Alimpa Bhuyan

Ph D Research Scholar, Department of English
Assam University, Diphu Campus

Dr. Anup Kumar Dey

Associate Professor, Department of English
Assam University, Diphu Campus


The value-laden Indian tradition is firmly rooted on the age old customs, beliefs and its staunch application in the lives of Indian people. The affirmation and continuity of our tradition speaks of its unbending yet malleable nature. It is found in the history of human development through progression of time. The changes that have occurred explicitly made its presence via cultural assimilation or homogenization. Significantly, the changes across boundaries have been sometimes recognized as modernity, Eurocentric values, and even as intercultural dependencies. This paper sets out to investigate upon this , for which plays like Hayavadana and Bali written by late Girish Karnad are selected. Karnad is known for a dramatic imagination that ranged widely in time and space, which allowed him to ‘speak through’ a remarkably diverse cast of characters. (Introduction to Collected Plays Volume I by Aparna Bhargava Dharwarkaer). Hayavadana was selected from the 12th century collection of Sanskrit tales called Kathasaritasagara. It is also found that thematically this play heavily bears the influence of Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Head. These layers of multiple cultural hues in Karnad’s Hayavadana enriched his ingenuity as a playwright and allowed him to merge local tradition of Yakshagana folk theatre to enable him to revive old traditions and customs. Karnad’s Bali translated by him in 2002 was first written as Hittina Hunja in Kannada (1980). Bali has its source in the thirteenth century Kannada epic, Yashodhara Charite which again takes us to eleventh and ninth century epics. These two tales, though based on ancient depictions, undeniably bears much relevance to the modern time. In spite of its traditionally soaked themes one cannot avoid experiencing the existential angst of the critically discussed existential movement of the west in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The present study would be an attempt to throw light on how Karnad the Rhodes Scholar with influences of Jean Anouilh, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugene O’ Neil tries to merge Indian context and plot with existentialism to offer better insights into the metaphysics of life.

Keywords : Tradition, Modernity, Negotiations, Existentialism, Identity

The age old debate lingering between the concept of modernity and tradition demonstrates complexities as evidently surmounting, with its clashes and sporadic merge producing a diversified yet rich spectrum in the social milieu. Tipp in his study reveals the foundation of theorizing modernization as an aftermath act of response subsequent to Second World War with colonization losing foothold in third world countries as well the impact of cold war. The Studies document the influence of one on the other through the concept of linear change from traditional to modern practices. This change is evident in the modern society. M.N. Srinivas in Caste in Modern India (1962) says that Indian tradition is an outcome of various changes affecting the perspective of familial, religious and social front due to the influence of foreign invaders and rulers; the Mughals, British etc.

Tradition and modernity go hand in hand as culture of the past and present creates a balance by few transformations and adjustments too. A widening of the horizon of thought and opportunity occurs and the past is not relinquished even. With the introduction of adequate variation, social changes become evident. With such a reconciling approach, Indian culture has achieved its richness and variety. One can say new forms may only increase the range of alternatives in life.  Both medicine and magic can exist side by side, used alternatively by the same people (Joseph R Gusfield). The construct of traditional society is an institute in itself; unrelenting and influential. However the projection of historical perspective and the cultural content of a society are irrefutable crucial social markers that equally decide the assimilation and retention of culture. Therefore, the capability of a society to absorb, reject or mingle with modern practices of culture is relative and culture specific. This is why one cannot put tradition in counter position to modernity. Analyzing the Indian context, one finds the traditional value system undergoing significant variations upon acquisition of modern values through amalgamation. Gusfield therefore aptly highlights M. Marriott when he says –

Great Tradition of the urban world in India has by no means pushed aside the “little tradition” of the village as they made contact. Interaction has led to a fusion and mutual penetration. (McKim Marriott)

