‘Karnad’s own personal development as a dramatist coincided with this phase of Indian theatrical development. With Tughlaq … [Karnad] achived a catharsis of depression over the collective national failure after independence.
… For anyone wishing to explore the fashionable conundrum of identity crisis, [Hayavadana] is a tailor-made legend. … Naga-Mandala is a richly textured dramatic transmutation of two folktales of the Karnataka region.’
There three classic plays represent three phases in the career of the dramatist Girish Karnad. In Naga-Mandala, Karnad blends two oral tales, usually by women while feeding children in the kitchen. Hayavadana was one of the first modern Indian plays to employ traditional theatre techniques. In this plays, based on a story from the Kathasaritsagar, by a supernatural accident, two men have their husband in the new situation and live manner of the nineteenth-century Parsee theatre, dealing with the tumultuous reign of the medieval sultan, Muhammad Tughlaq.
Girish Karnad, World Theatre Ambassador of the International Theatre Institute Paris (ITI), was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Apart from his work in theatre, he has directed and acted in films. He has served as Director, Film and Television Institute of India; Chairman, Sangeet Natak Akademi; and Director, The Nehru Centre, London. He has has been honoured with the Padma Bhushan and was conferred the Bharatiya Jnanpith, India’s highest literary prize, in 1999.
My generation was the first to come of age after India became independent of British rule. It therefore had to face a situation in which tensions implicit until then had come out in the open and demanded to be resolved without apologia or self-justification: tensions between the cultural past of the country and its colonial past, between the attractions of Western modes of thought and our own traditions, and finally between the various visions of the future that opened up once the common cause of political freedom was achieved. This is the historical context that gave rise to my playsand those of my contemporaries.
In my childhood, in a small town in Karnataka, I was exposed to two theatre forms that seemed to represent irreconcilably different' worlds. Father took the entire family to see plays staged by troupes of professional actors called natak companies which toured the countryside throughout the year. The plays were staged in semipermanent structures on proscenium stages, with wings and drop curtains, and were illuminated by petromax lamps.
Once the harvest was over, I went with the servants to sit up nights watching the more traditional Yakshagana performances. The stage, a platform with a back curtain, was erected in the open airand lit by torches.
By the time I was in my early teens, the natak companies had ceased to function and Yakshagana had begun to seem quaint, even silly, to me. Soon we moved to a big city. This city had a college and- electricity, but no professional theatre.
I saw theatre again only when I went to Bombay for my postgraduate studies. One of the first things I did in Bombay was, to go and see a play, which happened to be Strindberg's Miss julic directed by the brilliant young Ebrahim Alkazi.
I have been told since then that it was one of Alkazi's less successful productions. The papers tore it to shreds the next day. But when I walked out of the theatre that evening, I felt as though I had been put through an emotionally or even a physically painful rite of passage. I had read some Western playwrights in college, but nothing had prepared me for the power and violence I experienced that day. By the norms I had been brought up on, the very notion of laying bate the inner recesses of the human psyche like this for public consumption seemed obscene. What impressed me as much as the psychological cannibalism of the play was the way lights faded in and out on stage. Until we moved to the city, we had lived in houses lit by hurricane lamps. Even in the city, electricity was something we switched on and off. The realization that there were instruments called dimmers that could gently fade the lights in or out opened up a whole new world of magical possibilities.
Most of my contemporaries went through some similar experience at some point in their lives. We stepped out of mythological plays lit by torches or petrornax lamps straight into Strindberg and dimmers. The new technology could not be divorced from the new psychology. The two together defined a stage that was like nothing we had known or suspected. I have often wondered whether it wasn't that evening that, without being actually aware of it, I decided I wanted to be a playwright.
At the end of my stay in Bombay, I received a scholarship to 'go abroad for further studies. I t is difficult to describe to a modern Indian audience the traumas created by this event. Going abroad was a much rarer occurrence in those days; besides, I came from a large, close-knit family and was the first member of the family ever to go abroad. My parents were worried lest I decide to settle down. outside India, and even for me though there was no need for an immediate decision, the terrible choice was implicit in the very act of going away. Should I at the end of my studies return home for the sake of my family, my people and my country, even at the risk of my abilities and training not being fully utilized in what seemed a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere; or should' I rise above such parochial considerations and go where the world drew me?
