Themes of Incompleteness and Search for identity
Girish Karnad is regarded as one of the three great writers of contemporary Indian drama, along with Badal Sircar and Vijay Tendulkar. His work takes off from Indian myths and legends and makes them a vehicle of a new vision, while Badal Sircar and Vijay Tendulkar deal with the problems of the middle-class. Karnad’s significant plays include Yayati, Tughlaq, Hayavadana, Naga-Mandala, Tale-Danda and The Fire and the Rain.
Hayavadana is a play on the search for identity in the midst of tangled relationships. Devadatta, the man of intellect and Kapila, the man of the body, are two intimate friends. Devadatta marries Padmini, but Kapila falls in love with Padmini. Consequently, the two friends kill themselves. But the comic touch is seen when Padmini transposes their heads, giving Devadatta Kapila’s body and Kapila Devadatta’s. This act reveals the ambiguous nature of human personality. M.K. Naik comments on the technique of this play: “ Karnad does not succeed fully in investing the basic conflict in the play with the required intensity, but his technical experiment with an indigenous dramatic from here is a triumph which has opened up fresh lines of fruitful exploration for the Indian English playwright”.
The play concentrates on “the theme of incompleteness” and the superiority of mind on body. Karnad has the genius and the power to transform any situation into an aesthetic experience. This is the main theme of the play Hayavadana. Karnad has rendered the story of the completeness of Hayavadana in a lighter tone but the pathos of it is touching. The superiority of the primitive force in a horse rather than in the intellect is implied through this.
When Hayavadana begins, a mask of Ganesha is brought on the stage and the Bhagavata (the Sutradhar or Commentator) sings verses in praise of “Vakratunda- Mahakaya” with the crooked face and distorted body, who is the Lord and Master of Success and Perfection. The play starts with the worship and then the description of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, who symbolizes alienation since his head and his body are incompatible. (Karnad 73) The Bhagavata sings the hymn to Him and comments:
An elephant's head on a human body, a broken tusk and a cracked belly- whichever way you look at him he seems the embodiment of imperfection, of incompleteness. How indeed can one fathom the mystery that this very Vakratunda –Mahakavya, with his crooked face and distorted body, is Lord and Master of Success and Perfection (1).
Hayavadana is a man with the head of a horns: “haya” means horse and “vadana” means face. He is the son of the Princess of Karnataka, a very beautiful girl, who fell in love with a white stallion. She was married off to the horse and lived with him for fifteen years. One fine morning, the horse turned into a beautiful celestial being and revealed that he was a gandhara cursed by the God Kubera to be born a horse for some act of misbehaviour. After fifteen years of human love, he had become his original self again. Released from his curse, he asked the Princess to accompany him to his Heavenly Abode. But she wanted him to become a horse again. So he cursed her to be a horse herself. She became a mare and galloped away without thinking in the least of Hayavadana, the product of her marriage with the white stallion. So Hayavadana is in search of identity and completeness of his physical body
The story within- the –story starts when the Bhagavata takes the reader to the city of Dharmapura where live two friends – Devadatta, comely in appearance, unrivalled in intelligence, the only son of the Revered Brahmin Vidyasagar, and Kapila, dark and plain to look at, having no equal in strength and in physical skills, the only son of an ironsmith Lohita. The Bhagavata's narration is interrupted by a Nata (Actor) who rushes on to the stage in fear and informs the Sutradhar that outside in the street he has met a talking horse. This is Hayavadana, who has a man's body and a horse's head who has all his life been trying to get rid of his head and become a complete man. Hayavadana, the eponymous character, comes and like Ganesha he too is a symbol of alienation since he is a horse-headed man. Karnad makes use of these mythical figures to throw light on the alienation of man and its consequences in human society. He tries to show suggestively the hegemony of Apollonian culture that has captured the racial unconscious of mankind. The modern man represented by Devadatta-Kapila suffers from self-alienation.
