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Creation and Criticism

 ISSN: 2455-9687 

(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal

Devoted to English Language and Literature)

Vol. 01, Issue 01: April 2016

Script of Submission and Subversion: A Critique of Girish Karnad’s Women

Dr. C L Khatri  



Girish Karnad maps the development of women in India from prehistoric period to the modern / postmodern age passing through different phases. His women are submissive and subversive. Some of his women are rebel in their own ways while some are ambivalent. These women try to create space for themselves within the patriarchal set up. The paper attempts to examine whether his archetypes articulate fully and effectively the intended contemporary situations or they are made out through extra textual sources like author’s interviews and critics’ comments.


Key words:

Archetypes, existentialism, folk tales, transition, myths, contemporary situations, feminist perspectives


Girish Karnad, the doyen of Indian English Drama, has been widely credited for the reworking of Indian myths, folktales and history and his plays have enjoyed immense success both as texts and performance. His engagement with existentialism, theatrical experiments, epic theatre, adaptation of historical, mythical and folk tales as archetypes for contemporary socio-political problems and personal dilemmas has drawn the attention of the critics so much so that they virtually paid little attention to the feminist design in his plays. His plays are amenable to feminist reading.


A close study of his female characters unfolds a definite pattern of Karnad’s discourse on Indian women. His female characters can be broadly classified as submissive or conformist and subversive or non-conformist characters. It would be rewarding to study how and when some women characters are cut out as docile, subservient and victimized characters while many others are iconoclastic, subversive and non-conformist.  It is remarkable to note that each play is dominated by a particular set of female characters. He does not take liberty with the portrayal of women of definitive past—say the female characters in history based plays like Tughlaq, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan and Tale Danda. But at the same time he takes full liberty with the women in the myths and folktales. The paper proposes to analyze the women characters in his plays to decipher how he reworks with the traditional and modern archetypes of female character and what feminist perspective he presents through his women dominated plays.


Girish Karnad’s plays can broadly be classified under four heads: History, Myth, Folktale and Technology. In history based plays women are very much subservient and perhaps deliberately kept out of focus as they did not serve well for his interpretation of post-independent socio-political, economic and cultural conditions of Indian society. In Tughlaq and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan women of the court or of outside life do not fit in his dramatic design. So by simply keeping them behind the curtain regaling, wailing, crying and dying without having any say in the social and political system Karnad speaks his mind about the women of the respective eras and their condition in the Islamic rule in India.


Let’s take the case of Tale-Danda (1993) which is a “historical teleology on social conditions of north Karnataka in the twelfth century A.D. The play projects a socio-religious movement during the time of Kalachurya dynasty. Karnad has analysed his contemporary Mandir and Mandal movements as an objective chronicler in the ‘historical givens’ of the past.” (Nayak 140) Though women in Tale Danda are conformist and under patriarchal yoke, they are at least visible and to some extent they articulate their concerns and also intervene in the so-called men’s affair. In the beginning we find Amba playing a wifely role when her husband is sick and endlessly crying for his son Jagganna who is busy with the business of treasury. She strikes a compromise between traditional belief that an untouchable should not step into a Brahmin’s house and the demands of the Sarana, a revolutionary movement when she permits Mallibomma, an untouchable friend of her son Jagadev: “Come in Malli…. My son won’t come into the house unless you do. So come in please. I will have the house purified later. Please, I beg of you—with folded hands-” It’s not Amba, a conservative south Indian Brahmin woman but a mother who is pleading. Again when Bijjala, the king of Kalyan scolds and berates his son Sovideva for his conduct with Basavanna, the treasurer and Sarana saint, his wife Rambhavati intervenes and defends her son. It’s a different thing that she is overruled by both her husband and son. She says to her son: “Do as you wish. Just don’t upset your father, that’s all. He turns his bad temper on me and I can’t take it any longer. ( Tale-Danda 8) Further Sarana movement accorded equal rights to women. But Karnad dilutes the whole precept of Vachanas and the Sarnas movement by practically showing them in a subordinate and victimized condition. None of Sarana’s leaders Basavanna, Jagdev or any one has stood to its precept. Basavanna’s wife Gangambika is wittier than her husband and enjoys a better position. But she performs within the four walls of the house and is not supposed to cross the threshold and lead the Sharnas. One wonders what happens of Gangambika when Basavanna leaves home in search of God. One may call it a loose end. For another Sarana leader Jagdev wife is a domestic servant to look after her husband’s responsibility. She is denied access to her husband. Showlter rightly says “women’s relationships to themselves and society have been essentially static…” (Showalter 229) My observation is that it is not static; it is changing as is evident in his plays mentioned above. But by projecting the gap between the precept and practice in Saranas movement Karnad advertently or inadvertently raises question marks about the movement. Does he want to suggest that it died out of its own inherent contradictions?