This negotiation sought through the fusion of tradition and modernity allows scope and possibility to add plausible dimensions to society and man. The changes occurring might be proffered as bringing unsettling time. Nonetheless on the hindsight this amalgamation has added nuances in the reading of human life and subjectivity and necessitating few questions upon one’s existence. A study of human history portrays man as social animal. She/he participates in acts sanctioned by society and authority. Discordance with the regulated laws is seldom accommodated. With such arrangements in society subjectivity is naturally trammeled. Such repressions incompletes the quest for encountering one’s being. The search for identity and meaning of life is a vital subject offering answers that could remove confusions and anxieties of life. In this context the praxis of existentialism complements the understanding of life amidst negotiations of varied nature. Existentialism no doubt vouches to offer insights into life but ironically it fights to take a position either as a philosophy or a catching lingo post World War II. Looking into Sartre’s understanding of existentialism, he definitively makes a precision of dividing between what it means to exist and the meaning of essence or what a being is actually.  Sartre writes that existence precedes essence. His ideology theorizes that human beings had come to existence firstly and from the catalogue of alternatives the choices one opts, forms his being. Again the actualization of the being is conducive to the acknowledgement of the cogito. Rene Descartes hence made the famous statement ‘cogito, ergo sum’. Therefore apparently human beings are free. Whenever we choose or decide something it necessarily is supposed to be better than the other. But the problematic of this decision is that unknowingly we also decide for all those associated with the person. Stephen Priest introduces his notion on this saying –

What is at the very heart of and centre of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realises himself in realising a type of humanity. (40)

Therefore quintessentially, existentialism allows self an exploration as well an encounter of one which also brings closer to humanity at large. The practicality of such situation is understated. However negotiation arises out of such accord whereby the space for negotiation attains larger scope. These adjustments consequently enriches the tradition and bridges gap between traditional practices.

Girish Karnad, the eminent literary and theatre personality with parallel creative zeal in film direction, acting, screen play writing etc was nourished in different cultural, social and linguistic atmosphere. Born to a Konkani family, his initial schooling began in Marathi. His interest in plays was imbibed from his parents while in Karnataka where folk theatre forms like Yakshagana etched a mark on Karnad undeniably. The Rhodes scholarship took him to the western shores to complete his literary and theatrical sensibility with influences of Jean Anouilh, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugene O’ Neil.

Karnad’s ever and anon fertile mind ventured hard to strike a novelty to test Indian contexts and lives at the backdrop of western existentialism to examine certain issues and the universality of such themes. Through his experimentation till the last phase of his life, Karnad sought answers to modern issues and problems by relying on the past world of myth, folk tales, folklore etc. Hayavadana (1971) was an output from the influence of Thomas Mann’s short novel The Transposed Heads (1940) and with its root source in Kathasaritsagara, a 11th Century Sanskrit text. Modernity and tradition benefits each other. Nonetheless it would be biased to comment that modernity predates upon tradition. Each thrives symbiotically.  The theme of turmoil between modernity and tradition is again treated in his play Bali (1980/2002), the English form of the Kannada version Hittina Hunja (1980) rooted in the 13th Century Kannada epic, Yashodhara Charite. Interestingly the work at source is an outcome of influence of two 11th and 9th Century Sanskrit epics. The accounts depicted in Hayavadana and Bali predates the modern world. The cult of folk theatre and tale in Hayavadana is treated all along by Karnad. It is a play which is deeply linked to the earlier life and society of India. The plot in Hayavadana speaks loud and clear about certain issues that the present society is grappling with. In Hayavadana one is mesmerized with elements of disbelief and magic as the narrative unfolds the life of Devadatta, Padmini and Kapila. While the moment of disbelief arises with appearance of Hayavadana, the man with horse’s head; continues to do so during different fragments of the plot. Folk tale and its elements could have been sufficient food to grasp the readers seeking contentment in the traditional reading of the play. But Karnad seeks a modern perception of the same tale. Padmini is not the typical voiceless Indian woman walking on the tightrope of tradition and taboos. Karnad infuses in her traits of a contemporary woman- curious, fearless, interrogative, manipulative and desirous. The confusions of modern man and the crisis of existence that is trapped in the clash between generative practice of tradition and the inner urges and compulsions are empathetically portrayed. This clash could be paralleled with the clash between Id and ego. Id is ever in charge of pleasure and wants to fulfill all its desires. It doesn’t seek what is socially right and justified. The wildest dreams and its fulfillment is what Id is fond of. Apparently tradition has a striking resemblance with ego. Therefore could modernity be equivalent of the id. The plausibility of this statement takes root as modernity is such a consciousness that accommodates nuances of change and flexibility of treating various issues-social, familial, psychological etc. With its vast scope for changes and negotiations, modernity offers a veritable outlet to realize the self. This consciousness has also a scope for releasing oneself of the anxieties, disintegrations within the psychological world of the characters by acknowledging the inner world of the subconscious. It is altogether an exotic experience that the self attains being with the subconscious. The subconscious is a storehouse of hidden desires and wishes repudiated by tradition and traditional practices.

