Girish Karnad

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Hayavadana Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Girish Karnad's Hayavadana. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad was born to a Brahmin family and from an early age took an interest in travelling theatre troupes. He majored in mathematics and statistics at Karnatak Arts College, graduating in 1958. After graduating he travelled to England and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, where he wrote his first play, Yayati. After working for the Oxford University Press for seven years, he began to write full time for both theatre and film. For four decades he has continued to write plays, often using history and mythology to address contemporary themes. For his contributions to theatre, he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s top civilian honors, in 1974. In 1992 the Indian government awarded him the Padma Bhushan, another of its highest honors, for his contributions to the arts. He also received the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary honor, in 1999.
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Historical Context of Hayavadana

In 1947, when Karnad was a young boy, India gained independence from colonial rule under Britain. Under colonial British rule, theater in India had largely consisted of performances of Shakespeare. In an attempt to decolonize the theater, many Indian playwrights and directors turned to religious rituals, classical dance and song, martial arts, and Sanskrit aesthetics in order to create a modern Indian theatre. This was later dubbed the “theatre of roots” movement. Karnad’s work shares in this movement’s goal, but also draws from some western styles like Greek theater (through the use of choruses and masks). The theatre of roots movement became strongest in the 1960s and 1970s, just as Karnad began to write plays.

Other Books Related to Hayavadana

Hayavadana draws inspiration from a 1940 novella by Thomas Mann called The Transposed Heads. The Devadatta-Kapila-Padmini storyline is drawn from this work, but Karnad puts much more focus on the psychological struggles of the three characters than Mann did. Mann, for his part, drew inspiration for The Transposed Heads from an eleventh century Sanskrit text called the Kathasaritsagara. Karnad’s other early works that focus on similar philosophical and psychological themes include Yayati and Tughlaq. In Yayati, Karnad reinterprets an ancient Hindu myth about responsibility, in which a son and father exchange ages. Tughlaq is a history play about the life of Sultan Muhammad-bin-Tuglaq of fourteenth century India and concerns the loneliness of leadership. Both plays explore the psychology of their characters, whether in myths or in history, to expose something fundamental about the human condition.
Key Facts about Hayavadana
  • Full Title: Hayavadana
  • When Written: 1971
  • Where Written: Madras (now known as Chennai), India
  • When Published: 1972
  • Literary Period: “Theatre of roots” movement
  • Genre: Play, tragicomedy
  • Setting: City of Dharmapura, mythical past
  • Climax: Unable to reconcile their swapped heads and bodies, Devadatta and Kapila kill each other
  • Antagonist: Human imperfection and incompleteness; the mind/body conflict

Extra Credit for Hayavadana

Plot in translation. Though Girish Karnad’s first language is Konkani, Hayavadana and most of his other works are written in what he considers his adopted language, Kannada. Karnad also translated the play into English himself.

First production. Hayavadana was originally performed by The Madras Players, Karnad’s local theatre company.