It is surprising and interesting indeed that a modem playwright like Girish Karnad, alienated from his background and his own language for quite a considerable time should fall back upon ancient resources of myth and legend, in writing his plays. Karnad states, that he wanted to be a poet, and spent all his teenage years preparing himself to be an English poet like Auden and Eliot. It seemed to him there was nothing to do in India and therefore he wanted to be in En­gland, and hence trained himself to be an English writer. But, when it really came to expressing his tension it came off in Kannada “as if a character were dictating and I was just a steno”.l He says and the result was ‘Yayati’ a major success.


            ‘Yayati’ was a play and not a poem. And, the thing that most surprised Karnad himself was that it was a play about a myth.


            Thus, Karnad’s taking to myth and legend in his plays was more an act of im­pulse rather than intention. Perhaps it was inevitable for Karnad who was exposed to traditional forms of theatre in childhood. The three kinds of theatre between which he moved, swivelled and wrote plays, were the company Natak, Yakshagana and the west­ern theatre, and he must have been influ­enced by them, whatever the reason, whether it is the influence of traditional the­atre upon him or it is his incapacity to invent new stories as he confesses, 2 he had rightly chosen to use myths and legend for his plays. He feels they are very much relevant today, and hence, seeks to adapt myths and folk forms in his plays. Thus he effects a synthe­sis between the ancient and the modem to serve his purpose of using the past to illumi­nate the present.


            Most of the play wrights in India have either written in such a traditional manner which lost relevance to their urban existence or they have written in such an urbanised manner, that it lost relevance to the tradi­tional part of their personality. In this con­text Karnad comments “We keep acrobating between the traditional and the modem, perhaps we could not hit upon a form which balance both”.3 And, thus he attempts to balance.


            Karnad uses myths, legend and folk tales in his plays Yayati, Tughlaq, Hayavadana and Nagamamdala. His ‘Yayati’ is a re-interpretation of the familiar old myths from Mahabharata, which deals with the exchange of ages between father and son. In Tughlak Karnad handles a his­torical myth for the modem theatre, depict­ing the ‘absurd’ conception of the human situ­ation. His Nagamandala is based on two folk tales from Kannada which he heard several years ago from Prof. A. K. Ramanujan. Karnad thus revels in root­ing the contemporary concern in old myths.




            Karnad does not take myths in their entirety. He takes them only in parts that are useful to him and the rest he supplements with his imagination. Thus, the story in the main plot of Hayavadana is based on a myth taken from Somadeva’s Katha Sarit Sagara and Thomas Mann’s version of the same story of ‘Transposed Heads’. Heinrich which in turn was influenced by Zimmer’s version.


            In Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara the story of the transposed heads tells of Dhavala, a young washerman who loves and marries a beautiful girl called Madana Sundari. After the marriage, the couple accompanied by the wife’s brother sets out to attend a festival in a city. Thus, begins the story.


            But Zimmer’s version of it as found in The King and the corpse, is the tale of two lifelong mends and a girl. The maid married one of the two friends but the marriage was not particularly happy. Shortly following the wedding, the couple, together with their bachelor friend set forth on a visit to the parents of the bride.


            The subsequent part of the story is similar to Somadeva’s version. On the way the three came to a sanctuary of the blood thirsty goddess Kali, and the husband ex­cused himself for a moment to go into the temple alone. There, in a sudden excess of emotion, he decided to offer himself to the image as a sacrifice and with a keen edged sacrificial sword that was there, chopped his head from his shoulders, and collapsed in a pool of blood. The friend having waited with the bride, went into the temple to see what had happened, and when he beheld the sight he was inspired to follow suit. At last the bride came in, only to take flight again intent on hanging herself to the limb of a tree. The voice of the Goddess commanded her to halt, and send her back to restore the lives of the two young men by replacing the heads. But because of her distraction, the young woman made the interesting mistake of putting the friend’s head on the husband’s body, and the husband’s on the friend’s. This puzzled end of the story poses a tricky ques­tion as to who among the two intermixed personalities, is the rightful husband of the girl, and it follow logically that the person on whom her husband’s head is fixed is her real husband, for, the head is the chief of the limbs, and personal identity depends upon it. Thus, the original story is at its best, an exercise in ingenuity, a test for man’s power of reasoning and logic.


            Thomas Mann expanded the scope of the original story based on his argument that the transposed bodies are bound to re­gain their originality under the influence of their respective heads, in accordance with the laws of head in such an event would not then the lady again languish for the absent friends body and suffer spiritually from sepa­ration. This recurring paradox of life can only be solved if the mends come to mutu­ally kill themselves.


