Shakespearean play has seeds in Kathasaritsagara: researcher

Well exemplifies ancient Indian stories’ travel to west, says Sumedha Ojha

New Delhi, May 27: Ancient India abounded in stories that travelled to its east and west, serving as source for even a much later work by a dramatist as pivotal as William Shakespeare, according to new-age author Sumedha Verma Ojha who specializes in Mauryan period.

‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ may be based on a tale from The Decameron by 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, but the Bard’s famed comedy has its seeds also in the Sanskrit work Kathasasaritsagara, she noted at a lecture in the capital.

This is because Boccaccio’s famed story of ten nights itself was influenced by 6th-century Indian author Gunadhya’s Brihatkatha—which was adapted by a Shaivite named Somadeva in his Kathakasaritsagara five centuries later—travelling from India westward to Florence via Turkey. “The Decameron uses the same Brihatkatha concept of stories within stories, which is a typical Indian way of narration,” Prof Ojha told a session on ‘Trading in Stories’ delivered at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

Shakespeare (1564-1616) could have first read The Decameron’s French translation by Petrarch (14th-century Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca) and also its English version (The Palace of Pleasure) by William Painter who died in 1595. “So this is how a story has travelled from Pataliputra to Florence and from there to England,” observed the speaker at the IGNCA lecture series under Project Mausam: Maritime Routes and Cultural Landscapes earlier this week.

A Patna-born former bureaucrat who now lives in Geneva with her family, Prof Ojha’s lecture zoomed in on the oral and literary traditions that have for millennia, since the days of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, flown across land and sea with the monsoons, which carried ships, traders and their stories. The focus was on the 1st millennium BCE and its turn into the Common Era.


Citing an example of ancient Indian stories moving to the east, Prof Ojha, whose debut book Urnabhih is a Mauryan tale of espionage, adventure and seduction, noted in the hour-long talk that the Mahabharata had an interesting version in Indonesia among its versions abroad.


Called Hikayat Pandawa Jaya, it has a description of Lord Krishna arriving at Hastinapur to broker peace ahead of the Kurushetra War. The way the Yadava king enchants women in the locality is described in a way strikingly similar to how Lord Shiva’s charisma is narrated in classical Sanskrit writer Kalidasa’s celebrated play Kumarasambhava, she pointed out.


Moving towards the topic of ancient trade routes, Prof Ojha pointed out that a critical war Chadragupta Maurya (321-297 BC) fought with Seleucus I Nicator saw the Greek hero defeated but gifted with 500 war elephants. The progeny of the jumbos had a definite role in subsequent historical changes in places as far as Italy, she cited, referring to the 207 BC Battle of Metaurus between Rome and Carthage.


“The world was more connected in the past than we have ever thought—in many strange and even subterranean ways,” the speaker pointed out.


IGNCA’s ‘Project Mausam’ is a multi-disciplinary project that rekindles long-lost ties across nations of the Indian Ocean ‘world’ and forges new avenues of cooperation and exchange. The project, launched by India in partnership with member states, aims to enable a significant step in recording and celebrating this important phase of world history from the African, Arab and Asian-world perspectives.

The 1985-founded IGNCA is a premier autonomous institution under the Union Minisry of Culture, promoting diverse as well as interdisciplinary programmes of research, publication, training, creative activities and performance in the field of arts and culture.


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