Friday, March 26, 2010

Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad is the most important name in the area of play writing in Indian English Literature. It is unfortunate that the tradition of Indo–English drama earned minimum critical attention. The idea is ratified by K.R.S. Iyengar. He asserts that the Indo–English drama is 'neither rich in quantity nor on the whole is of high quality'1. The most unfortunate aspect of Indo–anglican drama is that it has never been fit for performance on the stage.
The greatness of Girish Karnad lies the success on the stage as well as among the readers. The use of folk elements is one of the reasons behind Karnad's success as a playwright. 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 denoument2.
Folk art originated in the areas where most of the people could not read and write. The genesis of this form can be attributed to the intellectual limitations of the primitive audience that found certain elements like supernatural fantasy, myths and legends, the hyperbolic beliefs associated with animals, and nature to be more absorbing. The rhyme used in folk art is simple, almost of the type of nursery rhyme and the interpretation of nature and weather also has a distinct logic, typical of the region that marks the growth of the art form. The performance of folk arts was chiefly associated with festivals and it is, however, imperative that the scope of festivity was not confined to the celebration of mirth but even the death rites contribute significantly to folk art. There had been inseparable correlation between the folk art and sophisticated art. Abrams points out that "elements of folklore have at times entered into sophisticated written literature". He also cites the instance of "three caskets in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, and the superstition about the maiden's dream which is central to Keat's Eve of St. Agnes, are both derived from folklore"3.
Communal and regional elements are of defining significance in the folklore. It has been discussed earlier that the folk songs are designed chiefly in a festive mood and, hence, it should be so composed that it is adopted by a large audience with rustic mindset. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics elaborates the idea that 'a song may have been composed by an individual but it does not become a folk song unless it is adopted by a folk and recreated communally"4. It reveals the most important function of the folklore in a sophisticated piece of writing and it is to universalize the themes and add to the acceptability of the technical complexities.
The play begins with a long soliloquy. The action in the "Prologue" is set in a ruined temple with the broken idol. The playwright intensifies mystery as "the presiding deity of the temple cannot be identified". The authorial soliloquy begins with emphasis on the image of death. The man in the temple, identifiable with the author, speaks.
Man : I may be dead within next few hours (Long Pause).
I am not talking of 'acting' dead. Actually dead. I might die right in front of your eyes.

The reference to the medicant further ratifies the pervasion of folklorish elements in the speech of the man in the temple.
A medicant hold me : you must keep awake at least one whole night this month. If you can do that, you'll live. If not, you'll die on the last night of the month5.
The piece of the monologue discussed above suggests the predominance of the folklorish elements in the play. The image of death and medicant are employed with absorbing intensity.
The use of the supernatural is an inevitable in folk art. It has been discussed earlier that the folk art is meant to entertain the audience with limited intellect. Thus, in order to keep the audience absorbed, the narrator makes use of the supernatural. The three flames on the stage with female voices introduce supernatural fantasy. The speaker confirms the importance of the supernatural, through surprise.
Man : I don't believe it ! They are naked lamp flames ! No wicks, no lamps. No one holding them. Just lamp flames on their own, floating in the air ! Is that even possible ?6
It is, however, noticeable that the supernatural in the modern literature is conspicuous for its figurative implications. It is to be noted that the supernatural, besides being absorbing, has tremendous figurative suggestions, which accounts for the balance between the supernatural and the metaphorical. The views of E. M. Forster invite our attention. He, commenting on the function of fantasy, writes :

It implies the supernatural but need not express it. Often it does express it, and were that type of classification helpful we could make a list of the devices which writers of fantastic turn have used, such as the introduction of a god, ghost, angel, monkey, monster, midgut, which is into no man's land, the future, the past, the interior of the earth, the fourth dimension or dividing into and dividing of personality; or finally the device of parody or adaptation7.
