Book: The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays
Author: Bhasa, translated by A.N.D. Haskar
Format Read: Paperback
Not much is known about the Sanskrit playwright Bhasa although there is a fair deal of speculation. He did, however, predate Kalidasa – for Kalidasa mentions Bhasa in what is presumably his first play, Malavikagnimitram. If Bhasa did live in the Mauryan period, his works might be dated to the third or fourth century B.C. as the Penguin edition suggests on the first page.
“The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is a compilation of six of Bhasa’s plays, all of them tied in to the Mahabharatha. As the introduction reveals, the works of Bhasa were thought lost until palm leaf manuscripts of his plays were discovered in the Malayalam script. His plays are still performed, especially in that very ancient art form of Kerala, Kootiyattam.
The first play, ‘The Middle One’ or Madhyama Vyayoga, focuses on Bhima’s son Ghatotkacha. It has at its core a father-son relationship, of Bhima, exiled in a forest, meeting his son Ghatotkacha for the first time in unusual circumstances.
The second, ‘Five Nights’ or Pancharatram, has at its core a scene from the Mahabharatha, where the Pandavas, dwelling in disguise in the kingdom of Virata, are almost captured by the Kauravas, their sworn enemies. However, Bhasa takes liberties with the telling here – and introduces a cattle raid and a sympathetic Duryodhana, the Kaurava king. It is a very interesting take on the character.
‘The Envoy’ or Duta Vakyam introduces Lord Krishna as a character trying to mediate peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. But Duryodhana has none of it, and Krishna is incensed.
‘The Message’ or Duta Ghatotkacham reintroduces the character Ghatotkacha from the first play. This time, he attempts to the deliver a message to Duryodhana, who mocks him.
‘Karna’s Burden’ or Karnabharam focuses on Duryodhana’s close aide Karna, and his discovery of his parentage. He is not a Kaurava as he believed, and he cannot join the Pandavas. This play reveals his turmoil and self-doubt.
The last play, ‘The Shattered Thigh’ or Urubhangam is again portrays Duryodhana with a lot of pathos and feeling, and in a rarity for Sanskrit theatre, shows death on stage. The setting here is towards the end of the Mahabharatha war, with the Pandavas on the verge of victory, and Duryodhana at death’s door.
The translation of “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is fluid, and Bhasa’s style is forceful yet crisp, and very evocative of the scenes of skirmish and battle. The scenes are stark, and the world is fraught with the tribulations of war and weaponry, a world where honour is held dear. Duryodhana’s characterization is especially fascinating, with the Kaurava king shown to be honourable, conflicted, angry and just – sometimes all at the same time. All the plays appear to be tied in to each other, with one picking up where the other left off. And yes, Duryodhana’s real name has also been used by his father – Suyodhana.
In “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” each play is small, and some of them comprise a single act. All of them are powerful, masterfully crafted, and worth reading.