On “Rama Beyond Price” Judit Törzsök

When I first studied Sanskrit, two fields appealed to me particularly: the history of Shaivism on the one hand and Sanskrit drama and dramatic theory on the other. Although it so happened that I did my thesis and most of my research since then in the former, I have never given up my interest in the latter.

My interest in Sanskrit drama grew especially in my first years in Oxford, thanks to weekly evening sessions of drama reading under Professor Richard Gombrich’s guidance, which took place in his Balliol office. One or two roles were assigned to each participant, who then attempted to play and translate his or her part with the text in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. I still remember my first time there, when I managed to mistranslate most of the text, although I played the very simple role of the Nati, the stage-manager’s wife, appearing only in the prologue and uttering just a few sentences. But I also remember how everybody enjoyed these readings: at least at my level, you could pick up a lot without having to look up each new word, and it was also an excellent occasion to see doctoral students in Sanskrit you may not have met otherwise. It was also a meeting of what I called the Buddhist and Shaiva communities of students.

During my first year in Oxford I also attended Sanjukta Gupta’s class on the Shakúntala. We read most of the play together, and then I decided to finish it up myself during vacation, a task I proudly accomplished — this was the first Sanskrit play I had read fully in the original.

In addition to these first readings, my supervisor, Professor Alexis Sanderson, often cited plays in which Shaivas had a prominent role, such as “Much Ado About Religion” (Āgamaḍambara) and “The Drunkard’s Antics” (Mattavilāsaprahasana), plays that formed a bridge between my two fields of interest.

But how can a Shaiva choose to translate a Vaishnava play about Rama? And especially one so undramatic?

My first encounter with the “Rama Beyond Price” (Anargharāghava) was merely by chance. I was asked to write a review article on H.N. Bhat’s critical edition of one of its commentaries. It was a good excuse for me to read the play, which I knew to be particularly difficult because of the complexity of its language. At this point, I was interested in the Anargharāghava because it was a challenging text rather than because of its qualities. After the first reading I realised what was obvious to the eleventh century anthologist, Vidya·kara, as well as to many other pundits: that it actually contained some good pieces of poetry.

Now while it has always been acknowledged that Murári was a good poet, Western authors on Indian literature keep reiterating that he was a terrible dramatist, for his play represents hardly any action. Indeed little happens on stage, most fights and events take place behind the scenes or between acts. There is one obvious reason for this: violent scenes were not to be enacted by convention. But it is surely not the only reason. Murári may well have made the deliberate choice of reducing action on stage in order to concentrate, and to make the audience concentrate, on diction and other elements of dramatic representation.

What immediately springs to mind is the way in which Sanskrit plays are staged in the Keralan Kutiyattam tradition. Although Kutiyattam representations are envisaged for dramas with more action than the Anargha, actual performances — which normally include only one episode of a play at one go — often resemble spectacular chanting recitations of poetry interspersed with well-choreographed movements rather than what one would normally call theatre. This in no way makes the performance less valuable or enjoyable (not even for such uninitiated non-Sanskritists as my husband).

If one reads the Anargha with a similar staging in mind, its structure and style seem perfectly adapted to such a performance. I do not mean to suggest that it was actually meant for a Kutiyattam representation, but its conception is definitely close to it. The only thing that may have been very different in the Anargha — or when the Anargha was written — is the speed of recitation: it was perhaps faster, otherwise even a single act or part of it would be impossible to perform, given that contemporary Kutiyattam performances of even short texts can take many days, and include a great deal of repetition.

Murári’s emphasis on writing a play rather than a series of beautiful stanzas is also seen in the numerous allusions to plays and theatre, which keep reminding us that we participate in a performance. Such allusions are of course also meant to demonstrate how learned the playwright is. However, in addition to this, their main function, I believe, is to show the way in which many of the heroes — including Rama himself — are manipulated as marionettes by those who plot against each other. One such main intriguer is Vishva·mitra, Rama’s preceptor, himself.

