Girish Karnad’s English translation of his Kannada play is based on a short narrative from the epic Mahabharata. It is in a play in play format, set in a land facing drought and famine so severe that many have fled it. The king of the land is performing Yagna (a 7-year long fire sacrifice) under the supervision of the chief priest Paravasu. His younger brother Arvasu is an actor (hence outcaste by his Brahmin community at the behest of Paravasu). The troupe that Arvasu belongs to wants to put up a performance in front of the king, the priests and all the citizens of the land as a break from the yagna. The Prologue and Epilogue are about this yagna – natya while the 3 acts, in flashback unveil the tragic story of Arvasu, Paravasu, their father, cousin and significant others that has happened a month ago.
In his notes, Karnad details the relation between yagna and theatre; the similarities and differences between the two. He says, ‘Kalidasa talks of theatre as the desirable fire sacrifice of the eyes (Kantam kratum chakshushan)’. Both activities involve human performances, precise gestures, speech and a carefully worked out action leading to a predetermined finale. There is also a perennial possibility of destruction in both, either caused by external factors – bad weather (natural or political) or audience, mischief makers/ demons or by internal factors – ill prepared performers. By performing within an enclosure both yagna and theatre are guarded against external threats. And a chief priest, guru or a director limit the possibility of internal failures. One major difference between the two, the author states is; ‘drama is open to and became the prerogative of castes and communities excluded from the yagna.’ He also touches upon the topics of the birth of drama and the ancient Indian natyashastra. Few important points to note are; a. drama should direct one’s mind toward the realization of the purusharthas (dharma, artha, kama, moksha) b. drama is a precarious, potentially disruptive event. The possibility of being misunderstood is built into it because of its social character.
The story of the yagna (fire) for rain has all theatrical possibilities; family feud, love, hatred, alianation, loneliness and man vs nature conflict. Two brahmin friends – one pursuing name and fame and the other devoted to god and in search of knowledge; the former more revered than the latter even when the latter is more capable, their kids – germ of revenge, common love interest, murders, a ‘different’ brahmin son with interest in dance and theatre (supposedly low caste) who also happens to be madly in love with a hunter girl (lowest of the castes) hence family resistance and alienation. Some of the best and wisest lines in the play are uttered not by the respected priests or seekers but by the hunter girl Nittalai. She undoubtedly is the voice of reason whose innocence questions challenge the brahminical elitist status quo. Right at the start of Act 1 she questions the story of Yavakri’s rigorous penance resulting in Lord Indra blessing him with all the knowledge. Her asking for a proof to Brahmin’s accomplishments after secretive acts mirrors the modern scientific mind.
My point is since Lord Indra appeared to Yavakri and Indra is their god of rains, why didnt Yavakri ask for a couple of showers?
The dialogue between Arvasu and Nittalai in the final act reveal more of the huntergirl’s might mind as her abilities to forage, heal, help and survive even the worst of times and situations.
Better that (become a eunuch) than become the man you hate.
It is Nittalai who encourages Arvasu face his fears and to act and revenge his brother not by killing him but by making him realize his mistake through his act. And she is the one who consistently brings the focus on the true need of hour – rains while the other characters (all male, other than Paravasu’s wife – and Yavakri’s former lover – Vishakha) are preoccupied with egos and feelings of hatred and revenge.
Ambitions of Paravasu, vengefulness of Yavakri, Raibhya’s rage and Nittali’s pure love for Arvasu leaves them all dead in the play. Arvasu’s naivity, his humanness and empathy, his passionate performance and dance as Vritra in the play pleases Indra, the god of rain and liberates Brahma Rakshasa and brings rains to the parched land.