While still preparing for the trip, amidst the intense emotional turmoil, I found myself writing a play. This took me by surprise, for I had fancied myself a poet, had written poetry through my teens, and had trained myself to write in English, in preparation for I the conquest of the West. But here I was writing a play and in Kannada, too, the language spoken by a few million people in South India, the language of my childhood. A greater surprise was the theme of the play, for it was taken from ancient Indian mythology from which I had believed myself alienated.
The story of King Yayati that I used occurs in the Mahabharata. The king, for a moral transgression he has committed, is cursed to old age in the prime of life. Distraught at losing his youth, he approaches his son, pleading with him to lend him his youth in exchange for old age. The son accepts the exchange and the curse, and thus becomes old, older than his father: But the old age brings no knowledge, no self-realization, only the senselessness of a punishment meted out for an act in which - he had not even participated. The father is left to face the consequences of shirking responsibility for his own actions.
While I was writing the play, I saw it only as an escape from my stressful situation. But looking back, I am amazed at how precisely the myth reflected my anxieties at that moment, my resentment with all those who seemed to demand that I sacrifice my future. By the time I had finished working on Yayati-during the three weeks it took the ship to reach England and in the lonely cloisters of the university-the myth had enabled me to articulate to myself a set of values that I had been unable to arrive at rationally. Whether to return home finally seemed the most minor of issues; the myth had nailed me to my past.
Oddly enough the play owed its form not to the innumerable mythological plays I had been brought up on, and which had partly kept these myths alive for me, but to Western playwrights whom until then I had only read in print: Anouilh (his Antigone particularly) and also Sartre, O'Neill, and the Greeks. That is, at the most intense moment of self-expression, while my past had come to my aid with a ready-made narrative within which I could contain and explore my insecurities, there had been no dramatic structure in my own tradition to which I could relate myself.
One of the first plays of post-independence India to use myth to make a contemporary statement was Dharamvir Bharati's Andha Yug ('The Blind Age'). The play is about the aftermath of the Kurukshetra War, which forms the climax of the epic Mahabharata. The entire epic is in fact a build-up to this great confrontation between Good and Evil, in which God himself participated in the form of Lord Krishna. It was during this war that Krishna expounded the Bhagavadgita, a discourse on the ethics of action and knowledge that has exercised the most profound influence on Indian thought through the ages. Yet this fratricidal war left in its wake nothing but desolation and a sense offutility. No 'new world' emerged from the wholesale massacre of the youth of the country. Arjuna, the hero, became impotent. Lord Krishna himself meekly accepted a curse and died an absurd death. In his play, Bharati used the myth to give voice to the sense of horror and despair felt in India in the wake of the partition of the country and the communal bloodbaths that accompanied it.
Although later Satyadev Dubey's production proved that it was genuine theatre, Andha Yug was actually written for the radio, as a play for voices. It was as if, at the time of conceiving the play, the playwright could imagine no stage on which to place it.
Indeed this contradiction haunts most contemporary playwrighting and theatre in India. Even to arrive at the heart of one's own mythology, the writer has to follow signposts planted by the West, a paradoxical situation for a culture in which the earliest extant play was written in A.D. 200! The explanation lies in the fact that what is called 'modem Indian theatre' was started by a group of people who adopted 'cultural amnesia' as a deliberate strategy. It originated in the second half of the nineteenth century in three cities, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. None of these seaports built by the British for their maritime trade had an Indian past of its own, a history independent of the British. These places had developed an Indian middle class that in all outward respects aspired to 'look' like its British counterpart. The social values of this class were shaped by the English education it had received and by the: need to work with the British in trade and administration.
Inevitably the theatre it created imitated the British theatre of the times, as presented by visiting troupes from England. Several new concepts were introduced, two of which altered the nature of Indian theatre. One was the separation of the audience from the stage by the proscenium, underscoring the fact that what was being presented 'was a spectacle free of any ritualistic associations and which therefore expected no direct participation by the audience in it; and the other was the idea of pure entertainment, whose success would be measured entirely in terms of immediate financial returns and the run of the play.