It is true that the marriage between a Brahmin’s daughter and a cobbler’s son was not acceptable to the orthodox Hindu of the society and they overthrew the rule of Bijjala and went on rampage in the city and beheaded Madhuvarasa and Haralayya. Everyone including Basavanna and the king was apprehensive of this as it was too early for the Saranas to reform the old mindset of the people. However, as a matter of fact, Bijjala, a barber by caste had married a Kshatriya, Rambhavati. The point that I want to draw is that the condition of women in India got reduced to nothing during Islamic rules and cruel practices like sati pratha, child marriage, veil and some other prohibitory customs came into being under this influence. This view is vindicated in Karnad’s plays. As we move backward in time we encounter bolder and assertive women.  The Dreams of Tipu Sultan and Tughlaq take us back to the historicity of 18th and 14th century India respectively where the voice of women is silenced or gagged. As we move to 14th century India in Tale-Danda we find movement for equality of sex, castes and religions, and intellectual discourse in which women, too, take part.


As we move backward in antiquity in myth and folk based plays we come across a different set of women- domineering, articulating their sexual desire and indulging in extra-marital relationship without any compunction. In  Karnad’s  Hayavadana  it  is  the  women  who  act as the  deciding  force be it the princess’  stubborn decision to marry the horse that results into the birth of Hayavadana or Padmini’s decision to  have both Devadatta’s head and Kapila’s body that takes her to extra - marital relationship with Kapila  and for some time she enjoys completeness. When the illicit relationship is discovered it is not she who  is accused of by Devadatta. He accuses Kapila and they end their life fighting. She does not intervene. She lives by her own whims and fancies. Even their death is decided by her:

PADMINI  :  They  burned, lived, fought, embraced  and  died. I stood silent. If I’d said, ’yes, I’ll  live  with  you  both’, perhaps  they  would  have been  alive  yet. But  I  couldn’t  say  it.  I  couldn’t  say, ’yes’.  No, Kapila, no, Devadatra.  I  know   it  in  my   blood  you  couldn’t  have  lived  together. You  would’ve  had  to  share  not  only  me  but  your  bodies  as  well. Because  you  knew  death  you  died  in  each  other’s  arms. You  could only  have  lived  ripping  each  other  to  pieces.  I had to drive you to death. You forgave each other, but again, left me out. (Hayavadana 176).


Not  only  this  she  decides the  fate  of  her  child in  a  way  that  suggests that her  child  is  the son of both Kapila and Devadutta:

PADMINI  (without  looking  at  him)  : Yes, please. My son is sleeping in the hut. Take him  under your care. Give him  to  the   hunters  who live  in  this  forest   and   tell   them  it’s  Kapila  son.They  loved  Kapila and  will  bring  the  child  up.  Let the child grow up in the   forest with   the  rivers and  the   trees.  When   he’s   five   take him to the Revered Brahmin Vidyasagara  of  Dharmaputra. Tell  him  it’s Devadatta’s  on. (Hayavadana 176).


