One of the common threads throughout Hayavadana is the recurrence of beings that are hybrids, with minds and bodies that are not ordinarily compatible. The play contains three “layers”: first, a ritual prayer; second, the plot concerning Hayavadana; and third, the actual “story” being presented about two men whose heads are accidentally swapped. Karnad uses these beings to demonstrate that incompleteness is an integral aspect of the human condition, and that although it is human nature to strive toward completeness, it is inevitably unattainable.
At the very outset of the play, hybridity is presented as an ideal. The play begins with a puja (i.e., a prayer ritual) for the mask of Ganesha, one of the main deities in Hinduism. Ganesha is a god with the body of a boy and the head of an elephant. The Bhagavata points out that Ganesha’s appearance makes him seem imperfect, and yet he is thought of as “the Lord and Master of Success and Perfection.” This leads the Bhagavata to suggest that Ganesha really signifies that “the completeness of God is something no poor mortal can comprehend.” Thus, although Ganesha appears to be made of fragments of different beings, he is nevertheless associated with completion. At the end of the play, the Bhagavata once again thanks Ganesha for ensuring the completion and success of their play. However, by the play’s end, none of the human characters have achieved the same sense of completeness.
In the second framing device of the play, which contains the plot of Hayavadana himself, Hayavadana longs for completeness. Hayavadana is a creature with a man’s body and a horse’s head, the offspring of a deity in horse form and a woman. He explains that all his life he has been trying to remove his horse’s head so that he can become a complete man. He goes to Kali’s temple to try to change his head into a man’s head, but she interrupts him in the middle of his request and instead turns him into a complete horse. When he finds that his voice remains, he is disappointed that he is still a hybrid creature. At the very end of the play, Hayavadana is magically able to achieve completeness with the help of the young boy. As they sing and laugh together, he loses his human voice in exchange for a horse neigh. Even though he is able to find unity, it is not in human form but rather as an animal being, reinforcing the idea that humans are incapable of true completeness.
The play’s primary story line concerns two friends: Devadatta, a poet, and Kapila, a wrestler, as they vie for Padmini’s affection. Although Padmini marries Devadatta at the beginning of the story, she also has feelings for Kapila. In despair over seeing Padmini gaze longingly at Kapila, Devadatta decides to cut off his own head. Kapila discovers Devadatta’s body and also cuts off his head, mourning the loss of his best friend. Padmini calls on the goddess Kali to revive them, but she accidentally swaps their heads, so that each has the body of one man and the head of another. The incompleteness of the two men becomes the main conflict between all three characters. Their inability to find a sense of wholeness drives them to kill each other/themselves at the end of the play. After their heads are swapped, the men’s bodies begin to change as they assimilate with their new heads. The body of Kapila becomes soft and weak now that it is attached to Devadatta’s head, while the body of Devadatta becomes more muscular with Kapila’s head. However, Devadatta no longer writes poetry now that he is attached to Kapila’s body, and Kapila mentions that his new body has memories of feelings that he does not know how to name because he did not experience them. The situation leaves a hollowness in both of their lives. Ultimately, neither is satisfied with this new half-existence, so they resolve kill each other.
Padmini exemplifies her own kind of incompleteness. She marries Devadatta for his mind, but even in their marriage she acknowledges her physical attraction to Kapila. When the two men switch heads, she initially seems to have gotten the best of both worlds, but as the men’s bodies change, she recognizes that none of them can go on living, as her own desire is split in between the minds and bodies of the men. After the two men kill each other, abandoning her, she realizes her own incompleteness and performs sati (a practice in which a widow throws herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre).
Although all of the characters attempt to find unity within themselves, all the human characters are ultimately unable to do so. As each loses a part of his or her identity—whether it is a head, a body, or a lover—they work to return to a sort of equilibrium, but the fates of Karnad’s various human characters suggest that humans always suffer from a sense of incompletion. The only character that achieves unity is Hayavadana, but he becomes complete only as a horse, not as a man. Karnad thus suggests that completeness is left to beings that are divine, while humans work at—and ultimately fail to achieve—a true sense of completion in their identities.
Identity, Hybridity, and Incompleteness ThemeTracker
Identity, Hybridity, and Incompleteness Quotes in Hayavadana
O single-tusked destroyer of incompleteness, we pay homage to you and start our play.
Could it be that this Image of purity and Holiness, this Mangala-moorty, intends to signify by his very appearance that the completeness of God is something no poor mortal can comprehend?
BHAGAVATA: Hayavadana, what's written on our foreheads cannot be altered.
HAYAVADANA: [slapping himself on the forehead] But what a forehead! What a forehead! If it was a forehead like yours, I would have accepted anything. But this! I have tried to accept my fate. My personal life has naturally been blameless. So I took interest in the social life of the Nation—Civics, Politics, Patriotism, Nationalism, Indianization, the Socialist Pattern of Society. . . I have tried everything! But where's my society? Where? You must help me to become a complete man, Bhagavata Sir. But how? What can I do?
Why should love stick to the sap of a single body? When the stem is drunk with the thick yearning of the many-petalled, many-flowered lantana, why should it be tied down to the relation of a single flower?
What a good mix!
No more tricks!
Is this one that
or that one this?
KAPILA. [Raising his right hand.] This is the hand that accepted her at the wedding. This is the body she’s lived with all these months. And the child she’s carrying is the seed of this body.
Kapila? What could he be doing now? Where could he be? Could his body be fair still, and his face dark? [Long pause.] Devadatta changes. Kapila changes. And me?
DOLL II: Especially last night—I mean—that dream…
DOLL I: Tut-tut—One shouldn't talk about such things!
DOLL II: It was so shameless…
DOLL I: I said be quiet…
DOLL II: Honestly! The way they…
DOLL I: Look, if we must talk about it, let me.
DOLL II: You didn't want to talk about it. So…
KAPILA: The moment it came to me, a war started between us.
PADMINI: And who won?
KAPILA: I did.
PADMINI: The head always wins, doesn’t it?
Isn’t that surprising? That the body should have its own ghosts—its own memories?
I know it in my blood you couldn’t have lived together. Because you knew death you died in each other’s arms. You could only have lived ripping each other to pieces. I had to drive you to death. You forgave each other, but again—left me out.
That’s why I sing all these patriotic songs—and the National Anthem! That particularly! I have noticed that the people singing the National Anthem always seem to have ruined their voices—So I try.