Devadatta is comely in appearance, fair in colour, unrivalled in intelligence, and the only son of the Revered Brahim Vidyasagara. Having felled the mightiest pundits of the kingdom in debates on logic and love, having blinded the greatest poets of the world with his poetry and wit, Devadatta is as it were the apple of every eye in Dharmapura. The other youth is Kapila. He is the only son of the ironsmith Lohita, who is to the King’s armoury what an axle is to the chariot-wheel. He is dark and plain to look at, yet in deeds which require drive and daring, in dancing, in strength and physical skills, he has no equal.
Devadatta is ‘the mind’ and Kapila ‘the body’. Devadatta falls in love fifteen times in a period of two years. Yet he fails to get married to any one of the girls. Even his sixteenth love seems to be a fiasco. He feels utterly hopeless and helpless: “I swear, Kapila, with you as my witness I swear, if I ever get her as my wife, I’ll sacrifice my two arms to the goddess Kali, I’ll sacrifice my head to Lord Rudra (14). Unlike Devadatta, Kapila does not fall in love. He does not feel it difficult to arrange the marriage of Devadatta and Padmini. Devadatta’s body does not respond as adequately as his mind readily loves and Kapila’s mind is not nimble enough to feel the sensations of his body. Thus both suffer from self-alienation.
The incompleteness of human desire is symbolized by Padmini. As the ideal of all womanly attributes she is the lotus itself. Rooted to the earth and with the flower turned skyward, she symbolizes the fundamental nature of the human body: it is torn between the downward earth and the upward heavens, itself being impressionable. Thanks to the incompleteness in nature, even when the eyes see, a lot of things cannot but be taken on trust:
Padmini : How about your eyes? Do they work properly?
Kapila : Yes.
Padmini : So there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. As for the other thing, I'll have to take you on trust (17).
The key theme of the play is the Cartesian division between body and mind, intellect and instinct. In this tussle the mind rules, a conclusion taken from the story of Vikrama and Vitala in Kathasaritsagar as well as in Vetalpanchavimsati. It is interesting to note that Thomas Mann in Transposed Head opposes this view and suggests that body is as important as head. The common Indian view is an ascetic one-body is to be subjugated to the mind or spirit for spiritual growth. But woman who represents the creative principle and earth is drawn to the beauty and power of the body. And so is Padmini in the play. She needs a man of steel like Kapila and naturally feels strongly attracted towards him from the very beginning. Devadatta cannot satisfy her body’s need the way Kapila can. This is evident from the very first meeting of Kapila and Padmini when this blacksmith, friend of the Brahmin intellectual, Devadatta, visits Padmini’s house to plead the case of Devadatta. Appreciation of her beauty by the poet Devadatta, cannot satisfy her bodily hunger after their marriage. During their way to Ujjain, as Kapila climbs up a tree, looking at his beautiful and strong body, Padmini gets enamoured of him. The dolls inform that during her dream, Padmini sees Kapila. Kapila is dark; in Lawrentian terms he is the life of instinct. Devadatta is fair and represents intellect or white consciousness. Like Lady Chatterley, Padmini is drawn towards this low-born blacksmith.
Devadatta and Kapila cut their heads at Kali temple. Left alone, the pregnant Padmini dares the dark evening in the forest and to her horror stumbles over the bodies: “How selfish you are-how unkind!” (31). She wails and in order to escape from blame decides to offer her head too. The Goddess intervenes and shows her a way out. In her eagerness to live closer to nature, Padmini attaches Devadatta’s head to Kapila’s body. Though the Goddess appreciates Padmini’s action. “My dear daughter, there should be a limit even to honesty” (33) exclaims the Goddess seeing Kapila’s head on Devadatta’s body and that of Devadatta’s on Kapila’s body. Kapila’s body weighs a ton on Devadatta’s mind and Devadatta’s head feels heavy on Kapila’s body. The friends laugh merrily seeing their bodies as if they have donned themselves in a new pair of clothes. Padmini, at her wits’ end, is unable to react.
Goddess Kali’s power proves to be very weak since the transposition of their heads fails to liberate Devadatta and Kapila from alienation.
Padmini : Must the head always win?
Kapila : That’s why I am Kapila now (56).
