At the beginning of the performance, a mask of Ganesha (a Hindu god with the head of an elephant and the body of a boy) is brought onstage and placed onto a chair in front of the audience, and a puja is done.
Right away, it is established that the play will be unique in several ways. Because Karnad wrote the play partly as a reaction against Western theatrical conventions, he begins by placing the audience directly within the Indian culture and religion that permeate the play. By beginning the play with an actual religious ritual (the puja), Karnad establishes that there will be different “layers” to the play, not just a single, fictional plot line.
The Bhagavata asks that Ganesha, who is the “destroyer of obstacles,” bless the performance and give it success. He comments that Ganesha may seem to be an imperfect being because of his hybrid state, but that his completeness is simply unknowable to mortal beings.
The Bhagavata introduces a main theme within the play: hybridity. Ganesha is the first of many beings with a mismatched head and body to appear in the play. In the case of the play’s human characters, hybridity is associated with a state of incompleteness, but the Bhagavata argues here that divine beings do not have that same deficiency; their perfection is incomprehensible to mortals.
The Bhagavata then sets up the action of the play. He first introduces the setting, the kingdom of Dharmapura. He then introduces the two heroes, Devadatta and Kapila. Devadatta, who is fair and handsome, is the son of a Brahmin and is a highly intellectual poet. The Bhagavata describes how he outdoes the best poets and pundits in the kingdom “in debates on logic and love.” Kapila, on the other hand, is the son of an iron smith and is darker and “plain to look at.” Kapila excels in “deeds which require drive and daring,” including dancing and feats of strength. The Bhagavata describes how the world is in awe of their friendship, and sings that they are two friends of “one mind, one heart.”
As the Bhagavata introduces the two primary characters of the story, his descriptions set up what will be their primary conflict. Devadatta’s descriptions center almost exclusively on his intellect, whereas Kapila’s descriptions center almost exclusively on his physical strength and attributes. Therefore, from the very outset, the characters become symbolic of “the head” (associated with the intellect and logic) and “the body” (associated with emotion and sexuality).
At that moment, an actor screams in terror, running onstage. The Bhagavata tries to calm him, saying that there’s nothing to be afraid of on the stage. Only the musicians and audience are there. The actor explains that he was hurrying on his way to perform when he had to go to the bathroom. With nowhere to go, he sat by the side of the road, when a voice told him not to do that. He looked around and didn’t see anybody. He attempted to go again, but the voice once again chastised him. He looked up to find a talking horse in front of him.
When the actor interrupts the Bhagavata’s story, it is implied that Hayavadana’s storyline is on the same plane of reality as the audience (i.e., the audience is supposed to believe that what is happening is real, even though it is of course still within the play that Karnad has written). This interruption adds to the play’s humor. The story of the actor trying to go to the bathroom on the side of the road removes the audience from the seriousness of the religious ritual and the Bhagavata’s speech, and demonstrates how the play calls attention to the fact that it is a play for comedic effect.
The Bhagavata does not believe the actor and tells him to get into costume and makeup. The actor shows the Bhagavata his shaking hands, saying that he is too terrified to perform or fight with a sword. The Bhagavata has no choice but to send him back to make sure that there was no talking horse. The actor reluctantly goes.
The fear that the actor feels toward the talking horse reinforces the idea that the Bhagavata had introduced with the ritual: that hybrid beings are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Thus, the Bhagavata sends the actor back to make sure that no such hybrid being actually exists.
The Bhagavata once again tries to return to his story, but the actor rushes back on, crying that the creature is coming. The Bhagavata reasons that if the actor is so frightened, they should try to hide the creature from the audience. Accordingly, two stage hands hold up a curtain. At that moment, the creature (Hayavadana) enters and stands behind the curtain. The audience hears the sound of someone sobbing. The Bhagavata orders the stage hands to lower the curtain. Each time the curtain is lowered just enough to show Hayavadana’s head, he ducks behind it. Eventually, Hayavadana is revealed in his full form: half-horse, half-man.
The entrance of Hayavadana makes use of a technique traditionally used in Indian yakshagana theater. The curtain is usually employed in this way to build anticipation and excitement about a new character’s entrance before they are revealed in all their glory. Here, however, the technique is used for comedic effect, as Hayavadana does not wish to be seen and his head keeps popping out of the curtain. This is a prime example of Karnad using regional theatrical traditions but giving them a modern update.
The Bhagavata remains in disbelief and chides Hayavadana for trying to scare people with a mask. He asks Hayavadana to take off his mask, but when Hayavadana does not reply, he tries to pull off Hayavadana’s head with the help of the actor. Eventually, however, he concedes that it must be Hayavadana’s real head.
