Denigrating Indian Culture: Caricaturing Yayati

Read Part 1

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.

13 comments for “Denigrating Indian Culture: Caricaturing Yayati

  1. dr m r nehe
    October 7, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    Girish karnad has really exposed the inherent moral weaknesses of man through yayati. It is really hard for a man to overcome sundry mundane and sensual desires. Commendable effort .

  2. September 28, 2012 at 8:24 PM

    People like Natrajan create films like ‘ innocence of Muslims ‘. People with lesser knowledge about a subject often create huge problems.

  3. Natarajan
    May 10, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    Sandeep our so called epics are also stories. They were written by someone. They are not sacrosanct. Girish Karnard interpreted the story as he saw appropriate in his context. I see nothing wrong in doing that. There are many versions of epics, many episodes written by many people there is no rule that they should all follow the same script like a herd of sheep. If Girish Karnard’s play is blasphemous as you seem to allude I would argue that blasphemy is the best of things

  4. April 21, 2007 at 1:35 PM

    You are harping on “distortion of the true meaning” of the myth. Please tell me who is to decide the “true meaning” of a myth or a story or of relaity in general? What is wrong if Karnad or anybody else chooses to look at a myth from a different perspective? Even our great epics are not shallow and do not yeild themselves to only a superficial reading, they have endless nuances of meaning,significane and view points. And by what authority does one call Sartre a “negative philosopher?” Why this uncalled for bitterness and insistence on only one truth and one interpretation? A striaghtforward story does not mean it has to be understood only on a superficial level, what is wrong in delving deeper? One must not forget, that a myth is not static and evolves over time, there are many versions of the same myth and that is the beauty of it!

  5. January 11, 2007 at 1:27 AM

    I read the comments and writings here. However, I would like to disagree with what sandeep says about Girish Karnad.
    1. I think hermeneutically no one, no matter how much precaution one takes can dettach himself or herself from the subjectivity in ones own writing.
    2. I think also that one can’t be so sure to project motives that arise in ones own mind on someone else. Can one be really so cocksure to do that. Then I think we are sitting on the judgement seat against someone.
    3. One also needs to study well the meaing of myth. It is not fully factual or false. It is both and yet neither if one chooses to say. Hence, Krnad or anyone when uses myths and interpretes them for the genreal public, does he really distort ‘facts’? Early Indian history, till the Western historians wrote Indian history, was mixed masala of mythology and facts (Romila Thapar). 4.Every mythological story is not a historical fact. However, every myth has some fact in it.
    5. A lot of facts have been distroted. eg. the place called Ramjanamabhumi in Ayodhya is being wrestled out of the hands of a community not so much because of the real devotion and love for Rama but mainly ( may not be solely) for the sake of those who have lost their jobs as temple priests and are probably threatened to lose their hold on the larger community.
    6. Now I am interpreting and reading too much into it. This is what happens when we implicate motives to others who may not even tink of them.
    7. Apart from the motives with which Girish Karnad ( whatever they may be) I have enjoyed the dramas (forgetting for awhile who wrote them)and have derived a lot of themes for the college students relevant to todays reality, philosophy and their and my life in general.
    8. I specially liked and enjoyed sheerly the Nagamandala and Tuglaq in more way than one.
    Sandeep, thanks for this space. All the best.

    November 22, 2006 at 10:56 PM

    I think the issue needs to be seen under more moderate light. While I can appreciate the strong feelings with which Sandeep has written this article, I fully agree with Arundhati that creative writing is something more than just story telling. If you read Yayati written by V S Khandekar and also the forward he has written explaining the emotional background under which he had written the novel, you will agree that Yayati has been dipicted more or less in the same light in both the novel as well as the play. The extent of deviation done by Girish Karnad can be considered to be within the permissible limits of creativity. Dear Sandeep, you have a point, but have a heart yaar.

  7. July 6, 2006 at 9:31 PM

    This is the problem with the “intellectualisation” of theatre. A play script should be looked at from the dramatic point of view – its superobjective and whether this is achieved through the characterisation, the dialogue and the action. Why does the the story as written in the original have to be adhered to? Read the original or listen to a discourse on it or even, watch a teleserial on the topic. Theatre is not about carbon copies. There would be no theatre if it were and we actors, directors and everyone else who lives and breathes theatre would be – well – dead!

  8. Sandeep
    December 15, 2005 at 6:23 PM
  9. Shivani Nene Shakir
    December 15, 2005 at 2:16 PM

    Hi Sandeep,

    Excellent criticism. Although I have not read Karnad’s play I could fully understand your point. Looking forward to Utsav.

  10. Ramaa
    May 12, 2005 at 9:33 AM

    Hi Sandeep,

    Excellent review. Girish Karnad and many playwrights who belong to his ilk, are all the
    same. They love to distort the actual and true meaning of what the epics actually portray.
    This is not artistic in anyway. I agree completely with your description “artistic fraud”.
    Sadly, for all the “fame” that he has, he just gets away with any kind of distortion. Sad.

    I am following this series like many others. So just keep them coming.

  11. May 12, 2005 at 1:42 AM

    Excellent analysis Sandeep!

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