In the Prakrit-Sanskrit Prelude (miśraviṣkambhaka) of Act 4, Mályavan, the great intriguer of the demons, Rávana’s minister, is angry with Vishva·mitra, who is directing a ‘bad drama’, durnāṭaka, a play which is altogether against Mályavan’s will. Mályavan exlaims:

aho durātmanaḥ kṣatriyabrāhmaṇasya kuśikavaṃśajanmano durnāṭakam!

This is the wicked arrangement [lit. bad drama] of that ill-willed warrior-brahmin, son of Kúshika, Vishva·mitra!

The expression is made more explicit by one of the commentators, Vishnu·bhatta, who gives the following paraphrase: he [Vishva·mitra] directs everything himself, just as a stage-manager does (svayaṃ sūtradhāravat sarvapreraka iti bhāvaḥ).

In presenting the Rama story as a story of intrigues, Murári follows the tradition of Bhava·bhuti’s Mahāvīracarita, but renews it with his parallels from the world of stage.

Given that the enmity between Rama and Rávana is represented as staged by intriguers, it is an important turning point in the play when, in Act 6, in which Rávana is killed, Rama comes to be presented as the stage-manager — at least according to his monkey-ally, Sugríva, who also includes a few technical terms of theatre in his speech (6.48).

Daśamukha-vadha-nāṭya-sūtradhāro Raghupatir, asya ca pāripārśvako ’ham
prakaraṇa-phala-bīja-bhāvakānām amṛta-bhujām samupāsmahe samājam

Rama is the stage-manager of this play about the killing of Rávana; and I am his assistant. We propitiate the assembly of gods as our public, before whom the story of the play unfolds.

Another reference to theatre that recurs in the play is the term for farce, prahasana. At the end of Act 2, the two brothers, Rama and Lákshmana, are about to set out for Vidéha, following their guru’s advice. Rama remarks that he has always been curious to see Shiva’s famous bow belonging to the king of Vidéha, to which his brother adds, referring to princess Sita: ‘as well as to see the noble girl who was not born from a womb’. To this teasing, Rama replies by saying:

katham anyad eva kim api prahasanaṃ sūtrayati bhavān.

So you are making fun of me again.

But his words could be more literally translated as follows: ‘What? So you are staging a farce again.’ This expression, prahasanaṃ sūtrayati, is moreover not just one member in a long series of references to theatre, but seems to be quite important in the structure of the play. As Stephanie Jamison remarked in a review article, the bantering of adolescents, of Rama and Lákshmana, mirrors the conversation of the two vedic students at the beginning of the same act. Thus, Act 2 is framed between two conversations of youngsters, which are not devoid of comic elements. Moreover, the word prahasana links the last scene of Act 2 to the subsequent act, whose first stanza also mentions the genre of farce, but in a very different context. Here, the old Chamberlain (Kañcukin) introduces himself with the following reflections on his role and age.

gātrair girā ca vikalaś caṭum īśvarāṇāṃ
kurvann ayaṃ prahasanasya naṭaḥ kṛto ’smi
tan māṃ punaḥ palita-varṇaka-bhājam enam
nāṭyena kena naṭayiṣyati dīrgham āyuḥ

Praising my masters without having the voice or the limbs to do so, I have been made a comic actor. With my grey hair for greasepaint, in what play will I still be made to act, directed by this long life of mine?

The prahasana is no longer a light-hearted joke as it was in the preceding scene, but forms part of a metaphor with a rather sour self-irony. The theatrical parallel is brought out in detail: the Chamberlain presents himself as the actor in a farce, wearing grey hair for greasepaint, directed by his old age, playing in front of his masters as the audience. The Shakespearean-like image of one’s life being staged as a play may be influenced by Bharti·hari’s lines “Disenchantment” (Vairāgyaśataka) 50cd in Love Lyrics:

jarā-jīrṇair aṅgair naṭa iva valī-maṇḍita-tanur
naraḥ saṃsārāṅke viśati Yamadhānī-yavanikām

With the body worn out by age and covered with wrinkles instead of make-up, man enters the abode of Death from the scene of life like an actor exiting behind the curtains.