It is clear that except the folklorish fantasy contributes significantly to the design of the play. The conversation between the Flame 4 and the man is an apt justification of this fact. Fantasy is also manifest through personification. The character of Story offers testimony to it :
The Story, in form of a woman, dressed in a new colourful sari, enters, acknowledges the enthusiastic welcome from the flames, with a languid waves of the hand and goes and sits in a corner looking most despondent. The flames gather around her.8
Folk tales always enjoyed a fair degree of festivity which is involuntary of songs and music. The playwright introduces the idea of festivity of birth and death in a cyclic correlation. The Man tells Story that 'it is a matter of life and death' for him. The playwright also makes a share of rustic audience. The Story and Flames perform the function of audience. The playwright says :
Throughout the rest of the play, the Man and the Story remain on stage. The flames too listen attentively though from distance.9
Story introduces the first major character of the play and does in the manner of a folk tale. The character is Rani, the 'Queen of the whole wide world'. It is a characteristic beginning of a folk tale with a rich complicity of the modern tendencies because her 'real name doesn't matter'. The reference to King Cobra foretells about another major character :
For when her hair was tied up in a knot, it was as though, a black king Cobra lay curled on her neck, coil upon glistening coil. When it hung loose, the tresses flowed, a torrent of black, along her young limbs, and got entangled in her silver anklets.
The opening paragraph brings into focus a number of technical aspects that are taken from folk art. The introduction of the second major character once again ratifies the author's respect for folk elements. About Rani's husband Story informs :
Soon her husband came and took her with him to his village. His name was – well, any common name will do10.
The conventions of folk tales are operated upon by subtle onslaught of irony and creates the milieu of a poor boy and a rich girl. However, Appanna and Rani both belong to same status yet the names create an atmosphere of folk tales.
Animal imagery has always been widely used in folk tales. Snakes have always been commanding an enviable position in the folk tale. The mystery associated with Cobra always commands a distinct place in the folk tales. It is important to note that King Cobra has been widely used for the delineation of complex themes and ideas. It is an animal with characteristic implications that make it a complex symbol. The legends knit around it further intensify the figurative implications inherent in it. The first spark of this complex image is realized when Kapanna compares Appanna with Cobra :
Kappanna : Mother, you can't do this ! You can't start meddling in other people's affairs. The first thing in the morning. That Appanna should have been born a wild beast or a reptile. By some mistake, he got human birth. He can't understand other people. Why do you want to tangle with him.11
Rituals always play an important role in the design of the folk art. The image of a coconut which is an image that owes its significance to local rites :
Kurudavva : In the right hand side of the wooden box is a coconut shell wrapped in a piece of paper. Inside are iron pieces of roots. Bring them.12
It is interesting to note that the character of Kurudavva is typical of folk–tales character, who contributes to the escalation of the action in the play. She contrives to accelerate the action by subtle use of the supernatural 'Women's role in these folk tales'. Brinda E. F. Beck and Peter of Clause observe in the "Introduction" to Folktales of India, also deserve special note'. They observe :
Key female characters, furthermore are often like tricksters in that they hold underdog positions. Many triumphs against great idols (for example against less virtuous woman) by combining selflessness with moral courage and religious dedication.13
The views of Beck and Claus hold perfect relevance in interpreting the characters of Kurudavva. However, she is not a 'trickster'. She combines selflessness with moral courage and religious dedication to secure 'triumph' over 'less virtuous' woman.
Kurudavva's initiative paves way for the use of myth which constitutes a necessary aspect of a folktale. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, defines :
Myth may be defined as story or a complex of story elements taken as expressing and, therefore, as implicitly symbolizing certain deep lying aspects of human and trans–human experience14.
Karnad makes use of Kunti–myth. Kunti, the mother of Pandavas was blessed by Durvasa for conception at will. She was also blessed with power to share the boon with the one she wants to, and, she in turn, does it with Madri. Karnad recreates the duo of Kunti and Madri in a new form and with a new function. Kurudavva's revelation to Rani ratifies author's debt to the Mahabharata. She confides :
One day a medicant came to our house. No one was home. I was alone. I looked after him in every way. Cooked hot food specially for him and served him to his heart's content. He was pleased with me and gave me three pieces of a root 'Any man who eats one of them will marry you', he said.15
It is interesting to note that the medicant in a recreation of Durvasa and Kurudavva is a recreation of Kunti. The blessings of Durvasa have been concretized in to three roots.
Karnad also fuses the famous conventions of folktales : the convention of a princess kept in cage by a monster. Appanna, in the beginning he draws parallel with Rani and inkles a princely valour but soon he is transformed into a new identity :
Rani : So the demon locks her up in this castle. Then it rains for seven days and seven nights, it pours. The sea floods the city. The waters breaks down the door of the castle. Then a big whale comes to Rani and says : 'Come Rani, let us go'.16
The use of folklorish elements acquire complexity with the inclusion of Naga who consumes the root that was meant for Appanna. The use the supernatural is fused with legend and myth. The supernatural imparts dramatic intensity to the Legend. The playwrite deploys Story to intensity – the dramatic effect caused by the supernatural myth of King Cobra acquiring any form and shape.
