Drunkenness: A saga of derision and disgrace

Satyasoma: Pour this Goddess Liquor into a cup and off come the lovely dress and ornaments; reconciled are the quarreling lovers; made bold, the young; and full of life, the flirtations of love!

– Excerpt from Michael Lockwood and A. Vishnu Bhat,”Metatheatre and Sanskrit Drama”

A slip, a slur, a misstep, a blackout and unrestrained impertinence; the few effects of alcohol set the perfect pretext for snorting with laughter. There has been no dissuasion from consuming liquor: be it a ban, the innumerable health advisories, or the recent stoppage, followed by the increased taxation owing to its non-essentiality. During the brief scarcity of alcohol in India, many influencers and few states discussed the importance of alcohol during the pandemic. Once alcohol sales resumed, a flurry of memes based on alcohol consumption were widely circulated. These memes are an exaggerated reflection of our present society. And hence they were relatable and funny. Drunkenness brings out a character’s distorted reality; dire but typically under the genre of humour. In fiction, there is a common usage of a stock character of a town drunk who is usually a man. He is sometimes used as a scale for morality and as comic relief. When used for comic relief, a drunken stupor involves uncouth, loud, and physical humour which is often categorised as “low comedy”.

#LiquorShops Meme Source: Twitter

Comedy is evoked by scenarios of surprise, exaggeration, disproportion, shared awkward experiences, surrealism, irony, mockery, pun, or defiance. Henri Bergson says that a spectator would find contrived and mechanical movements comical. This is because they find it silly or absurd; essentially something which is considered abnormal in a society induces humour. Arthur Koestler says as humanity evolved, aggression was replaced with comedy. A comic situation arises only when the spectators don’t empathise, rather distance themselves from the characters. Comedy is also distinguished as high and low. It was commonly misconstrued that high comedy, which is witty and critical of life, is reserved for the educated. While low humour which entails bawdiness, silly visuals, drunkenness and physical humour, can be enjoyed by anyone.

Farce, a low form of humour is purely meant to induce laughter. The plot is set in an improbable situation, sometimes even incomprehensible. It is replete with absurd miscommunications and mistaken identities. The characters are stereotypical, often ignorant and belonging to lower social class[i]. Under these circumstances, a person under the influence of alcohol becomes an easy target for a protagonist.

A religious tradition which entails the practice of regular intoxication could have been an easy choice for a farce in the seventh century. Mattavilaasa Prahasana(m)/ A Farce of the Drunken Sport is a one act farcical play set in Kanchipuram. The playwright is the Pallava ruler Mahendra Varman whose epithet was Viciracittan, the man with the prowess of thinking unique. For an emperor who reveled under the idea of “thinking outside the box”, he penned two farces i.e. Mattavilasa Prahasana and Bhagavadajjuka[ii] which highly satirizes today’s heterodox traditions of South India. In Sanskrit theatre tradition, Prahasana—a farce, enlists a few characteristics—it is a one act play with predominance of low comedy. The object of laughter is improper conduct by ascetics, courtesans, rogues, etc. Unlike Hellenistic theatres, a farce in Sanskrit theatre incorporates elements of irony, satire, and mockery. It is essentially a lower form of comedy as it involves improper conduct—drunkenness in the case of Mattavilaasa Prahasana. These farcical plays could be marked as an innovation in Sanskrit theatre tradition, as there are no other renderings of farce available to the larger demographic. Satire usually comments on the hypocrisies in society or traditions. Hence, it can be assumed that the mentioned religious practices were prevalent during Mahendra Varman’s time[iii]. Mattavilaasa Prahasana gives a distorted idea of the religious tensions during the seventh century in Kanchipuram. This play, while bringing out the religious laxity and bigotry, there is an underlying tone of praise for Kanchipuram under the rule of the illustrious Pallava Empire.

The play’s characters follow three different traditions that are satirised i.e. Kapalika[iv], Buddhist, and Pasupata[v] tradition. In passing, the Jain tradition is also included. The protagonist of the play Satyasoma, follower of the Kapalika tradition, along with his wench[vi] Devasoma, enter the city of Kanchipuram visibly drunk. The beautiful city is in celebration as the two of them enter another tavern to drink more. They praise the tavern which is complete with drunken revelry, a paradise for the Kapalika. While collecting alms, the duo realise that their Kapala, the skull bowl is missing and nowhere to be found. Satyasoma concludes that it must have been either stolen by a Buddhist monk or a dog, as the bowl contained roasted meat. At this inopportune time, a degenerate Buddhist monk Nagasena, contemplating indulgence in intoxication or ritual intercourse, enters the scene and is accused of theft. After a few scathing remarks are exchanged, a drunken brawl ensues until Bhabrukalpa, a practitioner of Pasupata tradition tries to resolve the matter. Bhabrukalpa, also a degenerate, only wants to add fuel to the fire as Devasoma left him to be with Satyasoma. Bhabrukalpa praises the righteousness of the judiciary system under the rule of King Mahendra Varman. Just then a madman enters the scene carrying the skull bowl. After Satyasoma receives his bowl, he thanks Nagasena and Bhabrukalpa with respect and departs. While this play epitomises the Pallava reign, it outwardly berates religious practices, especially Buddhism.

