Theatre of Fragmentation and Myth : In Search of an Identity

Modern theatre in India, as we know it now, saw its birth in the colonial ports of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and catered to a largely bourgeoisie, English educated, westernized audience. Much of the theatre in this era copied the British drama that toured the country, and therefore took on to some extent the aesthetics, dramaturgical structures, and even the architecture of Western drama. The theatre of this time was, quite expectedly, heavily influenced by the norms that defined British dramaturgy and aesthetics. Post independence, Indian dramatists such as Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, and Girish Karnad, among others, began to feel the need to emerge out of the colonial hangover that Indian theatre was facing at that point. These playwrights, who are often called members of the “Theatre of Roots” movement, experimented with traditional Indian forms of performance such as Kathakali, Chhau and Yakshagana, to compose drama that was truly “Indian” in essence.

folk1(Yakshagana performance)



folk3(A Chhau mask)


In Karnad’s plays Hayavadana (the horse faced one) and Nagamandala (the realm of the snake), he folk traditions, mythology, and a language that is simple yet filled with connotative richness, and show the playwright’s enduring love for myth and history, or “itihasa”. His interest in the performative style of Yakshagana can be seen in his liberal use masks and dolls in Hayavadana and animals such as the snake, mongoose, and dog in Nagamandala. It is important to note also, that the basis of both the plays is oral tradition which acts to enhance their performative potentialities. This is especially true in case of Nagamandala, which is an open-ended play, highlighting the unrestrictive and mutable nature of folk-tales. Such mutability is found in the characters of the plays as well, who undergo transformations in order to reach the semblance of an organic whole. Karnad interlaces ritual and performance, and provides us with a holistic unit combining dance, music, poetry and drama. 


The plight of an extreme existential crisis is apparent in the figure of Hayavadana-half horse and half man-as well. Both plays are a sociological study of the “other”. From a feminist point of view, the identity of a woman is shown to be forced into subordination by a society defined by unequal power relations. The female subaltern becomes a double victim owing to her gender and is prevented from realizing her creative potentials. In the play, a woman’s alienation from her spouse and her unrequited desires culminate in her deliberate mismatching of heads, with the validation of an indifferent mother-goddess. Folk-tales depict the perception a person can have regarding their own identity as can be seen in the case of Hayavadana, who is perplexed by his incomplete, part human-part beast identity and states how neither religious devotion nor an interest in social and political affairs helped his cause.



Similarly, the naming of characters in Nagamandala acts as a signifier of problematic identities- for example, Rani’s husband is named “Appanna”, which literally means “any man”. Karnad’s reconstruction and re-interpretation of oral traditions and myths seek to deconstruct age-old customs and beliefs.

Hayavadana opens with a ritualistic evocation of Ganesha, as can be seen in many genres of Indian performance, and shows Karnad’s process of decolonization. A commentary on the deity, who provides a contrast to the figure of Goddess Kali, provides crucial insight on the theme of identity and fragmentation:
 “An elephant’s head on a human body, a broken tusk and a cracked belly-whichever way you look at him, he seems an embodiment of imperfection, incompleteness. How indeed can we fathom the mystery that this very ‘Vakratunda-Mahakaya’ with his crooked face and distorted body is the Lord and Master of Success and Perfection? Could it be that this Image of Purity and Holiness, this ‘Mangala Moorty’ intends to signify by his very acceptance that the completeness of God is something no poor mortal can comprehend?”

In Nagamandala, Karnad uses folk traditions such as supernatural elements, and infuses his human and non-human characters with magical qualities. The process of a woman’s deification from her prior status as an abused housewife, as well as Naga’s quest for a tangible identity, fall within the framework of oral narratives.




Fantasy and myth are used as tropes to address pertinent psychological and social concerns. Just as the sutradhar or Bhagavata is an important entity in Hayavadana, the prologue of Nagamandala portrays the existential conflict faced by a writer or sutradhar, who is caught in a state of limbo where he can neither sleep nor stay awake. He is shaken out of this inertia by lamp flames that become symbols of creative energy, who aid him in transcending sleep and death.


The Problematic Goddess


“Your name is the Dark One, your complexion that of the Dark One, 
But within you lies brilliant resplendence…”

For a society that trivializes and debases women, we have always longed for a touch of the sacred feminine, the goddess energy.

We embrace Durga, the benevolent mother and just as easily, we worship Kali. The Dark one. Reminiscent of the devouring mother figure, slaying demons as she purges the earth of its sinners and deviants. Sure, we live in a world manipulated by masculine rules-forever fighting a paternal lawsuit of sorts.  But we crave for a paradigm shift which manifests itself in our worship of the violent, highly sexual Kali. The brazen one who steps on her husband as he lies at her feet. She has been venerated for centuries in Bengal.

The image is a poster of the film Debi by Satyajit Ray. Set in late 19th Century Bengal, it traces the psychological breakdown of a young, newly married woman, deemed a goddess, a reincarnation of Kali, by her devout father-in-law, the family patriarch. The film raises a lot of problematic questions- the goddess-fixation of a chiefly androcentric society, the conditional brainwashing of powerless women, and the fanatical worship of a mother goddess by an imposing father figure. The film traces the tragic turn of events set in motion by the extreme homage paid to dark devi, and how it fragments the life of a young bride.

A powerful film, with a powerful message that holds true to this date.