With Hayavadana’s entrance, the play’s use of masks is introduced. The masks not only signal hybrid creatures, but call the audience’s attention to the artifice of theater, thus also highlighting storytelling as one of the play’s main themes.
The Bhagavata asks Hayavadana who he is, and what brought him to this place. Hayavadana answers that all his life he has been trying to get rid of his horse’s head, and he thought the Bhagavata might be able to help him. He explains that his mother was a princess, and when she came of age she was meant to choose her own husband. Many princes came for her hand in marriage, but she didn’t like any of them. When the prince of Araby arrived on his great white stallion, she fainted. Her father decided that this was the man to marry her, but when the princess woke up, she insisted she would only marry the horse.
Hayavadana’s origin story introduces the play’s theme of searching for fulfilment and completion. Rather than accept his horse’s head as a part of who he is, Hayavadana works to rid himself of the feeling of incompleteness, building on the Bhagavata’s earlier remark that humans do not understand the divine completeness that can be found in hybrid beings.
Hayavadana continues his story, saying that no one could dissuade his mother from her decision, and so she and the horse had fifteen years of happy marriage. One morning, the horse turned into a Celestial Being. He had been cursed to be born a horse by another god, on the condition that after fifteen years of human love he could regain his divine form. He asked the princess to join him in his “Heavenly Abode,” but the princess would only go with him if he returned to horse form. Thus, he cursed her to become a horse herself. She ran away happily, and Hayavadana was left behind as a product of their marriage.
The story of the princess keeps with the play’s theme of mind vs. body, as the princess allowed her desire for the horse overcome any sense of logic or reason. The conflict between her mind and body finds parallel in the conflict between Hayavadana’s head and body. The story also brings in religious elements of Indian culture, but as Hayavadana will explain shortly, culture does not always equate with finding one’s society.
Hayavadana asks the Bhagavata how he can get rid of his head, but the Bhagavata replies that “what’s written on our foreheads cannot be altered.” Hayavadana says that he had tried to become a complete man by taking an interest in “the social life of the Nation,” but that he was unable to find his society. He wonders how he can become a complete man without a complete society.
The Bhagavata here foreshadows that in each of the plot lines, the head wins out over the body, though not always with satisfactory results. Additionally, Hayavadana’s search for a unified society serves as a metaphor for India’s status as a nation, as it is also made up of a variety of diverse traditions.
The Bhagavata suggests that Hayavadana go to various temples and try to make a vow to a god. Hayavadana says that he has tried everything, but the Bhagavata thinks of one more temple he might try: that of the goddess Kali. He says that thousands of people used to flock to her temple, but people stopped going because they discovered that she granted anything anyone asked. Hayavadana and the actor set off for the temple.
Kali’s temple becomes one of the ways in which the various plot lines of the play intersect and eventually become tied together, as Padmini, Devadatta, and Kapila also go to Kali’s temple. The Bhagavata’s comment that people stopped going to her because she granted anything anyone asked also foreshadows that simply asking the gods does not necessarily lead to a sense of completeness in one’s identity, as will be the case with all the characters who visit Kali’s temple.
The Bhagavata returns to the story he had been trying to tell, providing a short summary of the plot that is about to unfold: the two friends, Devadatta and Kapila, who are of “one mind, one heart,” met a girl (Padmini) and “forgot themselves” as a result, but ultimately neither of them could “understand the song she sang.” He then describes a scene in which the woman holds the decapitated heads of the two men, covering herself in their blood as she dances and sings.
The Bhagavata returns to his introduction concerning the mind and the heart as he describes what is about to unfold for the audience. The Bhagavata only describes the first half of the story that he is about to tell, suggesting that he is not in complete control of the story even as he is its narrator. This is corroborated later, when he seems surprised by the actions of various characters.
The female chorus then begins to sing, asking through various metaphors why someone’s love should be limited to one other person.
The chorus is a tradition borrowed from ancient Greek theatre that Karnad is integrating with other theatrical conventions from other cultures. The chorus helps convey Padmini’s desire to the audience. Because the men have been said to be of “one mind, one heart,” the chorus foreshadows that Padmini will love one man’s mind and another man’s heart (or body).
Devadatta and Kapila then enter the stage. Devadatta is described as a “slender, delicate-looking person” and he wears a pale colored mask. Kapila, for his part, is “powerfully built” and wears a dark mask.