            Mann re-named the characters of the two friends and the woman as Shridaman, Nanda and Sita respectively. He further added the short account of ‘Andhaka’ or ‘Samadhi’ the near blind and sole surviving descendent of Shridaman and Sita. If Shridaman stands for spirit, Nanda for the body, and Sita for the ‘female principle’ then Andhaka with his poor eye sight is not a synthesis but an aberration. Thus Mann stresses the ironic impossibility of uniting perfectly the spirit and flesh in human life, through this tale of transposed heads.


            Girish Karnad in his ‘Hayavadana’ used the same myths to project the theme of fundamental ambiguity of human life. He makes the play an interesting study of man’s quest for a complete and wholesome expe­rience of life. For this, he combines the trans­posed heads plot of Mann with Hayavadana story which is entirely Karnad’s own inven­tion. This is how Kamad makes use of a myth. He takes them only in parts and the rest he supplements with his imagination.


            As for the story of Hayavadana, his mother was the princess of Karnataka. She was a very beautiful girl. Her father, decid­ing that his daughter should choose her own husband, invited the princes of every king­dom in the world. She did not like any of them. She looked at the handsome prince sitting on his great white stallion and fainted. Her father decided that this was the man. When she woke up, she said she would only marry that horse. She would not listen to anyone. So she was married to the white stallion. She lived with him for fifteen years. One morning a beautiful gandharva (Celes­tial being) stood in the place of the horse. This gandharva had been cursed by the god Kubera to be born as a horse for some act of misbehaviour. After fifteen years of hu­man love he had become his original self again. Released from his curse, he asked his wife to accompany him to his Heavenly abode. She agree to go with him, only if he became a horse again. So he cursed her to become a horse herself and returned to his heavenly abode, while she became a horse and ran away happily. The child of their marriage was Hayavadana who was left behind.


            Hayavadana’s problem in the play is how to get rid of horse’s head. On the ad­vice of Bhagavata he goes to the Kali temple of Mount Chitrakoot. He threatens to chop of this head (a motif which establishes a firm link between the two plots). As in the trans­posed heads plot, Kali’s ambiguous boon creates another problem while solving one. In response to Hayavadana’s prayer, “make me complete” the goddess makes him com­plete horse, and not a complete man and in addition to this, he retains his human voice. When the five year old son of Padmini of the transposed heads plot makes him to laugh again, the laughter turns into a proper neigh indicating the complete liberation of Hayavadana. The horse has at last become normal. This sub-plot, has been added to the main-plot by karnad to re-affirm the theme of completeness.




            Although in our Indian context myths are related to religion, Karnad is only inter­ested in the mythical side of it. He finds a Jungain quality in these myths. Moreover the elements of myth and history is common to most audiences in our country. Most myths have a strong emotional significance and the audiences have set responses to­wards them and Karnad likes to play on that.


            In this regard our Indian playwrights are placed in an advantageous position com­pared to western playwrights. For, they face the tedium and risk of taking the situation from an alien culture and make it accept­able to Christian audience. Playwrights like Anouith and Sartre carefully avoids details in myth which baffle or alienate their audi­ence whereas our Indians face no such problem because the basic attitude in our society remains very much the same.


            As for instance, the division of labour based on the individuals capacity for intellectual and physical labour, and the belief that a woman can only live in the society with her husband and with none other and that she should mount the pyre on the death of her husband, as shown in Hayavadana, are or were, same of the basic attitudes of people which Kamad refuses to reform or comment upon directly. Yet he manages to offer an alternate perspective to the audience.


            Kamad makes certain changes in the original myth. For example, he changes the names of the characters. When asked about his intention in changing the names, he says “I wanted them to be generic terms because the characters are types. In Sanskrit any person whose name you do not know is addressed as ‘Devadutta’ and Kapila means dark and therefore earthly and Padmini is the name of the one class of women in Vatsyayanas Kamasutra.4


            Borrowing a phrase from Bertolt Brecht, Karnad says that use of myths and folk techniques allow for “Complex Seeing”, although the myths have traditional and reli­gious sanction, they have the means of ques­tioning these values. Added to this Karnad believes that the various folk conventions like the chorus, the music, the mixing of human and non-human worlds permit a simulta­neous presentation of alternate points of view.


