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Santosh Kumar

Santosh Kumar : Girish Karnad’s ‘Tale Danda’

Reflection. Courtesy - renderpixie.com

Democracy, its Challenges and Formation of Alternative Hierarchies - A Study of Tale Danda

Close analysis of Karnad's plays reveals the spirit of his artistic creation, which conforms to notion that drama since its birth is meant for the demos i.e. common people. In Karnad's aesthetics the word 'demos' does not mean only common people in terms of social or economic status; rather it connotes all the human beings who are considered inferior and weak and whose images have been subtly constructed through social and cultural conditioning. Karnad's endeavor seems to break these age-old stereotypes in order to instruct, elevate and liberate ordinary humanity. As a dramatist he is well conscious of importance of theatrical devices in the plays and undoubtedly his theatre has been richer than that of any of his contemporaries, but his basic concern is human spirit. Indian drama through the centuries has been one of the means of finding out as how a human being can achieve an optimal human existence– cultural, social, political, material and spiritual. The enactment of patriotic plays in the modern Indian theatre

boosted operative energy in the freedom movement. The spirit of freedom gave great impetus to the revival of various modes of performing arts. And after independence, along with other playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh and Badal Sircar, Karnad has made a number of theatrical and thematic experiments in order to untie the individuals from the shackles of superstitiously internalized socio-cultural constructs.

Karnad's Tale-Danda is a drama of ideas& a thesis play which is basically based on history. Its plot is centered on the great religious upheaval and social reform which took place in Karnataka in the 12the century. Basaveswara, popularly known as Basavanna was the central figure of the movement. He advocated and propagated moral, spiritual and egalitarian values for peaceful and purposeful life. He established 'Anubhava Mantapa' a unique academy of socio-spiritual and religious experience. It was based on democratic principles of universal love and brotherhood. Philosopher, poet and minister Basavanna reformed and revived Vira Saivism in Karnataka. Shaivism or Saivism is the name given to the sects that regard Lord Shiva as the highest Supreme Self or Brahman. It is considered to be one of the oldest sects of Hinduism and its followers are popularly known as Saivites or Lingayats. Under the leadership of Basavanna they formed a reformist cult 'Sharana'. The basic notion of this cult was that everybody is the devotee and ultimate offspring of Lord Shiva, so all are equal without any caste or class discrimination. For the first time in the history of Hinduism, Basavanna created awareness on discriminatory and exploitative nature of the dominant social practice called as caste system. The Shudras in the Hindu society were treated in a most inhuman way. Through the Sharana movement he fought against this orthodox practice of caste system. As a great humanitarian he is also called 'Vishwa-guru' whose teachings are for the welfare of all mankind. His divine experience was the basis of his social life that aimed at providing everyone with equal opportunity, regardless of gender, caste or social status.

The idea of treating history as a play occurred to Karnad through the contemporary tumultuous politics and consequent socio-religious turmoil. Though the idea of writing the play started operating in his mind from the time of 'Emergency', it received its ultimate form when the caste and community based movements were creating tension and tumult in the socio-political life of the country. He wrote Tale-Danda in 1989 when the 'Mandir' and the 'Mandal' movements were creating agitation and posing threat to the national life. So in order to suit contemporary contexts, Karnad has introduced some changes in the historical events. Though the Sharana movement was basically inspired by the religion-Lingayatism, Karnad has focused mainly on the caste politics and subsequent upheaval. Though the aim of the movement was to bring about a great social change by eradicating casteism, Karnad emphasizes that this change, though welcome, can be only superficial and theoretical. Explaining and enumerating the changes made by Karnad, Dhanavel in his article "The History and Mystery of Girish Karnad's Tale-Danda" observes:

…. Actually King Bijala was interested neither in the sharana movement nor in the brahmins who opposed it. As the king of the country, he wanted to rule it without any trouble to himself. In course of time, the relationship between the king and Basavanna was deteriorating. When the matter of inter-caste marriage came up the sharanas "were jubilant over it." (Murthy, 1991, 89) as Basavanna gave his consent. But the brahmins forced the king to stop it. Allayya and Madhuvayya failed to comply with the king's order and so the king had their eyes pulled out. [100]

Dhanavel goes on to explain the changes made by Karnad:

