The story is that of a beautiful royal courtesan Shyama, who falls in love with a young merchant Bojrosen, unjustly accused of theft and condemned to death. She persuades Uttiyo, a young admirer of hers, to substitute for the merchant. Uttiyo willingly sacrifices his life reasoning that there could be no greater trajectory for his life since Shyama has rejected him and set her heart on Bojrosen instead. After Uttiyo's execution, Shyama spends happy times with her new lover. Going against counsel from her companions, but racked by guilt over the death of Uttiyo, she confesses the train of events to Bojrosen, who is horrified and casts her aside, vowing never to allow her near again. However he still agonizes over his lost love and pines for her presence. Calling out to her desperately, grasping an anklet of his beloved, he is almost reconciled with her, but it is not to be. Haunted by his horror at what she had done to procure his freedom, and the life lost, the former lovers go their separate ways.
Tagore had reworked a brief story from Rajendralal Mitra's book of Sanskrit Buddhist tales from Nepal.
The original runs thus:
Story of Shyama and Vajrasena. —
The reason why Buddha abandoned his faithful wife Yashodhara is given in the following story.
There was in times of yore a horse-dealer at Takshasila, named
Vajrasena ; on his way to the fair at Varanasi, his horses were stolen,
and he was severely wounded. As he slept in a deserted house in the
suburbs of Varanasi, he was caught by policemen as a thief. He was
ordered to the place of execution. But his manly beauty attracted the
attention of Shyama, the first public woman in Varanasi. She grew
enamoured of the man, and requested one of her handmaids to rescue
the criminal at any hazard. By offering large sums of money, she
succeeded in inducing the executioners to set Vajrasena free, and execute
the orders of the king on another, a banker's son, who was an admirer
of Shyama. The latter, not knowing his fate, approached the place of
execution with victuals for the criminal, and was severed in two by the
The woman was devotedly attached to Vajrasena. But her inhuman conduct to the
banker's son made a deep impression on his mind.
He could not reconcile himself to the idea of being in love with the
perpetrator of such a crime. On an occasion when they both set on a pluvial
excursion, Vajrasena plied her with wine, and, when she was almost
senseless, smothered and drowned her. When he thought she was quite
dead, he dragged her to the steps of the ghat and fled, leaving her in
that helpless condition. Her mother, who was at hand, came to her
rescue and by great assiduity resuscitated her. Shyama's first measure,
after recovery, was to find out a Bhikshuni of Takshashila, and to send
through her a message to Vajrasena, inviting him to her loving
embrace. Buddha was that Vajrasena, and Shyama, Yasodhara.
Tagore's short story recast it somewhat, and formed the basis for his more elaborate dance drama, the last that he would write :
Shyama becomes a larger than life personality, more wronged against than sinner from the original Sanskrit tale.Uttiya becomes a willing selfless sacrificer, rather than an unwitting dupe, and Vajrasen is not quite as violent in how he disposes of Shyama when he comes to know of her role in Uttiyo's death.
I noticed interesting parallels to the Tamil epic of Silappadikaram, which features a merchant Kovalan unjustly accused of theft of an anklet, a tale also featuring a beautiful dancer Madhavi as Kovalan's lady-love, but in addition brings in the element of wronged wife Kannagi, and the unjust king who literally drops dead of remorse when he finds out that he has erred in ordering the execution of an innocent man. Kannagi is still so inflamed at the miscarriage of justice that she curses the city to go up in flames, exempting only the young and elderly, even in her fury.
Perhaps both stories have their roots in older Jain morality tales and just gotten filtered through the lenses of their times and eras , embellished by poetic license. The parallels of merchant, dancer, anklet, unjust execution, love, sacrifice and retribution are striking, to say the least.
On a personal note, a mini-drama played out on the sidelines. My daughter M, was unhappy at her being recast in one of the shows, where she had been earlier allowed to play the role of a Sakhi (companion)who advises Shyama to stay silent about Uttiyo to Bojrosen ('Nirobe thakish'--"Stay silent, O Sakhi", she counsels.)
She underwent the usual pangs of a rejected teen, to the point where I had to say.
"You are getting a good feel for how Uttiyo must have felt at Shyama's rejection."
M was bent on talking to her teacher to find out why the 'demotion', when I pointed out multiple possible reasons, all reasonable. It was then my turn to advise her :
"Nirobe thakish- don't bother asking", as the end result would not change the outcome, beyond making her more or less happy.
We truly ended up in "It's all the same to us" mode, quite worthy of a Buddha.