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Tata Literature Live 2017: Girish Karnad on Agnivarsha and writing mythological drama

While accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the eighth edition of the Tata Literature Live!, Girish Karnad said that he found it surprising that his first play Ma Nishaadha was based on mythology, despite the fact that he did not know much about this subject. Over the course of his career, he would gain a larger understanding of myths and write many plays on them which also deftly commented on contemporary issues. One such play is Agnivarsha, which tells the story of two warring priests who try to appease the rain gods. In a conversation about this drama, Karnad spoke about the process of writing it, as well as his views on theatre in general and re-interpreting ancient wisdom.

Karnad says that he was attracted to theatre in his youth, and wanted to explore all of its forms. He also spoke about how he picks the themes for his plays. "I often go shopping for subjects; when I saw Rajagopalachari's Mahabharata and the part about Yayati, I said, 'Here's a play!' I wanted to write a Puranic play. In these plays, gods appear in the end like in Brechtian works. But I found that they were all dripping with bhakti. I wanted to question this, and Ebrahim Alkazi's influence on me allowed me to do this," he explains.

It took Karnad more than 30 years to write Agnivarsha. Shanta Gokhale pointed out that Agnivarsha seems to explore what the older generation does to the next, to which Karnad said, "You see, I was young then," with a chuckle. He explained that the father in the play puts the son down, and the son in turn blames the father for interfering in his life. Gokhale also mentioned that this play deals with many parallels, such as the juxtaposition of the upper and lower castes. "I didn't want it to be Brahmanical," asserted Karnad, who said that the destruction in the play actually came from the Brahmins. "The tribals have their own ideology and they question the Brahmanical way of thinking," he added.

Girish Karnad - Copy

Girish Karnad at the Tata Literature Live Awards. Image from Facebook/@TataLitLive

He equated the yajna or fire sacrifice, which is at the center of Agnivarsha, to the very art of drama itself. A Polish scholar pointed out to him that such a sacrifice is a central symbol which has multiple connotations. "The conductor of the yajna had to be perfect, they could not make mistakes. They did not conduct these sacrifices for themselves, they were only intermediaries. The purpose was never self-driven; it was for the yajmana. He pointed out that in the play, just as it is in the Natyasastra, the trouble resides within. "The vighnas come from inside. Purvasa chooses to leave the yajna and goes home. It makes you wonder about whether someone like Sanjay Leela Bhansali anticipated the trouble related to Padmavati. You cannot actually anticipate it," he said.

Gokhale pointed out that there was a thread of water running through Agnivarsha, such as the characters' wish for rain and the drying up of water bodies, which stand as a symbol of life. She also remarked that Karnad seems to be interested in structures, especially those aspects of plot which recur within a narrative. Karnad explained that in Tughlaq, a play on this Delhi Sultanate ruler, he used the trope of a chess game to further the plot and the wars that occurred in it.

He said that according to ancient learning, everything that happens in the three worlds is repeated in theatre. As an art form, it represents dharma-artha-kama-moksha, and he tried to use this four-fold concept to guide the structure of his play. He confessed that he wasn't sure if this would meddle with the soundness of the narrative, but that he based his decision on his own instinct. When asked how much he relies on instinct as opposed to the generally accepted rules of drama, Karnad said that he always ensures that people are not bored by his work. He also writes multiple drafts of each script, in order to better them. "You don't finish a play, you only abandon it. And unlike poems, which are often written for one person, you write plays for an audience. You don't want to bore them!" he said.

The thrill of a play doesn't just lie in writing it, but also digging into it," Karnad remarked, adding that a script is unlikely to work unless it is internalised by a writer. Karnad also spoke about theatre and the experience of watching it. "Too often we believe characters based on what they say. How can you trust a character to tell the truth, just because they have said a particular dialogue?" he asked. For this play, Karnad worked with American actors too, and he said that their constant questions about the plot and their own characters proved to be a great exercise for him. It forced him to explain the play in a secular context. "Indian playwrights don't question their material, which is actually essential. Falling in love with your own material is another danger," he said.

The way he presents the myth in Agnivarsha is a deviation from the way it is written about in scripture. When asked if he thinks it is acceptable for writers to interpret history and myth in their own way and present contrastingly different versions, he said, "A myth does not explain anything — and therein lies its greatness. When you re-write a myth, you offer something new to people," he said. We live in an age where questioning things is taboo. Society has become sanctimonious, and what we see on TV and in books is what will sell," he explained. He used the example of Ramanand Sagar's chaste Ahalya to explain this point; this interpretation of the mythological character saw her being completely unaware of Indra's real identity when he pretended to be her husband and took her to bed.


Published Date: Nov 21, 2017 13:48 PM | Updated Date: Nov 21, 2017 17:21 PM

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