Thus   giving  charge  of  her  son   to  Bhagavata  she  decides  to become sati on the combined  pyre of  Devadatta  and  Kapila. One  wonders  of the  two  friends  are  not   the  victim  of  the  female  protagonist. Does she   have  the license  of  playing  fatal  games  with  her  husband   who loves  her  honestly  or  with  her  husband’s  friend  who  devotedly serves them  as  Hanuman  served  Sita  and    Ram? Who is responsible for the tragic end?  Is this the healthy way to create female identity? Does the play endorse sati system as chosen by the widows themselves?


However one  thing  that  comes  out  explicitly  is  that  the  quest  for perfection / completeness  is illusive and untenable. This view is supported by the subplot of Hayavadana (a Karnad’s creation) in which Hayavadana struggles to becoming a complete man. He  undergoes  its  ordeal, meets  several  wise men and finally goes to the goddess Kali where  Devadatta and Kapila had  offered   their  heads  and  gets   the   blessing  to  become  horse  instead  of  man  because  of  linguistic  lapse.  But  Hayavadana’s  voice  remains  human till  he is  purged  of  it  by  the  grace  of  Padmini’s  boy  at  the  place  of Bhagavata. He  makes  the  boy  laugh  and  sing   who  has  never  laughed  in  his  age   of  five  years.


The play presents the case of subversion of patriarchy both in practice as well as theory. The main subject of discourse is whether a man should be identified with his head or body as the accidental mistake in transposition of head causes the problem of identity and the solution offered in the two versions of the story is that the head would be the master. Karnad subverts this idea as it is in  fact, a  patriarchal  design  in  which  a  male’s  decision  is  imposed  on  a woman  and she  is  supposed  to  be  happy  with  that.


In Yayati Chitralekha, the wife of Pooru, makes a very radical point that she has married not Puru but with the youth in him and discovers that identity in Yayati and offers herself to that identity:

I married him for his youth. For his potential to plant the seed of the Bharats in my womb. He has lost that potency now. He doesn’t possess any of the qualities for which I married him. But you do.” ( Karnad: Yayati 65-66)

The king screams in anger but she continues: “ You have taken over your son’s youth. It follows that you should accept everything that comes attached to it.” (Karnad: Yayati 66)

She further humiliates Yayati: “Oh, come, sir. These are trivial considerations….” (Karnad: Yayati 65-66)

Chitralekha is the strongest of all the characters- male or female- in Yayati. She is educated, beautiful and well versed in several arts and warfare. When she is deprived of her legitimate right of her youthful husband, she enters into a dialogue with her father-in-law, who was trying to pursue her to accept the changed reality of Pooru for a decade or so. This dialogue clearly reveals what authority a woman holds:

Yayati (horrified): Hold your tongue! You dare indulge in levity about your husband’s death?

Chitralekha (flaring up): I did not push him to the edge of the pyre, sir. You did. You hold forth on my wifely duties. What about your duty to your son? Did you think twice before foisting your troubles on a plaint son?

Yayati (shouts): Chitra! Take care ….

Chitralekha: Sir! This is my chamber. Only my husband has the right to come in here without my permission, or to shout out my name when he pleases. I am not aware I have allowed anyone else that freedom.

Yayati: I apologize. I … (Karnad: Yayati 62)


In fact, all characters conduct themselves as per there gunas or sansakaras. Sharmistha, the second wife of Yayati is docile and purely conformist while Devayani, the first wife of Yayati takes revenge against her husband and leaves him forever. She behaves in the vein of her father Shukarcharya, the guru of demons. It is true that they all act in a patriarchal setup and if any age can be assigned to this story, it will date back to a period in B.C. It establishes the fact that women had been enjoying greater freedom and space in ancient India than what they had under Islamic rules.    