Story, As you know, a Cobra can assume any form it likes. That night, it entered the house through the bathroom drain and took the shape of –17
The Cobra myth performs the function of intensifying the dramatic effect and it also makes a complex metaphor that balances the modern and the ancient; the primitive and the sophisticated. The cobra myth provides the playwrite with an opportunity to use mask which is a conspicuous aspects of folk–drama, and, at the same time it also creates a complex metaphor. The supernatural in the play is fused with hallucination and completes the bridge between the modern and the folklorish. The play makes a world of desire, frustration, insatiated libidoes represented by the thin ambivalence between the real and the surreal; the natural and the supernatural. Rani furnishes some complementation to story when she compares Apparna with a snake in conversation with Naga who has assumed the form of her husband :

Rani : You talk so nicely at night. But during the day I only have to open my mouth and you hiss–like a stupid snake
(Naga Laughs)
It is all very well for you to laugh. I feel like crying18.
In creating Cobra myth, the playwrite once again acknowledges his debt to folklorish elements. A reference to the views of M.H.Abrams is again obligatory who defines a myth as one story in a mythology – a system of hereditary story which were once believed to be true by a particular cultural group and which, he further explains 'serves to explain (in terms of the intentions and actions of supernatural beings) why the world is as it is and things happen or they do'.19 Abrams' views hold perfect significance in Karnad's caste of the play and imagery. Cobra assuming human form is an old belief in India.
The growing intimacy between the Cobra and Rani define the complexity of the theme. The conjugation between Rani and the Cobra is depicted through the dialogues between Rani and Kurudavva. The affirmative response of Rani to Kurudavva's query if she has 'started her married life' ratifies the union Kurudavva's giggling remark further ratifies the idea :
Kurudavva (laughs) Tired ? Poor thing! So you see the power of my roots. Didn't I tell you your husband will sting to you once he tastes it ?20
It is remarkable that besides the use of Cobra myth, Karnad employs a number of supernatural beliefs. Kapanna's revelation to his mother is an apt testimony of this preference of the playwrite which confirms his debt to the elements of folk :
Kappanna : she is not a village girl. Which village girl will dare step out at this hour ? And I am not making up stories. That day she floated out from the haunted well. Just now she stepped out of the cemetery. Looked at me, smiled and waved.21
The death of the dog is followed by the death of the mongoose. It is noticeable that the fight between the Cobra and the mongoose contribute more significantly to the theme of the play. 'There was no sign of Appanna at night after the death of the mongoose and Rani spent her nights crying, waiting and pining for him'. When Appanna started visiting her at night 'his body was covered with wounds which had only partly healed'. Story's narration inkles the genesis of scepticism in the mind of Rani 'her husband' when he comes during the day 'had no scar on him'.22 Karnad juxtapose the real with the illusory. The use of myth acquires new reverberations when Rani reveals that she is pregnant.
Rani : I have definite evidence to prove I was not fantasizing. Naga : What evidence ?
Rani : I am pregnant.23
Karnad make use of the myth about the birth of child through the intercourse of human and animal. In the Ramayana, a female crocodile conceives through a drop of sweat fallen from the body of Hanuman. Likewise Cobra Ordeal is recreation of the myth of Sita's Agni Pareeksha. The Cobra indeed intensifies scintillations of the ironic prevailing the milieu. Rani pulls the Cobra out and declares that 'Since coming to this village', she has 'held by this hand only two ...' Rani's clarifications at the questions raised at her firmly stablish simultaneous existence of the ironic :
Yes, my husband and this King Cobra. Except for these two I have not touched anyone of the male–sex. Nor have I allowed any other male to touch me. If I lie let the cobra bite me.
The irony acquires spiral twist when Elder II declares that 'she is not a woman' but a 'divine being'24 and Elder II ratifies.
