Surrealism as the means of escape in Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala


It is very easy to remain in the pragmatic world of apparent realities. Seeing is believing but if this were the ultimate truth, people would never have felt the need to escape the bondage of the so called empirical reality and plunge into a land of possibilities which does not comply with the parameters of tangible realism and yet has immense possibilities of excavating the depths of inner human psyche within which lies the unadulterated truth of their lives. What is the reason for the real world often becoming fake when it comes to projecting human conscience? It is because reality occludes people from presenting themselves as they are with their personal beliefs founded on unconventional notions that more often than not disregard the fundamental principles of propriety or righteous behaviour assigned to them. Girish Karnad’s plays Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala explore deep recesses of human conscience that often remained unexplored by practical human efforts.

In Hayavadana, Padmini’s secret desire is that she wants a man with a sound brain and a good physique instead of a weakly built Devadatta, her husband. In Naga-Mandala, Rani’s secret desire is that she desires a loving man in her life instead of the tyrant husband she has in reality. Both these heroines are essentially tabooed by the society from expressing their wants openly and they are intelligent enough to comprehend the fact that crossing the boundaries of morality for them both would typify them as adulteresses. It is therefore that another world altogether different from the real one is recreated by both these women in which their desires are met, rather subtly but conspicuously. Moreover, despite the fact that they manage to fulfil their wants, they aren’t stereotyped as illicit or wrong in their conduct. This is the speciality of their created worlds that are far removed from the realistic life.

Padmini’s world includes Kali, the goddess who wakes up suddenly from her sleep and grants her the incredible boon of a man with brain and brawn. This is actually impossible in reality. Nonetheless, when we read the play or watch it, we accept this improbability whole heartedly as we are somewhere aware that the deliberate use of surrealistic setting acts as an apt device to counter our expectations of a ‘good Indian woman’ who is known for her strong ethical values. When Kali makes an impossible phenomenon a reality with her trick Padmini does not have two men but has only one man with two distinct qualities of two men. This apparently magical reality is accepted readily by the us because we are indoctrinated so strongly to accept anomaly in imagination but not in our reality. It is therefore that educated readers and audiences of the play do not dismiss the story as absurd or unreal because there is no need for providing any official approval to the heroine for her conduct of desiring intelligent Devadattta and the able bodied Kapila as she has them both in one man because of a divine intervention. We are practically saved, I would say, from the onus of giving our opinions on the legitimacy of the choice. Similarly, when Rani makes love to a serpent disguised as her own husband in Naga-Mandala, we are absolutely free from being judgmental about her in any sense of the word. Rani is shown as an innocent village girl who hardly has the calibre to deduce the reality of the man who appears to her every night in the guise of her husband. It is so comfortable for the proponents of morality to convince themselves that Rani is to be acquitted from the blame of fornication. Thus, surreal acts as the device of escaping reality that is stringent and demands an absolute insistence on ethical conduct. While we know that Rani has a tyrant husband who does not love her and the serpent has brought a lot of love to her, we cannot apparently approve this extra-marital relationship of her. Nevertheless, it becomes a lot easier to bypass the illicit element in the relation of the two if we accept the imaginary folk tale of the serpent lover as true.

The point here is, not only does surreal drama acquits the protagonists from the blame of disloyalty; it relaxes the recipients from the cumbersome task of giving an honest verdict for the two. As soon as the readers/audiences are released from this requirement, there germinates a whole range of viewpoints in relation to both these characters that are far removed from the idea of stringent categorization of good or bad. This is what the playwright Girish Karnad intends to execute in both these plays. He seems to provide us the luxury of freely interpreting Padmini and Rani as victims of patriarchy or shrewd creators of their own desired reality. Ultimately, this dual interpretation dismantles conventional bigotry in a very intelligent way without dismissing the ethical notions value education we study in our lives. Karnad does not undermine ethics and morals; he dislodges the fetish for these that often we have in our lives. In addition to this, he gives those the emancipation to liberate themselves from these notions completely who feel that they do not require them at all and their life is a personal matter in all its entirety. Thus, both these characters expose our expectations for an orderly social living as well as our keen desire to break the set concepts of ‘morally correct’. There is a Padmini and a Rani in all our lives who don’t want to comply with the rules but our reluctance to accept them in public is also a matter of perception in these plays. If we secretly support extra marital alliance, why don’t we have the courage to voice our feelings out in the open? Why do we have to have double standards in our lives promulgating loyalty in marriage on the one hand and carrying on a tacit affair on the other? Our perspectives of modernity are also challenged in the plays through the use of the surreal. We want the surreal as a means to escape reality of our misbalanced living that is both conventional and anomalous at the same time. Only surreal can divulge these inner secrets and can be digested by the people today who superficially cling either to their culture or to unconventional ways of living. If Padmini and Rani were vocal enough to claim their likings, am sure people would have then(when these plays were published) and even today would have comfortably judged them as wrong. At the same time, it would have been done by the same people whose notions of ethics and propriety and very vague and far from being culturally sound. Unlike these people, those that cling to ethics strongly would have completely dismissed both these characters as inappropriate in their desires. Surreal prevents both these extremes and gives us thankfully some space to think and decide which school of thought would we like to belong to – the ethical or the modern and how.

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Dr. Payal Trivedi

Dr. Payal Trivedi

Dr. Payal Trivedi ,a Phd, is an English Educator/Communications skills/soft skills trainer. She is also a Life skills coach/Personality development Trainer and a Literary writer/Theater critic

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