Until the nineteenth century, the audience had never been expected to pay to see a show. Theatre had depended upon patronage-of kings, ministers, local feudatories, or temples. With the myth-based story line already familiar to the audience, the shape and success of a performance depended on how the actors improvised with the given narrative material each time they came on stage. Actors did not rehearse a play so much as train for particular kinds of roles, a system still followed today in folk and traditional theatre forms. The principle here is the same as in North Indian classical music, where the musician aims to reveal unexpected delights even within the strictly regulated contours of a raga, by continual improvisation. It is the variability, the unpredictable potential of each performance that is its attraction. The audience accepts the risk.
With the new theatre, in conformity with the prevailing laissez- faire philosophy, risk became the producer's responsibility, the factor determining the company's investment policy. The audience paid in cash to see a show guaranteed as a 'success' and in return received as much entertainment as could be competitively fitted within the price of a ticket. A performance became a carefully packaged commodity, to be sold in endless identical replications.
The proscenium and the box office proclaimed a new philosophy of the theatre: secularism-but a commercially viable secularism. The secularism was partly necessitated by the ethnic heterogeneity of the new entrepreneurial class. In Bombay, for instance, the enterprises were financed by the Parsis, who spoke Gujarati. But the commonly understood language was Urdu, popularized by the Muslim chieftains who had ruled over most of India since the sixteenth century. Naturally many of the writers employed by the Parsi theatre were Muslim. And the audience was largely Hindu!
The consequences of this secularism were that every character on stage, whether a Hindu deity or a Muslim legendary hero, was alienated from his true religious or cultural moorings; and myths and legends, emptied of meaning, were reshaped into tightly constructed melodramas with thundering curtain lines and a searing climax. Unlike traditional performances, which spread out in a slow, leisurely fashion, these plays demanded total attention, but only at the level of plot. Incident was all. Even in natak companies run entirely by Hindus, .the basic attitude was dictated by this Parsi model.
There was, however, a far more important reason for the superficiality of the fare. The audience that patronized the Parsi theatre professed values it made no effort to realize in ordinary life. Whereas in public it accepted the Western bourgeois notions of secularism, egalitarianism, and individual merit, at home it remained committed to the traditional loyalties of caste, family, and religion. Only a society honest enough to face squarely the implications of this division within itself could have produced meaningful drama out of it. But as the new bourgeoisie claimed to be ashamed of the domestic lifestyle to which it nevertheless adhered tenaciously, the theatre certainly would never be allowed to acknowledge and project these contradictions.
It is possible to argue, as Ashis Nandy has done, that this inner division was not psychologically harmful at all but was a deliberate strategy adopted by' this class to ensure that its personality was not totally absorbed and thereby destroyed by the colonial culture. Whatever the case, the effect on drama was to render it sterile. Despite its enormous success as spectacle over nearly seventy years, the Parsi theatre produced no drama of any consequence.
With the advent of 'talking' films in the 1930s the Parsi theatre collapsed without a fight. In the West, movies diminished the importance of theatre 'but did not destroy it. In India, professional theatre was virtually decimated by the film industry, which had learned most of its tricks from the theatre and could dish out the made-to-order entertainment on a scale much larger than the theatre could afford and at cheaper rates. India has not seen a professional theatre of the same proportions since.
In the process of settling down, the Parsi theatre had absorbed several features of traditional or folk performing arts, such as music, mime, and comic interludes. In Maharashtra, for instance, where this theatre flourished and continues to survive, its greatest contribution was in the field of music, in the form of a rich and varied body of theatre songs. However, to my generation of playwrights, reacting against memories of the Parsi stage in its decadence, music and dance seemed irrelevant to genuine drama. The only legacy left to us then was a lumbering, antiquated style of staging.
