Oxford university press

ISBN: 0-19-560382-6

By Girish Karnad

When I wrote this little blog post, on the interplay of heart and mind, Alka ma'am likened that allusion to the situation depicted in ‘Hayavadana’, as she told she had seen in a play by Girish Karnad. That got me interested, and since she is sharp and remembered the names of the characters, finding the title of this play wasn't too difficult. After having conjectured the situation and its consequences from the tid-bits of context that she had presented from the play then, or rather having babbled a long analysis of the possibilities, I decided to find out for myself, how the playwright had handled the dilemma. Since the play was available at Amazon, I ordered it right away (not to mention two other pieces of art which Amazon suggested along with it that I bought, because the prices were relatively cheap), I know I am being victim of efficient and targeted marketing.

Though it would be very unfair to judge a play from its written transcript, rather than seeing the performance on stage, I might add that I've tried to picture the characters in my head (except for their faces). Consider the following post as a review of the script of this play, ‘Hayavadana’. ‘Hayavadana’, or ‘Horse Head’ is an adaptation from Thomas Mann’s ‘The Transposed Heads’, which in itself is taken from ‘Kathasaritsagara’, an ancient collection of stories written in Sanskrit. Talk of old things in new clothes (but with a different perspective).

The central idea behind the play is the dilemma that what does one love in someone? Do we love their mind, or their heart? Here heart stands representative of the body, the tangible while the head represents the intangible, wisdom, poetry call it what you please. It is a snare of entangled relationships (even though there are only three essential characters to the play). Incidentally, this number (three) greater than two in case of relations is a kind of corroboration of one of my theories (which I have had since quite sometime now).

Anyhow, back to the play. Devdutta, the only son of venerable Vidyasagar, is a brilliant scholar, who having bested all poets and pundits in logic and poetry wants to surpass Kalidasa in his extent of poetry. He is the apple of everyone’s eye in the entire city of Dharmpura, ruled by Dharmasheel whose fame and kingdom are spread in the eight directions. He is also the most eligible bachelor in terms of affluence and stature. Kapila, the only son of an ironsmith Lohitha, who is the best man in the King’s armoury is unmatched in the physical skills that require drive and daring, dancing, wrestling and the likes. The two are less best friends, but more like two bodies, but one mind and one heart. Devdutta falls for Padmini whom he describes as ‘The Shyama Nayika - born out of Kalidasa’s magic description - as Vatsyayana had dreamt her’. Padmini, the daughter to a wealthy merchant in the same city, does not hesitate in speaking her heart. She has been brought up with care of wealthy comfort, but her tongue is as untamed as the merchant streets. Suffice to say, she’s a woman of many men’s dreams. Devdutta is able to marry her, but not before his marriage proposal is carried to her by Kapila himself (who on seeing Padmini, says: “Devdutta, my friend, I must confess to you I’m feeling uneasy. You are a gentle soul. You can’t bear a bitter word or evil thought. But this one is as fast as lightning - 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. I’ll have to talk to her family...”).

An interesting point to note is that all three characters belong to different classes of today’s society, and yet, there is not even an iota of objection in their intermingling, even when a merchant’s daughter (vaishya) is being married to a Brahmin who is best friends with a iron smith's(Shudra) son who in himself is no lesser than an warrior (Kshatriya), which gives a glimpse of the kind of society the playwright envisions to be affluent and on the acme of prosperity.

But jealousy is a treacherous snake. Kapila is a darling to Padmini, and her affection and attention for him burns Devdutta who cannot help hide his annoyance. He often admonishes Padmini for being overindulgent with Kapila, and she equals his annoyance with counters that Kapila and Devdutta were close friends even before she had met them. Devdutta feels miserable when Padmini, in order to save Kapila the disappointment of a cancelled plan turns back on Devdutta.

Padmini is attracted to the abilities of Kapila’s body too, she notices “How he climbs - like an ape. Before I could even say ‘yes’, he had taken off his shirt, pulled his dhoti up and swung up the branch. And what an ethereal shape! Such a broad back: like an ocean with muscles rippling across it - and then that small, feminine waist which looks so helpless.”

