Mrichhakatikam by ending his invocation with a vivid natural image of God's love story (said to be as complicated as any human's): 'Apich, paatu vo neelakantasya kantah shyamambudopamah/ gauribhujalata yatra viddhul lekheva rajate.' 'Moreover, may the dark-cloud-like neck of Shiva protect you, that neck on which the pale creeper of Gauri's arm flashes like lightning.'
Thank you, Mr Kapoor, for honouring this intriguing old playwright in our lifetime.