Of clowns and kings

July 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Of clowns and kings

(Indira Parthasarathy)

It is really sad in the contemporary Tamil theatre we do not have ‘vidusakas’, celebrated by Bharata in his  ‘Natyasastra’. Modern heroes ,perhaps, believe that they have ascended one step higher in the ladder of histrionic evolution by doubling as comedians to provide entertainment for the spectators that the designated vidusakas have become an extinct species. In the popular modern theatre, fun rests solely on the verbal gymnastics of the hero.

The concept of Vidusaka, as visualized by Bharata ,in fact is not as simple as that. This is borne by the Sanskrit plays of the classical period. Looking apparently naïve, vulnerable and with an ugly and uncouth bearing, matched by a weird costume of exaggerated colors he raises laughter by his very stage presence. But he, within himself, is cunning and crafty, retaining his right to have the last laugh, although the rest of the characters mock and ridicule him to no end. In Kalidasa’s ‘Malavikagnimitra’, he outsmarts the queen by felicitating the king to marry his mistress. In fact, he hates them all, the high and mighty. In Bhasa’s ‘Pratijnayaugandharayana’ ,the vidusaka is one of the three persons, who plots and manipulates the escape of the hero from captivity with the daughter of the captor!

He is the nearest approximation to the clown in the modern absurd theatre, in the plays of Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. He is a tragi-comic figure, although moving in high society, is not part of it. He disputes everything that is regarded as evident. He rubs shoulders with the courtiers, courtesans and royalty, observes their sacred cows and laughs within himself to feel superior. He does not hesitate to satirize the foibles and shortcomings of the rich and powerful in his own way that is beyond their comprehension.

In Sanskrit theatre, he needs to be an impersonator and a fine exponent of pantomime. His language is not refined and despite being a Brahmin , he does not speak Sanskrit like upper elite in the plays but he is shown as speaking an Eastern patois of Sauraseni, called Pracya.  He is shown as a Brahmin, who has fallen from grace and affluence, though Bharata has not laid down that the vidusaka should only be a Brahmin. In ‘Malavikagnimitra’ he says that he has a poor memory and as such, he does not want to overtax his brain by learning, lest he should forget Gayatri Mantra! It almost looks like there is a method in his alleged ignorance, a latent desire to mock at all things held sacred by the society!

Some of the exchanges between the vidusaka and other characters in a Sanskrit play reminds us of the dialogue between Estragon and Vladimir in ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett.

Estragon :       Why don’t we hang ourselves?

Vladimir:          With what?

Estragon:          You haven’t got a bit of rope?

Vladimir:            No

Estragon:           Then we can’t

Vladimir:            Let’s go

Estragon:            Wait, there’s my belt

Vladimir:            It’s too short

Estragon:           You could hang on to my legs.

Vladimir              Who’d hang on to mine?

Estragon:             True.

Vladimir:              Show all the same

(Estragon loosens the cord that holds up his trousers which, much too big for him, fall about his ankles. They look at the cord)

Vladimir:                That might do at a pinch. But is it strong enough?

Estragon:                We’ll soon see. Here.

(They each take an end of the chord and pull. It breaks. They almost fall)

Vladimir:                 Not worth the curse.

If there are no gods, suicide makes no sense. Suicide means protest .Protests against what? Whom? Death exists in any case. Suicide cannot alter human fate., but only accelerate it. It ceases to be a protest. It is surrender. It becomes the acceptance of the world’s greatest cruelty-death. Two clowns, in this remarkable play ‘Waiting for Godot’  bring out this truth by pantomime display and commonplace dialogues, that cannot be achieved even by a heavy duty philosophical discourse!

The profession of a jester is like that of an intellectual, consists in providing entertainment and his profession needs him to tell the truth and abolish myths. This could be the reason why the Sanskritic  playwrights chose to depict him as a fallen Brahmin. Even Bharata and his hundred sons, according to the dramatic mythology were inferior Brahmins because of their commitment to entertainment!

The Fool in ‘King Lear’ does not even have a name ,he is just a Fool, pure and unadulterated. But he is the first fool to be aware of the fool’s position. Unlike the other Shakespearean jesters, the Fool  in ‘King Lear’ appears in the middle of the play and vanishes before the end. He knows the aged and stupid king has given away his kingdom to his daughters and has been driven out by them.

King Lear:        Dost thou call me a fool, boy?

Fool:                 All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.

Kent:                 This is not altogether fool, my lord.

Fool:                  No, faith, lords and great men will not let me; if I had monopoly out, they would have

part on’t: and  ladies too: they will not me have all fool to myself, they will have


The Fool is no adherent of eschatology. He does not believe in the absolutes. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice and moral order. His only ideology is survival. He knows that ‘there is no god in heaven’ and  ‘all is not right with the world’. He sees cruelty, violence and lust. Lear, with his pathetic behavior  clinging  to his fictitious majesty seems ridiculous to him, more ridiculous because Lear is not even conscious of it!  Like Bharata’s vidusaka, the Fool is faithful to his friend and master and accompanies him to his madness. He knows the only madness is to believe that the world is rational. ‘The world stands upside down’ as he says.

‘When usurers tell their gold i’ the field;

When bawds and whores do churches build;

Then shall the realm of Albion

Come to great confusion;

Then comes the time, who lives to see ‘t

That going shall be us’d  with feet.

What a tragi-comic and absurd aphorism to put things in a nutshell! It almost reads like a political statement, portraying our contemporary era!


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