Kutiyattam presentation of Mattavilaasa Prahasana(m) Courtesy Kalamandalam Sangeet Chakyar & K.K. Gopalakrishnan

Jessica Milner Davis comments “The comic spirit of farce delights in taboo-violation, but avoids implied moral comment or social criticism and prefers to debar empathy for its victims. This combination is vital for farce to succeed.” Under her categorisation, it is likely that Mattavilaasa Prahasana falls under Equilibrium or Quarrel farce where two opposing parties quarrel without resolution, restoring the same balance. While Satyasoma’s drunkenness is the crux on which the plot rests, the Buddhist traditions and philosophies are satirised and ridiculed. This could have been a significant taboo in the seventh century Kanchipuram. The playwright being a supporter of Saiva revival has brought out his thoughts about heterodox traditions through this text. The Buddhist complains about his traditions and wonders why Buddha has not included alcohol and ritual intercourse while allowing every other comfort. On the other hand the Kapalika not once dislikes his tradition, and he ruthlessly comments on Buddhist and Jain traditions. Satyasoma also compares a Buddhist monk to a dog trying to steal his skull bowl because of the roasted meat. In the end, it is a dog which runs away with his skull bowl. There is also a statement where the Kapalika says Buddhist tenets are stolen from Mahabharata and Vedanta. Usually the play is seen as a taint to the Kapalika tradition, it is more likely to be so on the Buddhist tradition which was on a slow decline. Nagasena only comments on Satyasoma’s regular drunken antics and tries to stay away but in vain. Satyasoma’s character is represented as a shallow drunk who slurs and loses his motor skills but the Kapalika tradition is upheld which is clear in the benedictory verses (Naandi Sloka). Throughout the play, Satyasoma’s drunken horseplay is used not just as a source of comedy but an easy reason to cast aspersions.

This play, when represented in Kutiyattam has a completely different connotation. Lord Shiva’s dance to appease the angry Goddess Bhadrakali is equated to Mattavilaasa Thirunrittam, the intoxicated dance. Even though there is a divine association to the protagonist, he still provides comic relief as a drunken man by exiting the stage looking for alcohol, leaving the audience light hearted.

Barney Gumble, The Simpsons Character
Created by: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Infusion of satire in a drunkard’s words has been a tool to question the society and its norms. Examples of this can be found across different theatre traditions, television series, and cinemas. Apart from Mattavilaasa Prahasana, drunken characters making a fool of them and taunting others are included in Nagananda, written by Emperor Harsha of the Vardhana Empire. In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch mouths witty comments including his blatant disregard for drunkards even as he is one himself. Moliere uses drunkenness as a veil in a marital relationship. In Anton Chekov’s Drunk, drunkenness has been used as a means to reveal darkest personal secrets and in turn the societal perception of wealth. Barney Gumble from the animated television show Simpsons is always seen at Moe’s Tavern burping loudly, while the narrative also shows his life overturned by alcohol time and again; Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones whose sharp remarks on society are a few examples of the drunken double-edged jokes. Drunkenness has always been a source for easy physical humour where the character gets away with any comment they make under the garb of intoxication. While the character embraces low comedy, the resultant effect is satire or black comedy. To sum up, as Satyasoma befittingly says, the goddess liquor removes the embellishments and only reveals the truth, however loving, remorseful, or sardonic.


  • Tolman, Albert H. “Shakespeare Studies: Part IV. Drunkenness in Shakespeare.” Modern Language Notes 34, no. 2 (1919).
  • Donato Totaro, “Two Minds on Comedy: Arthur Koestler vs. Henri Bergson”. Volume 16, Issue 11-12 / December 2012 {https://offscreen.com/view/koestler_vs_bergson}
  • Farrell, Joseph. “Fo and Feydeau: Is Farce a Laughing Matter?” Italica 72, no. 3 (1995). www.jstor.org/stable/479721.
  • Gopalakrishnan K.K., Mattavilaasa Prahasana in Kudiyattam.
  • Jessica Milner Davis, “From the Romance Lands: Farce as Life-Blood of the Theatre” At Whom Are We Laughing?: Humor in Romance Language Literatures, 2013 {https://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/57921}
  • Lloyd Murle Mordy Jr., 1965. Farcical elements in selected comedies of Moliere. {https://core.ac.uk/reader/33368734}
  • Michael Lockwood and Vishnu Bhatt A., 2005. Metatheatre and Sanskrit Drama, Second Revised and Enlarged Edition. Tambaram Research Associates.
  • Translated by Palmer Boyd, 1999. Nagananda – Harsha. In Paranthesis Publication, Sanskrit Drama Series. {http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/nagananda_boyd.pdf}
  • Raghavan, V. “Sanskrit Drama: Theory and Performance.” Comparative Drama 1, no. 1 (1967). www.jstor.org/stable/41152424
  • Edited and Translated by Unni N.P., 1974. Mattavilaasa Prahasana of Mahendravikramavarman. College Book House.

[i] The Three Stooges is a classic example for farce. There is no underlying plot, the characters are from a lower social class and there is a high usage of slapstick comedy and horseplay.

[ii] There has been an ongoing debate about the authorship of Bhagavadajjuka. This essay takes Michael Lockwood and A. Vishnu Bhat’s assertion of the playwright

[iii] Xuen Xang’s travelogue mentions the large number of Buddhist monasteries in Kanchipuram during the same time period

[iv] Kapalika tradition is a form of non puranic Shaivism. Traditionally they carry an empty skull bowl (Kapala) for alms. One of their rituals entailed alcohol consumption.

[v] Pasupata tradition is one of the oldest Saiva devotional and ascetic movement

[vi] N. P. Unni’s translation of Mattavilaasa Prahasana uses the term wench for Devasoma. She is probably called so as she changes her allegiance from Pasupata to Kapalika tradition along with changing her partner.

Header Image credit: Cover page of Mattavilaasa Prahasana by Dr. N. P. Unni, Nag Publishers Courtesy: K. K. Gopalakrishnan

About The Author

Kuzhali Jaganathan is an arts manager and a dance practitioner. She takes immense interest in studying cultural practices, and it’s reflection, and implications in arts and literature. Apart from being an MBA, she has completed courses on Buddhism and Tantric Practices. She aspires to be an academician.