Yet there was no other urban tradition to look to, and in my second play, having concluded that Anouilh and Co. were not enough, I tried to make use of the Parsi stagecraft. This time the play was historical and therefore, perhaps inevitably, had a Muslim subject. (I say inevitably, for the Hindus have almost no tradition of history: the Hindu mind, with its belief in the cycle of births and deaths, has found little reason to chronicle or glamorize any particular historical period. Still, independence had made history suddenly important to us; we were acutely conscious of living in a historically important era. Indian history as written by the British was automatically suspect. The Marxist approach offered a more attractive alternative but in fact seemed unable to come to terms with Indian realities. Even today Marxist ideologues are lost when confronted with native categories like caste. It was the Muslims who first introduced history as a positive concept in Indian thought, and the only genuinely Indian methodology available to us for analyzing history was that developed by the Muslim historians in India.)
My subject was the life of Muhammed Tughlaq, a fourteenth century sultan of Delhi, certainly the most brilliant individual ever to ascend the throne of Delhi and also one of the biggest failures. After a reign distinguished for policies that today seem far-sighted to the point of genius, but which in their day earned him the title Muhammed the Mad,' the sultan ended his career in bloodshed and political chaos. In a sense, the play reflected the slow disillusionment my generation felt with the new politics of independent India: the gradual erosion of the ethical norms that had guided the movement for independence, and the coming to terms with cynicism and realpolitik.
The stagecraft of the Parsi model demanded a mechanical succession of alternating shallow and deep scenes. The shallow scenes were played in the foreground of the stage with a painted curtain-normally depicting a street-as the backdrop. These scenes were reserved for the 'lower class' characters with prominence given to comedy. They served as link scenes in the development of the plot, but the main purpose was to keep the audience engaged while the deep scenes, which showed interiors of palaces, royal parks, and other such visually opulent sets, were being changed or decorated. The important characters rarely appeared in the street scenes, and in the deep scenes the lower classes strictly kept their place.
The spatial division was ideal to show the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, between the mysterious inner chambers of power politics and the open, public areas of those affected by it. But as I wrote Tughlaq, I found it increasingly difficult to maintain the accepted balance between these two regions. Writing in an unprecedented situation where the mass populace was exercising political franchise, in however clumsy a fashion, for the first time in its history, I found toe shallow scenes bulging with an energy hard to control. The regions ultimately developed their own logic. The deep scenes became emptier as the play progressed, and in the last scene, the 'comic lead' did the unconventional-he appeared in the deep scene, on a par with the protagonist himself This violation of traditionally sacred spatial hierarchy, I decided-e-since there was little I could do about it-was the result of the anarchy which climaxed Tughlaq's times and seemed poised to engulf my own.
(An aside: whatever the fond theories of their creators, plays often develop their own independent existence. In his brilliant production of Tughlaq, E. Alkazi ignored my half-hearted tribute to the Parsi theatre and placed the action on the ramparts of the Old Fort at Delhi; and it worked very well.)
Another school of drama had arisen in the 19305, at the height of the struggle for national independence. When social reform was acknowledged as a goal next only to independence in importance, a group of 'realistic' playwrights had challenged the emptiness and vapidity of Parsi drama. The contemporary concerns of these playwrights gave their work an immediacy and a sharp edge lacking in the earlier theatre, and a few plays of great power were written. While trying to awaken their audience to the humiliation of political enslavement, many of these new playwrights made a coruscating analysis of the ills that had eaten into Indian society. This was essentially the playwright's theatre; the plays were presented by amateur or semiprofessional groups and were mostly directed by the playwrights themselves. Unlike in the Parsi theatre, where a hardheaded financial logic was the guide, here the writers, the actors, and the audience were all united by a genuine idealism. They created a movement, if not a theatre, for the times.
Although its form aimed at being realistic, it must be pointed out at once that this drama concentrated on only a small corner of the vast canvas explored by Western realistic theatre.
The door banged by Nora in The Doll's House did not merely announce feminist rebellion against social slavery. It summed up what was to be the main theme of Western realistic drama over the next hundred years: a person's need to be seen as an individual, as an entity valuable in itself, independent of family and social circumstance. Indian realism, however, could not progress beyond analyses of social problems, for in India, despite the large urban population, there really has never been a bourgeoisie with its faith in individualism as the ultimate value. 'Westernization' notwithstanding, Indians define themselves in terms of their relationships to the other members of their family, caste, or class. They are defined by the role they have to play. In Sudhir Kakar's words, they see themselves in 'relational' terms in their social context, and they naturally extend the same references to theatre as well.
