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Girish Karnad revisited


Nayak's book offers a comprehensive treatment of Karnad's oeuvre

GIRISH KARNAD'S PLAYS — Archetypal and Aesthetical Presentations: Bhagabhat Nayak; Pub. by Authorspress, DE-35/103, Jawahar Park, Laxmi Nagar, Delhi-110092. Rs. 725.

While European theatre experimented with newer forms, Indian drama in English has always been occupying a back seat. The well-made realistic play yielded place to such avant-garde movements as the theatre of the absurd of the French, the epic theatre of the Germans, not to speak of the revival of poetic drama in the thirties of the last century by Eliot.

While drama took several avatars in the West, Indian drama stayed put. The reasons are not far to seek. India does not have audience on the scale necessary for sustaining this performing art form. While the theatres in London or the Broadway in New York always run to packed houses, the situation in India is hardly encouraging, if not totally depressing. Except in a few metropolitan centres, we do not possess an eager audience for plays in English. It is common knowledge that, for a play to become a living experience it needs a real theatre and a live (and lively) audience.

Despite all these constraints, the scene of post-Independence Indian drama bears witness to quite a few successful playwrights whose plays get top billing in metropolitan centres. Asif Currimbhoy, Gurucharan Das, Nissim Ezekiel, Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, and Mahesh Dattani have all been popular, signalling in different ways the new era of the English theatre. Among them, the pride of place naturally goes to Girish Karnad, the actor, director, and bilingual dramatist. He has carved a niche for himself. He is as productive as ever, after 50 years of sustained theatre activity.


Bhagabat Nayak's book under review is an exhaustive critique of 11— those available in English — of the 13 plays of Karnad. Set in six chapters, it holds up to scrutiny the entire corpus of his output, examining very closely his use of archetypes and ancient myths, national and regional folk myths, ancient, medieval and modern history, and contemporary social and political events. In other words, India's cultural heritage, religious beliefs, customs, and social values are all subjected to a close examination in this exhaustive study.

Yayati is examined as a play, using the Hindu myth that glorifies the philosophy of individual's performance of duty and acceptance of responsibilities, reinterpreting the ancient myth from the Mahabharata to suit the modern context. India's hoary tradition and rich culture serves as the basis for folk tales. Karnad draws from such rich sources, abundantly available in some of our regional and Sanskrit classics, and moulds them into the plays Hayavandana (adopted from Kathasaritsagar) and Nagamandala. He succeeds in making silken purses of sow's ears!

Indian identity

History is contextualised in Tuglaq that brings to mind the social and political compulsions during the Nehruvian era. In these plays, Karnad employs the indigenous dramatic form and Indian myths eschewing the western concept of the theatre and European lifestyle. For example, unlike the drawing room which is the centre of the western stage, the kitchen is where all intimate discussions are held and important decisions taken. For sure, with the arrival of Karnad, English drama in India acquired a typical Indian identity with the rejuvenation of Indian myths.

The last chapter ‘Conclusion' ties up all threads and presents a synoptic view of Karnad's plays. In Nayak's view, “Apart from the Indian setting, culture, philosophical and religious beliefs, historical incidents, sociological and anthropological survey with the enunciation of contemporary realism, Karnad's plays appear to be monumental creations with rich and vibrant, multi-layered suggestive and ambivalent meanings.”

Nayak's book offers a comprehensive treatment of Karnad's oeuvre. Almost every aspect of the plays is examined minutely, drawing support from all the criticism and scholarship available on the subject. It has a 12-page bibliography that is complete and up-to-date. With all the wealth of information and factual details usefully resurrected, the book is a sure guide to a study of Karnad and his works.

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