Against this brief history may be placed Karnad's Tale-Danda. The play centres around a few major incidents: a] Sovideva's meddling with the treasury, b] Basavanna's resignation from the post of chief Treasury Officer, c] the death and funeral ceremonies of Jagadeva's father, d] the inter-caste marriage of Sheelavanta and Kalavati, e] Bijala's abdication and death, f] Basavanna's union with God, g] Sovideva's coronation. Though the series of events look perfectly historical, it is not.1

In the play Karnad has made the inter-caste marriage central issue of sharana movement. In the Vedic system and Hindu religion inter-caste marriage is not encouraged. However if such marriages sometimes take place, they are if two types, namely anuloma and pratiloma. Anuloma, marriage between a higher caste and lower caste woman, is permissible; but pratiloma, marriage between a lower caste man and a higher caste woman, is not tolerable at any cost. When the caste became curse and an evil social element, many thinkers advocated the need of inter-caste marriages of all types. Modern thinker, champion of dalits' rights and an architect of Indian constitution Dr. B. R. Ambedkar included inter-caste marriage in the Hindu Code Bill as Hindu marriages rather than as civil marriages registered under the Special Marriages Act. He not only advocated the need of inter-caste marriage but also put it into practice. Himself a dalit he married a brahmin woman. In the heyday of dalit mobilization, Ambedkar wrote that inter-marriage was the most important way of annihilating caste, since it alone acknowledged the relationship between the maintenance of caste purity and the control of women's sexuality. He


There are many Castes which allow inter-dining. But it is a common experience that inter-dining has not succeeded in killing the spirit of Caste and the consciousness of Caste. I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-marriage. Fusion of blood alone can create the feeling of being kith and kin and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount the separatist feeling& the feeling of being aliens& created by Caste will not vanish. Among the Hindus inter-marriage must necessarily be a factor of greater force in social life than it need be in the life of the non-Hindus. Where society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society is cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste. [emphasis in the original] (Moon, 1979: 67)2

In the ancient India varna of an individual was decided on the division of labour and profession of the person. It gave every member of society a place, a function and support. Thus division of labour soon degenerated into caste-system. The brahmins proclaimed their superiority and established a patterned hierarchy in the society. The people of the low caste were not only disdained but they were also politically and economically underprivileged. And their subjection legitimated the subjugation and secondary position of the women. Sharanas demolished the boundaries of caste and class for the sake of equality, humanity and social change. Their firm faith in Lord Shiva inspired them to believe in the equality of sexes and hard, dedicated work. Their decision to solemnize an inter-caste marriage proved that they opposed the caste system not just in theory but also in practice.

The economic strategy of the city of Kalyan also influenced the Sharana movement. Though King Bijala was approved of sincerity of Sharanas, he was not interested in the success of the movement. As a ruler of the country he was only concerned with his business of administration. He neither gave support to the sharana movement nor opposed it. Though the traditionalists endeavored to incite him against sharanas, he was not in favour of meddling with the shranas' enterprise because sharanas' way of life was quite congenial to the economic health of the state. When the brahmin advisor, Machanna Kramita tried to prove him against Basavanna and Sharanas, he gave a quite pragmatic answer:

Every sharana seeks only to earn the day's keep, makes no extra demands, treats profits with contempt. So who benefits? From every corner of the country, trade and commerce have come pouring into Kalyan, and now the city is bursting at its seams with money and activity. Even those who despise the sharans for their beliefs need them for their economic enterprise& as indeed I do& and so they pour money into the sharana coffers.3

The play has a humanistic approach with an appeal of social justice. The playwright emphasizes the need of accepting human beings as human beings and rejecting the division of society on the basis of caste and creed. There are many scenes in the play that highlight the pitiable condition of socially inferior people. The playwright also emphasizes the absurdity of observing the age-old rituals by the brahmins and their maintaining distance from the untouchables. Because of their low caste the famine-stricken people in Andhra were restricted from going to the other side of the river in search of food and shelter. Malliboma, the son of a tanner, is humiliated by brahmin women at the door of Jagadeva's house. The brahmin society is so orthodox that it forces a committed sharana Jagadeva to observe the brahmanical rituals at the death of his father. The playwright exposes the hollowness of rituals of organized religion:

Priest: (relieved): Well, the rest is easily attended to. Nothing utilized in today's rituals may be put to use again. Not the wood, not the pots, not the left-overs. Burn what you can. Consign the rest to the river. Everything should be disposed of.

