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Hayavadana is a 1971 play written by play write, actor and director Girish Karnad which drew thematic influences from Thomas Mann’s 1940 novella ‘The Transposed Heads.’ Karnad has skillfully adapted the thematic plot to the Indian context using the eleventh-century book of Indian legends, the Kathasaritsagara. The play seeks to question – where does the ‘self’ sit: In the mind or in the body?
Hayavandana works on two levels:
The first level, which forms the ‘exterior’ plot, is that of Hayavadana’s story. Hayavadana, a man with a horse’s head, is trying to seek ‘completeness’ by fully emerging as a man. He is the offspring of a Celestial Being and a Princess, who seem to loathe his appearance. Hayavandana thereby becomes symbolic of a fragmented identity, which is very relevant today. Karnad explores existentialism by intensifying the motif of incompleteness by a broken tusk and a cracked belly – whichever way you look at him he is the embodiment of imperfection, of in-completion.
On the second level, which is the primary plot, is that of two friends, Kapila and Devadatta, who dreams despondently of Padmini. Karnad also depicts the caste restrictions that one has and how one is confined to the so-called ‘caste occupations’. Devadatta is a learned Brahmin, writing poetry and is physically unfit, whereas Kapila, a Kshatriya, is a wrestler and is physically stronger. Although Kapila is attracted to Padmini when he meets her, he nonetheless arranges the marriage between Devadatta and Padmini. The plot eventually thickens to when Padmini starts to ‘fall’ for Kapila merely for the physical strength that she finds lacking in her husband, Devadatta. The existentialist crisis occurs when Devadatta and Kapila’s heads are transposed to each other’s body. This causes the identity conflict to become more immense for both, as Kapila retreats to the forest unable to confront the problem logically. The importance that one places body over the mind is explicitly expressed by Devadatta, who now has Kapila’s body, “I’d always thought one had to use one’s brain while wrestling or fencing or swimming. But this body does not wait for thoughts, it acts.” We see that Padmini emphasizes the physicality of the body first, which is echoed by many of those today. Eventually, she finds herself in intense euphoria when she combines the head of Devadutta and the body of Kapila thereby according herself a high degree of sexual freedom.
The play is an interesting read, with humor interjected at the appropriate places to lighten the mood as when Kali wakes up from a long sleep. Hayavadana is able to engage the reader throughout the play and is an easy read. By setting an Indian myth or folk tale or even an incident from the Mahabharat or Ramayana in a very contemporary and light manner through traditional Indian Theatre forms, Karnad has made literature easily accessible. He has blended issues such as love, identity and sexuality with folk culture and his imagination. He provides us with a glimpse of the past as well as its relevance in understanding the contemporary world.
On the whole, the play was an enjoyable read and pleasantly relatable.
Overall Rating: 7.5/ 10
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