Chandrasekhar Kambar is arguably the most formidable and the most prolific playwright in Kannada today, besides being a significant poet and novelist in the language. He is one of the few writers who have redefined modernism in Indian literature by reconnecting it with native, mostly folk, traditions and regional histories so that they give us fresh insights into contemporary life, not to speak of providing writers with deeply communicative forms. But this does not at all mean that Kambar is a revivalist; on the other hand, he is profoundly conscious of the moral and political dilemmas of our time and uses chosen moments from history, chosen forms from folk theatre and chosen myths and fables to fight the negative aspects of colonialism, globalisation and the divisive politics of hatred flaunted by a new brand of communal politics. But he does it in truly artistic and nuanced ways suggesting rather than explaining the issues. Those who have read his earlier plays in translation, like Sirisampige, Mahamaya or Jokumaraswamy , or watched their performances, must be familiar with the subtle strategies he employs to create a counter-modernist theatre brimming with poetry, humour, irony and suspense and initiates a conversation among the classical, folk and modern traditions of Indian theatre.
The first play, Rishyashringa, a sequel to Kambar’s long poem, Helatina Kela (Listen, I Will Tell You) deals with the questions of identity, loss of selfhood, the legitimacy of human existence and their complex relationship to the survival of earth. The myth of Rishyashringa that appears in Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Jataka has different versions. In the most popular version Rishyashringa was born to Rishi Vibhandak and Urvashi, the celestial danseuse, who had been sent by Indra to seduce the rishi whose powers would otherwise have eclipsed Indra’s. But Urvashi leaves once the son is born and the sage, who now turns a misogynist, brings up Rishyashringa in a forest away from the sight of women. When the kingdom of Anga suffers from a severe drought and famine, king Romapada is advised to bring the chaste young Brahmin from the forest, whose arrival would herald rains. Vaishali, a charming young woman is sent into the woods, who secretly meets the youth, awakens his adolescent desire and leads him to Anga, now blessed with abundant showers. Rishyashringa, however, marries another woman, Shanta, and settles down.
Kambar gives many twists to this story. Here Rishyashringa is renamed Balagonda, the Gowda’s son, who has gone for studies in the city, whose return to the parched village would dapple the land with green like a “magic sandal breeze”. The village prepares to accord him a royal welcome. But they soon come to learn that Balagonda is not really born to Gowda, as the real Gowda had been devoured by a demon who had come in the form of a tiger and it was his bones left in a well that had taken the present Gowda’s form. This new Gowda, who is a demon, tells people Balagonda’s return is not going to bring any rain. People run away from Balagonda. The old man of the village tells the real story of his origin to Balagonda who gets rid of his old karma by throwing his bundle into that very well where his real father’s remains lay.
While the play is about sin and expiation, truth and rebirth, it also carries an oblique critique of our colonial burden that we inherit from our urban training; it is the burden of his fake identity, a creation of his schooling in the city, that Balagonda gets rid of to regain his real selfhood. The writer has often suggested, through his poems, novels and plays that we need to decolonise ourselves so that we regain our real identity, which has elements of the pre-colonial, but is not entirely constituted by it. It is wise to recall that in one version of the Rishyashringa story, it is because Rishyashringa left the country that the country suffers from drought. Past can be a burden, but without it we have no identity. Yet at times the past comes back as a demon in human form, like in contemporary India, leaving us to wonder whether this is our real past, as the past for the revivalist is a constructed, exclusivist and insular tradition, a source of hollow pride in all that is negative and devoid of all that is positive and progressive. Balagonda’s existential dilemma is not without political implications: the question ‘Who am I’ is related at the same time to the tradition into which one is born and to the contemporary environment where one flourishes or fails. As the sutradhar sings: “You forget, you stumble, and search for something that can hold in your words/ You are lost in doubt/ and you forget the truth of the body, my king!/ Is the touch on the skin, or the skin lost in touch?/ That awareness of you and me/ Flares up like spark from the flint stones.” And the Earthwoman sings: “Come, drape me like the cloth next to your skin…I shed my shyness, my shame and my honour/ And became fully naked then./ I remember that now, I make my body a temple/ I dig into my stomach to hide your secret there!” The play connects the concept of identity with the other, with nature and with the ability to love and fertilise the earth. It also reminds us of Basava’s vachana that the body itself is the temple and labour, heaven.
Mahmoud Gawan is completely different in conception though this too uses ancient techniques. The old man who narrates the story acts like the chorus in a classical play. He at times also becomes characters in his tale, like in the classical Koodiyattam play where the actor transforms himself into the people and even objects he describes--a mode of acting called pakarannattam or transformative acting. The old man narrates the story of Mahmoud Gawan to a group of college students on a visit to Bidar that was the seat of a madrasa once famous throughout the world, built by Mahmoud Gawan, originally from Iran, when he was the diwan of the place. He was a rare combination of a poet, scholar, philosopher, scientist and strategist. On meeting Khwaja Kirmani, he was told about Bande Nawaz, the Sufi saint whose shrine in India he was eager to visit. He left his wife and children in Iran and proceeded to India with some horses, most of which he sold but for a pair.
