Discuss Girish Karnad’s pivotal role in the development of modern Indian drama with special reference to Hayavardana.

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Girish Raghunath Karnad, a renowned Indian writer and recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Jnanpith Awards, is well-known not just among those involved in theatre and theatre studies, but also among moviegoers as an actor and director. In addition to his work as a playwright, he has also worked as an actor, screenwriter, director, and administrator. Despite a multifaceted career in theatre, film, and television, as well as a larger-than-life public presence, Karnad has preserved an exceptional separation and balance between his contributions to “high,” “popular,” and “official” culture, and hence as a public figure, Karnad has always been a “celebrity” for almost half a century.

Girish Karnad
Girish Karnad

He was born in 1938 in Matheran, near Mumbai, and had his education in Sirsi and Dharwad in Karnataka, Mumbai, and Oxford (where he was a Rhodes scholar from 1960 to 1963). Although he first aspired to be an English poet, he soon realised his passion for play. On his return, he worked in the Oxford branch in Madras (now Chennai).

He worked at the University Press till 1970, during which time he also played and directed English theatre for the Madras Players.

Karnad tells the account of the transposition of heads in Hayavadana through people with various names and identities. Hayavadana’s subplot is all his own, and it contributes to the play’s overall effect and significance.

In the Introduction to Three Plays, Karnad discusses the folk aspects in traditional Indian theatre in relation to Hayavadana.

“I was first drawn to the narrative because of the opportunities it provided for the usage of masks and music. Western theatre has evolved a contrast between the face and the mask – the genuine inner person and the outer one exhibits to the world outside, or seeks to convey. However, in traditional Indian theatre, the mask is simply the face magnified; as a character symbolises an ethical archetype rather than a complicated psychological person, the mask only reveals its core moral essence in enlarged detail. The action is then further distanced by music, generally percussion, which places it in the world of the mythological and elemental.

After exploring the styles of music of mythic-existential and historical drama in Yayati and Tughlaq, Karnad’s third play, Hayavadana (1971), signalled yet another major shift in direction, both in his playwriting and also in post-independence theatre, as it was the first work to put the discussion over the usefulness of native performing art forms in the development of a neocolonial identity into practise. While receiving the coveted Homi Bhabha Fellowship for artistic activity in folk theatre, he began to wonder about the interaction of a city inhabitant like him with the full complement of dramatic devices, including half curtains, masks, improvisations, music, and mine. In the course of a debate with B.V. Karanth regarding the meaning of masks in Indian theatre and the link between theatre and music, the concept for my play Hayavadana crystallised in my thoughts.


Discuss Girish Karnad’s pivotal role in the development of modern Indian drama with special reference to Hayavardana.


The narrative about exchanged heads in Kathasaritasagara, a twelfth-century Sanskrit book, piqued his curiosity at first because of the potential for mask employment on stage. Traditional conventions were defamiliarized in Hayavadana, which produced a totally groundbreaking work for the urban Indian stage, and developed a great intellectual and dramatic experience all through the decade of the 1970s, as refracted through Thomas Mann’s philosophical novella The Transposed Heads, Karnad’s distinct and unique view of womanhood, and a reflexive double frame.

Hayavadana’s amazing quality as a ‘urban folk’ play is that it manages to combine Yakshagana folk performance conventions such as stock characters, songs, dance, masks, talking dolls, etc with a pivotal storyline that poses philosophical riddles about the origins of identity and reality, in keeping with Karnad’s interest in a usable’structure of expectations.’ The narrative of ‘The Heads That Got Switched’ in the Kathasaritasagara features a simple conundrum. In this version, the consequent dilemma of ‘real’ identity is resolved in an unclear manner: the one with her husband’s head is her spouse since the head dominates the limbs and self identity is based on the head. Brahmans emerged from Purusha’s head in the mythic genealogy of caste, first offered in the Purusha-sukta in the Rigveda (Book 10, hymn 90) around 1000 BC, and the supremacy of that part of the body is so deeply rooted in the subsequent Hindu tradition that it overpowers the consequences of incest in the twelfth century narrative.

Devadatta, Kapila, and Padmini’s plot in Karnad’s Hayavadana is near enough to Mann’s novella in terms of characterisation and event order to be regarded, in some ways, a ‘de-orientalized’ modern Indian theatrical adaptation of it. The play’s true originality rests in the story’s reflective frames, as well as the thematic force of Karnad’s rendering of gender, passion, and existence in and for the present, regardless of its roots.

The first fundamental step made by Karnad is to increase the circumstances in which the problem of incongruity, indicated by the separation of head and body, occurs. Transposition provides a figurative but momentary solution to the dilemma of mind/body dualism in Devadatta and Kapila’s human world: for a little amount of time, Devadatta-Kapila gets both the perfect mind and the ideal form, but Kapila-Devadatta is deficient in both. The dilemma of dualism returns when each man’s body reverts to its original attributes, and the human state appears to be basically one of disunity and imperfection, terminating in death. Karnad diffuses the human “tragic” by juxtaposing it with two additional worlds of experience: heavenly and animal. The elephant-headed, Ganesha is the guardian deity of writers and performers, the removers of impediments (vigneshwara), and the god of all fortunate starting — an embodiment of both divinity and excellence despite his funny looks. On the other hand, Hayavadana, the play’s titular character, is devoid of any traces of divinity and appears to be stuck between both the animal and human realms. Hayavadana, unlike the gods, cannot stand being mixed up; unlike humans, he lacks a past personality that can express itself. However, just as in the human realm, the head defines identity, even if it means that the animal triumphs over the human: Hayavadana finds wholeness by losing his human features and totally transforming into a horse. This triple standpoint on shattered selves puts into practise Karnad’s belief that the numerous norms of Indian folk theatre produce impacts similar to those associated with Brecht’s idea of ‘complex seeing’8: ‘the chorus, the masks, the apparently irrelevant comic episodes, the blending of human and non – human realms enable the instantaneous presentation of alternative views, of alternative perceptions of the core issue’.

The self-conscious modification made by the author of the framework of folk performance is the second degree of sophistication in Hayavadana. While the action of folk theatre goes between a frame and the inner play, Hayavadana has two outside frames, both from the historical present, that collide unpredictably with each other and with the inner play’s action. The opening frame features Bhagvata, the female chanting, and two male actors who were not only participants in a traditional play but members of a regional company prepared to tell the narrative of Padmini and her two husbands to a modern viewer. The performance is interrupted just as the action of the inner play is about to begin by the presence of Hayavadana, the talking horse who seeks a solution to his own problem. The disturbance causes folk theatre characters to revert to their “true” personae as performers, and Padmini’s narrative is only performed after the Bhagvata has convinced Hayavadana to depart and seek heavenly aid for his condition. Similarly, the drama does not stop when Padmini’s storey ends: the two framing storylines continue until Hayavadana, who now emerges as a horse with a human voice, has lost – as he desires – his final human trait. In Hayavadana, the traditional folk framework of the play-within-a-play is yoked to a reflective rehearsal style, whose purpose is to ironically examine the defining tropes of folk performance.