Let me give an example. A few years ago Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge was presented in Madras. Eddie Carbone, the play's protagonist, is an Italian dock worker. He is a good man, but tragedy is brought about by his incestuous passion for his orphaned niece. He harbours two young, illegal Italian immigrants in his house, one of whom falls in love with the niece. Consumed by jealousy, Eddie breaks his code of honour, betrays the immigrants to the authorities, and is killed by one of them.
The audience watching the play in Madras was English educated, familiar with Western literature. Many of them frequently were abroad and had a living contact with the Western way of life. The production was a success. But most of the audience entirely missed the element of incest in the play; rather, they chose to ignore it as an unnecessary adjunct to an otherwise perfectly rational tale. After all, Eddie was his niece's guardian, a surrogate father. It was only right that he should be interested in her welfare. You certainly could not blame him for trying to safeguard her future. On the contrary, the illegal immigrants emerged as unsympathetic, for they had betrayed their host's confidence by seducing the niece's affections.
Even apart from consideration of social roles that led the Madras audience to write its own A View from the Bridge, Eddie Carbone perfectly fits an Indian archetype: the father figure aggressing toward its offspring. Our mythology is replete with parental figures demanding sacrifices from their children-as in my own Yayati; Eddie's position was not one in which the Indian audience was likely to find any tragic flaw.
To get back to realistic theatre, its great improvement over the Parsi theatre was that it took itself seriously both as art and as an instrument of social change. Yet it remained saddled with the European model. Bernard Shaw was its presiding deity. The proscenium continued, only now the grand spectacles gave way to the interior set with the invisible fourth wall. And that three-walled living room succinctly defined the basic limitation of this school of writing.
From Ibsen to Albee, the living room has symbolized all that is valuable to the Western bourgeoisie. It is one's refuge from the sociopolitical forces raging in the world outside, as well as the battleground where values essential to one's individuality are fought out and defended. But nothing of consequence ever happens or is supposed to happen in an Indian living room! It is the no-man's-land, the empty, almost defensive front the family presents to 'the world outside.
Space in a traditional home is ordered according to the caste hierarchy as well as the hierarchies within the family. Whether a person is permitted inside the compound, allowed as far as the outer verandah, or admitted into the living room depends on his or her caste and social status. And it is in the interior of the house, in the kitchen, in the room where the gods are kept, or in the backyard, where family problems are tackled, or allowed to fester, and where the women can have a say. Thus the living room as the location of dramatic action made nonsense of the very social problems the playwright set out to analyze, by distorting the caste dimensions as well as the position of women in the family.
How could these playwrights have so misunderstood the geography of their own homes? The three-walled living room was a symptom of a much-more serious malaise: the conceptual tools they were using' t6 analyze India's problems were as secondhand and unrealistic as the European parlour. The writers were young, angry, and in a hurry. The concepts defined for them by their English educators were new and refreshing and seemed rational. If the tools didn't quite fit the shifting ambiguities of social life, reality could be adjusted to fit these attractive imports. It may also be said that the refusal to go beyond the living room exactly mirrored the reluctance of these Westernized, upper-caste writers to go to the heart of the issues they were presenting.
To my generation, a hundred crowded years of urban theatre seemed to have left almost nothing to hang on to, to take off from. And where was one to begin again? Perhaps by looking at our audience again, by trying to understand what experience this audience expected to receive from theatre? This at least partly meant looking again at the traditional forms that had been side lined by the Parsi theatre. The attempt, let me hasten to add, was not to find and reuse forms that had worked successfully in some other cultural context. The hope, rather, was to discover whether there was a structure of expectations-and conventions=about entertainment underlying these forms from which one could learn.
The most obvious starting point should have been the Sanskrit theatre. Sakuntala and Mrcchakatjka, two Sanskrit masterpieces, had been presented successfully on the Marathi stage in the early part of thiscentury. Recently, Ratan Thiyam, K.N.Panicker, and Vijaya Mehta have brought Sanskrit plays alive again for today's audience. But no modern playwright has claimed. or shown in his work, any allegiance to Sanskrit sensibility. Sanskrit drama assumed a specific social setting. a steady, well-ordered universe in which everyone from the gods to the meanest mortals was in his or her allotted slot. Even in its heyday it was an elitist phenomenon, confined to a restricted group of wealthy and educated courtiers, remote from the general populace.
