Hayavadana is the most successful example of the “theatre of roots” movement in India. This movement began after India gained independence from Britain in 1947, and playwrights began to move away from Western dramatic conventions in favor of using regional languages and theatrical forms in their plays. Hayavadana itself is written in the regional Indian language Kannada and uses elements of Indian yakshagana and natak theater. Karnad uses these various theatrical forms within his play to argue that the idea of India as a unified nation is a construction, and that modern Indian culture is in fact made up of many diverse traditions.
Even the play and its source material are filtered through several distinct cultural lenses. The source material for the story of Devadatta, Kapila, and Padmini is based on a Sanskrit myth from the Kathasaritasagara. However, Karnad’s more direct source for the text was a play by Thomas Mann called The Transposed Heads, which had been adapted from the Kathasaritasagara. Thus, the stories retold in Karnad’s play had already been filtered through a different (Western) cultural lens by the time Karnad wrote his own version in Kannada (a regional dialect of India). Putting his own spin on the original myth and the Mann adaptation, Karnad emphasizes the symbolic nature of each character by characterizing Devadatta primarily by his mind and Kapila by his body, and frames the story by nesting it inside two other plot lines.
Hayavadana is also written and performed with the aid of many different forms of Indian theatre, which are referenced throughout. However, these traditions are updated, making it a distinctly modern adaptation despite its references to traditional styles of theater. The play borrows elements from different kinds of traditional Indian theatre, such as yakshagana. One example of this borrowing occurs when Hayavadana is introduced through the use of a half-curtain. Traditionally this technique is used to prolong the introduction of a character, revealing them little by little to make their entrance more exciting, but in this play it is used for comedic effect as his horse’s head keeps popping out and he continues to duck behind the curtain.
The scene in which Kapila goes to woo Padmini for Devadatta is a scene that is borrowed from older stories told in Indian theater, but a modern spin is put on it by having the woman outwit the man instead of the other way around. The use of masks is also a convention borrowed tradition from Indian as well as Greek theatre, amplifying various characters’ characteristics and helping audience members distinguish between them. One of the ways that the play may appear to be slightly more unified culturally is through its treatment of religion, but Karnad makes it clear that nationalism is not an ideal within the play through his characters’ commentary on the subject. Deities are certainly an integral part of Hayavadana as they ask Ganesha to remove all obstacles from the play, and as the goddess Kali grants the desires of various characters, but Karnad makes it clear that these cultural pillars are not the same thing as the state of the nation, as the Bhagavata asks Ganesha at the end to “Give the rulers of our country success in all endeavours, and along with it, a little bit of sense.”
Hayavadana himself recounts his efforts to be more unified as an individual being as he tries to reconcile his horse head and human body. He describes how in order to do this he took an interest in “the social life of the Nation,” but cannot seem to find his society. Hayavadana makes an explicitly anti-nationalistic comment at the end of the play—ironically, just after he enters singing the Indian national anthem. Wishing to get rid of the only part of himself that remains human—his voice—Hayavadana tells the Bhagavata, “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 seemed to have ruined their voices.” Thus, Karnad’s use of a variety of theatrical styles, along with his own commentary on the notion of India as a unified nation, show that India is not characterized by a singular or unified culture, but rather is made up of a rich array of cultural traditions.
Indian Culture and Nationalism ThemeTracker
Indian Culture and Nationalism Quotes in Hayavadana
O single-tusked destroyer of incompleteness, we pay homage to you and start our play.
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?
Why do you tremble, heart? Why do you cringe like a touch-me-not bush through which a snake has passed?
The sun rests his head on the Fortunate Lady’s flower.
And the head is bidding good-bye to the heart.
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.