The various references to the world of stage and theatre in acts 1 to 6, in which the action takes place, are crowned by the stanzas describing Shiva’s performance of dance in the descriptive seventh act. As is appropriate for the final act, these verses refer to the god’s dance at the end of the world. Shiva is called the dancer or actor, naṭa, in verses 105 and 111, the former naming him krīḍānaṭa ‘he who dances out of play’. While he performs his ārabhaṭī, representation of supernatural, horrible events on stage (verse 103), he frightens his wife, Párvati, and shakes up the world with Mount Meru at its centre (verse 50). As the following stanza (7.111) describes him, he acts in a nāṭikā, a term for a short or light comedy, which is in fact the end of the three worlds.

uddāma-bhrami-vega-vistṛta-jaṭā-vallī-praṇālī-patat-
svaḥ-Gaṅgā-jala-daṇḍikā-valayitaṃ nirmāya tat pañjaram
saṃbhrāmyad-bhuja-ṣaṇḍa-pakṣa-paṭala-dvandvena haṃsāyitas
trailokya-vyaya-nāṭikā-naya-naṭaḥ Svāmī jagat trāyatām

As he whirls about in a frightening way, his matted locks, dishevelled, spread out to form channels in which the celestial Ganga’s water can fall down in streams all around him — thus he builds a bird’s cage around himself with the falling streams, in which he spreads out his many arms as a swan would its veil-like wings. He is the dancer that plays the hero in the spectacle staging the end of the three worlds, he is our Lord — may he protect the universe.

While it is references to theatre that I have found to be most frequent, Murári includes word plays concerning many other fields of learning. Sanskrit grammatical terms are among his favourites, such as in the following sentence uttered by Mályavan in Act 4 (before verse 12), criticising Vishva·mitra:

tapobhir asya brāhmaṇādeśo ’pi sthānivadbhāvena kṣatrakāryaṃ na jahāti

Although he has become the equivalent of a brahmin through asceticism, he cannot give up acting like a warrior, because he still retains his original nature.

I have had to translate the overall meaning of the sentence without following the original wording, for there are two untranslatable puns on grammatical terms. The word ādeśaḥ is a technical term to denote a substitute, while sthānivadbhāvaḥ refers to the rule of grammar which says that the substitute behaves like the original except as far as phonetic changes are concerned (Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī 1.1.56). The whole statement implies that Vishva·mitra has become the ‘substitute’, i.e. the equivalent of a brahmin, but instead of behaving exactly like a brahmin in all respects, he retains something of his origins, i.e. he acts as a kshatriya, just as the grammatical substitute retains its phonetic properties.

In another statement, it is Vishva·mitra himself who uses grammatical terminology. He suggests that his hermitage functions according to the rules of Sanskrit grammar when he asks Rama to protect him (2.86):

prakṛṣṭakartrabhiprāyakriyāphalavato vidhīn
prayuñjānās tvayā vīra paripālyāmahai vayam

May you protect us, brave hero, while we perform our sacrificial duties, which produce results for the benefit of those who accomplish them perfectly.

The first line (which is the second part of the translation) is almost a direct citation from Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī 1.3.72. With this statement Vishva·mitra also seems to imply that the hermitate functions properly, according to the ultimate rules of perfect order, which are of course those of Sanskrit grammar.

These allusions to theatre and grammar are good examples to illustrate some of the difficulties a reader of the original — or the translator — can encounter in the text. Such difficulties provide of course no excuse for the translator’s inability or awkwardness in reflecting the richness of the original. In addition, I hope that these examples also show why Murári has been praised for the profoundity of his language, and why he deserved to be spoken of as in the following verse (also included in Vidya·kara’s anthology):

devīṃ vācam upāsate hi bahavaḥ sāraṃ tu sārasvataṃ
jānīte nitarām asau gurukulakliṣṭo murāriḥ kaviḥ
abdhir laṅghita eva vānarabhaṭaiḥ kiṃ tv asya gambhīratām
āpātālanimagnapīvaratanur jānāti manthācalaḥ

Many have worshipped the Goddess of Speech, but truly the poet Murāri, who painstakingly studied in his teacher’s house, knows the essence of words.
The soldier apes crossed the sea, but it is the mountain used as its churning stick, whose thick base reached down to the underworld, that really knows the sea’s depth.

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