Along with this court theatre there had existed other, more popular forms-more flexible, varying in their emphasis on formal purity. The exact relationship between Sanskrit theatre and these popular forms is of course difficult to determine. Sanskrit was not a language spoken in the homes; it was the language of courtly, literary, and philosophical discourse. The popular forms, on the other hand, used the natural languages of the people. Further, most of these languages came into their own as vehicles for arnstic expression only about A.D. 1000, by which time Sanskrit literature-- particularly drama-was already moribund. Even the aesthetics of these two theatre traditions differed. Sanskrit drama underplayed action and emphasized mood. It avoided scenes that unduly excited the audience. The popular forms wallowed in battles and hard-won marriages, blood and thunder. The biggest hurdle from our perspective is that unlike in Sanskrit, in which plays were written as independent works of art, this class of performing arts eschewed written texts and depended on improvisation within limits prescribed by their separate conventions, making it difficult to trace their historical growth. But in India, as has often been pointed out, the past is never totally lost; it coexists with the present as a parallel flow. A rich variety of regional theatre forms still exists, with a continuous history stretching over centuries, though through these centuries they have undoubtedly undergone changes and even mutilations.
For the first two decades after independence, how traditional forms could be utilized to revitalize our own work in the urban context was a ceaseless topic of argument among theatre people. The poet Vallathol had given a new identity to Kathakali, Shivararn Karanth a new lease on life to Yakshagana. Habib Tanvir has gone to areas in which the traditional troupes operate, taking with him his urban discipline. He has taught, lived, worked, and toured with the local troupes and evolved through them a work that is rich, vital, and meaningful.
But what were we, basically city-dwellers, to do with this stream? What did the entire paraphernalia of theatrical devices, half-curtains, masks, improvisation, music, and mime mean? I remember that the idea of my play Hayavadaha started crystallizing in my head right in the middle of an argument with B.V. Karanth (who ultimately produced the play) about the meaning of masks in Indian theatre and theatre's relationship to music. The play is based on a story from a collection of tales called the Kathasaritsagara and the further development of this story by Thomas Mann in 'The Transposed Heads.'
A young woman is travelling with her insecure and jealous husband and his rather attractive friend. The husband, suspecting his wife's loyalties, goes to a temple of Goddess Kali and beheads himself. The friend finds the body and, terrified that he will be accused of having murdered the man for the sake of his wife, in turn beheads himself. When the woman, afraid of the scandal that is bound to follow, prepares to kill herself too, the goddess takes pity and comes to her aid. The woman has only to rejoin the heads to the bodies and the goddess will bring them back to life. The woman follows the instructions, the men come back to life--except that in her confusion she has mixed up the heads. The story ends with the question: who is now the real husband, the one with the husband's head or the one with his body?
The answer given in the Kathasaritsagara is: since the head represents the man, the person with the husband's head is the husband.
Mann brings his relentless logic to bear upon this solution. If the head is the determining limb, then the body should change to fit the head. At the end of Mann's version, the bodies have changed again and adjusted themselves to the heads so perfectly that the men are physically exactly as they were at the beginning. We are back to square one; the problem remains unsolved.
As I said, the story initially interested me for the scope it gave for the use of masks and music. Western theatre has developed a contrast between the face and the mask--the real inner person and the exterior one presents, or wishes to present, to the world outside. But in traditional Indian theatre, the mask is only the face 'writ large'; since a character represents not a complex psychological entity but an ethical archetype, the mask merely presents in enlarged detail its essential moral nature. (This is why characters in Hayavadana have no real names. The heroine is called Padmini after one of the six types into which Vatsyayana classified all women. Her husband is Devadatta, a formal mode of addressing a stranger. His friend is Kapila, simply 'the dark one.') Music-usually percussion-then further distances the action, placing it in the realm of the mythical and the elemental.