Karnad continues to set up the opposition between the mind and the heart with masks of opposing colors and essentially opposite descriptions. The masks also remind the audience that they are watching a play, and will become an important device later when the men exchange their masks.
Kapila asks his friend why he didn’t come to the gymnasium the night before. Devadatta is distracted and responds that he was working. As Kapila describes a wrestling match that he had won, he notices that Devadatta isn’t paying much attention and assumes that he has fallen in love again. Devadatta tries to convince him that this girl is especially important to him and rattles off poetry about her, but Kapila interrupts and finishes his thought for him, demonstrating how many times Devadatta has repeated these sentiments. Devadatta becomes angry with Kapila for not taking his feelings seriously, and questions his friendship. Kapila affirms that he would die for Devadatta, jumping into a well or walking into fire.
The initial exchange between Devadatta and Kapila hints at their eventual conflict and rivalry over Padmini, but it also continues to set up their character dichotomy: Kapila goes to the gymnasium to wrestle, while Devadatta works on his studies. Devadatta also rattles off classical poetry while Kapila makes fun of him. Kapila instead prefers to put his own language about his loyalty in terms of the physical suffering he would endure.
Devadatta, convinced that his friend actually does understand him, tries to explain his love further. When he begins to reveal his feelings more fully through new poetry, Kapila eventually realizes that this girl must be particularly special. Devadatta is upset because he believes she is beyond his reach, and vows that if he were to marry her, he would sacrifice his arms and his head to the gods.
Again, Devadatta’s poetry becomes the hallmark of his character, and establishes for the audience why Padmini eventually marries him. Devadatta’s promise to cut off his arms and his head if he is able to marry her will come back to haunt him, as he will eventually fulfill part of his promise, leading to both a literal and metaphorical state of incompleteness.
Kapila offers to try to find the girl for him. Devadatta tells him that he had followed her home from the market the previous evening, so he knows that she lives somewhere in Pavana Veethi. The only thing Devadatta remembers about the house is that it had an engraving of a two-headed bird at the top of the door frame. Kapila goes off immediately to find her house and discover her name. Devadatta remarks to himself how good a friend Kapila is, but after a moment he wonders if it is actually a good idea to send Kapila in his place, as he is “too rough, too indelicate.”
The actions of each character further associate them with the body and mind, respectively. Kapila departs instantly, acting before thinking. Devadatta doesn’t stop him, but immediately questions his decision, demonstrating how different the two are. The two-headed bird on the knocker signifies the love that Padmini will eventually feel for both men simultaneously.
Kapila goes to Pavana Veethi, the street of merchants. He passes many enormous houses, searching for the one that has the two-headed bird. When he finds the right house, he knocks on the door to try and find out who lives there. When the girl (named Padmini) answers the door, he is immediately love-struck. Padmini asks him what he wants, outwitting him as he tries to come up with reasons why he is there. She asks him if his eyes work, and then asks why, if he knew which house he wanted, he was peering at all the doors. She refuses to get the master of the house for him, or her father or brother, and Kapila is left in a desperate state as he tries to avoid revealing why he has knocked on the door.
This scene is a modern take on a common trope in Indian theater and storytelling in which a man goes to woo a woman. This adds to the assemblage of different elements from Indian culture that Karnad infuses into this play. However, Karnad puts a twist on this conventional device by having the woman outwit the man, instead of the other way around. As Kapila falls in love with Padmini, the love triangle (and with it the main conflict of the play) is established.
Kapila eventually asks Padmini if she knows of Devadatta. She asks what Devadatta is to Kapila, to which Kapila replies that he is the greatest friend in the world, and adds, “but the main question now: what’s he going to be to you?” Padmini blushes at this and goes off to find her mother. When he leaves, Kapila says to himself that Padmini really needs a man of steel, and that Devadatta is too sensitive for someone as quick and sharp as she is.
The struggle between the head and the body really begins from this moment. Kapila doesn’t use any poetry to woo Padmini, instead using more direct language and flirtation. He gets a strong response from Padmini, foreshadowing the trouble that will arise from her attraction to him. Kapila, for his own part, seems to grasp Padmini’s nature better than Devadatta does.
The Bhagavata explains that a match between Padmini and Devadatta had no obstacles because both families were of high status: her family was very wealthy, while his family was very intellectual. They are married quickly and the Bhagavata explains that the friendship between the two of them and Kapila continues to be strong.
Karnad does not give the audience a scene between Padmini and Devadatta before they are married, and builds on the theme he has set up by providing a very logical explanation for the reason that the two get married. Thus, in the conflict of head vs. body, the head initially wins out.
