The theatricality of Karnad is a bridge of communication between the past Indian theatrical flavours and the post modern tendencies of the post colonial India. His dramas thrive to be the mirror of the Indians for their self’s.

Nation as a ‘Notion’

‘When did we become “a people”? When did we stop being one? Or are we in the process of becoming one? What do these big questions have to do with our intimate relationships with each other and with others?”‘ -Homi Bhaba- observes in ‘Nation and Narration’ for them who have not found their nation, yet! Homi Bhaba’s concept of the Nation as ‘notion’ brings to the forefront, the ‘concept of mimicry’ not only as an art form, but as a vehicle of resistance, returning the Eurocentric gazes and reconstructing the language of a nation that had once been under the shackles of Imperialism. Like those expanding narratives, Nation gets detached from its roots, the origins continually falling a prey to the myths of time and forever finding its gustative identity on the horizons in the mind’s eye.

GIRISH KARNAD Girish Karnad : The Mirror of Indian Theatrical Identity

As Karnad Views through the Mirror

An attempt to form a connection between the bygone moments and present lifetime is often discovered in the dramas of Girish Karnad. With a subjective view, he often sees the topic of his dramas and developing them, casting them in the crucible of his imaginative self and experienced vision. He goes to that generation which came out at the threshold of post-colonial India. It was that generation which was trapped by the perils of the cultural past of the country equally well as the colonial past. In a typically reactionary post colonial situation, to write in the terminology of the colonial ruler-‘English’ in newly Independent India was seen as politically incorrect. And there lies the question of mimicry, adopting and adapting the speech, language of the colonizers to create an Indian drama. India that time was on her way towards the discovery of her ‘self’, her identity.

Dramatic performances are mostly respected as a slice of, an extension of the subjective experiences of mortal millions. The innate difficulty of the spectators to come to terms with ‘English’ as the language of the performance had been a perennial problem zone. Girish Karnad has been one of the vanguards who aided the audiences by using Indian English, mythical references in theatres that is at once internalized and voiced without any traces of premeditation. He returned the gaze, as a vehicle of resistance and gave Indian dramas, a form, and an identity that is truly Indian.

Among the major dramatists’ that India ever created and saw, Girish Karnad fits the bill who gifted a distinct silhouette to the enormous volume of creative article that India already is preoccupied with. A playwright for five decades and yet maintaining his ground, Girish Karnad continues to redefine and reinstate the contours of Modern Indian Theatre with his Kannada plays, which he himself translates.

Modern Theatre and Karnad

The seventh and latest Jnanpith award winner from the terrains of Karnataka, Girish was born in Maharashtra in the year 1938 that formed a part of Colonial India. Aside from being a playwright, Karnad has even ventured the plains of Film making, acting and so on. His intensive explorations of the genres of folklore, mythology and history that trine to form the thematic crux of his plays have been reflective enough of the idiosyncrasies and perpetual challenges of mortal existence. When Karnad ventured into the arena of dramaturgy, the situation was obnoxious. Modern Indian theatre, by then had passed on her paternal calling- the traditional performance and the predominant forms, and the play texts had already started assuming primacy. As the Western trends had cast an irrevocable shadow on Indian theatre, the text became the guidebook to the production process.

Karnad understood that the phenomenon in Modern Indian theatre is a far away land from the archetypal ‘rural’ umbrella. It rather owes its origin to the growth of large urban settlements in Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai that unfurled somewhat in the early phases of the eighteenth century, under the Colonial British who established secure trade centers and were hugely responsible in the production of an entire class of intelligentsia that was exposed to Western culture and dramatic event. By the time India gained her much awaited Independence, the theatre was struggling to make it make its renewed presence felt in the face of overt popularity of film-a medium preferred by the mass. Appeared Karnad and the genre of Experimental theatre that is a revolutionary divergence or a radical departure from the earlier set protocols of the convention and that was an amalgamation of some truly heterogeneous terrain of modern, urban theatre.

In the formation of Identity: Karnad

Numerous influences mapped his formative years which even coloured his tastes in dramas and gave him an identity. Karnad was profoundly influenced by Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw and Ibsen. And the influence of Kannada drama stayed with him. But primarily it was his childhood as he observes “, 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 natal companies which toured the countryside throughout the year. The plays were staged in semi-permanent structures on proscenium stages, with wings and drop curtains, and 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 black curtain, was erected in the open air and 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. (“Author’s Introduction” Three Plays.)

Canvas of the Quested Identity: Girish Karnad

Inspiration arrives to an artist from numerous social movements and personal chambers of private pain. For Karnad, it was the striking throbbing of identity crisis, not merely of the Neo-Indian search for individualism, but a personal search of distinctiveness amidst the angst ridden life he led. And afterwards, the story seemed like a deadbolt from the blue to him. As he himself observes, –“When I wrote Yayati, I wanted to be a poet. I didn’t want to be a playwright. I was interested in theatre, but there was never any intention to become a playwright…. I was reading Rajaji’s (C. Rajagopalachari) Mahabharata and from that I got both the stories, Yayati and The Fire and the Rain. I read the Yayati story and the play happened in front of my eyes. With The Fire and the Rain, I had to go through 30-odd years. That work waited. I knew there was a superb story, but I waited and worked on it and didn’t want to waste it by writing it in haste. Yayati just came to me, like a dictation.”

