May 25, 2020
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The Myths Within Myths

Old tales as modern drama

The Myths Within Myths
The Fire And The Rain
By Girish Karnad
Oxford India Paperbacks Rs 145; Pages: 74
ONCE there were four. Mohan Rakesh, who wrote in Hindi, died untimely. Badal Sircar continues to do theatre in Bengal, but has not written a new play in years. Vijay Tendulkar, the Marathi playwright, is today more closely associated with TV and cinema. That leaves just one, and the only one of the quartet that formed the vanguard of contemporary Indian theatre in the sixties, who continues to write plays—Girish Karnad. These four tried to catch the nerve of post-Independence Indian middle-class psyche in their early plays like Adhe Adhure, Evam Indrajit, Khamosh Adalat Jari Hai, and Tughlaq. Avidly translated into other Indian languages, these plays formed the bedrock of a new Indian theatre movement.

Launching his play, The Fire and the Rain, last month, Karnad referred to the 'silence' in the writing of drama in India for 1,000 years. Sanskrit drama died in the 9th century, he said, and there were no worthwhile written theatre texts until this century, as the Indian mind could not see drama as a written form. Drama was always improvised in performance. How traditional forms could be utilised to revitalise Indian theatre in the urban context was a ceaseless topic of argument. "In the sixties, after I had written Yayati and Tughlaq, I continually faced this problem," Girish told me a couple of years ago. "What shall I do with our traditional theatre? That's when I was tempted to try something like Hayavadana, which was probably the first play written by an urban playwright using folk conventions."

And in this very first play Girish created the striking device of 'framing', which was effectively used in his Nagamandala in the shape of stories abutting other stories. In The Fire and the Rain the 'frame' is theatre itself. Like his previous plays, Fire too was written in Kannada and translated into English by the author.

Fire derives from the intertwining of two myths from the Aranya Parva (Forest/Pandava Exile) of the Mahabharata. Bharadwaj Rishi is made into the younger brother of Raibhya Rishi and family rivalry pinned on ego and lust. Karnad posits opposing forces through many symbols, the title being the most obvious—the fire of the seven-year yajna by Raibhya's son Paravasu, and the rain for which the king of the drought-ridden country performs the ceremony.

The drama opens with the leader of a Yakshagana drama troupe requesting a performance to celebrate the completion of the ritual. It closes with a performance, where Aravasu possessed by the mask of a demon, draws his brother, Paravasu, their father's killer, into the flaming yajna fire. And then comes the Bharatvakya or the playwright's last message to the spectator: the wheels of time must not be turned back; it is the future and the larger welfare that matters.

After 10 years of sadhana and armed with divine knowledge, Yavakri, son of Bharadwaj, comes to Raibhya's hermitage. There he encounters Paravasu's wife Vishakha, and he seduces her. In the myth it is force, in the play it is the culmination of a childhood attraction. An enraged Raibhya invokes the Brahma Rakshasa (the spirit of a Brahman dangling in limbo between heaven and hell) who annihilates Yavakri.

Alongside this Brahmin sex drama runs the sweet, rather flaccid story of the love between the tribal girl Nittilai and Aravasu, who since he has been accused by his brother of killing their father is thrown out of the Brahmin fold. Given the choice by Lord Indra, Aravasu, chooses to liberate the Brahma Rakshasa invoked for evil by his father, rather than bring back to life his beloved Nittilai.

Brahminicide, patricide, fratricide, adultery, mortals wooing and winning the gods, celestial beings granting boons, mortals misusing them—the play reads like a minor Greek tragedy. Fire is a finely crafted, thought-provoking play. Girish's notes on the nature of drama, rituals and the relationship between yajna and theatre are particularly interesting.

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