Jagadeva: But I too was used in the rituals. So what do I do with myself?4

Even the king Bijala is not free from the painful experiences inflicted by his caste and lowly origin. He is not kshatriya by birth, but barber by caste. He is soothed by Basavanna's ideas that a king is king, not by birth but by merit and noble qualities of head and heart. Though he is reluctant to the consequences of sharana movement he has sympathy for sharanas; though he is detached from their movement he has a good opinion regarding their aims and ideals. Despite of being the supreme power in Kalyan, he can not help reminding himself his humiliations suffered because of his lowly birth. He identifies himself with sharanas because of their humanistic and secular outlook. His afflicted emotions are best expressed in his conversation to his queen Rambhavati:

Your family and the Hoysalas, you may be Kshatriyas. But I am a Kalchurya. Katta churra. A barber. His Majesty King Bijala is a barber by caste. For ten generations my forefathers ravaged the land as robber barons. For another five they ruled as the trusted feudatories of the Emperor himself. They married into every royal family in sight. Bribed generations of Brahmins with millions of cows. All this so they could have the caste of Kshatriyas branded on their foreheads. And yet you ask the most innocent child in my Empire: what is Bijala, son of Kalachurya Permadi, by caste? And the instant reply will be: a barber! One's caste is like the skin of one's body. You can peel it off top to toe, but when the new skin forms, there you are again: a barber& a shepherd& a scavenger!

In all my sixty-two years, the only people who have looked me in the eye without a reference to my lowly birth lurking deep in their eyes are the sharanas: Basavanna and his men. They treat me& as what? (Almost with a sense of wonder.) as a human being.5

Power-politics and orthodox religion affected the radical movement of sharanas. The traditionalists were quite hostile to the prospect of the marriage between a cobbler boy and a brahmin girl. Damodar Bhatta, the queen's priest, sees this proposed marriage as a great blow to the Vedic civilization and an audacious attack on Hindu religion. He holds the opinion that inequality is inherent in nature itself and therefore hierarchy is fundamental necessity of human existence. He remains adhered to the age-old notion of Vedic Dharma that one's caste is one's home and it is meant for one's welfare. In order to oppose this radical change Damodar Bhatta plans to hold over the power of kingdom. He arouses the anger of king's reckless son Sovideva against the king. The power seeker and opportunist Manchanna Kramita joins hands with him. Thus the conspiracy of priest Damodar, politician Manchanna and the imprudent heir Sovideva dethrones Bijala from his kingship. After gaining power they mercilessly use violence to thwart sharanas' plans and efforts to attain their objectives. The fathers of bride and groom are caught and brutally murdered. Sharanas get dispersed and at the behest of politician Manchanna new king Sovideva orders his soldiers to kill each and every sharana in sight. The failure and bloodshed of sharanas draws our attention to the troubled state and chaos of our contemporary India. As Prof. Vanashree writes in her book Three Plays of Girish Karnad; A Study in and Poetics Culture:

From the volcano of Mandal Commission to the sporadic violence unleashed by Ranvir Sena in Bihar, and events of atrocities and caste wars across India& in remote regions of Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, our country is redolent with the evils of monstrous and exploitative caste system. All laws ensuring equality of mankind fail to redress its tyranny constantly challenged.6

The playwright has not only exposed the exploitative, diplomatic and orthodox nature of Brahmins but also analyzed minutely the pride and self-righteousness of Sharanas. Though the playwright has sympathy with the principles of Sharanas, he does not fail to recognize their conscious and covert intentions which proved to be main obstacles in their ways. At the prospect of an inter-caste marriage Sharanas became over enthusiastic and they vehemently supported it to propagate their principles and prove their superiority over Brahmins and non- sharanas. Their sole concern was the propagation of their ideology; their overbearing zeal forbade them to pay any attention to the unwillingness of bride and groom and their future life. Thus it was not a marriage of individuals but of ideologies. Both guardians Madhuvarsa, father of Kalavati and Kalyani, mother of Sheelavanta were ready to sacrifice the lives of their children for a perverse desire of personal victory and self-aggrandizement. They were eager to prove their superiority, their commitment and sincerity to the movement in order to highlight their own personalities. Basavanna and the untouchable saint Kakkayya tried to make them understand that their basic needs should be attended first and it was too early to take such bold steps. But Sharanas were uncontrollably ignited with inflamed passions that needed to be tempered with some rationality. Jagadeva, a young Brahmin converted to Sharana, hankers for leadership and publicity. He suffers from identity crisis and pangs of jealousy for his renowned Guru Basavanna. Ultimately he killed unarmed and helpless King Bijala only to get his name written in the pages of History. Sharana's fanatic imaginings and their propagation of false rumors that Basavanna was performing miracles were tactics of claiming their superiority. Moreover Sharanas were not content within their own religion and their faith in Lord Shiva; their attack on Jain temple and followers of Jain proved their dogmatism. No doubt Sharanas were striving to annihilate traditional set-up of social hierarchy but they were not forming a classless society. Their religious ego and unacknowledged pride divided the city of Kalyan into superior Sharanas and inferior Non-Sharanas i.e. another hierarchy.