Chitralekha finds nothing wrong in it to subvert the patriarchal thought. When denied she commits suicide and her suicide brings Pooru back to his sense. He returns his youth to Pooru, “Take back your youth, Pooru. Rule well. Let me go and face my destiny in the wilds.” (Karnad: Yayati, 69).


Another pertinent example in this context is the Queen in Bali: The Sacrifice. The Queen is drawn to the music of a Mahout, goes into the precincts of a ruined temple at the dead of night has sex with him. When she is caught there by the king in a very dramatic way, she admits it but she neither feels guilty nor ashamed of her act. Rather she boldly defends herself and the Mahout. She says that she would prefer Mahout to any one “who is tall and fair with an aquiline nose or ruby lips” ( Bali 77) What she is talking about is not physical beauty as she has not seen him but purely aesthetic joy that she got from his music and sex. Not only this she prefers to have his son. Sumita Roy rightly says; “In this candid declaration she subverts the ideology of identity being restricted to name and form, social standing and acceptability” (Roy 288). Before her the king appears a dwarf; not at all a patriarchal male force. He succumbs to her pressure for not inflicting any harm to the Mahout, not giving any animal sacrifice to atone the sin she has committed as per the demand of the queen Mother, not even dough cock for sacrifice. She stands to her values and conviction be individual freedom or non-violence and to defend the Jain principle of non-violence she as if in a reflex action goes to the extent of violence. When the king got exasperated in pursuing her to accept dough cock sacrifice as a formality to placate the Queen Mother, he picks up the cock and squeezes its neck. This leads to her reflex action: “The Queen…pick up the sword and lunges at him.... She stares at the sword in her hand, horrified…. Suddenly, she presses the point of the blade on her womb and impales herself on the sword” (Bali 124). Thus her reflex action and not her conscious self defies her pursuit for non-violence. She is a shock even for the Mahout who describes her as the seventh type of woman, “While she sinks her teeth into the man and drinks blood, plucks his entrails like strings, the man’s head only laughs and sings” (Bali 116). On the other hand the Queen Mother symbolizes stereotypical royal lady who approves of violence, manliness, women’s subordination and marital fidelity.


Naga-Mandala is regarded as a feminist play that realistically portraits woman’s plight and predicament in India be it the personified Song and Story or Rani, the central protagonist who is shown as a captive of her husband, but subversion or reversal of situation is achieved through magic realism or by supernatural intervention. The play is based on two folk tales he heard from A K Ramanujan: “A Story and Song” and “the Serpent Lover.” The play is dominated by female characters: Story, Song, Rani, Kurudva and though Rani is victimized by her husband, all actions revolve round her. The names of characters are not definitive: Appanna, the cruel husband of Rani, semantically means any one, Kurudavva in Kannad stands for the blind person and Rani has some individuality though it is negated by the author, “a young girl. Her name … it does not matter. But Rani means queen and here the queen of king Cobra. Rani is the most innocent, passive and submissive of Karnad’s characters. She is married to Appanna who lives alone and has illicit relation with a concubine. He keeps her locked up inside the house, and physically and mentally tortures her. He keeps no physical relation with her. She is the only child of her parents and is married before her puberty. So she is quite immature and takes everything for its face value. That’s why she is easily swayed by Naga into sexual relationship at night in the guise of her husband. She does not question despite having tangible proofs and at times a little doubt, too. Question does creep in when she is beaten up in the day and loved at night by seemingly same person. (Khatri 73-75) This dichotomy of her life is the dichotomy of woman’s life who is worshipped as a deity, adorned as grihlaxami on formal occasions in public view or in sayings but is subjected to all sorts of brutality in practical life. Sudhir Kakar observes that “an Indian woman knows that motherhood confers upon her a purpose and identity…” (Kakar 56) The reversal comes in this case also but not through social struggle or intervention but by the Cobra who is the father of her baby in the womb. When the matter is taken to the village court by Appanna she is asked to prove her marital fidelity but no question is asked about Appanna’s well known infidelity. She takes snake ordeal on Cobra’s advice to speak the truth and she swears, “Since coming to this village I have held by this hand only two…My husband and… this cobra…(Naga-Mandala 58) Instantly the cobra slides up her shoulder and spreads its hood like an umbrella over her head. The elders order Appanna to pay her full respect and take the best care of her.  In this way reversal takes place. But Rani remains virtually passive. The magic realism dilutes the feminist struggle for emancipation and equality of rights. At the same time the character does not emerge as a female model despite being empowered. Karnad seems to prefer keeping the audience in the enchanted realm of magic rather than exposing them to the pinching reality of struggle for survival and reversal.


