In translating Chandrasekhara Kambar's Two Plays, Krishna Manavalli performs commendable service to Kannada writing

In her recent translation of Chandrasekhara Kambar’s Two Plays, Krishna Manavalli has carefully selected two representative works: Rishyshringa and Mahmoud Gawan.

Sudhakaran Ramanthali June 30, 2020 13:06:03 IST
In translating Chandrasekhara Kambar's Two Plays, Krishna Manavalli performs commendable service to Kannada writing

Chandrasekhar Kambar, one of the stalwart playwrights of this country, began his literary career when the Kannada theatre in the 20th century was beginning to adopt new forms and new ways of expression. With the navya movement gaining ground, the Western modernist influences were felt powerfully on Kannada writing. Many major Kannada playwrights of the time began experimenting with the modernist forms like the absurd play. But Kambar drew upon his native North Karnataka folk roots. He brought the mythopoetic imagination into this navya theatre.

A highly prolific writer, Kambar has experimented with almost all the theatre forms of his time like the absurd play, political satire, children’s play and so on. But his métier is employing the ancient and folk myths. Kambar has often said, “A Londoner finds his dance, song, drama and religion in different places. But a man from my village looks for all these in one place. The folk theatre gives this wholesome experience. So, Ibsen is impossible in my village, and may I add, he should not be possible!” Kambar brings the “collective” and participatory nature of the folk drama alive in his writing.

In her recent translation of Kambar’s Two Plays published by Penguin Random House, Krishna Manavalli has carefully selected two representative works for translation.

Kambar’s early play Rishyshringa and his latest Mahmoud Gawan. In fact, there are a host of differences in the conception and execution of these two plays. The first play is rooted in the folk mythology, but the second is a historical play with an element of phantasy woven into it. Krishna’s translation of these plays, which are literally at the two ends of what I would like to call the “Kambar spectrum,” is simply remarkable.

Rishyashringa came as a sequel to Kambar’s first major poem, ‘Helathena Kela (Listen, I Will Tell You)’. Kambar considers this poem the nucleus around which all his works took shape. ‘Helathena Kela’ narrates how the organic community of Shivapura is destroyed by the radical changes that sweep over it. The Gowda, the chief of the village, is killed by a rakshasa (demon/foreigner) who comes to the village in the form of a tiger. He kills the Gowda and takes his form. He rules the village and the Gowda’s household. The Gowda’s wife even gives birth to his son, Balagonda. Kambar explores the theme of the colonial conquest, and its devastating effects on rural places like Shivapura in ‘Helathena Kela’.

In translating Chandrasekhara Kambars Two Plays Krishna Manavalli performs commendable service to Kannada writing

In her recent translation of Chandrasekhara Kambar’s Two Plays published by Penguin Random House, Krishna Manavalli has carefully selected two representative works for translation. Images via YouTube

There are various versions of the myth of Rishyashringa.  In the original Rishyashringa myth, when this young man arrives in a city struck by famine, it rains. But in Kambar’s play, this myth is subjected to new twists and turns. The central character Balagonda (the demon-Gowda’s son in ‘Helathena Kela’) is studying in the city.  In the meanwhile, Shivapura is struck by a severe famine. People of Shivapura believe that if Balagonda returns to the village, it will rain. But nothing happens. It does not rain since Balagonda’s birth is in itself illicit. In his recent review of the Two Plays in Outlook, K Satchidanandan observes, “While the play is about sin and expiation, it also carries an oblique critic of our colonial burden that we inherit from our urban training.” Balagonda’s “existential dilemma” results from the disconnect with the “tradition into which one is born and to the contemporary environment where one flourishes or fails”.

No doubt, most of Kambar’s plays are based on myths, legends, or fables from North Karnataka.  Kambar employs the regional modes of narration and theatre conventions. But Mahmoud Gawan stands apart from this corpus. It is a historical play set in 15th century North Karnataka. In this play, instead of the folk language, Kambar opts for what the illustrious sarod maestro and literary critic Rajeev Taranath terms “neutral language”. What is more, Gawan is not from Karnataka.  He is from Iran. But he knows of the renowned Sufi saint Bande Nawaz. Inspired by the saint’s life, he comes to India to find a land where people live together with many different faiths, religions, and philosophies. He becomes the diwan of the Bahamani Sultanate. But the unexpected posting of a foreigner in the highest official position angers the native chieftains and officers who plot to eliminate him. At the tragic end of the play, Gawan laments, “Now, man’s fate must be decided only by ruthless politics. The main inspiration behind the rise of the Bahamani dynasty was the blending of the two religions… But now politics doesn’t need morality.”

The play reflects the prevailing political and social environment in the country in a significant manner.

Having internalised the creative nuances of the folk, as well as the highly urban/cosmopolitan forms of language used by Kambar in these two plays, Krishna has done a brilliant job of bringing them into English. In doing so, she has also performed a highly commendable service to Kannada writing. She has taken two excellent plays of Kambar to a larger readership. Besides, she captures sharply, “the issues of history, modernity and the global imaginary” which Kambar engages in his works. I wholeheartedly endorse Taranath’s observation that Kambar’s creativity in Rishyashringa and Mahmoud Gawan has been preserved vividly in her translation.

Two Plays by Chandrasekhara Kambar (in Kannada); translated into English by Krishna Manavalli | Penguin India | pages 212 | Rs 299

Sudhakaran Ramanthali writes in both Malayalam and Kannada. His published works include three novels, a collection of stories and a script.

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