by Girish Karnad
What begins with a simple love triangle ends in a comedic and confusing twist of fate in Karnad's HAYAVADANA. Devadatta and his beautiful wife Padmini find themselves traveling with their faithful friend Kapila. The suspicious husband, convinced of his wife's love for Kapila, beheads himself. The distraught friend, upon learning of Devadatta's deed, takes his own head as well. Only the goddess Kali can remedy the situation and bring the men back from the dead-but just who's head is on who's body?
"HAYAVADANA is situated in the interstices of an invigorating legacy of traditional Indian folk and modern Western theatre," says Chatterjee. Girish Karnad cleverly binds an 11th century Indian fable with Thomas Mann's 20th century The Transposed Heads. At the heart of the story is a confusing philosophical question-if two heads switch bodies, just who becomes who?-but HAYAVADANA is layered with more. A love triangle, a snide goddess, a pair of living dolls, a man with a horse's head-this American premiere is a truly unique theatrical experience.
"Hayavadana: Transposed Cultures"
Girish Karnad was born in 1938 in Matheran, in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, India. After completing his B.A. from Karnataka College in 1958, he went to Oxford for graduate studies on a Rhodes Scholarship. He started writing for the Kannada theatre (language spoken in Karnataka) upon his return in the 1960s. Hayavadana, written in 1971, was his third play. Karnad is one of India's leading contemporary playwrights and has held important positions in many of India's national theatre and film institutes. He is also a well-known actor and has directed plays and films in several Indian languages. His more recent play, Naga-Mandala, premiered a few years ago at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
One of the most celebrated modern plays in India, Hayavadana is situated in the interstices of an invigorating legacy of traditional Indian folk and modern Western theatre. Hayavadana is a riddling philosophical (not just psychological) thriller, in the truest vein of "la comédie noire"! The following is an extract from the author's introduction to his own English translation of the play, published in 1975:
"[T]he idea of my play Hayavadana 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 [1875-1955] 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 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 details it moral nature. […] The decision to use masks led me to question the theme itself in greater depth. All theatrical performances in India begin with the 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. [T]he elephant head…questioned the basic assumption behind the original riddle: that the head represents the thinking part of the person, the intellect.
"[…] Hayavadana, meaning 'the one with the horse's head', is named after [a] horse-headed man, who wants to shed the horse's head and become human…. [He] 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."
Speaking of the Play
A good number of people-from friends in India to cast members at Tufts-have asked me about the relevance of this play for an American audience, outside its obvious comic and philosophic values. While Girish Karnad's introduction adequately explains the point behind the play's equestrian title, it does not tell us how it resonates for America. And why would it? The onus is on those of us who have chosen to stage the play here.
The symbolic core of Hayavadana comprises the philosophic crisis of estrangement between mind and body. In the context of America-the land of diasporic immigrants disembarking off ships and distant civilizations, and natives forcibly diasporized to reservations and social margins-this becomes the predicament of disjuncture at a more social level. The bodily presence of any given individual in America may indeed be tangibly located somewhere in its bountiful topography, but the soul may well be surfing on tidal waves of murky memories breaking the shores of genetic inheritance and the collective unconscious. But collective memory is at best slippery, and often deceptively more about oblivion than remembrance. What consciousness, then, embodies the mind of the expatriate exile? On the contrary, what conciliatory force minds over the exiled body of the weathered immigrant (never mind the number of generations s/he's been here)? What does it really mean for the immigrant to live life in one historical 'right here' and inherit another (or others) from 'elsewhere'? What choices, what desires, what fantasies, what disenchantments, what regrets? Am I stretching? Perhaps. But just as it causes severance, stretching also builds bridges. Girish Karnad once told an interviewer, "Drama is not for me a means of self-expression. Drama can be production of meaning also. The story has an autonomous existence…."
Thus we look beyond the story here for an impetus to make us stretch our minds. To think about the social calamity of cracked identities-loyal divisions and divided loyalties, fractured fictions and fictional fractures. And this, in turn, steers us to a question ringing in the head like a fire alarm-can we suture a better future for all of us? This is the one interpretive stratum our emergent performance text that will, we wistfully hope, add to the already rich written dramatic text, and, as with any production, contribute some ancillary meaning to it. How meaningful? That-dear audience-member-is a determination you have to make.
