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Janardan Ghosh directs Girish Karnad's Hayavadana

Updated: Mar 19, 2020

Theater director Janardan Ghosh (Kolkata) stands apart from his contemporaries on account of his philosophical approach to theatre which is unlike the commercial outlook of the urban Indian drama largely oriented towards making monetary profit. Ghosh’s statement, “Theatre I pine for (is)… A Transcendental leap into the unknown with the calmness of a Sannyasin”…(Ghosh interviewed 2010) is certainly a unique perspective which recalls for us the sacred tradition of art in India devoid of materialistic concerns espoused by the ancient Indian treatise the Natyasastra(200BCE – 200 CE). This is best reflected in his presentation of the renowned Indian playwright Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana(1971) (presented at Padatik Theatre Kolkata 2010) The production can undoubtedly be called ‘old’ considering the fact that it is almost been five years since its inception. Nevertheless, Ghosh’s illumination of the spiritual aspect in Indian play-writing as endorsed in the classical Indian treatise Natyasastra has made this theatrical presentation of Indian playwright Karnad’s play Hayavadana perennially worthy of attention.

Ghosh’s production invokes Ardhanareshwara–Shiva and Shakti or purusha and prakriti in the setting of the play before the beginning of the performance. It primarily brings about the realization that Natya or drama in the Indian tradition springs from the Nataraja – Shiva who is to be rightfully prayed during the start of any production and that Indian theater is not just another commercial activity pursued for minting money. This cleanly distinguishes art in the Indian concept from that of the West which I feel is a realization that becomes mandatory in today’s times when urban Indian theater with ‘lights, camera and action’ is largely seen devoid of its revered meaning. The director says, “The set has been designed by Sri Partho Mazumdar, who preferred a Human female’s body as a scenic backdrop to engulf the performing space. ..I found the female body to be a symbol of impersonal nature fettered to the tide of time that represented the stage…the body suggests the nature…that of a woman ready to offer herself to her beloved…that is the strong image of pleasure-giving and fertility…And the Actors in the space as males (irrespective of the sexes) were free to move with their creative urge exploring the space. It was a symbolic copulation of Shiva( the neutral space) and Shakti (the actors) …(Ghosh’s Brochure on Hayavadana 2012)

Ghosh’s choice of the set-design emblematic of the union of Shiva and Shakti also seems a veritable recognition of the fact that the proportionate blend of two apparent binary opposites stri and purusha or male and female enables counter the incompleteness felt by men and women throughout their lives. The combination of a man’s sense and a woman’s sensibility makes a complete or a perfect persona and no man or woman is solely perfect or complete. This is an integral message implied in Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana. The female protagonist of Karnad’s play is Padmini, the beautiful damsel in search of a “complete man” with a combination of sound body and sound intellect based on the common understanding that head is the master of the human body. In order to fulfill her wish, she avails a chance to exchange the heads of her intellectual husband Devadatta and his able-bodied friend Kapila but this exchange does not bring any benefit to her. The men with their heads interchanged cannot satiate her urge for a complete man as their bodies soon turn to their original shape. As a result, Padmini gets utterly disillusioned for her attraction towards Kapila’s macho physique which proves that her desire to obtain a complete man is futile as there is no complete man in this world; a known fact which is implicitly conveyed by Karnad in the play through the story that is actually borrowed from Kathasaritasagara (The Ocean of folktales 11th century attributed to Somadeva). In the original story, a woman Madanasundari happens to accidentally exchange the heads of her husband and her brother and accepts the man with her husband’s head based on the common notion that head is the master of the body. Karnad’s Hayavadana dismantles this thinking and questions whether head actually rules the human body and the question is increasingly pertinent in today’s world wherein we see humans not making sense out of their apparently sensible organ i.e. the head misusing it for destructible purposes. To put across this message in front of the audience, Janardan Ghosh intelligently uses some of the photographs of celebrities with their heads exchanged on a bulletin board for instance Manmohan Singh’s head on Soniya Gandhi’s body etc., It seems an indirect way of questioning whether heads exchanged on bodies would or would not make any difference to humans. It is evident that Ghosh has a very candid way of getting across the message in Karnad’s play. However, this straightforward mode does not overshadow his philosophical way of telling Karnad’s tale to the spectators resorting to the primeval Indian spiritual concept. While he puts these weird photographs in front of the people, he also makes sure that he begins his presentation with a Mantra –Bhadram Karnebihishnuyamdevaha from the Rigveda. Mandala (Book) 1: Sukta (Hymn) 89: Mantra (Line/ Stanza): 8 which elucidates the importance of the sensory organs like eyes and ears that are meant for humans to see and hear the preaching or values of morality. Beginning with this recitation, Ghosh not only indicates his viewers that he means to present an Indian play executing the ancient Indian theatrical tradition of initiating any performance with an auspicious invocation to the deity, (as he also indicates with his set-design alluding to Shiva and Shakti) but he also implies that his audience must comprehend the spiritual message ingrained in Karnad’s play. (at least, I feel so)

