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Girish Karnad and the women who defied norms

Remembering the playwright and actor—and the intriguing women in his stories—on his first death anniversary on 10 June

A still from Girish Karnad’s 1984 film ‘Utsav’.
A still from Girish Karnad’s 1984 film ‘Utsav’.

Girish Karnad’s death on 10 June last year has left an enormous void not simply in theatre and film but also in the liberal politics of our nation that was so often animated by his commanding and outspoken views. The politics of secularism, social justice and equality that he spoke of without fear are reflected in the plays he wrote over 60 years,and in his newly felt absence, we can look to those for inspiration and pleasure. When we do so, we will also recover Karnad’s politics of gender, so clearly articulated in the women characters with whom he peopled his stage. Unlike so many male writers of his generation, Karnad was sure to give his female characters not simply a voice but also a narrative nub—they were crucial to the development of the plot as well as to what Karnad was trying to tell us about the world in which we live. And the better world in which we could live.

However brief their appearances may be, Karnad’s women are typically independent in mind and action, even when they are situated within the stifling confines of patriarchal structures. From the queens of the medieval period in his historical plays (Tughlaq, Tale-Danda and Crossing To Talikota) to contemporary women like Manjula in A Heap Of Broken Images and Vidula in The Wedding Album, these characters act with a consciousness of their own power and the clear intent of fulfilling their ambitions and desires.

In the plays which drew from minor stories in the epics, Karnad presents us with the even more radical possibility of women using their bodies in order to avenge their past humiliation (Vishakha in The Fire And The Rain and Sharmishtha in Yayati). In Hayavadana and Nagamandala, both based on Indian folk tales, Karnad goes further and foregrounds female sexual desire, making it the central dynamic of the play itself. In both plays, the love-sex triangle between two men and one woman heaves and sways because of what the woman wants. Cunning Padmini and innocent Rani are motivated by the same thing: to secure the sexual pleasure they have discovered with men who are not their husbands. To retain this pleasure, they will do whatever it takes and use all that the gods give them. Karnad fills out Padmini’s and Rani’s sexuality without casting judgement on his characters, in fact, he ensures that we are sympathetic to what they want and the means they use to get it.

But let us consider Bali, the play that Karnad was never satisfied with and which he kept returning to for the better part of 20 years. The play opens with a furtive love scene in a temple between an uncouth man and a rather more sophisticated woman. It turns out that she is the queen and he, a lowly elephant-driver. In the middle of things, the king, who is searching for his missing spouse, enters the temple. And then the story unfolds. The queen is a Jain, committed to utter and complete non-violence. When they married, the king converted to Jainism because he loved his wife and respected her abhorrence of any sort of violence. The king’s mother, however, continues to practise the royal family’s religion, which involves the sacrifice of animals to the goddess for propitiation as well as thanksgiving. The two queens are at odds with one another and the king is trapped between them. The younger queen has trouble getting pregnant and the queen mother insists that an animal be sacrificed to the goddess to ensure the birth of a male heir. The young queen refuses and as the king seeks a compromise between the beliefs and principles of his wife and his mother, he asks his wife to perform a symbolic sacrifice, i.e., cut off the head of a rooster made of dough. The queen is steadfast in her belief that violence lies in intention as much as it does in action and says that she will not participate even in the substitute sacrifice.

Girish Karnad passed away on 10 June 2019.
Girish Karnad passed away on 10 June 2019.

Through this argument between the king and queen, other facets of their relationship and their lives together are revealed and we learn that though the queen loves her compassionate, gentle husband, she yearns for the liberation of anonymous sex with a stranger outside the palace and outside her role as the queen who must produce a male heir. This young woman, who has staked everything on her commitment to absolute non-violence, kills herself at the end of the play, not least because she refuses to perform the ceremonies that will cleanse her of the sin of adultery. She argues against the denial and erasure that expiation implies.

Bali has its roots in a Jain story that can be traced back to the firstcentury and in any traditional telling, the tale has more to do with an exploration of the nature of violence and the king’s need for a male heir to ensure the stability of society. King Yayati’s story in the Sanskrit epic is part of the power struggle between the gods and the demons and Hayavadana is based on one of the riddles in the Vikrama-Vetala cycle. From each of these, Karnad deftly excavates the seething sexuality that underpins the narrative and makes it the pivot of his plays. Moreover, in the plays, it is the sexual desire and sexual agency of the woman character that propels the plot and creates the dramatic tension on stage.

In each of these plays, a woman unabashedly seeks both love and pleasure, negotiating these by stepping outside the bounds that were set for her. With the young and impetuous Padmini in Hayavadana, we have a literal attempt to unite the two male types, the cerebral philosopher and the viscerally magnetic wrestler. Rani in Nagamandala struggles to reconcile her brutal day-time husband with the man who appears as the perfect dream lover at night. As the play reminds us, no two men make love alike. When did Rani realize that she was sleeping with two men and when did she decide that her secret was worth keeping? In Bali, the young queen refuses the rites of expiation because if she erases the experience, she says, she also erases her decision and the pleasure she received from her sexual transgression.

It would be a mistake not to notice that in each of these plays, the sexual partner that the woman chooses for herself is profoundly the “other"—the non-Brahmin friend, the supernatural snake, the mahout. It is no accident that Karnad brings the explosive issues of caste and gender together so often in his plays. Surely he is telling us that we will only be truly uplifted when the most vulnerable among us are empowered.

This is the politics that we should remember him by. Nothing would be a greater tribute to his memory than channelling our energies towards creating that fundamental change in our world and in our hearts.

Arshia Sattar is a scholar, writer and translator based in Bengaluru.

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