Hayavadana and Bali are exemplary plays with women like Padmini and the Queen holding up bold portrayal of woman defying the old orders sabotaging traditionally objectified value system. The Queen and Padmini are deviants and against the social norms hence. Both solicited relationships outside their marriage, whether willingly or deceptively. Both the women were rightfully married. Taught to engage in duties of a wife they were tied to the main mast of domestic life. Both had equally affectionate and committed husbands. If the Queen and Padmini had been stereotypical then they could have well surpassed the domestic life. However due to the turn of events or the intervention of the element of fantasy what appeared innocuous actually opened the floodgates to adversary and misery in lives of both. Upon closer examination it is well reflected that had they been in the mould of the traditional women they could have escaped the following tribulations. It was the rise of awareness of the self and sense of alienation that introduced a different approach in their life. Karnad’s story-Hayavadana and Bali are stories of unachievable utopic existence. Padmini was emotionally and mentally compatible for a man like Kapila. However socially she was a suitable match for Devadatta. Devadatta on the other hand was an ambitious scholar-poet not in need of a wife rather a muse. Essentially Devadatta was a stereotypical husband who could blissfully forget the presence of the being of Padmini. She was his fancy; the muse impersonated to lead him to excellence and propel his journey to glory and out beat Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam.

Devdatta (his eyes shining): If only she would consent to be my Muse, I could outshine Kalidasa. I’d always wanted to do that-but I thought it was impossible…But now I see it is within my reach. (Karnad 120)

She is within his reach but fails to profess his attraction and growing fondness for her. He instead deputes a messenger-Kapila, an epitome of physicality and masochism; “…powerfully built and darker” (Karnad 117) contrasting Devadatta the “slender, rather good looking person with a fair complexion…lost in thought” (Karnad 117). Devadatta, the pundit-poet was no match for Padmini. Kapila who was stunned by her divine beauty parallels her to the likes of muse Yakshini, Shakuntala, Urvashi, Indumati. His first encounter offered him with the insight that Padmini was an ill match for Devadatta, the cerebral one. Her instinctual and lively nature was an effervescent body of energy and could be contained by a sturdy and earthy person only.

Kapila: Devadatta, my friend, I confess to you I’m feeling uneasy. You are a gentle soul. You can’t bear a bitter word or an evil thought. But this one is fast as lighting-and as sharp. She is not for the likes of you. What she needs is a man of steel. But what can one do? You’ll never listen to me. And I can’t withdraw now.  (Karnad 126)

The quest for the self and the consciousness of the rest was perceptively recognizable from the beginning of the play. Not only Kapila was aware of Devadatta’s ominous future; Devadatta too feared his incorrect decision of appointing Kapila as the messenger to Padmini.