Same is the case in The Fire and the Rain where he prefers the release of Brahmaraksha to the life of Nittilai who struggles to uphold the value of love against the forced loveless marital condition. She is a married tribal woman who is in love with Arvasu, the younger brother of Parvasu, the royal priest. The play moves on in a binary opposition between Brahminical and Sudra / Tribal, ascetic and actor- performer, god and demon and finally natural and supernatural. The two women characters- Vishakha and Nittilai are presented as victim of male patriarchy – the former in a Brahminical set-up and the latter in a Tribal clan drawing parallel between the two opposing cultures. They are trapped in this binary opposition. Vishakha who is married to Paravasu against her wish as she was in love with Yavakri “is exploited by her husband, father-in-law and by her lover. She becomes a sexual weapon in the hands of the male to avenge each other and the male search for knowledge and power suffocates her. While Vishakha gets trapped in the power struggles between cousins and has to bear with her father-in-low’s ‘curdled lust’(FR 33), Nittilai becomes ‘a lamp into the hurricane’ (58), or the hunted of her hunter tribe.” (Renganathan, 267) She further argues that “the Mahabharata myths are reworked only to present the male paradigms and their conflicts, whereas the havoc such conflicts thrust on the women characters of the play is not given serious attention. Karnad’s preoccupation with the male characters and their struggle makes his women figures stereotypical. (Renganathan 267) They are endowed with practical wisdom but they are defeated by their own deaf and arrogant males. Vishakha perceives Paravasu better than Arvasu, his brother and warns him not to involve himself in his brother’s penitential rite and not to be led by him. But he overrules her and becomes the victim of his brother’s devil design. Similarly Nittilai, too, fails to dissuade Arvasu from the act of vengeance. Look at this beautiful wisdom of a tribal woman that excels any of the Brahmins present in the play: “Look at your family. Yavakri avenges his father’s shame by attacking your sister-in-law. Your father avenges her by killing Yavakri. Your brother kills your father. And now you in your turn want vengeance- where will it all end?” (Karnad: The Fire and the Rain ) Can one think of reducing such a wise and valiant character to a passive victim for romanticizing the situation? Prasanna who directed this play reduced Brahmraksha to a shadow presence and revived Nittilai in the end. He says in an interview with me: “He created a metaphor of a tribal girl who represents love, rain, fertility, and every beautiful thing in the world. So I would like Nittilai to be revived, the world to be revived, life to be revived.” (Prasanna)


The intrigue and feud among men in The Fire and the Rain is taken over by women in this post modern age and its reflection is seen in the central character, Manjula in A Heap of Broken Images, a monologue. Manjula, a Kannad writer envies her sister, Malini Nayak for her hold on the English language and the novel she wrote in English. Malini is differently able and is confined to her wheel chair. So she spends more time talking to her sister’s husband. While Manjula is a lecturer in English and she secretly dislikes this proximity. She sends her English novel to press under abbreviated name M K and the novel is published in her name. This is ultimately revealed in her interview before a machine that is essentially her monologue. This is one specimen of Karnad’s empowered working lady of today.


