ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Laughing at Sukumārikā: An analysis of incongruities in the Ubhayābhisārika of Vararuci


Arora Shubham - University of British Columbia, Asian Studies, Vancouver, Canada


43 – Trans/Third Gender Communities and Religion in South Asia


 This paper examines the textual representations of third-gender (tṛtīyaprakṛti) in pre-modern Sanskrit literature through an analysis of a specific episode in the Ubhayābhisārika of Vararuci, a fourth-century Sanskrit stand-up comical act (bhāṇa) featuring a woman-representing third-gender (strīrūpiṇī tṛtīyāprakṛti) character named Sukumārikā. The Incongruity Theory of Humor is utilized to understand the situational dissonance between the normative conceptualization and reality of the character’s gender identity, as well as to comprehend why this situational act is a joke in the first place. The examination of this comedic act sheds light on the relationship between humor, gender norms, and voices. Scholars have argued that the tension between Sukumārikā’s normalized gendered appearance and her deviant body in reality induces laughter among the audience. This paper builds on these arguments by positing that the object of mockery in this scene is not the character herself, but rather the incongruities that exist among literary (and performative) genres. Furthermore, it is suggested that when these incongruities are resolved through a mapping of visible performance (the depiction of Sukumārikā in this bhāṇa) and a recognized reference point (the śāstraic conceptualization of the third-gender) within a conceptual framework (of literary genres), laughter is induced.