Moreover Shranas, who professed equality of all types, never had equality of sexes among themselves. In the leadership of Basavanna the principles of Vairasaiva Bhakti cult in Karnataka were also meant for equality of sexes. But in practice, as Karnad shows it, the passionately dedicated male Sharanas never cared to give their women equal status in society. The most neglected and victimized woman in the play is Jagadeva's wife Savitri. In his eyes she does not have human stature; she is just a commodity which can be packed off and sent to her parents any time. Jagadeva is so possessed by the desire to set himself as an example in History that the sufferings of his lonely wife and ailing mother do not appeal him at all. Madhuvarsa, one of the most dedicated and vociferous Sharanas, is bent on sacrificing the life of his daughter Kalavati to forward the cause of Sharana movement. He does not pay any attention to the objections of his wife Lalita who is not in favor of getting his daughter married to a cobbler boy. Her objections are practical and justified but her resistance fails to have any impact on her husband. The domineering and haughty Madhuvarsa forces his wife to comply with him in the name of their new Sharana religion. The character of Mahuvarsa reminds us Nath Devlalikar, a Brahmin of Vijay Tendulkar's play Kanyadaan (1983) who supports and encourages his daughter Jyoti to marry a socially inferior and dalit boy Arun. In his opinion this marriage will work as an experiment in his lifelong campaign to mitigate the differences between high and lower caste people, differences between middle and working class people and the differences that separate man from man. But like Madhuvarsa he also fails in his endeavour. Reflecting the contemporary context the play affirms that Feminism in India is yet to take roots. One major obstacle in India is its caste-system. Indian caste system is again rooted in Hindu religion, which suppresses women in the name of divinely ordained scriptures. Great personalities have fought for the abolition of caste-system, but most of them have failed while only a few like Periyar E V Ramasamy Naikar and Ambedkar have made with moderate success. Ambedkar suggested inter-caste marriages as one solution to eradicate castes. But how far this has been helpful in abolishing caste system is a point to ponder.7

Language of the play is rooted in socio-political contexts of the time. Sharanas failed to recognize the tacit and inherent connection between language and culture. It was not possible for them to lose their caste without losing their language because caste, occupation and language are interconnected. As Karnad writes in preface to the play, "In Karnataka, as elsewhere in India, a man has only to open his mouth and his speech will give away his caste, his Kannada version of Tale-Danda, the language of the play engages with the implications of this fact for a situation in which a group of people are trying to fight caste and social inequality."8 Brahmins and priests like Damodara Bhatta glorify the relevance of Sanskrit and condemn the tongue of common people in order to subjugate them linguistically and culturally whereas Basavanna and Sharanas defend Kannada and other common languages declaring them their mother tongue and means of democracy and social justice.

Works Cited

Ravindranathan, S. . "Caste as Curse: A New- Historicist Reading of Girish Karnad's Tale Danda and Vijay Tendulkar's Kanyadaan". Critical Essays on Commonwealth Literature. ed. K. Balachandran. (New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2006), p 141

Rao, Anupama., ed. "Introduction". Gender and Caste. (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003), p 23

Karnad Girish. Collected Plays Vol. 2. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), p 31

Ibidem (p, 40)

Ibidem (p, 21-22)

Karnad, Girish. Three Plays Of Girish Karnad; A Study in Poetics and Culture. (New Delhi. Prestige Books, 2004), p 101

Ravindranathan, S. . "Caste as Curse: A New- Historicist Reading of Girish Karnad's Tale Danda and Vijay Tendulkar's Kanyadaan". Critical Essays on Commonwealth Literature. ed. K. Balachandran. (New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2006), p 139

Karnad Girish. "Note". Collected Plays Vol. 2. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), p 3


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