Padmini's juxtaposition of Kapila's strong body and Devadatta's brilliant head miserably fails to achieve unification because their heads carry Apollonian ego in themselves. For the same reason, Devadatta and Kapila become their old selves again. When Padmini realises this, she says to Kapila:
Your body bathed in a river, swam and danced in it. Shouldn't your head know what river it was, what swim? Your head too must submerge in that river- the flow must rumple your hair, run its tongue in your ears and press your head to its bosom. Until that's done, you'll continue to be incomplete (58).
Human desire for completeness represented by Padmini ends in a fiasco as the transposition of heads gradually proves that it is the mind that rules. After the transposition of heads by Padmini at the Kali temple, complications arise. Initially, Devadatta-actually head of Devadatta on Kapila’s body-behaves differently from what he was before. Devadatta’s head on Kapila’s body and vice-versa solves her problem only temporarily. Devadatta’s head- Kapila’s body combine slowly reverts to the nature of Devadatta. And so the other combines of Kapila’s head and Devadatta’s body. But there is a difference. Devadatta stops writing poetry while Kapila is haunted by the memories in Devadatta’s body. Padmini, after the exchange of heads, feels that she has the capacity for complete experience. Her situation is beautifully summed up by the images of the river and the scarecrows in the choric songs.
Practicing deceit on her husband, Padmini sends Devadatta to the Ujjain fair to fetch new dolls for the child and herself walks into the embrace of Kapila. She takes the child with her and claims it to be the child of both Devadatta and Kapila. Padmini’s visit disturbs Kapila. He had buried all those faceless memories but Padmini has dug them up. He finds himself in a tough situation and asks Padmini: “Why should one tolerate this mad dance of incompleteness?”(57)
Immediately after he sees Padmini, Kapila says to himself, “What she needs is a man of steel.” That he is a blacksmith should make it easy for us to discern what Kapila feels about Padmini but he quickly subjugates his feelings to his more representative role; that of a loyal friend who is almost like a dasa to Devadatta. Later on when Devadatta decided against going to the picnic, Kapila’s individual feelings surface, only to be submerged in the role that he has accepted to play:
So it’s off. What am I to do for the rest of the day? What am I to do for the rest of the week? Why should it feel as though the whole world has been wiped out for a whole week? Why this emptiness. . . Kapila, Kapila, get a tight hold on yourself. You are a slipping, boy, control yourself. Don’t lose that hold. Go now- don’t come here again for a week-Devadatta’s bound to get angry with you for not coming. Sister-in-law will be annoyed. But don’t come back (23).
Devadatta and Kapila are close friends. Both love Padmini and yet each recoils from the obvious solution: namely they should both live with Padmini.
Devadatta : Tell me one thing. Do you really love Padmini?
Kapila : Yes.
Devadatta : So do I.
Kapila : I know. (Silence) Devadatta, couldn’t we all three live together - like the Pandavas and Draupadi?
Devadatta : What do you think? (Silence. Padmini looks at them but doesn’t say anything.)
Kapila : (laughs). No, it can’t be done.
Devadatta : That’s why I brought this. (Shows the sword) (60).
The end of the play is quite interesting. A duel leaves both the friends dead and subsequently Sati of Padmini has been presented. But this end is not tragic. The deaths serve the absurdity of the situation. What Karnad wants to convey is that the world is of incomplete individuals, indifferent dolls that speak. The world is indifferent to the desires and frustrations, joys and sorrows of human beings. Padmini says to the Bhagavata:
My son is sleeping in the hut. Take him under your care. Give him to the hunters who live in this forest and tell them it’s Kapila’s son. They loved Kapila and will bring the child up. Let the child grow up in the forest with the rivers and the trees. When he’s five take him to the Revered Brahmin Vidyasagara of Dharmapura. Tell him it’s Devadatta’s son (62).
Soon after Padmini commits Sati the question remains unanswered that who is her real husband for whom she does it. The problem is not solved but disposed of through death of the trio. What the play underlines is that one way completeness is possible but not a perfect combination or polarity of the opposites. The central refrain of the play is expressed by the Female Chorus: “ A head for each breast, a pupil for each eye. A side for each arm”( 64). She asks why cannot a human being be like a many petalled, many flowered lantana? But Padmini and Devadatta’s choice of death affects the child’s growth adversely. “Children of his age should be outtalking a dictionary, but this one doesn’t speak a word. Doesn’t laugh, doesn’t cry, doesn’t even smile- - - There’s obviously something wrong with him” (66) as the actor puts it.