In Gulbarga he was surprised to hear the strange tale of Shivalinga Swamy exchanging his saffron clothes with Bande Nawaz’s green ones, in a show of Hindu-Muslim solidarity. The day came to be celebrated annually as a cloth-swapping festival with the shouts of Din Hari Hara—a sign of syncretism. Alauddin Bahamani, the sultan of Bidar, was ill at that time and his daughter-in-law, Begum Nargis, was asked to take over the reins as his death might lead to a civil war between the foreigners and the Deccanis in his court, as the Sultan’s son, Humayun, was ill-tempered and unfit to rule. Kirmani had already informed the court of Gawan’s visit and he was warmly received by the Begum, who happily made him the Diwan of Bidar and requested him to put an end to the troubles in the country, making Prince Humayun the titular ruler.
This elevation of a foreigner to the highest official position angered aspiring native officers who plotted to get him killed along with the prince, by conspiring with the king of Telengana, a sworn enemy of the Sultan. The Turks in the court flattered Gawan and had him sent to the battlefield along with Humayun. The defeated Jalal Khan, the king of Telengana, pretended that he wanted to buy peace and invited Gawan for talks, where his messengers brought him a gift with a dagger hidden beneath it. The wise Diwan had foreseen this possibility and the plan was foiled in time. The Turks at home, in league with the Nizam, had spread the rumour that Humayun had been killed in battle, forcing the prince to return, as his throne had been usurped by his drunkard brother Ahmed Shah. They also create a situation of turmoil at home and eventually murder Humayun. But Gawan becomes immensely popular with the conquest of Goa using the gunpowder he had ordered from Iran, the fair treatment of the poor, rejection of caste privileges, exemptions of tax to famine-hit areas and the cause of religious amity he espoused with passion.
Mahmoud Gawan’s growing fame makes his enemies more jealous; they use Neeli, a court assistant and a strong wrestler, to trap him. They blackmail her, saying that she had been found near the body of the dead prince and could be charged with murder, while promising to exonerate her provided she steals a sealed paper from Gawan’s office so that they prepare an order clearing her. Instead, they forge a letter using that official paper available only to the Diwan addressed to the neighbouring Odra King, promising to share power with him if he helped him overthrow the present Bahamani Sultan Ahmed Shah who is a callous drunkard. The conspirators then spread the canard across the land.
Gawan is called for a trial by Ahmed Khan. Many charges are raised against him. Asked about the expenses of the madrasa run by him, Gawan reveals the truth that he was spending all his salary on running it and supporting poor students. Interrogated about the tax exemptions he had granted, he says it was only an extension given owing to the famine and drought. Then, god Vitthala himself appears as Mahar Vitthala and pays all the dues, saying they had good crops this year, though everyone realises it was Vitthala himself only when the regional head appears later and requests Gawan to extend the exemption as the drought was even worse that year. Neeli also tells the Sultan about the plot hatched by the Nizam and the Turks and how she was blackmailed into being an instrument of treachery. But the Sultan would hear nothing of this, for his ears had been poisoned by Gawan’s foes and he himself was jealous of Gawan’s fame. He sentences Mahmoud Gawan to death. Before being executed by the Sultan, he tells a distraught Neeli: “When politics turns foul, it is our duty to protest”, which sums up the play’s central message. Gawan salutes people like Shivalinga and Bande Nawaz who stood for religious amity and goes further to comment on times of misfortune like the one that has befallen India among many other countries at present: “In times like these, everything is topsy-turvy! Nature revolts. Even seasons race helter-skelter like scared cattle. Cause and effect lose connection. Therefore now man’s fate must be decided only by ruthless politics”. Gawan dies in the Sultan’s hands with the cry, ‘Din Hari Hara’. He reveals it was Allah who had appeared as Vitthala to pay the deferred taxes and declares that what he did would never go in vain as the politics of unity and moral wisdom would ultimately triumph over the divisive politics of manipulative hatred. God from Heaven echoes his words. The Bahmani dynasty ends as politics gets delinked from ethics and religious harmony gives way to the politics of othering.
It is hard to overemphasise the relevance of the play in India today where the insular politics of an exclusivist majoritarian nationalism has won a disgraceful, if transient, victory. I should add here that Krishna Manavalli has found the apt idiom to translate Kambar’s plays into a language with an ethos and a syntax radically different from those of Kannada.
(K. Satchidanandan is a distinguished poet and critic who writes in Malayalam and English)