The plot skips forwards six months. Padmini is pregnant and she, Devadatta, and Kapila are taking a trip to Ujjain. Devadatta reveals that he is he is nervous about her traveling while pregnant, and she in turn teases him that he is so protective of her that one might think she was the first woman to ever become pregnant. She comments that she only has to stumble for Devadatta to act like she has lost their child. Devadatta becomes very upset at this kind of teasing.
Not long into their marriage, Padmini starts to fulfill Kapila’s earlier prediction that she is too quick and too sharp for Devadatta. Having been introduced as a soft, sensitive character in opposition with the tough, steely Kapila, Devadatta is very vulnerable to Padmini’s language.
As they talk, Devadatta reveals his jealousy of Kapila and of the attention Padmini gives him. He thinks that she drools over him, and was unhappy when she invited him to the house when Devadatta wanted to read a play to her, because when Kapila arrived there was no chance of reading the play. Padmini asks if Devadatta is jealous of Kapila, which Devadatta adamantly denies. Devadatta has also noticed that Kapila, too, seems to light up every time he sees Padmini, describing how he “begins to wag his tail” and “sits up on his hind legs.” Devadatta wonders to himself how she could not have noticed this.
The rivalry between the two men becomes explicit for the first time as Padmini suspects that Devadatta is jealous of Kapila. Karnad continues to frame this rivalry in terms of mind and body, as Devadatta’s affection for Padmini is expressed by reading plays to her, while Kapila’s is expressed through his physically visible happiness when he sees her. Comparing Kapila to a dog also removes him from the intelligence associated with humans and connects him instead to animal instinct.
Padmini tries to appease Devadatta and suggests that they cancel the trip and spend the day together instead, assuring Devadatta that she will not be too disappointed. When Kapila arrives, Devadatta tells him that Padmini is not well. Kapila privately expresses his disappointment that he won’t be able to spend time with Padmini. However, when Padmini sees Kapila she changes her mind again so as not to disappoint him, and tells Kapila to pack the cart. Devadatta is hurt by this change of heart.
The audience begins to see that even though Padmini is married to Devadatta, she struggles with her own sense of incompleteness. She clearly loves her husband, but does not want to disappoint Kapila and has affection for him. Her seemingly insignificant change of heart ends up hurting both Devadatta and Kapila, eventually snowballing into the larger conflict that leads to the two men swapping heads.
The three of them set out in the cart, and Padmini remarks how smoothly Kapila drives the cart. She relates an anecdote about how, soon after they were married, Devadatta tried to drive her to a lake outside the city, but failed to steer the oxen beyond the city gates and so Devadatta had to bring them back home, angry and embarrassed.
Padmini’s story stokes Devadatta’s jealousy as she subtly begins to reveal her attraction to Kapila and his physical prowess. This sequence builds on the tension that was established between the characters before they left on their trip, which only grows as Padmini’s affection becomes more and more apparent.
Padmini spots a tree with beautiful flowers, called the Fortunate Lady’s flower, and Kapila immediately dashes off to climb the tree and retrieve some of the flowers for her. She remarks to herself how muscular Kapila’s body is, and Devadatta notices Padmini staring at Kapila. He burns with jealousy as he observes her, but doesn’t say anything, and instead simply forces himself to watch her watching Kapila. Meanwhile, Padmini worries that Devadatta is watching her and sees her love for Kapila. She asks herself how much longer she can go on like this.
Here the conflict between the two men becomes much more evident as Padmini and Devadatta narrate their feelings to themselves (and the audience). Padmini’s physical desire for Kapila begins to overshadow her feelings for her husband. This exchange spurs Devadatta, for his part, to realize that he has lost much of Padmini’s affection, and is what eventually causes him to sacrifice his head.
Kapila returns with the Fortunate Lady’s flowers. Padmini asks why the flowers are called that, and he explains that the flowers have all the markings of a married woman, such as the marks on her forehead, the parting of her hair, and dots that look like a necklace. Padmini turns to Devadatta and says that he should use those descriptions in his poetry. Devadatta tries to shift the dynamic by asking them to keep traveling, but Padmini remarks that she’d like to spend the night where they have stopped because of the various sites around them, including the temple of Rudra and the temple of Kali.
The metaphor of the Fortunate Lady’s flowers not only represents Padmini (a married woman) but also shows Kapila making an attempt at poetry. As he explains the connections between the flower and married women, Padmini is impressed—a reminder that a beautiful mind is as attractive to her as a beautiful body.