It is on this journey that Devdutta resigns himself before Goddess Kali and chops his head off. (He was weak, so it was more of a ‘halaal’ than a ‘jhatka’). Kapila on finding him hence, chops his head off before Kali in a bid to ‘be with his friend’. Before Padmini can follow suit (who ironically calls out for Kapila, but accuses Devdutta first for having left her alone), Kali wakes up and stops her from doing it, and asks her to place the heads back on their bodies so that they be revived. It is actually the most interesting part in the entire book, where the playwright tries to portray Kali as someone who is ‘No bullcrap, to the point’, but a loving mother of the world. Assuming that God knows about our true self, the nature of each sacrifice and person is revealed through her dialogue, which kind of confuses me on how to look at Padmini. She’s selfish, but honest to her selfishness. She, and in her, woman, is the most fragile and one of the most beautiful creations of God, and yet, she is also the one who can bring all ruin without trying much. There are moments when I wanted to call her a wretch, and there were moments when she was the best person in the entire world. These feelings were not so extreme for Devdutta or for Kapila, though they did exist. In her excitement/nervousness/confusion, she transposes the heads of the two, to which Kali says “My dear daughter, there should be a limit even to honesty…”

The first confusion starts after this, whose wife is Padmini? The head of Devdutta, which now rests on Kapila’s body? Or Devdutta’s body, which is now under the command of Kapila’s head? An old saint settles this dilemma, much to Kapila’s displeasure. But the balance has been tipped: With the bodies under new minds, there is hysteresis under play. While Kapila’s body was built for rough usage, it acts on its own, making Devdutta’s head see that his body is acting on its own while it wrestles strong men in the ring, or craves to go for a swim. As it attunes itself to the new master, it gradually becomes lesser like Kapila’s body (which Padmini so admired and wanted to have for her man). Meanwhile, Kapila’s head is haunted by “memories of a touch… memories which one cannot recognize, cannot understand, cannot even name…” while it is beaten into the shape of Kapila’s mind’s willing. In the midst of this confusion, Padmini also raises a very valid question - will the parents not recognize that their son’s body is not his own? To which, the intellectual Devdutta responds, which is ironically true “Whoever pays attention to a person he sees everyday?” Do we? I don’t think so, unless that person holds our interest of some kind. Meanwhile, Padmini is torn by her own desires in her nightmares, which are silently observed by two dolls (who talk to the audience about those dreams). The abrupt shift in her tone is quite disturbing to me, after Kali establishes her as selfish. It is all the more aggravated by Devdutta, who despite being the intellectual one, is being just as selfish and conniving (with the concept of accidental gifts or boons standing against righteousness and fairness of an ethical person in my head but not his). What does she actually want? Is that even possible? Will the threesome ever find peace?

There seems to be only one solution to this problem which would settle it all. Funny that, even when I didn’t know the entire circumstances (when I was theorizing it on the basis of what Alka Ma’am had told) the solution that I had propounded was also the solution that the playwright had sought in the end. “What won’t end has to be cut” was what the wise Devdutta had suggested, and Kapila could only acquiesce.

The story is often narrated by ‘Bhagvata ji’ in its interludes where he likens the flow of nature as that of a river and says:

You cannot engrave on water

nor wound it with a knife,

which is why

the river

has no fear

of memories.

The river only feels the

pull of the waterfall.

She giggles, and tickles the rushes

on the bank, then turns

a top of dry leaves

in the navel of the whirlpool, weaves

a water-snake in the net of silver strands

in its green depths, frightens the frog

on the rug of moss, sticks and bamboo leaves,

sings, tosses, leaps and

sweeps on in a rush -

While the scarecrow on the bank

has a face fading

on its mudpot head

and a body torn

with memories.

There are occasional characters, who tie the beginning to the end, like ‘Hayavadana’, a horse head on human body, wanting to be whole, pure. It is through him that the playwright suggests the answer to this question of identities. Him, and of course, the son of Padmini. There’s a thing about plays, there is often more than what meets the eye, on the top, most of them seem ridiculously easy to read (ahem, but not to act which is their actual purpose) with simple language. This too, is not anything different. A short, but beautiful read.

(In case you are interested in buying this play, you can click here and buy it from Amazon India)