The Cobra Ordeal leads to another aspect of the complex theme of the play. It is commonly observed that Folk tales deal quite exclusively with gods and such heroic figure. Irony once again plays a functional role. Rani with all her deprivation is transformed into a living goddess. The crowd surged 'forward to postrate itself before her' and even Appanna 'falls at her feet'. The action arrives at a folklorish end that Rani 'lived happily ever after with her husband and child and servant'.25 The folklorish end was onslaught of irony to reveal new significance. The views of A. K. Ramanujam invite our attention. He, commenting on the use of 'myth and local tales', says :
Yet, while the great myths and local tales share similar structures and motifs, we must not imagine they are put to the same uses or carry the same unchanging meanings. Motifs does not predict structures and structures do not predict functions, nor functions meanings26.
It is noticeable that metamorphosis of folklorish conventions is an integral aspect of modern literature. Story replies to man in response to his query about the end and says :
When one says : 'And they lived happily even after, all that is taken for granted. You sweep such headaches under the pillow and then press your head firmly down on them. It is something one has to live with, like a husband who snores or a wife who is going bald.27
The revelation is justified when Appanna sighs out helplessly and says :
What am I to do ? Is the whole world against me ? Have I sinned so much that even Nature should laugh at me ? I know I haven't slept with my wife. Let the world say what it likes. Let any miracle declare her a goddess. But I know What sense am I to make of my life that is worth nothing ?28
Cyclic recreation of words, phrases and images is also an important technical aspect of folktales. The image of black King Cobra used in the opening of the play is recreated to determine the fate of the Naga, and intensify the theme of deification :
Appanna : (Examining the dead snake). You know – it seems to have got caught in your hair and strangled itself. Your long hair saved us, Rani. The Elders were right. You are no common person. You are a goddess.29
Rani, defines the complex theme with admirable candour.
Rani : When we cremate this snake, the fire should be lit by our son.
The use of dramatic irony revitalizes the reverberations of thematic complexity.
Appanna : Aren't you going too far ? I mean that's done only for one's own father. And I am still alive.30
Rani's insistence not to abnegate her culminates the one ironic overtones and the function of dramatic irony.
It is evident from the above discussion that the use of folklorish element is one of the most conspicuous aspects of the dramatic technique of Girish Karnad in the design of the play. It is also noticeable that all the elements of folk art do not perform a restricted function but it endures the onslaughts of irony, undergoes metamorphosis and delineate a complex theme.

1K.R.S. Iyengar, Indian Writings in English (New Delhi : Sterling, 1997).
2Iyengar 735.
3M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (1941; New Delhi : Macmillan, 1998).
4Alex Preminger, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (London : Macmillan, 1979) 283.
5Girish Karnad, Naga Mandala : Play with a Cobra (New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 1990) 1.
6Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 2.
7E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927; London : Penguin, 1990) 106.
8Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 4.
9Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 5.
10Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 6.
11Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 8.
12Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 12.
13Branda E. F. Beck, Peter J. Claus, "Introduction" Folktales of India, Ed. E.F. Beck, Peter J. Claus, Praphulla Datta and Jawaharlal Handoo (New Delhi : Motilal Banarsidas Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1989). XXX.
14Preminger 538.
15Preminger 12.
16Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 14–15.
17Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act I, 18.
18Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 22.
19Abrams 102.
20Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 27.
21Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 28.
22Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 29.
23Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 31.
24Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 39.
25Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 40.
26A.K. Ramanujam, "Foreword" Folktales of India, Ed. E.F. Beck, Peter J. Claus, Praphulladatta Goswami and Jawaharlal Handoo (New Delhi : Motilal Banarsidas Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1989) xvii.
27Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 41.
28Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 41.
29Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 44.
30Karnad, Naga Mandala, Act II, 44.

Select Bibliography
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 1941; New Delhi : Macmillan, 1998.
Beck, Brinda E. F. and Peter J. Claus. "Introduction" Folktales of India. Ed. Brinda E.F. Beck, Peter J. Claus, Praphulladatta and Jawaharlal Handoo. New Delhi : Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, 1989, xxv–xxxi.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. 1927; London : Penguin, 1990.
Iyengar, K.R.S. Indian Writings in English. 1961; New Delhi : Sterling, 1997.
Karnad, Girish. Naga Mandala : Play with a Cobra. New Delhi : Oxford University press, 1990.
Karnad, Girish. Hayavadana. New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 1991.
Preminger, Alex. Ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. London : Macmillan, 1979.
Ramanujam, A.K. "Foreword". Folktales of India. Ed. Brende E.F. Beck, Peter J. Claus, Praphulladatta Goswami and Jawaharlal Handoo. New Delhi : Motilal Banarsias Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1989, xi–xxi.