Kapila and Padmini decide to visit the temple of Rudra, but Devadatta, still upset, says that he doesn’t want to go and will watch the cart. Kapila senses the tension and offers to stay instead, but Devadatta insists that the two of them go ahead. Padmini is frustrated at this tantrum and decides she will go without Devadatta. At an impasse, Kapila goes with Padmini to the temple.
At this point, Devadatta believes that he has lost Padmini, who continues to complain that he is too sensitive. The fact that she goes with Kapila demonstrates that although the head may initially win out, the body and its desires can prove just as powerful.
Devadatta says goodbye to Padmini and Kapila, and says to himself that he hopes they live happily together. Remembering his vow to sacrifice his arms and head, Devadatta goes off to temple of Kali. He shouts a short, anguished prayer in which he says that his head will be an offering to the goddess, and then fulfills his promise by cutting off his head (the actor’s mask), which involves some struggle.
As Devadatta believes he has lost Padmini, his decision to cut off his head also demonstrates that when he loses Padmini, he loses the best part of himself. Cutting off his head is an appropriate symbolic act to demonstrate that he has lost a sense of his own identity as well.
Padmini and Kapila return from the temple of Rudra. They begin to worry about Devadatta when they cannot find him, and so Kapila follows his footprints to Kali’s temple. When he discovers Devadatta’s body, he is filled with anguish at his friend’s death, and asks the dead Devadatta whether he forgot that Kapila would have done anything for him. He admits that he knows he did wrong, but confesses that he didn’t have the intelligence to do anything else. Kapila says he cannot go on living without his friend, and decides to join him in the next life. He then cuts off his own head. After a while, it begins to get dark, and Padmini gets worried, noticing that Kapila has disappeared, too. She goes to look for them both at the temple, where she stumbles upon the bodies of the two men and screams in horror.
The monologue Kapila gives after he discovers his friend echoes the beginning of the play, in which he assured Devadatta of his friendship. This time, however, it shows the audience how much has changed since the beginning of the play. Although the two men were initially of “one mind, one heart,” their love for Padmini has split them into two very distinct—even opposed—beings. Even in this monologue, Kapila reaffirms the differences between them: Devadatta was always smarter than he was.
In despair, Padmini asks how the two of them could have left her alone. She worries that if she goes home, society will say that the two men fought and died for a “whore.” She resolves to join the men in the afterlife as well and picks up a sword to kill herself, but Kali stops her. Kali reveals her annoyance that the men didn’t care about sacrificing their heads to her at all, but simply wanted to escape their situations. Kali tells Padmini that she will revive the two men if Padmini places their heads back on their bodies. Padmini, in her excitement, accidentally switches Devadatta’s and Kapila’s heads (in the play, this is accomplished with the masks).
Padmini’s own monologue reveals her fears and insecurities about her own identity and sense of self. She truly loves both men, but as the female chorus sang at the beginning of the story, society does not believe love can function in this way. When Padmini switches the heads, the men’s masks take on a symbolic connection to hybridity, signifying that each now exists in a state of duality and incompleteness.
When Kali revives Devadatta and Kapila, they (along with Padmini) quickly realize that something is wrong. Padmini explains what has happened. At first they are amused at the mix-up, singing a childish song and falling on the ground with laughter. When they try to leave, however, conflict ensues as each man tries to argue that Padmini is his wife and should come with him. Devadatta (that is, the man with Devadatta’s head) argues that the head rules the body and that one marries a personality, not a body. Kapila argues that his hand accepted hers at the wedding, that his body is the body she has lived with for months, and that his body gave Padmini her child—and therefore he is now her husband.
Although initially the three are entertained by the course of events, friendship once again quickly turns to rivalry. Their argument here speaks to a more philosophical exploration of what composes a sense of identity and personality. This is particularly interesting to consider in the context of a performance, because the actor who initially played Devadatta now voices Kapila’s thoughts and vice versa—an effective device to create a sense of incongruity.
The argument between the two men begins to heat up. When Devadatta pushes Kapila aside to take Padmini home, Kapila asks Padmini if Devadatta would ever have been so violent. Padmini begins to go with Devadatta, and Kapila taunts Padmini by saying that she only wants his body and Devadatta’s mind. The Bhagavata interjects, wondering what the solution is to this problem, and the curtain falls on the end of act one.
At the end of this exchange, Kapila’s taunt becomes particularly resonant. While the two men have each lost half of their identities, Padmini has gained a single being that represents the seamless combination of her previously conflicting desires. The Bhagavata’s interjection makes it clear that this is not the resolution of the story, however, foreshadowing that they cannot all be satisfied by the events that have occurred.