Devadatta:  Kapila-Kapila…He’s gone. How fortunate I am to have a friend like him. Pure gold. (Pause) But should I have trusted this to him? He means well-and he is a wizard in his smithy, in his farm, in his fields. But here? No. He is too rough, too indelicate. He was the wrong man to send. He’s bound to ruin the whole thing. (Anguished) Lord Rudra, I meant what I said. If I get her, my head will be a gift to you. Mother Kali, I’ll sacrifice my arms to you. I swear… (Karnad 122)

Kapila the swarthy boy was an uncouth in comparison to Devadatta. However he was an aficionado in his pursuits.  His deep sense of devotion towards Devadatta was laudable. He was a true “wizard” (Karnad 122) who mesmerized Padmini with his warm gestures and enthralling and unpretentious ways. The incongruous match of Devadatta the “gentle soul” (Karnad 126) and Padmini who was as “…fast as lightning-and as sharp” (Karnad 126) was perceived very early in the narrative. Kapila was prudent in stating that she needed “a man of steel” (Karnad 126) unlike Devadatta who was studious and absent-minded. Devadatta’s attachment to his knowledge seeking pursuit to be a renowned scholar apparently failed to offer the companionship to Padmini. Therefore she found the companion in Kapila. She pestered for his company. Padmini never tried to transform herself to a typical wife. She committed few indiscretions; desired for Kapila’s company. Her innocent call for Kapila was deception. Devadatta-Padmini-Kapila was linked in unambiguous equation. The relationship was an able and licit one amidst society. The citizens of Dharmapura saw them as God equivalent-Rama-Sita-Laxmana. It was the collective opinion of society at large and hence traditionally acceptable. But Karnad’s inclination towards the exploration of the nuances of complications in human relationship led various issues brushed under the carpet to surface up and create a furore by presenting the stark nature of human relationship. The truth came as blow to Devadatta-Padmini-Kapila. The seemingly playful nature of Padmini, the devotion and sense of urgency of Kapila in satisfying Padmini and the deliberate passing over of Devadatta’s knowledge of growing flare between Padmini and Kapila was all within the subconscious mind of the three. Their ego shielded the id with its throbbing desires. Sham and manipulation became the way of their life to produce the traditional image of archetypal image of Rama-Sita-Laxmana.

Within the framework of the narrative of Bali, Karnad reiterated the structure of licit-illicit relationship between man-woman once again. Karnad in a mood to peel off the clever simulation and hypocrisy of society that tradition has bound in each one of us, tries to humanize the character of the Queen. The King and the Queen was a childless couple. She described him in the superlatives-“…affectionate, gentle, trusting.” (Karnad 195)

Queen: …You are a good man. I have always known that. (Karnad 227)

The irony of the above statement is that the Queen had never known him neither herself enough until the moment of climax. The essential nature of human beings is that we value our freedom. To substantiate the thesis on freedom Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from Underground needs particular mention where he said-

Even if man were nothing but a piano key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of sheer ingratitude, simply to have his own way…then, after all, perhaps only by his curse will he attain his object, that is, really convince himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated…then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and have his own way. (28)

In light of the above quotation Queen Amritamati could be justified; her act of infidelity was an act of defiance to retort back to the sham that underplayed in her life. Tradition and religion united them in the sanctity of marriage. Being unable to produce an heir to the kingdom she feigned false pregnancy. Her misery worsened with the censure of being barren. Her faith, Jainism and her failure in becoming a mother were enough substance to jeer her. With all jibing and abhorring nature of Mother her sense of disintegration worsened. The King loved her and had performed all the duties of the husband. Yet the longing for something unknown lurked within her and sought completion in the ugly and uncouth mahout. This longing might be interpreted as the search for the being in her trapped in the order of duplicity and lies of tradition and religion. Amritamati was just not the ‘piano key’ of Dostoevsky and to pitch her existence she resisted the fixed identity that society imposed upon her. As if in a trance, she was transported to the mahout. The mesmerizing song took her on an erogenous journey with the mahout only to be caught by her husband and mother-in law. The moment of climax occurred when under the pretext of tradition and religion the nobility of human emotions of love and faith was put to test. She fought for her existence with conviction, without shying away from her acceptance to adultery. The King felt devastated by the act of sin. However Karnad’s ironic comment on the husband-wife relationship reveals the mockery of the divine aspect of unconditional love, faith, commitment traditionally associated with the institution of marriage. The King loves her, is even willing to accept her in his life but sets conditions which when fulfilled would grant acceptability to Amritamati into the sanctity of marriage again. It is here that Karnad problematize the much worshipped ethos of marriage. The King though wants her back would not do so until she performs the mock performance of sacrificing the dough cock. She realized the fallaciousness in their relation and put him under trial. She strained him emotionally to test his love. Unfortunately he failed and just as Fyodor Dostoevsky said that to man would resort to insanity to prove one correct, Amritamati chose to integrate with her faith in non-violence and love (for King) by sacrificing her life. She proved that her love was above all condition and thereby consecrated herself to be called the rightful wife of the King. She understood that the moment she flashed the sword on her husband it meant the death of her belief in non-violence. Therefore a farce show of confirming faith in Jainism was meaningless and purposeless as well. Similarly to re-enter into marriage would be equivalent to putting up a show of leading a blissful married life. Hence she chose to register her resistance to the dogmatic traditions and voice her dissent through her act. The Queen rightfully asserted her selfhood by violating the sanctity of marriage.

