Friday, October 21, 2011
At the time when Kambar wrote his first play in 1961, the Kannada theatre had begun to move away slowly from the Theatre of Realism (Kailasam and Sriranga), exploring new concerns and newer forms of representation. The ‘Angry Young Man’ of the Fifties had begun to catch the attention of the city audiences (with the Modernist plays of Lankesh) along with the ‘Absurd Plays’ of Chandrashekhara Patil and Chandrakantha Kusanur. Girish Karnad’s first play Yayathi (an interrogation of the old myth from a woman’s point of view) had just been staged (1960), introducing mythopoeic drama to Kannada theatre.
Although the first three plays of Kambar heralded the arrival of a major playwright on the scene, it was his Jokumaraswamy in 1972 that won him national recognition. The production of this play, under the direction of B. V. Karanth, as Rajendra Chenni records, was
“ by consensus the most significant event in modern Kannada theatre.
Here was a play for ‘total theatre.’ It had great songs set to music by
Kambar, ritual worship of the phallic fertility god, humour, uninhibited
treatment of sexuality, conflict and tragedy, albeit muted. Kannada
theatre seemed to have undergone a major scene-shift, from the realistic
proscenium ‘prosy’ stage to the colours, movement, music, and rhythms
of a mythopoeic folk-theatre.” 12
Jokumaraswamy was followed by a series of major plays including Jaisidanayaka (1975), Kaadu Kudure (1976; its film-adaptation won National Award), Harakeya Kuri (1983; film version won National Award), and Siri Sampige (1991; Sahitya Akademi Award). Including the recent play Shivarathri (2011), in all, Kambar has 23 plays to his credit.
Before we consider the last two plays of Kambar in greater detail, a few points in general concerning Kambar’s distinctive theatre may not be out of place. To start with, Kambar, thanks to his childhood days, seems to have absorbed almost all the stage-techniques (like mixing the serious with the comic, use of myths and legends, use of local idiom, use of music and dance, etc.) of folk-theatre. In his introduction to the English translation of Siri Sampige, he makes it clear what his roots as a playwright are:
. . . the folk theatre includes dance, drama, narration, song,
sex, death and religion. Most importantly, it is not only the
actors who are separate from the world outside but the audience
of the play as well. For the audience of the folk play participates
in what is ultimately a shared religious ritual in the form of a paly.
. . . A Londoner finds his dance, song, drama and religion at
different places. A man from my village looks for all these things
together. To simplify, Ibsen is impossible in my village; but may
I add, he should not be possible.13
Let me add that this is as good an exposition of ‘Total Theatre’ as expositions go.
However, he exploits all these techniques and stage-accessories of folk theatre to express modernist themes, which are (as discussed earlier) common to both his poetry and drama; the primeval force of sexuality (Rishyashrunga, Jokumaraswamy, etc.) contemporary political decadence (Jaisiddanayaka, Harakeya Kuri, etc.), the conflict between illusion and reality (Siri Sampige, etc.), tradition and change (Tukrana Kanasu ), etc. The important point to be stressed here is that Kambar’s plays are not ‘single- agenda- plays’; more often than not, most of the major plays of Kambar harmonise two or three themes together as does Jokumaraswamy, for instance.
The last two plays stand apart from the rest of the plays: Mahamayi (1999) and Shivarathri (2011). Even though they also employ ‘prologue’ and narrators to bring together narration and dramatization, and include songs and dances, they do not tell a ‘story’. While the first one is an allegory, dramatization of an abstract speculation about Fate and Human freedom, the second one views the great 12th-century Veerashaiva movement in Karnataka from a subaltern point of view.
Mahamayi: Dramatisation of a Paradox
Mahamayi ( ‘The Great Mother’) is a play that dramatises the most abstract ideas in the most concrete form. The issues it deals with are those that have haunted the human mind since time immemorial – the limits of human freedom and predestination. Where does one begin and the other end?
The myth through which Kambar chooses to examine these abstractions is one of death. There are many such Indian myths like that of Satyavan-Savithri and Markandeya 14 which examine the issue of ‘human will vs. death.’ But the myth Kambar uses is one in the oral tradition. (Interestingly, in this myth it is not a god like Yama as in the classical tradition but a goddess, Shetavi Taayi (Mother Shetavi) who is responsible for one’s death.) Shetavi Taayi adopts an orphan (Sanjiva) and blesses him with miraculous ability to cure any person of any illness. But the condition is that he should treat only those persons whom the Mother approves. The play opens with three patients – the court jester, a grave digger, and a boy the only son of his mother – waiting for Sanjiva’s treatment. When he is examining the three, the Mother signals that the boy should not be cured. Sanjiva agrees but becomes sad that he cannot save the poor boy. Then he comes to know from the jester that the daughter of the king also is fatally ill and that nobody has been able till now to cure her. Sanjiva consents to examine her; but when he is getting ready, his Mother orders him not to treat the princess, making Sanjiva sadder.
