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Transposing realities

The plot and sub-plot of "Hayavadana" by Girish Karnad intertwine to explore the tricky questions of identity and the nature of reality. ARUNDHATI RAY reviews a recent performance in Kolkata.


Karnad's "Hayavadana" seeks to draw the audience into different realms and to perceive different realities.

GIRISH KARNAD'S "Hayavadana" is one of the playwright's most-performed plays. This is hardly surprising given that the work provides the ingredients that would stimulate any innovative, intelligent troupe: a plot and sub-plot that intertwine to explore the tricky questions of identity and the nature of reality; the clever incorporation of motifs from traditional theatre — Yakshagana, a play within a play, dolls, masks; the irreverent inversion of mock-heroic mores. This is a text that begs experimentation and challenges players and audience alike to dare step "out of the box" into a whole new perception of reality.

One of the most recent performances of the play was staged in Kolkata by The Industrial Theatre Co. — a group of young theatre professionals and enthusiasts with a mission "to make theatre in this country an economically viable profession". High on their agenda is to create and popularise alternative spaces for theatre. The company's imaginative use of space was well demonstrated in their Kolkata performance (sponsored by The Seagull Foundation for the Arts), which took place in a private garden. With minimal sets, whispering trees, soft hooting of owls and the rustle of bats providing a beautiful backdrop, the setting was almost magical — and wonderfully appropriate for a play that seeks to draw the audience into a different realm.

The central episode in Karnad's play — the story of Kapila and Devadutta — is based on a tale from Somadeva's "Vetalapanchvimshika", but also draws on Thomas Mann's reworking of the tale in "The Transposed Heads". Interwoven into the main plot is the story of Hayavadana — a horse-headed man whose quest for wholeness underscores the play's exploration of identity and reality. Written originally in Kannada, the play was translated into English by Karnad himself in the early 1970s when it was first published in the theatre journal Enact. The stage premiere of the English version took place in 1972 in a production put up by The Madras Players in Chennai.

In the Kolkata production (co-directed by Rehaan Engineer and Pushan Kripalani), Nadir Khan's sensitive portrayal of the cerebral Devadatta is balanced by Rohit Bagai's interpretation of the exuberant and athletic Kapil. Particularly powerful was the manner in which both actors succeeded in expressing the internal struggles after their heads are transposed (as a result of the divine intervention of a somnolent and not particularly benevolent Goddess Kali, brilliantly played by Yuki Ellias): the agonising confusion that ensues when the mind is forcibly conjoined with an alien body that "has its own memories".

Shanaya Rafaat did a charming rendition of the self-absorbed, spoilt Padmini who loves Devadatta's mind but lusts after Kapil's body with disastrous results. Kunal Roy Kapoor's Bhagavata was adequate although it did not satisfactorily delve into the aspects of the Bhagavata's role as designated controller of action within the play who watches helplessly as the boundaries between the play world and the "real" world fail to be maintained.

Karan Makhija's Hayavadana was somewhat disappointing in that it failed to evoke the complex responses that Karnad's character does in the play. But this was possibly more a reflection on the direction rather that Makhija's acting. Which brings us to the core of what was wrong with the production. Despite the high-calibre performances, the innovative use of space, the haunting music (by Antonia von Schoening) and the intelligent light effects (by Siddhanta Pinto), the play failed to capture the sense of wonder — that exquisite sense of revelation — that Karnad achieves in his text. The power of Karnad's play is its ability to effect a dynamic process of communication between audience and the play: through the course of the performance spectators are constantly forced to readjust their held frames of reference and find consistent patterns of meaning from seemingly incompatible stimuli. And meaning is achieved only when all tensions are finally resolved.

In the text, this moment of gestalt takes place in a tableau at the end — a frame where Hayavadana and Padmini's son, fused together, move round and round the stage in a tremendous display of energy and power. Hayavadana may not ostensibly be the central character of the play, but his image and all that he represents is the soul of the play and he is a constant, disconcerting presence even when off-stage. Moreover, because he inhabits a space between the world of the play and that outside he is the crucial factor that, by dismantling the traditional boundaries between the two, is able to conflate them.

Unfortunately, in this production, Hayavadana is denied this power by having his role reduced to barely more than a somewhat amusing and intriguing diversion. Moreover, the directors opted to omit the powerful, crucial finale. By their failure to exploit the potential of Karnad's text, The Industrial Theatre Co. reduced a work complexly crafted to provide an elevating experience to merely an enjoyable, if rather puzzling, entertainment.

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