The decision to use masks led me to question the theme itself in greater depth. All theatrical performances in India begin with worship of Ganesha, the god who ensures successful completion of any endeavour. According to mythology, Ganesha was beheaded by Shiva, his father, who had failed to recognize his own son (another aggressive father!). The damage was repaired by substituting an elephant's head, since the original head could not be found. Ganesha is often represented onstage by a young boy wearing the elephant mask, who then is worshipped as the incarnation of the god himself.
Ganesha's mask then says nothing about his nature. It is a mask, pure and simple. Right at the start of the play, my theory about masks was getting subverted. But the elephant head also questioned the basic assumption behind the original riddle: that the head represents the thinking part of the person, the intellect. It seemed unfair, however, to challenge the thesis of the riddle by using a god. God, after all, is beyond human logic, indeed beyond human comprehension itself. The dialectic had to grow out of grosser ground, and I sensed a third being hovering in the spaces between the divine and the human, a horse-headed man. The play Hayavadana, meaning 'the one with a horse's head', is named after this character. The story of this horse-headed man, who wants to shed the horse's head and become human, provides the outer panel-as in a mural-within which the tale of the two friends is framed. Hayavadana, too, goes to the same Goddess Kali and wins a boon from her that he should become complete. Logic takes over. The head is the person: Hayavadana becomes a complete horse. The central logic •of the tale remains intact, while its basic premise is denied.
The energy of folk theatre comes from the fact that although it seems to uphold traditional values, it also has the means of questioning these values, of making them literally stand on their head. The various conventions-the chorus, the masks, the seemingly unrelated comic episodes, the mixing of human and nonhuman worlds-permit the simultaneous presentation of alternative points of view, of alternative attitudes to the central problem. To use a phrase from Bertolt Brecht, these conventions then allow for 'complex seeing'. And it must be admitted that Brecht's influence, received mainly through his writings and without the benefit of his theatrical productions, went some way in making us realize what could be done with the design of traditional theatre. The theatrical conventions Brecht was reacting against-character as a psychological construct providing a focus for emotional identification, the willing- suspension-of-disbelief syndrome, the notion of a unified spectacle- were never a part of the traditional Indian theatre. There was therefore no question of arriving at an 'alienation' effect by using Brechtian artifice. What he did was to sensitize us to the potentialities of nonnaturalistic techniques available in our own theatre.
How invigorating this legacy of traditional theatre has proved for Indian theatre can be illustrated by two other plays, which appeared soon after Hayavadana. In his Ghashiram Kotwal, Tendulkar uses Dashavatara, a traditional serniclassical form, to investigate a contemporary political problem, the emergence of 'demons' in public. These demons are initially created by political leaders for the purposes of their own power games, but ultimately go out of control and threaten to destroy their own creators. It is a theme recurrent in Indian mythology: the demon made indestructible by the boon of gods and then turning on the gods themselves. (A decade after the play was written, in Punjab, Sant Bhindranwale and Mrs Indira Gandhi seemed to be re-enacting the theme in real life in horrifying detail.)
The central theatrical device in the play IS the use of about a dozen singers who start conventionally enough as a chorus. But as the play progresses, they become the human curtain alternately hiding the action and revealing bits of it as in a peep show. From neutral commentators, they slide into the roles of voyeurs-who enjoy the degeneration they condemn, of courtiers who perpetrate atrocities, and of the populace that suffers the harassment. In the final scene the demon is ritually destroyed, tom limb from limb; the city is exorcised, and the now-purified stage is filled with revellers led by the politician who initially created the demon.
In Jabbar Patel's production, music and dance become the instruments of comment and analysis. Ritualistic movements turn imperceptibly into an orgy or a political procession; the music by Bhaskar Chandavarkar, based on traditional devotional tunes, continually turns upon itself, sometimes indulgently, sometimes critically. Unexpected breaks jangle the nerves of the audience. There is no explicit political analysis, but the matrix of the myth and the ironic use of Dashavatara drive the point home.
Unlike most Indian playwrights writing today, Chandrasekhar Karnbar does not come from an urban background. As he was born and brought up in the country, there is no self-consciousness in hi; use of Bayalata, a secular folk form of his region. He draws upon the rich resources of popular speech and folklore with an effortlessness that conceals a rare sophistication of sensibility and technique.
