Indian playwright fuses mythology, a love triangle and a horse head in Hayavadana

Hayavadana tells the story of three friends caught in a love triangle that leads to an intense identity crises after the heads of two of them are switched. It's considered one of the most important Indian plays of the 20th century. This audio drama is part of Soulpepper Theatre Company's Around the World in 80 Plays series.

Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre stages new production of the 1971 play, which asks ‘must the head always win?’

Hayavadana, which translates to horse face, is a 1971 two-act play written by Girish Karnad. It tells the story of three friends caught in a love triangle that leads to an intense identity crisis after the heads of two of them are switched. (Getty/Soulpepper Theatre Company)

*This episode originally aired on May 19, 2021.

At the beginning of Indian playwright Girish Karnad's 1971 play Hayavadana, the audience is introduced to a character with a man's body and a horse's head. 

The character, whose name is Hayavadana, pleads with the narrator Bhagavata to help him become a complete man. He says he has tried everything to accept his fate and has even taken an interest in the "social life" of the nation. 

"But where's my society?" he asks. 

A story within a story, the play features Hayavadana's quest for completion, coupled with a love triangle between best friends Devadatta and Kapila, and the woman they love, Padmini.

'Multiple perspectives of wholeness'

Written during the Indo-Pakistan war — almost 25 years after the Partition of India — Hayavadana is about division and wholeness, according to Miriam Fernandes, the director of Soulpepper Theatre Company's audio drama production of the play.

Hayavadana is part of the theatre company's audio drama series Around the World in 80 Plays, a collaboration with IDEAS as we air accompanying documentaries to each play. 

Playwright Karnad, who died in 2019, was writing at a time when nationalism was on the rise in India, said Fernandes.

"There was this idea, which is very much reflected in the India of today, very sadly, of India needing to be a Hindu state, one idea of India, one religion."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and president of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Amit Shah gesture as they celebrated victory in India's general elections, in New Delhi on May 23, 2019. Modi has served as India's prime minister since 2014. (Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)

Hayavadana captures the youth of India in the early 1970s, according to Sharada Eswar, the artistic collaborator and singer in Soulpepper's production. About three decades ago, she also helped Karnad produce an Indian production of the play.

"[India was] a country that was trying to find its own identity," said Eswar. "And so I think it is sort of reflected in every single aspect of this play." 

In Hayavadana, the idea of completion encompasses many things. 

"What Girish Karnad is doing in this play, that I love about it, is offering multiple perspectives of wholeness... as opposed to this quite dangerous idea, I think, of needing to be one thing," Fernandes said.

The body vs. the head

In the play, division faces the three characters Devadatta, Padmini and Kapila head-on — literally.

Devadatta, an intellectual who lives mostly in his mind, tells his best friend, Kapila, who is strong and athletic, that he will sacrifice himself to the goddess Kali if he can marry Padmini. Kali grants Devadatta his wish, though for some time, he forgets his promise. 

Later, after Devadatta suspects something is up between his wife and best friend, he visits Kali to pay his dues. 

"And so he cuts off his head because he can't bear the thought of him not being the person for Padmini, because she is the person for him," said Fernandes. 

Kapila arrives, and the discovery of his best friend's body prompts him to cut off his own head. 

All of this leaves Padmini, who is expecting her first child, alone. She pleads to Kali for help. Kali instructs Padmini to place the heads back on the bodies and press a sword to their necks. Padmini does this, and Devadatta and Kapila come back to life.

But Padmini realizes that in her panic, she had mistakenly put the wrong heads on the wrong bodies. 

Girish Karnad was a prominent actor, director and screenwriter, in Hindi and Kannada cinema. For four decades, he wrote plays that used mythology to address contemporary issues. He has translated his major plays into English. ( Manish Swarup, File/AP )

Kapila and Devadatta find the mix up funny at first. But then Kapila raises an important question. 

"Whose wife is she?" he asks in the play. "This is the hand that accepted her at the wedding. This, the body she's lived with all these months. And the child she's carrying is the seed of this body."

The severing of heads — and the characters' attempts to resolve the mix up — invites the audience to reflect on an age-old issue: What's more important, the body or the head? 

"This comes back to this also very Eastern philosophical question of who am I?" said Fernandes. "What is my identity? Am I my head or am I my body? And where is my self?"

The story of the three friends ends in tragedy — in this life, anyway.

"To me that moment is about the idea of wholeness is not going to be achieved in this lifetime," said Fernandes. "It's about multiple lifetimes. It's about knowledge that's gained over multiple lives. And that if you don't figure it out in this life, you have another lifetime to go." 

'Connected to each other'

Hayavadana fares much better than Padmini, Devadatta and Kapila. After praying to Kali, he becomes a complete horse, though he is dismayed to find he still has a human voice. To rid himself of it, Hayavadana sings India's national anthem. 

"I have noticed that the people singing the National Anthem always seem to have ruined their voices," he says in the play. "So I try."

Sharada Eswar is a storyteller, writer and vocalist who works in multiple art forms. About 30 years ago, she assisted playwright Girish Karnad in an Indian production of the play, Hayavadana. (Submitted by Sharada Eswar )

Eswar said the anthem encapsulates the identity crisis India found itself in when Karnad was writing the play. Though there was an emphasis on Indian identity, English was favoured over regional languages. 

"We're trying to come out of this colonization and yet we are colonizing each other in so many, so many ways," said Eswar. 

Although the themes of political division resonate today, Fernandes said she also sees parallels between Hayavadana and the COVID-19 crisis in India.

"I think COVID has really challenged us to, or potentially could challenge us to understand that we are not separate, that we are intrinsically connected to each other. And these divisions that we create of states, of lines, of countries, are superficial," she said. 

Guests in this episode:

Miriam Fernandes is an actor and the director of Soulpepper Theatre Company's audio drama production, Hayavadana.

Sharada Eswar is a writer, singer and arts educator. She is the artistic collaborator and singer in Hayavadana.

Find the full production credits for the Soulpepper Theatre Company production here

* This episode was produced by Melissa Gismondi.

Around The World in 80 Plays is an audio drama series mounted by Soulpepper Theatre Company that takes listeners on a trip around the world. IDEAS will be your guide on that journey with radio documentaries exploring the cultural and historical context from these countries. Find more episodes from this series here.

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