- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
Photos: GB Kiran  

January 20, 2009 
Penned by Visakadatta in the 6th c AD, Mudrarakshasam is the only political play in Sanskrit. Directed by Jose Chiramel in the 1980s, it was noticed for its energy, and for his introduction of gestures and signs from traditional sources. The same cast presented the play, as a tribute to the young director of high caliber who is no more, in the Asian Drama Festival recently held in Thrissur, Kerala. Twenty one years hence, it revealed its quality that competes with international standards.  
Apart from the aesthetics of a Sanskrit drama, the contemporary relevance of the play is surprising. The drama communicates at many levels: historical, political, aesthetic, philosophical. 
The title 
Mudrarakshasam means the signet of Rakshasa, the Minister of the Nanda king. Indeed the plot revolves around this signet. It was accidentally lost and providentially found by a spy of Chanakya. And the crafty Chanakya makes use of the ring to further his plots against its real owner, Amatya Rakshasa. The central character, however, is Chanakya the astute politician who stands tall in popular myths and Indian imagination. All that this play expounds is not the historical truth. But by and large it portrays the struggle between two great statesmen, one a match to the other. 
And the legitimacy of the play can be supported by classical Hellenistic sources: the violent rule of the Nandas, the rise of Chandragupta, the formation of Maurya Empire. History records the period of the Maurya Dynasty that extended from Mysore to the borderland of Persia, as the golden age of ancient India. Credit goes to Chanakya, known as the Indian Machiavelli, the key figure in helping Chandragupta ascend the throne and establish the vast Mauryan Empire. The lifetime of two kings and the mission of Chanakya are compressed into this 2-hour long play.  
A historical document   
Mudrarakshasam delves into the core problem in the history of the Subcontinent. Family feud goes back to the mythical days of the Mahabharata. Rivalry among rulers has paved the way for the sway of foreigners. Mauryas and Nandas are two streams from the loins of the same father. The bitter family rivalry, abetted by other chieftains is the reality that rules the land. Chanakya is drawn into this cesspool. Personal revenge is another factor that has changed the course of history from the mythical times here. Chanakya's revenge too starts from personal humiliation at the hands of the arrogant Nandas. True to his nature, he accepts his life's mission of handing over the realm to a ruler who will take care of the welfare of the people, to establish the Rights in accordance with the political philosophy of the times. 
A political thinker 
Chanakya is an example of a shrewd politician, an archetype in the history of the Subcontinent. He is shrewd enough to identify a leader of caliber. And he is determined to usher Chandragupta as the king. Amatya Rakshasa, the minister of the rival Nanda king is allied to the wrong group. For unification and welfare of the land, unity of capable minds and commitment to work is what mattered. And the nature of Chanakya's work lies in using more brains and less bloodshed.  

Spying is an all-time remarkable political weapon. Chanakya uses it to comprehend the weak points of the enemy. And people are caught unaware and forced into a situation that demands their commitment to work. Amatya Rakshasa, the best minister of the times, is a great man in the wrong camp. Chanakya understands the strong and weak points of his enemy: his loyalty, humanism and idealism. Chanakya traps Amatya Rakshasa in such a way that salvaging a close friend who safeguarded his family enforces him to surrender. And the punishment Chanakya gives him is simply laudable. He forces him to be the minister of the enemy king Chandragupta. It is a position that demands unquestioning integrity, commitment, and competence. The punishment is not prison, as it has happened down the line in history, but demand for committed work which is a rare philosophy. And "Chandragupta's rise to greatness is a romance of history."  
Chanakya is not a Machiavelli in the real sense of the term. Indian philosophical thinking is the core of his political philosophy. Limited bloodshed, which is a pointer to the Buddhist philosophy of Ahimsa that is yet to take its roots in Indian thinking, is humanistic indeed. Pacifism and good governance is the panacea for all ills. The end justifies the means theory is put into practice to achieve a laudable situation, to establish peace, stability, and welfare. And the means employed is impressive with minimum casualty. Simple and austere in life, uninterested in pomp and position, after fulfilling his mission, he retreats from public domain. 
We are at a typical powerful political theater. The big, bold print of a chessboard as the backdrop is a declaration to its theme. Tenets of Sanskrit drama are used, with a vidushakan narrating the major events recalling history. The scenes enact major events. The idiom is more stylistic, symbolic and evocative, heavily borrowing from Kathakali.  It presents the world of the masculine, its raw energy. The one woman on the stage is a Vishakanyaka, a spy who reminds us of Poothana.  
Jayaraj Warrier, who plays Chanakya is a star in the Malayalam visual media today. "I was 24 when Jose Chiramel began molding me for this role. People then said I looked like a man of 45. Today I am 45 and I play the same role with more naturalism." Yes, but then the fast pace of our lives after two decades has made the play a bit dragging here and there. "This is our first dress rehearsal," commented the actor with a wry smile.  Truly there is scope to carry the drama beyond the borders. 
Contemporary relevance 
The notion that "End justifies the means" is only of secondary importance in the play. The underlying philosophy of pacifism emerges as a surprise. The contemporary relevance of the play written in the 6th century is quite startling as we live today under the shadow of war in the Subcontinent. And the entire world is an arena of low intensive conflicts initiated by greed for power. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to