He is a poet at ease with the ballad, and his approach to poetry on stage is through the ballad rather than the lyric; the imagery is the action, the metaphors serve to resonate the narrative at different levels of meaning.
Jokumaraswamy starts with a fertility rite in honor of the phallic deity Jokumara, who is worshipped in the form of a snake gourd and then consumed by those desirous of bearing children. The basic situations as well as the music are all traditional, in the sense that they are set pieces, familiar in Bayalata drama. The impotent chieftain's virgin wife feeds the snake gourd by mistake to the village rake and has a child by him. The rake's death at the hands of the chieftain's men is a kind of gang rape-cum-fertility offering. The chieftain himself is literally left holding a baby he cannot disown.
Through this semicomic tale, Kambar makes a very Brechtian statement about the right of the peasants to the land on which they work virtually as serfs for an absentee landlord. But the analysis goes beyond this rather obvious political manifesto to a complex exploration in action of political power as a compensation for sexual inadequacy, of philandering as a psychosexual equivalent of anarchism, which can be controlled by love and responsibility. By working out the psychological, social, and political implications of the concept of virility, the play brings out the ambiguous nature of the very fertility rite it had set out to celebrate.
It must be admitted that the popularity of traditional forms on the urban stage has much to do with the technical freedom they offer the director. Music, mime, and exotic imagery open up vast opportunities for colorful improvisation, which nevertheless can- and alas! all too often does-degenerate into self-indulgence. While there are productions today which combine traditional theatre techniques with modern choreography and visual design to an effect unimaginable in the '60s, most such efforts tend to be imitative and soul-less. It is as though now that the problem has found a technical solution, the spirit of the quest has been lost.
Naga-Mandala is based on two oral tales I heard from A.K. Ramanujan. These tales are narrated by women-normally the older 'women in the family-while children are being fed in the evenings in the kitchen or being put to bed. The other adults present on these occasions are also women. Therefore these tales, though directed at the children, often serve as a parallel system of communication among the women in the family.
They also express a distinctly woman's understanding of the reality around her, a lived counterpoint to the patriarchal structures of classical texts and institutions. The position of Rani in the story of Naga-Mandala, for instance, can be seen as a metaphor for the situation of a young girl in the bosom of a joint family where she sees her husband only in two unconnected roles-as a stranger during the day and as lover at night. Inevitably, the pattern of relationships she is forced to weave from these disjointed encounters must be something of a fiction. The empty house Rani is locked in could be the family she is married into.
Many of these tales also talk about the nature of tales. The story of the flames comments on the paradoxical nature of oral tales in general: they have an existence of their own, independent of the teller and yet live only when they are passed on from the possessor of the tale to the listener. Seen thus, the status of a tale becomes akin to that of a daughter, for traditionally a daughter too is not meant to be kept at home too long but has to be passed on. This identity adds poignant and ironic undertones to the relationship of the teller to the tales.
It needs to be stressed here that these tales are not left-overs from the past. In the words of Ramanujan, 'Even in a large modem city like Madras, Bombay or Calcutta, even in western-style nuclear families with their well-planned 2.2 children, folklore ... is only a suburb away, a cousin or a grandmother away':
The basic concern of the Indian theatre in the post-independence period has been to try to define its 'Indianness'. The distressing fact is that most of these experiments have been carried out by enthusiastic amateurs or part-timers, who have been unable to devote themselves entirely to theatre. I see myself as a playwright but make a living in film and television. There is a high elasticity of substitution between the different performing media in India; the participants-as well as the audiences-get tossed about.
The question therefore of what lies in store for the Indian theatre should be rephrased to include other media as well-radio, cinema, audio cassettes, television and video. Their futures are inextricably intertwined and in this shifting landscape, the next electronic gadget could easily turn a mass medium into a traditional art from. Perhaps quite unrealistically, I dream of the day when a similar ripple will reestablish theatre--flesh-and-blood actors enacting a well-written text to a gathering of people who have come to witness the performance-where it belongs, at the centre of the daily life of the people.
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