Metatheatre describes aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as a play. Though the “play within a play” is a common conceit, Hayavadana is unusual in that it has several layers: first, the play opens with a ritual to Ganesha, as the Bhagavata (a narrator-like character) asks Ganesha to bless the play that the company is about to perform. In the middle of this ritual, Hayavadana is introduced and he explains his origin as a half-horse, half-man. As he goes off to attempt to change his head into a human head, the Bhagavata begins the real play, which concerns the love triangle of Devadatta, Kapila, and Padmini. Eventually, the storylines begin to interrupt and weave in and out of one another, and the Bhagavata appears not to know what happens as the story continues. Although this unique use of three separate storylines may seem at first to distract from the main storyline, the play’s metatheatrical elements and the eventual surprise return of Padmini’s child ultimately invite the audience to believe in the power of stories, and in the power of the joy that can be found in stories.
Throughout the play, various characters wear masks. Thus, rather than attempting realism, Karnad draws attention to the fact that the audience is watching a play and plays many dramatic moments for comedic effect. First, the puja to Ganesha introduces the symbol of the masks. The mask of Ganesha is the mask of an elephant, establishing masks as a theatrical device. Hayavadana’s mask is that of a horse’s head, and draws attention to the theatrical conceit of an actor playing a man with a horse’s head, and this incongruity elicits a lot of comedy as he tries to hide his head and as the Bhagavata attempts to pull it off. Devadatta and Kapila also are played by actors wearing masks because their heads eventually must be “cut off” and switched. This allows Karnad to use what might in another play be a serious moment to comic effect, as the two struggle to cut off their “heads.”
As the story continues into the second act, it seems to spin more and more out of the Bhagavata’s control, and the storylines begin to intersect with one another. The Bhagavata starts to interact with the characters directly, speaking to Kapila when he discovers him in the woods and startled by finding Devadatta there as well. He also speaks to Padmini before she performs sati, and she tells him to take care of her infant son. At these moments, the line between the world of the storyteller and the world of the story is blurred, thereby also disrupting the distinction between fiction and reality, or the stage and the world at large. This is also true of Hayavadana’s storyline; because he “interrupts” the play, it is as if he exists on the same level of reality as the audience rather than remaining inside the play with the other characters. In this way, the play repeatedly calls attention to the fact that it is a play, and makes use of such moments to create humor, as well as to comment on the importance of telling stories more generally.
The joy found in this kind of storytelling becomes most thematically resonant at the end of the play, when a young child appears onstage. The Bhagavata quickly realizes that it is Padmini’s child by the mole on his shoulder and the dolls he carries, which Padmini had given to him. An actor explains that the child has never laughed, cried, or spoken in his life, but he begins to laugh at Hayavadana because of his human voice and horse body. The child’s joy causes Hayavadana to laugh as well, and as his laughter turns into a horse’s neigh, he loses his human voice and becomes a complete horse. This gives closure to the two main storylines of the play (Padmini’s story and Hayavadana’s). The fact that Padmini’s child returns at the end as an older boy within the Hayavadana storyline pulls the two stories—which were previously presented as separate—into the same reality. When the boy and Hayavadana find happiness with each other, each storyline finds its end. The metatheatrical elements of the play are repeatedly played for comedic effect, but the end of the play goes further, reinforcing the power of storytelling to bring people together.
Metatheatre and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Metatheatre and Storytelling Quotes in Hayavadana
O single-tusked destroyer of incompleteness, we pay homage to you and start our play.
[Devadatta enters and sits on the chair. He is a slender, delicate-looking person and is wearing a pale-coloured mask. He is lost in thought. Kapila enters. He is powerfully built and wears a dark mask.]