At last, Hayavadana has emerged not as a complete man but as a full fledged horse. He too had gone to the goddess and implored to her that he would kill himself if she did not help him. The goddess had appeared and had said rather peevishly why people did not go somewhere else if they wanted chop off their heads. She, however, has said “So be it” to Hayavadana and has disappeared even before he could ask her to make him a complete man. Thus Hayavadana's dream of becoming a complete man remains unfulfilled. Kali grants the wish of Hayavadana to become complete and he becomes a complete horse because it is not possible for men with Apollonian ego to be free from self-alienation.
Hayavadana tells the Bhagavata that in the temple of Goddess Kali, he prayed, “Mother, make me complete”(68) and even before he could say, “Make me a complete man”(68) the Goddess granted him the boon and he was transmuted into a complete horse, not a complete being as he still possessed the cursed human voice. After five years, Padmini's son is like Kapila. He is as morose as he. But he starts laughing for the first time in his life when Hayavadana who is now a complete horse except his human voice talks and laughs like a human being. His liberation is complete only when the five-year old son of Padmini asks him to laugh and soon the laughter turns into a neigh. In the “Introduction” to the play, Kirtinath Kurtkoti comments on Hayavadana’s transformation into a horse: “The horse-man’s search for completeness ends comically, with his becoming a complete horse. The animal body triumphs over what is considered the best in man, the Uttamanga, the human head”. The horse gives him a ride while the boy sings a nursery rhyme. He now loses his human voice and starts neighing. Thus they free each other from their incompleteness.
The princess of Karnataka finally got the body of a horse since it has a perfect form and grace. Hayavadana achieves completeness when finally he becomes a complete horse and loses the human voice through singing the Indian national anthem. But this is one-sided completeness. But for human being, who is a combination of flesh and spirit, body and mind, completeness requires a harmonical relationship between body and mind but cartesian division seems to be a perennial irresolvable problem for man.
The major reality of this world is self-division. Both man and society are self-divided and disturbing antinomies struggle for supremacy. The problem of Hayavadana, alienation, absurdity, incompleteness and search for identity are central of the plays of Karnad. Incompleteness is an inescapable and insurmountable reality. This concept helps to solve such riddles in Hayavadana as why Hayavadana's mother chooses for her husband a stallion rather than a man and why Goddess Kali makes Hayavadana a complete horse instead of a complete man.
The play depicts the realm of incomplete individuals, magnanimous gods, of vocal dolls and mute children, a world apathetic to the longings and frustrations, ecstasies and miseries of human beings. In this play Karnad brings back poetry, music, a sense of gaiety and celebration traditionally associated with a theatrical event. U.R.Anantha Murthy, critic, in his “A Note on Karnad’s Hayavadana” has this to say about theme: “The play exposes the audience to a significant theme like ‘incompleteness’ in a comic mode”. A few paragraphs later he says, “The play tries to create an illusion in us that the head determines the being of man”. R.S. Sharma in a lively note says: “That completeness is a humanly impossible ideal is suggested first in the story of Hayavadana and later in the transposition of heads. By showing the absurdity of the ideal of completeness the play finally achieves its aesthetic goal. It implicitly asserts the value and significance of human imperfection which makes any upward movement possible”.
Karnad, in almost all his plays, makes use of ancient myths, legends, stories, and traditions to interpret this age-old human situation with reference to contemporary experience. He leads the reader deep into traditional mythology to reveal the conflict that tears man’s mind. Here, in Hayavadana he seems to toy with the theme of incompleteness and search for identity. According to Krishna Gandhi, in Hayavadana,
“The theme of the play is an old one . . . man’s yearning for completeness, for perfection. It is this yearning which makes people restless in their ordinary existence, and makes them reach out for extraordinary things. . . . But the ideal of perfection itself is ambiguous. The character of Hayavadana is invented as an example of this ambiguity”.
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