Yayati ‘s Plot has its lineages to the grand epic Mahabharata. For his vice of moral misdemeanor, the youthful King is cursed of old age that symbolically refers to the elimination of happiness and life in itself. Losing his springs of life, he painstakingly approaches his son beseeching him to lend his youth and in turn substituting his old age. Accepting the vitality of the curse, the son takes upon old age and becomes older than his father. ‘The old age brings no knowledge, no self-realization, only the senselessness of a punishment meted out for an act for which he had not even participated.’ The father is shown as an escapist who nullifies every aspect to take the responsibility of his action. The myth cultivates the aura of escapism and Karma. In the deft use of masks, allegorical plots, names and the bringing together of the animate and non animate world, Karnad is seen to follow the footsteps of Bertolt Brecht. Both in Brecht and Karnad, there is overt theatricality, settings are stripped down, use of placards, an illusion created through lighting, the instrumentation is visible and the actors demonstrate the act of acting!

The Dreams of Tipu Sultan amalgamates the conflict between the colonial past and cultural past, and the quest of the Sultan for certain unavoidable truths. The Sultan asserts that “it is not a religion that sustains them, nor a land that feeds them. They wouldn’t be here if it did. It’s just a dream for which they are willing to kill and die Children of England.” The Marathas, the Nizam and the Rajas joined the British bandwagon for selfish momentary pursuits of material gains. It was Tipu, the Tiger of Mysore who held his ground and continued nourishing his integrity, that’s symbolically the holding of grounds by Indians for their token of identity.

nagamandala1 Girish Karnad : The Mirror of Indian Theatrical Identity

Nagamandala is one signature play by Karnad. Nagamandala is a customary and elaborate ritual of serpent worship at present found in Tulunadu, especially in Mangalore and Udupi districts. The term Nagamandala is a juxtaposition of two terms: Naga and Mandala. While Naga definitely refers to a serpent, Mandala implies decorative pictorial drawings on the floor. Nagamandala in totality is the union of the male and the female, the female in human form and the male in his serpent identity. In Karnad’s version, Nagamandala revolves the Queen-Rani, a betrothed young bride torn apart by her husband’s (Appanna) indifference and illegitimacy. In a vain attempt to earn her husband’s love, she decides to drug her husband with a love concoction and as fate would have it, the Naga, King Cobra is ensnared by the potion’s cupid charms. Naga, starts visiting the Rani night after night in the form of the Raja until she becomes pregnant and the drama plot becomes convoluted. In Naga Mandala, the theme is mythical, but the approach is entirely post modern.

Karnad often felt that Folk art has a great impact on the modern theatre. The Myth of Cobra reinstates the fact that modern man cannot have one identity and every choice gives way to certain experiences and at times at the cost of penalty. Karnad had once observed “We keep acrobating between the tradition and the modern, perhaps we could not hit upon a form that balances”- true to life, nation and personal idiosyncrasies. The cobra myth provides the playwright with an opportunity to use mask creating a complex metaphor and demarcating the world of desire, enunciated libidos and by the use of them he brings out the ambivalence between natural and supernatural. A.K. Ramanujan, has a clear cut notion on Nagamandala-“Yet, while the great myth and local tales, shares similar structures, we must not imagine they are put to the same uses or carrying unchanging meanings. Motives do not predict function, functions not meanings.” Thus he draws the contours of contemporary reality within the confines of his mythical canvas.

Girish Karnad’s play Tughlaq explores the character of Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq under whose able “cruelty” and disdain despotism, his kingdom became a “kitchen of death”. With the allusion to History, Karnad in actuality tries to focus the condition of India: from a state of idealism to disillusionment and anarchy. The perennial detachment of the government from his subjects, the pyramid of corruption and ruthlessness that was mammoth and endemic, and Tughlaq’s progressive alienation and isolation from his people are dramatically portrayed. The play is not only a biopic, but has its social and political allusions threaded to modern times. It is ironical to note that the play was written in the year 1964, one year after the death of Nehru. Sixteen years after the independence and the condition of India was no better, journey towards discovering India that Nehru initiated had become a total failure. Tughlaq becomes synonymous with the dreams etched by Nehru.

Curtain Call

Though the issue of identity crisis clouds the sky of most of his plays, the characters are on a deliberate mission to attain the individual identities. Rani attempts to discover hers, Tughlaq desires to ascertain his, and Basavanna immortalizes his principles. Iyengar, commenting on the dramatic technique of Karnad, says: “In all his three plays – be the theme historical, mythical or legendary, Karnad’s approach is ‘modern’, and he deploys the conventions and motifs of folk art like masks and curtains to project a world of intensities, uncertainties and unpredictable.”

Under him Indian theatre went about in building the nation without ever realising it with new idioms, new language. His plays are timeless and cuts across the plains of truth in terms of the issues, the search of identity, and an alarming pendulum of the time and has a beauty of its own- the mythical allegories, the presentation, rooted in Indianness that summons inexorable rather than contrived conclusions thus at once platforming Keats-“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know and all ye need to know….A thing of beauty is joy forever.” Perhaps, Karnad himself feels the same as he clarifies- “If I write a play I want it to be read 200 years from now. Whether I am read I can’t judge, I won’t be there. So I put everything I have: study concentration, imitation, stealing ideas, everything.” Karnad’s dramaturgy is like a good film, not the one meant to be suffered with a heckling crowd, but the one meant for you alone far from the sway of the crowd, beside a warm fireplace on a chilly wintry night when the faraway smell of the night kinder a breath of nostalgia of being an individual, and most importantly an Indian.

 By Adrita Dey Ghatak

Also See:
Satyajit Ray: The Game Changer of Indian Cinema
11 Ways in Which Queen broke new Ground,
Nation and Narration

Image Courtesy:
Shunya Theatre
The Hindu

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