Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus (1827)

In Horace Hayman Wilson's two-volume (and fusty-titled) Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus you'll find, in their first English translations, several major Sanskrit plays, including Shudraka’s Mṛcchakatika (The Toy Cart), Kalidasa’s Vikramōrvaśīyam (Vikrama and Ursavi, or the Hero and the Nymph), and Bhavabhuti’s Malamitmadhava (Málati and Mádhava, or the Stolen Marriage).

These plays were not all written in the same era, nor are they much alike in form or content. It’s the equivalent of an Anglophone drama anthology in which Shakespeare, Aphra Behn, and Samuel Beckett all rub shoulders. Or, rather, it’s the equivalent of such an anthology if we put aside the unignorably colonialist expression of Wilson’s intention “to secure the Hindu Theatre a place in English literature” — as though Hindu Theatre, like India as a whole, were to be absorbed, amoeba-like, into the English world. The book even sports a dedication to King George "patron of oriental literature" (whatever that may mean), and a stated purpose "to familiarise his British subjects with the manners and feelings of their fellow subjects in the East". On the face of it this may seem a genuine attempt at understanding and empathy, but carries with it a darker undertone — to familiarise so as to better control.

That said, Select Specimens remains an accessible introduction to a part of history still little known by Western readers. Wilson — the first Boden chair of Sanskrit at Oxford — provides plentiful information about the composition and cultural background of each of the dramas, which he translates with tremendous nineteenth-century fluency, making truly excellent use of every English idiom from “alas!” to “zounds!”. And he even includes short accounts of twenty-three other dramas (some of which have still not been translated into English).

Of the three modes of dramatic representation in Sanskrit — Nátya, Nritya, and Nritta — Wilson’s specimens are, he tells us, all of Nátya, “being defined to be gesticulation with language”, whereas the Nritya “is gesticulation without language, or pantomime; and the Nritta is simple dancing”.

Most of Wilson’s specimen dramas are love stories with byzantine plots. The Toy Cart — a fifth-century comedy about a love triangle involving a poor young Brahmin, a courtesan, and the vulgar courtier who interferes with their affair — is full of outrageous humor and melodrama that have made for several successful Western adaptations (including one by the French poet Gérard de Nerval). The fourth-century Vikrama and Ursavi, or the Hero and the Nymph is, as the subtitle suggests, also the story of a difficult love affair — this one between the king Pururavas and the celestial nymph Ursavi. (The Vikrama of the title does not refer to a character, as one might think, but means “valor”.) The eighth-century Málati and Mádhava, or the Stolen Marriage features perhaps the most outlandish plot, involving both sorcery and human sacrifice.

Horace Hayman Wilson, Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus, Vol. 2 (Calcutta: Asiatic Press, 1827)

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