Later, Sanjiva accidentally runs into the princess who, sick of her illness, is about to commit suicide; and he feels her pulse. At once, he diagnoses what illness she suffers from; and gives her a root to wear around her neck always. Miraculously, she recovers; and both fall in love with each other. However, the Mother, terribly angry with her son’s actions, orders him to remove the root from the princess’s neck and allow her to die as she is predestined. In order to demonstrate her power, she causes the sudden death of Sanjiva’s pet deer and also the latest mistress of the jester. Still, Sanjiva refuses to listen to her. In the end, the Mother manoeuvres in such a way that the princess herself removes the root from her neck and dies. However, when the Mother blesses her son doubling his life-span, he gives half of it to the princess and saves her. The last scene of the play shows a giant bird (symbol of Death) shrieking in pain and the maid of the Mother informing Sanjiva that due to the Mother’s curse henceforth he will lose the power of healing anybody.
The paradox of ‘Man’s freedom and pre-destination’ is at the center of the play and it is emphasized throughout. In the prologue itself, the Mother declares: “I am the Mother / the final destination / of all things, moving and motionless.” Girimallige supplements her statement that she is “the final, irreversible destiny.” When Sanjiva tells the Mother that he treated the princess so that she may escape “untimely death,” the Mother bursts out:
Who are you to decide what is timely or untimely for
her? Can you decide her fate / With your medicine?
Sanjiva: Then, is my medicine – Human effort – of no consequence
Mother: Truth lies too deep. Your knowledge, son, does not have the
power to dive so deep.”
Despite his Mother’s admonition, Sanjiva chooses to disobey her because he knows, as a man blessed with knowledge, he has to make a conscious choice and that only through such an attempt can he define himself as a man:
Sanjiva: I knew a moment would come when I would be compelled to take a
decision as a man. But I didn’t think I would also have to decide to go
against Mother. To marry you I must get my freedom. I am
grateful to you, Princess, for making me realize how valuable,
how inevitable freedom is.
Accordingly, he makes the conscious choice of saving the princess and thus establishing his human identity.
While discussing the inter-textuality of the play in his introduction, G. S. Amur states:
The ‘triumph’ of man over death has been the theme of myths
all over the world, though the instruments of victory have not been
the same. In the Markandeya myth, which figures prominently as a
sub theme in The Mother Supreme for example, it is bhakti,
devotion to God; in the Savithri myth it is jnana, true knowledge,
and in the Hercules myth, it is sheer physical power. 15
So, what does the play connote overall? Does it endorse the freedom
of Man? For, Sanjiva does save the princess against the Mother’s wishes; also, if Mother is, as she herself declares in the prologue, “Mother of all knowledge and being,” how could she not know that Sanjiva would gift part of life given to him by Mother? If she knew and kept quiet, why should she curse him? Superficially, it does appear that ‘ human effort, Love, conquers all including death’; but, we should remember that even the princess’s re-birth is due to the indirect blessing of the Mother in that it is she who doubles the life-span of Sanjiva. Then, is death the only ultimate truth available to Man? Not exactly; it is Sanjiva who consciously decides to give half of his life to the princess. While the myths of Savithri and Markandeya celebrate love and bhakti respectively, Mahamayi is open-ended and leaves the ambiguity of Life and Death unresolved.
‘Mah¹mane’ Vs ‘Aramane’: A Subaltern View
“Gelatige” (‘To the Friend’), the last poem in the recent poetry- collection of Kambar, Ellide Shivapura, (2009), ends with these lines :
“ What do we need to live?
A few illusions, a few more dreams!
My dreams are young, and I have scores of illusions!
Even an aged tree can put on new leaves if there is sap;
I possess a little even now to give – and to receive;
That is enough to lift up the horizon.”
These lines reveal why, even after 21 plays and six collections of poetry besides fiction and critical essays Chandrashekhara Kambar has something new to say, something new to show. Ancient Sanskrit rhetorician Rajashekhara defines poetic imagination as “pratibh¹ navanavønm∙¶a¶¹lini”16 ; and here lies the reason for Kambar’s ever fresh pratibh¹
or imagination: he has still a few dreams of ideals and functions, he is still left with a few illusions –dreams and illusions of a better society, and a just social order. Here, the title of Martin Luther King’s famous speech comes to mind: “I have a dream.” As long as writers have dreams –dreams of a just society –so long they will always be creative, and always fresh. Kambar is blessed with such dreams, still.