Marriage, sex and transition from orthodoxy to modernity in women particularly are the dominant issues in his latest play Wedding Album. It portrays the character of new women like Pratibha who is married to a Muslim and lives her own life on her own terms and runs an ad agency. She ridicules the traditional idea of a nice girl as one who has no boy friend. Vidula is the protagonist who is a typical middle class educated urban Indian woman who is on the crossroads where she can neither entirely part away from the patriarchy nor can shy away from the new value system to do what suits to you. Social conditioning takes time to get erased. She wants to have financial and social security that the arrange marriage with Aswin, an NRI offers to her and for that she is ready to compromise. That’s why she takes decision on her own to go ahead with this marriage ignoring the objections of her parents and sister when Ashwin arbitrarily changes the schedule of meeting. The new woman in her is also manifested when she is shown enjoying electronic sex at cyber café or when she strongly counters the moral policing of the Hindu youths at the cyber café: “Who gives you the right to come in here? I’ll do what I like here. Who the hell are you to question me?” (Karnad: Wedding Album 70)


This brief perusal of the fiction of women in Girish Karnad’s plays shows that he maps the development of women in India from prehistoric period to the modern / postmodern age passing through different phases and covering women from Brahmin, Kshatriya, Shudra and Tribal. His women are of mixed bag. Some are conformist and stereotypical, some are independent, some are rebel in their own ways while some are ambivalent and they try to create space for themselves within the patriarchal set up. But what seems to guide Karnad is not the feminist concern but the dramatics, the immediate performative effect of his plays on the audience. And as far as the end of the play he uniformly follows Bharat’s Natyasastra that favours a happy ending except in historical plays. He is driven more by the suitability of a folktale or a myth or a historical tale / figure for the articulation of a contemporary crisis than by any philosophy be it feminism or existentialism. However, it is a subject of independent research to examine whether his archetypes articulate fully and effectively the intended contemporary situations or they are made out through extra textual sources like author’s interviews and critics’ comments.


Works Cited:


Kakar, Sudhir. The Indian Psyche. New Delhi: OUP, 1996. Print.


Karnad, Girish. Collected Plays Vol. I & II. New Delhi:  OUP, 2010. Print.

---. Yayati. New Delhi: OUP, 2008. Print.

---. The Fire and the Rain. New Delhi, OUP, 1998. Print.

---. Wedding Album. New Delhi: OUP, 2009. Print.


Khatri, C L. Naga-Mandala: A Critique. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot. 2006. Print.                     


Nayak, Bhagbat. Girish Karnad’s Plays Archetypal and Aesthetical Presentations. New Delhi, Authorspress, 2011. Print.


Prasanna Interview with C L Khatri. Cyber Literature 32.2 (December 2013). Print.


Renganathan, Mala. “Woman as Director: Re-reading The Fire and the Rain.” Girish Karnad‘s Plays: Performance and Critical Perspective. Ed. Tutun Mukherjee. Delhi: Pencraft, 2008. Print.


Roy, Sumit. “Negotiating Ideological Spaces: Reading Bali: The Sacrifice.” Girish Karnad‘s Plays: Performance and Critical Perspective. Ed. Tutun Mukherjee. Delhi: Pencraft, 2008. Print.


Swalter, Elaine (Ed.). The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Print.


About the Contributor:


C.L. Khatri, editor of Cyber Literature and of several anthologies of criticism, is an emerging voice in Indian English poetry. He is a bilingual poet writing in English and Hindi. His three poetry collections in English are Kargil (2000), Ripples in the Lake (2006) and Two- Minute Silence (2014). He edited an anthology of poems on world peace Millennium Mood in 2001. He was awarded Michael Madhusudan Acadmay Award for his poetry collection Kargil in 2002. His poems are widely published, anthologized and translated in different languages in India and abroad. Currently he is University Professor, Dept. of English, T.P.S. College, Patna. He resides at “Anandamath”, Harnichak, Anisabad, Patna- 800002, Bihar. India and can be contacted through email /


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