It is a topsy-turvy tale of King Yayati that dwells on his obsession with lust and sex and how he is cursed to premature old age for his infidelity. The women characters in the play are notable for their determination and courage, sometimes aggressive.
Yayati is a play in four-acts which centres around an overwhelming number of characters and anatomizes the human psyche.
Devayani and Sharmishta are two friends. One day, they are frolicking nude into a forest. Their garments are laid apart. God Indra wishes to make a fun of them. He takes the form of wind and mixes up their garments.
When Sharmishta attempts to wear Devayani’s dress by mistake, Devayani is enraged as she considers Sharmishta somewhat inferior to her as Sharmishta is the daughter of Asura King to whom Shukracharya, Devayani’s father, is a preceptor. This mirrors her inner psyche although they have enjoyed a continued friendship.
An inconclusive fight is instigated between them and they insult each other in a verbal attack. As Devayani takes an upper hand in the combat, unable to tolerate her insults, Sharmishta right away pushes Devayani off into a nearby well.
King Yayati comes to the well to quench up his thirsty horse. On seeing Devayani inside the well seeking help, he pulls her out and rescues her. Furious, Devayani takes the issue to her father Shukracharya. This results in a confusion in the relationship between Shukracharya and Vrishaparva. Vrishaparva has to go on with Shukracharya, since his abandonment would mean a conclusive defeat for Asuras. Afraid that they would loss Shukracharya’s continued support, Vrishaparva agrees for the pact. The pact reads that Sharmishta become a slave for Devayani and should go along with her whenever she demands without question.
On a fine day, Yayati meets up with Devayani in the same forest. Devayani reminds him how he touched her when he rescued her from the well. In those days, according to Hinduism, if a man holds a woman by her right hand, he is subject to marry the same women.
Yayati pulled off Devayani by her right hand when he rescued her. So he is confined to hold her hand in marriage. Shocked by this advancement as he is not willing to marry a girl from other caste and unwilling to beget a child of mixed caste, he denies at first. Obviously the boundary of caste system existed a long ago.
However, Yayati accepts to marry her as it becomes inevitable to a punctual king. Only in this respect at least he follows code of conduct when he justifies in his own way many of his immoral activities.
Yayati holds her hand in marriage. Devayani brings Sharmishta with her as a wedding gift. She uses every opportunity to torment Sharmishta and Sharmishta waits for a proper time to exact revenge.
This long-running rivalry between these two women reaches a climax when Sharmishta takes poison to consume and die unable to bear torments from both Devayani and Yayati. But he comes to her help, rescues her, again holding her right hand. This becomes inevitable that he has to marry her. Unfailingly, he makes her the second queen.
Enraged, Devayani again brings the case to her father, Shukracharya. Shukracharya curses the king to old age when he is still young. Once the curse is given, he can’t take it back. However, he gives power to transfer his curse to any of his willing recipient.
Yayati still is obsessed with sensual pleasure. So, he seeks to transfer his curse onto any of his sons. He requests every of his five sons, but no one consents to this. The eldest son Yadu denies telling that he wants to enjoy his own life and he can’t give it up. Dryhu, the second rejects his request telling the more he becomes old the more he becomes foolish. Turvasa and Anu, third and fourth sons respectively, also deny his proposal.
Puru, the youngest son of the King, arrives with his bride, Chitralekha. Disinterested with the state of affairs and he says it is the duty of a son towards his father who gave him life, he willingly comes forward to take his father’s old age in his place. He also explains that he takes upon his father’s curse because his father has not reached the heights of his ancestors and he has a long way to go as a king. Puru becomes old, Yayati becomes young again.
Chitralekha, distraught by his husband’s activities and his shortcomings as an old age, she ends up her life. Realising his mistake, Yayati takes back his curse from his son and restores Puru to youth. Eventually, he withdraws to a forest with Sharmishta along with him.
The protagonist of the play. Yayati is an ancestor of Pandavas and grandson of Shiva and Parvati according to Indian myth, Mahabharata. He marries two women, Devayani and Sharmishta.
Devayani is the daughter of Shukracharya, the preceptor of Asuras. Devayani is married to Yayati as he rescues her from suicide.
The second spouse of King Yayati and the daughter of Asura King, Vrishaparva. Sharmishta also marries Yayati almost in the same way as does Devayani. Earlier Devayani and Sharmishta were good friends.
Puru is the youngest son of King Yayati and Sharmishta. He takes up his father’s curse in his place.
SWARNALATHA: Devayani’s maid.
CHITRALEKHA: Puru’s bride.
Shukracharya is the father of Devayani and Preceptor of Asuras and Asura King, Vrishaparva. As the preceptor, Devayani considers him superior to them and this temperament of her leads to a dispute between her and Sharmishta.
King of Asuras and father of Sharmishta. He seeks the support of Shukracharya and considers him a mean of his success.