Hayavadana – Book Review

Title – Hayavadana

Author – Girish Karnad

Genre – Play (Tragicomedy)


The first play that has made it to my list on the Birthday Bookathon – travelling around India through literature. “Hayavadana” was originally written in Kannada (official language of the state of Karnataka) by playwright Girish Karnad. Karnad has himself translated the English version which is a huge plus point. Very often certain nuances of the original writing are lost in translation, so it helps when the original writer has done the translation himself and you know the translated work is as closely connected to the original as the writer intended it to be.

Playwriting in Kannada literature is usually a mere literary exercise, with no contact whatsover with the living stage. Playwrights like Karnad, however, are the few who have connected first-hand knowledge of the practical demands of the stage and better understanding of dramatic style and technique to their literary endeavors.

Published in 1975, “Hayavadana” is Karnad’s third Kannada play, leading us into the lands of Hindi mythology and folklore. The plot has been derived from Kathasaritsagara – an ancient collection of stories in the Sanskrit language. Kathasaritsagara had also influenced Thomas Mann’s “The Transposed Heads“, so “Hayavadana” can be said to be a retelling of both these works. The concepts similar to all three versions are the differentiation between body and soul, and a questioning of the philosophy that holds the head superior to the body. Ultimately, it is about human identity in a world of tangled relationships. What makes us who we are? The ultimate debate of body versus soul.

“An elephant’s head on a human body, a broken tusk and a cracked belly – whichever way you look at him, he seems the embodiment of imperfection, of incompleteness. This Vakratunda-Mahakaya is the Lord and Master of success and perfection.” An introduction with the spotlight on Lord Ganesha gives us a glimpse into what to expect in the proceedings.

“Hayavadana” features a story within a story. When the curtains open, the narrator (Bhagvata) introduces us to the set of activities to be witnessed shortly, when there is an intrusion on stage by an actor (Nata) bringing news about a “talking horse”. Soon enough, Hayavadana emerges on stage – a character with the body of a man and the head of a horse. Hayavadana wishes to be complete, and Bhagvata provides the much needed advice and sends him off, so that the audience isn’t kept waiting anymore for the actual play to begin.

We are then introduced to Devadatta and Kapila – the closest of friends who describe their friendship as “one mind, one heart”. Devadatta is a man of intellect – he loves to read, write poetry, study the scriptures, and has various literary pursuits. Kapila is a man of the body – he prefers to spend his time swimming, wrestling, and playing various sports that challenge him physically. The story takes us through how both men fall in love with the same woman, Padmini. Not wanting to tarnish their friendship over a woman, they sacrifice their heads to the goddess Kali. When Padmini finds out that the men gave priority to their own friendship over their love for her, she implores the goddess for help. Kali asks her to place the severed heads back on the bodies of the men. In her haste and fear of the goddess, Padmini jumbles up the task, with the heads getting interchanged – Devadatta’s head goes on to Kapil’s body, and vice versa. The rest of the narrative takes us through the confusion of who is who.

What makes a person? His body that forms a large part of him, or his head which contains the face that identifies him? The body is responsible for our physical experiences, but memories are stored in the head that houses the mind. Which one is superior, and can the two exist separately? “The memories that cannot be recognized, named or understood are ghosts of the body, if the head wasn’t there when they happened“, laments Kapila. We also delve into the dilemma faced by the two men who despise their bodies – Kapila finds his head too heavy for Devadatta’s lean frame, and Devadatta has no intention of preserving the muscular body his head is on, preferring to focus his energy and attention on his reading and writing.

According to the Shastras, the head is the sign of a man. “What is written on our foreheads cannot be altered“, Bhagvata informs us. The two men’s search for completeness is reminiscent of the similar quest of Hayavadana – the horse-man we met at the start of the play. Does completeness of a horse-man signify a complete man or a complete horse? Why do Devadatta and Kapila feel incomplete without their bodies, if the mind is in control of the being? This philosophy of what makes a person whole, forms the crux of “Hayavadana” (the book). Karnad has incorporated many conventions of folk tales and folk theater in his writing – masks, curtains, talking dolls, a world of incomplete and indifferent individuals. Considering Karnad has himself written the English translation, this is a beautiful book and deserves to be read. The only flaw, if one could call it that, would be the rendering of songs – a lot of the musicality in Kannada is lost in English, and the reader is left to read it as prose. They are poignant, no doubt, one only wishes to be able to read them in the original. Sample this one: “You cannot engrave on water, nor wound it with a knife, which is why the river has no fear of memories.”

I have not watched the play, so I cannot say how the writings would lend to a theatrical performance. But I found out there are videos available on YouTube – will check them out shortly. One cannot judge a play based on the written manuscript, without watching it being performed. So my review here is for “Hayavadana” as a book, and it passes the test with flying colors. “Hayavadana” is sprinkled with humor throughout, while making the reader ponder over very real issues and contemplate on various philosophies. A well balanced mix of tragedy and comedy. A play that begins with an introduction invoking Lord Ganesha, ends with Karnad signing off, “Give the rulers of our countries success in all endeavors, and along with it, a little bit of sense.”

All in all, an excellent play that raises the question of what completes a being. The rating is for the fact that I read the translated version. Nothing beats an original piece of work.

Rating – 5/5

1 thought on “Hayavadana – Book Review”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s