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  • Subversion and Closure: Reading Micro-Texts in Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala
  • Sudha Shastri (bio)

This paper explores the roles played by the riddle and the oath as micro-genres deployed by Girish Karnad in his plays Hayavadana (1971) and Naga-Mandala (1988) respectively. While it has often been noted that these two plays work like companion pieces, despite being separated in time by seventeen years,1 what has so far not received attention is the way in which a central textual feature, or what I shall call micro-text or micro-genre, plays a pivotal role in furthering the subversive politics of both plays, by working in ways that contradict their innate generic logic. Elaborating the principal features of their identification and delineation, the paper aims to illustrate the strategic positions of the riddle and oath in the plays, and the ways in which they confront and then subvert prior expectations of the reader.2

Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad (b.1938) holds a historically as well as artistically significant position in the development of Indian postcolonial literature. Anjum Katyal observes that Post-independent Indian theatre was left with two dramatic idioms: on the one hand, a “Western-style proscenium, modernist and avant-garde theatre” that could be seen as a colonial legacy; on the other, “the Orientalist-led rediscovery of ancient Sanskrit texts and traditional performance forms.”3

What got left behind was the folk theatre prevalent in the Indian countryside, and this included several regionally distinct styles. The artistic repertoire of these regional groups or what Katyal calls “subaltern forms”4 comprise song, dance, and ritual, but differed from the Sanskrit drama by being quintessentially subversive.

Playwrights whose creative energies were stimulated by Indian folk drama assimilated them variously in their plays. Whereas a playwright like Habib Tanvir (1923–2009) shaped his entire theatre round the central figure of the folk performer, Karnad sourced the features of folk drama in his plays, marking them with such recognizable characteristics as the use of masks, puppets, self-reflexive narrator, etc. [End Page 49]

In Erin Mee’s words, there are four men “credited with creating a modern dramatic literature in India: Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, Badal Sircar in Bengali, Mohan Rakesh in Hindi, and Girish Karnad in Kannada”; but while the first three playwrights’ corpus is at least 30 years old, Karnad has been punctually writing plays for many decades without any substantial pauses.5

Although Karnad is primarily known for his work in theatre, and for the twelve and more plays he has written in an extremely productive career, he is much more than a playwright. A poet, actor, film, television, and theatre director, translator and critic, Karnad wears all his hats with equal competence. He is one of the most awarded creative writers that independent India has produced, the feather in his cap being the Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award, in 1999.

In an interview with Tutun Mukherjee, Karnad records the lasting impression made on him in childhood by the travelling theatre companies that spoke/performed in Marathi and Kannada, the two languages in the region he grew up and went to school in. In college he was fascinated by the discovery of modern theatre including George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, and Jean Anouilh. It was when Karnad received the Rhodes scholarship to study in England, that he found himself writing his first play, Yayati in Kannada (1961). Based on a story from the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, where a selfish father asks his sons to exchange their youth for his old age, Karnad found that this mythological story reflected his own situation at home, where his family was happy for him, while at the same time anxious that he might decide to settle abroad and not return home. As Karnad says, “I’m amazed how closely the myth reflected my anxieties and uncertainties, and my resentment at all who seemed to demand that I sacrifice my future.”6 Karnad’s later plays have continued to evince his enduring interest in myth and history: apart from Yayati and Tughlaq (1964) and the two plays this paper analyses, there are Tale-Danda (1993), The Fire and...


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