            Thus, the myth acquires new dimen­sions in the creative hands of Karnad, and the play unfolds rich strands of meaning. As M. K. Naik says, “Hayavadana presents the typical existential anguish, but does not stop at the existential despair, going beyond it, the play suggests a strategy for the achieve­ment of integration in a world inevitably cursed with absurdity and irrationallity”.5


            Finally, Karnad’s use of Indianised expressions and symbolism deserves men­tion in this context. For, they highlight the effect of the myths. Words like punya, arati, sati, sadhus, fakirs, gandharva, kalpa vriksha, vigneshswara etc., have been freely used. In the tradition of ancient Sanskrit poetry, descriptions sport romantic hyper­bole.


            Bhagavata:- In her (padmini’s) house, the very floor is swept by the Goddess of Wealth. In Devadutta’s house, they’ve the Goddess of Learning for a maid. (Act I.P.19)


            Instances of Indian idiom occur fre­quently in the play, as shown by M. K. Naik for instance. 6


            Devadutta:- One has to collect merit in seven lives to get a friend like him.


            Padmini:- You are my saffron, my marriage thread, my deity. (Act I. P.21)


            Padmini:- Long before the sun rises, the shadow of twigs draw alpana on the floor.


            The stars raise arati and go. (Act II, p 52)


            In the songs of the play Karnad uses Symbolism. For example, the river symbol when Kapila lifts Padmini up and takes her inside the hut in the jungle.


            Bhagavata:- You cannot engrave on water nor wound it with a knife, which is why the river has no fear of memories.


            Female Chorus:- The river only feels the pull of the water fall.


            Bhagavata:- While the Scare crow on the bank has a face fading on its mudpot head and a body torn with memories. (Act II, pp 58-59).


            The song appears to be richly sug­gestive and adequately interprets the situa­tion. Although Karnad denies the songs having any metaphysical aspect, an atten­tive reader cannot overlook the implications, for example of the river symbol in the play.


            If we expand the symbol of river fur­ther, it strikes to us that a river is indeed a free, uninhibited stream of turbulent water that flows unbounded, pursuing its own ir­regular path. It retains its identity and en­joys the splendid freedom all through its path until it finally flows down and merges with the salt watered sea. There, it sinks its iden­tity and freedom and mutely surrenders to the all encompassing, vastness of the all pow­erful sea, so also Padmini has her way, in enjoying the best of her husband Devadutta, and then inclining towards the robust and sturdy masculinity of Kapila in response to the sensual stirrings of her body. She in fact violates the principles on which the institution of marriage is based, and finally breaks the barrier of social custom, walks out of her marriage and into the embrace of Kapila her ideal man in the forest. But the society like the vast sea, forge fetters to her, engulfs and consumes her in the fire laid by social cus­tom in the name of ‘Sati’. Thus Padmini sinks her identity and perishes in the sea of social custom.


            Thus Karnad ties up the loose ends of the story with symbols. Perhaps this be­comes necessary for Karnad because he cannot stretch the original myth beyond it scope, and hence supplements the deficiency with symbols.


            Prof. G. S. Amur opines that “Karnad’s reworking of myths relates him to Kailasam and Adya Rangachary as much as to these European dramatists who remake their myths, particularly Karnad and Adya loved to evolve”. A symbolic form out of a ten­sion between the archetypal and mythical experience and a living response of life and its values.”7 He further finds that contemporareity in Karnad’s plays manifests itself through the operative sensibility. “If Adya’s attempt is to discover the usable past to make sense of the challenging present, Karnad’s attempt is to give new meanings to the past from the vantage point of the present.”8


            To a question why doesn’t he set his plays in the present? Karnad replies, -­--distancing is pivotal if one wants to look at the present critically. 9


1 Madhu Jain, “Girish Karnad: Ancient Metaphors, contemporary Messages.” India Today 15 March, 1992. p. 161-162.

2 Karnad, “Moutushi Chakravarthi talks to Girish Karnad” Tenor, September, 1991, p. 46.

3 Karnad, “Acrobating be­tween the traditional and modem”, Indian Literature, vo1.32, No.3, May - June 1989.

4 Meenakshi Rayakr, “An Interview with Girish Karnad,” New Quest No. 36 (November-December) 1982 p 341.

5 M.K.Naik, Dimensions of Indian Literature, New Delhi, Sterling Pub­lishers, 1984, P.197

6 Ibid, p. 200.

7 G.S.Amur, “Modern Kannada Drama”, Indian Writing Today Vol. 5, No. 1, 1971, p 22.

8 Ibid.

9 Madhu Jain, “Girish Karnad”, Ancient Metaphors, India Today Op. Cit., p 161.


            All textual references are to the fol­lowing edition Girish Karnad, Hayavadana (Culcutta: Oxford University Press). Sec­ond Impression: 1979. .




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