"Hayavadana: Fusing Forms"
Girish Karnad's play Hayavadana reflects India's colonial heritage, offering a mix of Western and Indian theatrical traditions. Based on a Sanskrit tale from the Kathasaritsagara and Thomas Mann's reworking of the tale in The Transposed Heads (1941), Hayavadana is an Indian story retold by a Western writer that is then retold again by an Indian dramatist, Karnad. Such a circumspect history is reflected in both the style and conventions of the play which offer an Indian aesthetic and also Western theatrical techniques which are sometimes themselves rooted in Indian performance.
Indian drama offers a different aesthetic approach from much of Western theatre. With Indian plays, storytelling is the focus as opposed to the action of the story and often the action is described to the audience rather than depicted in the realist mode of most Western performance. At the heart of Sanskrit aesthetics is rasa, a flavor or essence that acts as the aesthetic guide for the performance. There are eight types of rasas that include both emotions, such as rage and terror, and dramatic types, such as comic and erotic, among others. Rasa transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, which is achieved through the performance that brings the performer and the informed audience together. The closest Western comparison to rasa is Aristotle's notion of catharsis, but rasa goes beyond this dramatic outcome by incorporating and producing more than just fear and pity. Because the basis of Sanskrit drama is rasa, Indian plays are not imitations of life but rather representations of an abstraction. The actor is not to represent a realistic imitation of a figure but rather to manifest an interpretation of the character. Also, the actor is better termed a performer because dancing, singing, and music are always part of the performance.
Karnad builds on this performance tradition in Hayavadana when throughout the play he employs numerous folk theatre devices such as entry curtains, songs, puppets, masks, story-within-a-story plotlines, and a storyteller character, the Bhagavata. The Bhagavata acts as narrator and sings for and about the characters in both first and third person, often revealing their thoughts, and producing the dances and prose exchanges of the performers. He is in effect a stage manager who appears onstage and directs the action of the play by providing narration.
The Indian dramatic convention of a stage manager character such as the Bhagavata is not entirely unfamiliar to Western audiences. In Our Town (1938), Thornton Wilder uses the Stage Manager in the spirit of the Sanskrit drama. Denoting the usefulness of the stage manager/narrator in his essay "The Action on the Stage Takes Place in Perpetual Present Time," Wilder cites the character's "point of view, his powers of analyzing the behavior of characters, his ability to interfere and supply further facts about the past, about simultaneous actions not visible on the stage, and above all, his function of pointing the moral and emphasizing the significance of the action." By incorporating a traditional dramatic technique that has been absorbed into a Western style of performance, Karnad becomes a sort of translator and Hayavadana becomes the translation. It is also interesting to note in this context that Karnad himself translated the play from Kannada into English.
The use of masks in the play functions in the same way as the Bhagavata as a device that is standard to Asian traditional theatre and used by 20th-century Western artists. For instance, Western theatre audiences are familiar with Bertolt Brecht's style being heavily influenced by Chinese performance. In his play, The Good Woman of Setzuan (1947), there are characters who take on the voice and persona of another character by putting on that character's mask. Karnad uses this technique of mask-swapping to signify the switching of Kapila and Devadatta's heads. In a way, then, Karnad refers to the traditional Asian performance as he acknowledges the work of Western playwrights who themselves had borrowed from Asian performance.
Karnad's fusion of Indian and Western theatrical conventions reflects the story of the transposed heads in the sense that one body of dramatic structure is joined with another; but dramaturgical conventions go together much more seamlessly than the dismembered heads, as we will see in Karnad's tale. Karnad's India, after all, is the hybrid (post-)colony where cultures coexist. Hence, even with its basis in the Kathasaritsagara and The Transposed Heads, Hayavadana remains a unique expression of one playwright's desire to reflect his own postcolonial identity and heritage rather than using either a strictly traditional Indian or Western dramatic style.