Appreciating a Karnad Play

I haven’t followed any Girish Karnad plays after the horrendous Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain). But it is nice to learn that his plays still enjoy enormous fan following in the circles that matter.

To my knowledge, Karnad has written at least three plays after Agni Mattu Male. All three have expectedly received rave reviews from the obvious quarters. Here’s another review from Uma, which sounds balanced.

Let’s see how.

I haven’t read or watched the play but Uma is kind enough to give a nice synopsis of the entire plot.

What emerges is the familiar confusion, perversity, and grotesqueness that’s writ in most of Karnad’s plays.

Related Posts: My Series on Girish Karnad’s Plays.


The plot interestingly sounds similar to a small episode that occurs in Ta Ra Su’s Kannada masterpiece, Hamsageethe. The episode deals with a priest of a Devi (generally, Goddess Parvati) temple whose devotion to the Goddess is unparalleled. The climax of this episode is when the Goddess herself saves the priest from shame and ignominy. The priest ends his life after learning this. This is touchingly told in the novel. Given Ta Ra Su’s mastery over the pen, it moves you to tears.

Not that Karnad has been inspired by, or copied from this. It turns out, he actually has borrowed from a folktale set in Chitradurga, the same setting for Ta Ra Su’s Hamsageethe. I introduced the comparison by way of a parallel.

In Girish Karnad’s world, this similarity is reduced to pornographic levels. From Uma’s post:

One day a courtesan, Chandravati, comes to offer prayers at the temple. The priest is attracted to her. One day, when she does not appear in the temple, he goes to her house to find out the reason for her absence. She tells him that she is having her menstrual period. When he visits her house again, after two days, she has had her cleansing bath. She invites him to decorate her naked body with ropes of flowers, the way he has always been decorating the Lingam.

Flowers follows the same pattern of denigration like in his earlier plays. Notice how the Lingam is trivialized completely, lewdly so there’s no doubt in the viewers’ mind that the Lingam is after all, just a Penis. Thereby mocking the sensitivities of millions of people. More on that later.

From this blog, I find further that Karnad has borrowed the Chitradurga folktale in its entirety. Whereas Ta Ra Su’s narrative ends on a sympathetic, positive note, Karnad beats it obscenely out of proportion.

After he returns to temple that night, King delayed by an urgent commitment arrives late at midnight. The priest has to now perform pooja on the main god. But he now has to use the same touched and corrupted flowers to decorate the God. At that time his two Gods, the real God and courtesan both collide and appear as being one. King is left with awe and lots of questions unanswered. Seeing long hair projecting out of the Linga, the King fumbled asks the priest with wonder and also fury ‘Does God have Long hair’. Priest with firm tone answers ‘If you believe that God has long hair, he will have’. Hence this way the play throws a tricky question to audience on what God is?

This is a complete perversion of the folktale. In the original, the Goddess steps in to defend the priest, who has served her with singleminded devotion throughout his life. The priest in turn, realizes that while he has debauched his devotion, the Goddess has yet stepped in to save him. Which is why he kills himself. As you read the tale, you’re stunned by the priest’s strength of character. Such subtleties are lost on the Girish Karnads of this world who tout their works on the basis of a carefully-crafted perversion.

This original story poses a natural problem to Karnad because it has a Goddess. Difficult to twist it to meet his ends. Therefore he substitutes the Goddess with a Lingam, a highly suggestive symbol derived entirely from the Western deceptive interpretation of the Lingam as Phallus. Lo! You can almost visualize a progressive reviewer penning accolades on these lines:

…Further, Karnad’s brilliant use of the Lingam also suggests, perhaps, homoerotic tendencies on the part of the protagonist.

The priest in Flowers is thus shown to be nothing more than a debauch and a momentous liar. But in circles which espouse chic causes like animal care, feminism, etc, this play acquires special status. Uma writes:

Their affair continues like this, but one day, on the night of the play, the priest must confront his powerful conflicts – the pull of love on one side, and duty on the other; his love for Chandravati, his love for the Lingam, his loyalty to his chieftain, and his loyalty to his wife…. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful, moving work, with some superbly crafted sentences, a rising sense of conflict, and a fine, controlled plot – the hallmark of Karnad’s best work.

I find a near-psychotic obsession with sex, sexual perversions, and the female anatomy in “progressive” literature as if quality literature can never exist without it. Karnad’s own Anju Mallige deals with incest in a way that’s pretty lurid, putting it mildly.

As I pointed out in some detail in my series on Karnad’s plays, the playwright displays intellectual dishonesty by distorting well-known stories to suit them to preconceived notions and agendas. The famous excuse of busting myths and traditions is not credible because these plays are not based on a solid understanding of the said myths and traditions. How can Yayati become an existentialist character when the primary sources contain no such thing as existentialism? Even if this dishonesty is forgivable on the grounds of poetic licence (sic), how can we overlook his patently dishonest account of Tipu Sultan in Tipuvina Kanasugalu (Tipu’s dreams)?

Karnad’s works have survived so far due to a combination of several factors:

  • the crowd that attends his plays is often ignorant and/or lack indepth knowledge of the subjects of his plays
  • the media hype around Karnad as a playwright (I personally admire him as an actor)
  • the supposedly-mysterious quality that surrounds Karnad’s works
  • mostly favourable reviews by critics
  • his political leaning, which has made him a darling of the secularists: anti-Babri Masjid, anti-Hindutva, anti-Bababudangiri, etc
  • all of the above.

His bluff on Tipu Sultan was called recently by SL Bhyrappa and his reaction was typically secular. He called Bhyrappa an agent of the Hindutva forces instead of refuting Bhyrappa’s claims.

Cross-posted on INI Signal and Desicritics.

5 comments for “Appreciating a Karnad Play

  1. July 31, 2009 at 4:45 AM

    I liked this review.

  2. muse
    January 2, 2008 at 11:20 PM

    came across your blog today and i admit that its the best in terms of portraying kannada writing and writers on the internet in the right light.keep up the good work!i’am a huge fan of SL Bhyrappa and always wondered why he never figured out in the critics’ good books while karnad’s complicated plays are appreciated everywhere ,though very far from reality.as for mr. ananthamurthy,his works are more about translations and biased appreciation of anything related to the navya school of thought.I would really appreciate it if you could come out with views on other great authors /works in kannada for laypeople like me.

  3. November 24, 2007 at 11:16 AM

    Loved your writing. Really did. The tragedy is if you criticize Girish Karnad – who has achieved iconic status – you will be branded Right Wing. You cannot therefore criticize him. But you cannot appreciate him either. If you do. You become Left Wing. So become a Trishanku – trapped in between. A character that I am sure Girish Karnad can exploit for his next play.

  4. May 3, 2007 at 7:41 AM

    how about dalita and bandaya sahitya;)

  5. Sri
    March 30, 2007 at 8:12 PM

    Brilliant!!

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