Hayavadana is a play that interrogates the significance of the human head on the human body and for the same; Karnad uses the imagery of Ganesha the lord with an elephant head and human body. The play initiates with Ganesha prayer followed by Bhagavata’s (sutradhara’s) question on the apparent imperfection of the lord’s appearance which is taken for granted as perfection. This, at the very outset signifies to the readers that the initiative is towards comprehending the essence in Ganesha’s apparently distorted image. Among all the performances of the play that I’ve seen so far, Janardan Ghosh’s, Hayavadana explores this implied meaning in Karnad’s text brilliantly on the stage. The viewers are taken from an open air location to a closed auditorium while reciting hymns in praise of Ganesha. The significance of meditation is implied in this brief journey of the audience from outside to inside paradigmatic of the journey within the consciousness to understand the import of the philosophical question ‘Who am I’. Initiating the play by implying the necessity to ‘know thyself’ in order to comprehend the meaning of completeness, Janardan Ghosh appears paying a tribute to Indian spiritual school of thought which promotes the understanding that completeness is beyond the material definition of perfection and Ganesha is an apt evidence of the same as his animal head and human body is an imperfect image as per the social standards and yet he is the lord of perfection. Karnad’s play brings in the emblem of Ganesha and denotes that perhaps human head and human body are not enough to be perfect or complete humans. Janardan Ghosh highlights during his representation of the play that humans have to enter into the process of self-introspection in order to comprehend the meaning of completeness as he takes his audience from the mundane outside world to inside the closed silent auditorium which demands switching off the mobile phones as his actors demand at the very onset of the action thus indicating that all worldly concerns have to be discarded to gain the realization of the highest order. This Indian spiritual terrain advocating the negation of the earthly attachments in order to arrive at an understanding of completeness becomes further conspicuous in Ghosh’s production of Karnad’s Hayavadana during his interpretation of the main plot of Padmini. In Karnad’s Hayavadana, Goddess Kali satisfies Padmini’s desire to obtain a complete man by exchanging the heads of the two men Devadatta and Kapila. Director Janardan Ghosh sees Kali in the play as Chinnomosta Devi. He states, Ipreferred Chinnomosta in place of Kali because she is a version of Kali as a Tantric goddess of Rasa. The juice of life. The cutting of her head and drinking her own blood signifies the sustenance of life on life itself. (Ghosh’s Brochure on Hayavadana 2012)

The goddess Chinnomosta sacrificed her head in order to fulfill the thirst for blood of the fellow goddesses after killing the danavas or demons. Chinnomosta is an embodiment of self sacrifice. When Padmini is described as Kali who kills the demons and Ghosh identifies the goddess Kali as Chinnomosta, his interpretation seems to bear the implication that femininity in the Hindu tradition is aggressive and intimidating bloodthirsty goddess but is also the sublime prakriti that nurtures the world through her sacrifice. Ghosh signifies in his production that this Chinnomosta Devi when fulfills Padmini’s desire of having a complete man in her life, self-sacrifice is accompanied in her boon. This is because, when Padmini becomes aSati in the end as her desire to obtain a complete man remains unfulfilled and she dies in the funeral pyre of both the men who kill each other in a sword fight, Ghosh makes her take an eminent flight from the worldly to the non-worldly abode where all material attainments become insignificant and the only truth that remains is union of the Jiva with the Shiva. Therefore, in this respect, Ghosh’s choice of stage design alluding to Shiva and Shakti also seems the apt backdrop for the rendition of Karnad’s play highlighting its spiritual import.

Karnad weaves a small sub-plot of a horse-head creature in Hayavadana. This creature has a horse’s head and a human body and he longs to become perfect by getting rid of his animal head in order to become a complete man. Karnad chooses this figure to question the significance of human head on human body as he feels Ganesha being the awesome God would not serve the purpose in the same endeavor. We see that the horse-head creature does become a complete horse in the end, but does not become a complete human. Director Janardan Ghosh does not choose to elaborate the sub-plot of the play in his production. It seems closing his play with Padmini receiving a discourse from the sutradhara/preceptor (played by Ghosh himself) on the fleeting nature of human life, the director makes his intent of philosophical interpretation of Karnad’s play very clear. Ghosh chooses an artist who sits outside the auditorium regularly making statues which seems indicating that till the humans remain circumscribed by the material, it would make illumination regarding self impossible. This is the message implied in the Kathopanishada which describes the necessity of the human mind to keep control over the swift horses that represent material desire in order to attain spiritual enlightenment (Vatsyayan 22-23). As Ghosh gives a discourse to his heroine in the end about the ephemeral human existence and nature of the soul, this thought of the Kathopanishada is reverberated in the mind and it starts traversing the empirical abode escalating towards spiritual enlightenment.

Ghosh has not only given a new meaning to Karnad’s play by interpreting the play in the Indian spiritual light but has also underlined the significance of performing a play in the Indian dramatic tradition wherein every theatrical rendition as candidly presented in the Natyasastra is a sacred activity of the Yajna for it germinated in order to illumine humanity towards the attainment of transcendental state of beatitude or moksha(Rangacharya 44) . As the director says, … ‘Theatre is purgatory it sanitizes me and my actors, and even purges the society. It prepares us for a healthy journey and a coveted end, presumably Moksha.’ (Janardan Ghosh, bio-brief via email 2013)

Janardan Ghosh’s Brochure on Hayavadana. 2012. (sent via email)

Karnad, Girish. Hayavadana. OUP, 1976.

Karnad, Girish. “Preface on the Natyasastra in Knowledge, Tradition, Text. Approaches to Bharata’s Natyasastra”. Sangeeta Natak Academi Ed Amrit Srinivasan. : Hope India Publications, 2007.

Kurtkoti, Kirtinath. “Girish Karnad An Introduction.”. Contemporary Indian Theatre, 1989(September): 79-83.

Kapoor, Kapil. Literary Theory: Indian Conceptual Framework. New Delhi: EWP, 1998.

Rangacharya, Adya. Trans. The Natyasastra. Munshiram Manoharlal Publications, 1996.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata: The Natyasastra. Sahitya Academi, 2001.

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