To continue from where I had left, I’ll devote this entry to examine the first of his plays: Yayati.
Yayati is based on a tale found in Mahabharata. Here’s an extremely condensed form of the story of Yayati as found in the original.
Yayati’s story begins with his wife, Devayani, the beautiful daughter of Sukracharya, the preceptor of the Asuras (demons). Before her marriage, Devayani was insulted, slapped, and thrown into a (waterless) well by Sharmishta, the daughter of the king of Asuras. Yayati who happened to pass by, had rescued Devayani by holding her right hand and pulling her out of the well. Devayani had then asked Yayati to marry him. However, the prevailing custom of the day forbade a Kshatriya to marry a Brahmin girl (this was called the Pratiloma marriage); Yayati refused, stating the Pratiloma rule as the obstacle for their marriage.
Seething with rage, Devayani complained to her father about Sharmishta. Sukra, who loved his only daughter dearly told the king that he’d leave the kingdom if his daughter was not appeased.
Devayani set her condition for revenge. Sharmishta had to be her dasi (handmaid) and serve her in the house she’d occupy after her marriage. Sharmishta agreed in order to save her father’s honour. Yayati later married Devayani after Sukra agreed to make an exception to the Pratiloma rule.
In the meantime, Sharmishta was attracted to Yayati and asked him to marry her. A bewitching woman, Yayati found it hard to resist. He married her without Devayani’s knowledge. Before long, Devayani discovered the secret and complained bitterly to her father. A furious Sukracharya cursed him with old age. This is the crucial juncture of Yayati’s story. An extremely sensual king, Yayati believed in enjoying all pleasures that life affords a king. And this highly apt curse left him distraught. When he later mollified Sukra, the sage told him that if anybody was willing to exchange his old age, his youth would continue as before. Yayati approached each of his sons and asked of them this barter. None except Puru agreed. When a delighted Yayati embraced Puru, the transfer was complete.
Puru became a ripe old man in the prime of his youth while Yayati regained his youth.
Yayati pursued pleasure with a renewed zest. The original Mahabharata tells us that the more he indulged, the thirstier he grew. In his words, (crudely translated) told to Puru, Dear son, sensual desire is never quenched by indulgence any more than fire is by pouring ghee in it. I had so far heard, and read about this. Now, I’ve realized it: no object of desire–corn, gold, cattle, women–nothing can ever satisfy the desire of man. We can reach peace only by a mental poise that goes beyond likes and dislikes. This is the state of Brahman. Take back your youth and rule the kingdom wisely and well. Yayati then retired to the forest to perform penance. In due course, he attained the perfect state of Brahman.
Karnad’s Yayati is similarly stricken with an overwhelming desire for indulgence. However, because Karnad decides that he is an Existential king, he alters Yayati’s character. Not content, he casts Puru in a similar mold: the eternal conflict-torn drama protagonist who in this play, vacillates between the desire to reclaim his youth and fulfilling his duty as a son. In Karnad’s Yayati, the importance is skewed heavily in favour of Puru–not Yayati–which is a perversion of the original. In the original, Puru’s role begins with accepting his father’s old age with respectful dignity, and ends with returning it. Puru never thinks twice, he doesn’t crib, and most important, is not in the throes of dilemma whether he made the right choice.
But Karnad’s Puru is despondent that about his loss of youth. He is as I said, in the throes of a dilemma, which desperately needs an outlet. He does vent in a few monologues, and asides. However, this poses a problem because in the original, there is limited emphasis on Puru’s role and/or character. The playwright therefore needs to strengthen, enhance, and add more meat to Puru so that his presence can be “felt.” In other words, Karnad’s Puru needs crutches to make himself felt. Lo! A fine lady, Chitralekha, materializes as Puru’s wife–a character absent in the original. One can argue that other dramatists did extend their poetic licences: the ghost in Hamlet and Julius Caesar. However, the important distinction is that these plays can be read/enacted even without the supernatural element with no difference in the impact on the reader/audience. Take away Chitralekha from Yayati, and it falls flat. Worse, Chitralekha commits suicide in the play when she learns that Puru has traded his youth for old age. Karnad also conveniently hides Yayati’s confession that indulgence doesn’t lead to peace and happiness. With good reason. Karnad’s hero is Puru, not Yayati. It however, exposes Karnad’s shallowness.
Karnad’s Yayati comes across as merely a pleasure-monger while in the original, his character is symbolic of a higher ideal. That of striving for truth, and eternal happiness. Yayati’s long span of sensual indulgence is a symbol that indicates the futility of chasing happiness in things that have a definite end. Indulgence only increases thirst, it doesn’t quench it. Each climax of happiness ends with sorrow that it is over so soon, followed by a craving to renew, to repeat the pleasure once more. Yayati’s disillusionment is complete only with saturation. He has had his fill but remains unfulfilled. Which is what plods him to seek a non-cyclical happiness.
In the original, neither Yayati nor his son suffer from any kind of confusion or existentialist disease. They’re aware of their motivations, their choices, and have great conviction. They feel no guilt or remorse. Puru considers it his duty towards his father, adhering firmly to the dictum of pitru devo bhava (father is god). Yayati comes across as pretty straightforward when he expresses his desire to enjoy sensual pleasure; his strength of character is equally on for display when he speaks with conviction that he’s had enough of that. Bring me a torch so I can search for the slightest trace of existentialism in the story.
Drunk with Sartre and other negative philosophers, Karnad hideously caricatured what really is one fine tale. His crime in my perspective is that he chose to reprobately interpret what is a fairly straightforward story. I’d have had no problems if he had written the play on the same theme but with a similar, maybe contemporary, story and titled it Yayati. That could be taken as a product of his imagination and scrutinized for its worth. But then, critics would yell that he had stolen from the Mahabharata. The better way then is to proclaim that it indeed is from the Mahabharata, only his “exploration of Yayati’s/Puru’s inner conflict.” Sounds lofty eh? Look at the rave accolades it won him.
Influenced by existentialist drama, his first play Yayati (1961) explores the complexities of responsibility and expectations within the Indian family. Drawing on a myth from the Mahabharata, Karnad expressed in it a personal dilemma between his family’s demands and his own wish for freedom.
Significant words. It should be remembered that Yayati, before asking Puru, approached his other three sons who all refused. The expectation part falls flat. Yayati’s was a request, not a command, which is why his other three sons were completely free to refuse. Moreover, the remark about “his family’s demands and his own wish for freedom” can by no stretch of imagination, be applied to the story of Yayati. Puru, like his elder brothers was completely free to refuse Yayati’s request. His freely chose to take on his father’s old age.
The audience in the West at which Karnad aimed this missile is largely ignorant of the humungous Indian mythology and its various subtleties. For a man like Karnad, well-versed in English literature and western philosophy, tailoring Yayati in an existential garb has proved rewarding. He gave them what they understood–and could understand.
In the next part, I’ll focus on the other great artistic fraud, Utsav.