The Mahābhārata is no different though the episodes related to Hāsya are few and far. Bhima’s childhood antics are sure to invoke some laughs, so does Uttarakumāra’s boasting in Virāṭa Parva followed by Bṛhannalā’s antics (Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parva Critical Text BORI, sargas 34-36) which has been utilized well by the later poets like Kumāravyāsa, who wrote in Kannada.
Kālidāsa also masterfully inserts Hāsya in all his dramas through the behavior of the vidūṣaka in Mālavikāgnimitram, Vikramorvaśīyam, Abhijñānaśākuntalam. The episode of the fisherman and how he is treated before and after his meeting of Duṣyanta by the royal guards in Abhijñānaśākuntalam is also noteworthy.
The overall attitude of our poets regarding Hāsya can be well-summarised by quoting a famous verse from one of the four bhāṇas, Pādatāḍitakam by Śyāmilaka in the Caturbhāṇī.
न प्राप्नुवन्ति यतयो रुदितेन मोक्षं
स्वर्गायतिं न परिहासकथा रुणद्धि
वृत्तिम् बुधेन खलु कौरुकुचीं विहाय
[The sages don’t attain the mukti by lamenting continuously, nor do the gates of svarga stop someone who indulges in laughter and mirth. Therefore the wise should always leave inhibitions and happily laugh with clear minds and lighten themselves.]
Pādatāḍitakam verse 5
The nature of prahasanas
While prahasanas in general and Matta-vilāsa in particular lacks the sublimity or profundity of ārśa-kāvyas like the Rāmayana and the Mahābhārata, the poetry and dramas of Bhāsa, Kālidāsa, Bhavabhūti, Śūdraka, Viśākhadatta, it still stands the test of time precisely because it deals with the society and human psyche, the more it changes the more it remains the same. While Mṛcchakaṭika, a prakaraṇa, deals with contemporary theme and thus remains relevant to us, so do these prahasanas albeit for a different reason. In Mṛcchakaṭika the focus is on the individual characters but many events happening in the society are placed in the backdrop and they are suggested instead of having them in the forefront. A similar thing can be observed here where the degeneration of society is hinted at in a suggestive manner but not directly brought to the forefront. This follows the tried and tested way of treating the audience as not just people but as connoisseurs who would pick such suggestions with ease. While the other play in discussion - Bhagavad-ajjukam - has a supernatural thread intertwined, Matta-vilāsa happens entirely in the realm of reality and so it instantly connects to connoisseurs of any era, with minimum modifications if necessary. At the same time, just because it deals with the society it doesn’t become a documentary which is so bound to reality that it fails to produce rasa in a connoisseur.
Matta-vilāsa-prahasanam is one among the first available prahasanas and also one of the best of its kind. While the plot seems trivial and none of the characters seems to have anything worthy to root for, it stands testimony to the fact that observing mundane things in a different perspective is what is required to generate humour. Unimportant things which won't even be noticed during the normal course of life, and even when noticed doesn't amount to anything profound, form the basis of the plot. The humor being situational also helps it.
A drunk kāpālika who wanders along with his partner in search of liquor, loses his begging bowl, a search operation leads to an encounter with a Buddhist monk who is accused of stealing it, a pāśupata seizes this opportunity to settle some scores with the kāpālika by acting as an arbitrator, meanwhile a lunatic who had found the bowl enters to resolve the conundrum. Thus a begging bowl lost and found leads to a comedy of errors, set in the backdrop of the city of Kāñcī gives insights to the life and society of 7th century CE.
The work in modern parlance can be called as an "equal opportunity offender" which minces no words when it comes to ridiculing practices of each of the prevalent matas including variations of the one followed by the author himself. While one can accuse Mahendravarman for not ridiculing any vaiṣṇava matas he still emerges without any blemish since he hasn’t spared his own. Even while doing so, a sense of propriety is maintained which makes this work a śuddha-prahasana in every sense (By definition a śuddha-prahasana does not involve lowly characters like eunuchs etc. Here śuddha is not just limited by that definition, the broad meaning of śuddha is taken). Such sense of propriety is rarely seen in the later prahasanas which resort to cheap vulgarity.
While the prahasana has been well-studied - critical edition has been brought out by Dr N P Unni, analysed by Dr. S. Ramaratnam as a part of his thesis “Prahasanas in Sanskrit literature”, a translation along with critical notes published by Michael Lockwood and Vishnu Bhat - analysing such a work again is all the more relevant in our times because of two primary reasons. The first reason is, everyone is participating in an oppression olympics where everyone gets offended at the drop of a hat. Even the alleged champions of freedom of expression dare not ridicule specific groups fearing retribution and political correctness rules supreme. In such an environment, a work of this nature should be revisited to introspect and decide where we stand. The second reason is that there are some crucial things which are missing in these editions, some of them can be attributed to the limited scope in which they were prepared, but some others seem to come from entirely different and non-academic reasons.
The critical edition by Dr. N P Unni (first published in 1974) forms the basis of this analysis. The text contains details of various manuscripts available along with details of the poet, his various achievements and titles, and how the prahasana was staged mainly in accordance with the theatrical traditions in Kerala. Some of the content from Dr. S Ramaratnam’s thesis and the edition prepared by Lockwood and Bhat has been discussed wherever it is relevant. All the three editions also have a discussion about the societal conditions during the era in which the play is placed. Since it already covers most of the important points, that is also left out.