Padmini and the Queen had always known the social and political aspect of freedom. Heidegger’s concept of ‘Dasein’ or being-in-the –world is a profound way of understanding one’s existence. The moment of truth for both Padmini and The Queen evolved when encountered with the metaphysical truth that they have the freedom to choose to act upon their desires and wishes. They acknowledged the renderings of the subconscious mind and therefore ready to face the consequences of their action. The chaos that took them in its grip could only was resolved by the inadvertent sacrifice of their life. The sacrifice was in correspondence to the sense of their being, the ‘Dasein’. The arising anxiety out of the sense of loss that boggled the lives of the characters in the play Hayavadana and Bali arose out of the strain of responsibilities based on the unfounded grounds of tradition. These traditions percolates in our life through practice and few are embedded in our psyche. Restricting them and bringing forth other more individualistic dimensions of life and living could interdict them from intermingling in society. Under such circumstances, unequivocally we begin questioning why one seeks such dimensions. The answer lies in Sartre’s concept of ‘nothingness’ which is the notion of something that does not exist. The nothing is acknowledged by the being to give us the concept of the other. This other which does not exist confirms the incompleteness in the being. The pre-eminence of the ‘nothing’ in the life of Padmini and the Queen brought upheavals in plenty. However the moment of crisis and unification with the being connected them to a transcendental experience leading to subjectivity.

Whether it is the Elephant-headed God Ganesha or Hayavadana, the sense of incompleteness is inherent. Continuing one’s faith in the permanence and acceptability of tradition and normative image of completeness, Ganesha and Hayavadana are grotesque and wanting completion. It is the same sense of incompleteness and want that gripped Padmini and the Queen. The sense of lack was insidiously commented upon by Karnad. The being of these influential women characters evolved through their own choice of events in life whose consequences were borne by them. The eventuality of their choices undoubtedly clashed with traditions but proffered new avenues of thought on existence and identity. The sense of isolation and meaninglessness that peered in found metaphysical solution through painful negations culminating in the deaths of Padmini and the Queen.

References :

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Vintage, 1994.

Gusfield, R. Joseph. “Tradition and Modernity: Misplaced Polarities in the Study of Social Change”. The American Journal of Sociology, vol.72, issue.4, 1967, pp.351-362.

Karnad, Girish. Collected Plays. Vol I.  Oxford University Press, 2010.

Priest, Stephen, editor. Jean Paul Sartre: Basic Writings. Routledge. 2005.

Srinivas, M.N. Caste in Modern India and Other Essays. Asia Publishing House, 1962.

Tipps, C. Dean. “Modernization Theory and the Comparative Study of Societies: A Critical Perspective”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol.15, no.2, 1973, pp. 199-226.

Wartenberg, Thomas.E. Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide. Oneworld Book, 2013.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.