College of Letters & Science
University of California, Berkeley

The Greatest Show on Earth

The first Indian play performed at UC Berkeley -- and anywhere in the United States -- took the stage of the Greek Theater in 1907, along with elephants, zebras, and a cast of hundreds.

Elephants. Zebras. A cast of hundreds. "The Little Clay Cart" (Mrcchakatika) was anything but little. Attributed to King Shudraka of India, this ten-act Hindu epic was first staged around the year 600 in its original Sanskrit. Thirteen hundred years later, the play finally found its way to the California coast and UC Berkeley's Greek Theater. There, in 1907 it became the first major production of an Indian drama on U.S. soil.

The text for the performance came from famed Sanskrit scholar Arthur William Ryder's 1905 translation for the Harvard Oriental Series. Berkeley snatched Ryder from Harvard the next year; he remained at Berkeley until his death in 1938.

King Dushyanta, from the 1914 Berkeley production of <i>Shakuntula</i>

King Dushyanta, from the 1914 Berkeley production of Shakuntula
Courtesy of University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

The play itself tells of the rivalry between a benevolent merchant and an evil aristocrat for the love of a beautiful courtesan. The convoluted plot includes political intrigue, comedic interludes, and a child with a little clay cart. But story bowed to spectacle from the start in the Berkeley production of "The Little Clay Cart."

Director Garnet Holme was English actor who arrived in Berkeley with a traveling British theater company and decided to stay. According to a review published that year in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, he took pains to observe authentically Indian theatrical conventions: "[I]n the details of native Indian manners and ceremonies he was further aided by the firsthand knowledge of Swami Trigunatita and Swami Prakashananda, the two priests of the Hindu temple in San Francisco." (Holme did not take pains, however, to cast authentically Indian actors in the more than 25 speaking parts. Hindu students, the review says in passing, were relegated to "the native choruses.")

Photographs show off the production's sumptuous costumes, which reflect the era's Orientalist fascination with the cultural exotica of Asia. The elaborate sets displayed the interiors and exteriors of buildings simultaneously, an avant-garde innovation to American audiences still accustomed to the realist conventions of Victorian drama. In the final act, throngs of revelers, a troupe of dancing girls, a Brahamin priest, and an executioner were all upstaged by the appearance of two live zebras and two live elephants.

Shakuntula, from the 1914 Berkeley production

Shakuntula, from the 1914 Berkeley production
Courtesy of University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

The next Sanskrit epic appeared at the Greek in 1914. Ryder's translation of Shakuntala was the text for a performance that included bear cubs, a fawn, peacocks, and an onstage lotus pool with two real waterfalls. This show was anticipated throughout the state, as evidenced by a preview in the Los Angeles Times.

But Berkeley audiences would have to wait more than 90 years for the University to stage another Indian drama. Student groups performed plays from the subcontinent in the meantime. But not until Sudipto Chatterjee's premiere of "The Man of the Heart" at the Durham Studio Theater in September was an Indian play performed under the auspices of UC Berkeley. Thankfully, theatergoers won't have to wait another 90 years for the next show. Chatterjee will direct "Harvest," a gritty Indian drama about a dystopian future of corporate organ harvesting, in November 2005.

– Marcus Wohlsen

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