This new (22nd ) play of Kambar also is the dramatization of a ‘dream’ –the dream of Basavanna and his followers, who initiated the 12th-century- socio-political revolution, called Sharana Revolution.17 As a matter of fact, the Sharana movement was of such great significance and impact that, beginning with Harihara, the 13th-century poet, till today, there have been at least 200 literary works on that movement and the leaders of that movement. Even if we limit ourselves to the 20th century, we find eminent writers like A. N. Krisnarao and Girish Karnad writing plays on the movement.18 However, the Sharana movement was of such magnitude and so inclusive that no single work can do justice to all the aspects of that movement. All that a writer can do is view the movement from one perspective or another.
However, Kambar’s play is different from all other works on that movement; also, this play is different from almost all other plays of Kambar also. Surprisingly, Kambar’s play (different from his other plays ) strictly follows the three Unities enumerated by Aristotle: the duration of the play is limited to just one night –the terrible, dark night after the Sharanas, Haralayya and Madhuvarasa, were meted out cruel form of death punishment; the night in which king’s soldiers hunted out the Sharanas (Basavanna’s followers); the night in which the atmosphere of fear, spread everywhere, made the dark new-moon-night darker. The place of action also is limited to just one part of the city of Kalyana, king Bijjala’s capital –that part of the city of Kalyana in which the marginalized sections of society such as dalits, prostitutes, gamblers, and such others lived; in fact, excepting Basavanna and Bijjala all other characters of the play belong to the lowest strata of society. Kambar as a playwright is known for his well-built plots and fully developed characters; but, in this play, there is not much of a plot which has a clearly marked development consisting of beginning, rising action, climax and the falling action. Rather, there are a series of scenes beginning with the socially ‘lowly’ ones and ending with the meeting between Basavanna and Bijjala. In the beginning, the Sutradhara briefly sums up the story up to the death of Haralayya and Madhuvarasa, and then the play begins. While some characters are on the realistic plane, a few others like Mugdha Sangayya, the guardian-goddess of the city of Kalyana, and a few others waver on the borderline of realism and symbolism. All these details add up to the fact that this play attempts to view the Sharana movement from the point of view of the marginalized sections of society. The play, keeping time constant, goes on moving from one place to another in the city, like a good cameraman moving from one place to another to catch the varied activities of different people at different parts of the city.
Through such techniques (as the lack of an organic plot, focus on the marginalized sections of the city, moving from one part of the city to another, unity of time, etc), the play intends to address certain interesting questions regarding the Sharana movement: a) How did the contemporary lower classes view the Sharana movement? b) What values of life generated by the movement entered their lives? a) and what was the nature of conflict between Basavanna and Bijjala?
a) we should note that every socio-religious movement has two aspects:
the first aspect deals with certain abstractions regarding the nature of God, creation of this universe, God-man relationship, etc. which is based only on faith alone to accept; and b) the second aspect consisting of certain codes of conduct (including food, dress and social behavior) pertaining to daily life.
Coming to the first aspect of abstractions, although the Sharana movement was a mass-movement, one cannot say that the lower classes had understood such concepts of ‘i¬a linga,’ ‘d¹søha,’ ‘k¹yaka,’ ‘sth¹vara-jangama,’ and such (linga, Shiva’s symbol, worn on the body; sharing what we have with others; physical labour to earn our daily bread; ‘stationary-moving’). In the play, on one occasion, Kallappa (a poor manual labourer) tells his neighbours: “It is said that Anna (elder brother; referred to Basavanna) gives every one a soul? Is it true?” Then Kashavva, replies: “And they give it free; it is called lingappa.” Kallappa then exclaims: “ If it is given free, couldn’t you bring home two or three? We could also be happy playing with it.” This piece of conversation makes it clear that common people, even the contemporaries of Basavanna, hadn’t grasped the abstract symbolism of ‘i¬a linga.’ However, certain basic codes of conduct and behavior preached by Basavanna (such as ‘do not kill; do not steal; do not tell a lie; . . . ) had reached the common people and had certainly made an impact on them.
The incident of ‘the stolen pearl-ruby necklace belonging to the palace’ establishes this point. When Damodara, the son of Harihara pandita (court-scholar), steals the necklace on the instigation of his father and hides it in Kashavva’s hut, the old man declares that ‘there is some unbearable stink of a dead rat inside the hut.’ When Sangayya the innocent gets it and gives it to one Kamakshi, she thinks she doesn’t want such a costly object and transfers it to the prostitute Savantri. She declares that she hasn’t earned it by her sweat and discards it in a corner of her house. But, the scholar-Brahmin Harihara covets such a precious necklace and induces his son to steal it.
Similarly, as the play points out, such unlettered and poor people like Kallappa, Kashavva, the old man, and such evaluate the incidents of ‘the death sentence meted out Haralayya and Madhuvarasa, inter-caste marriage, and such on the basis of ‘Natural Justice.’ Tungavva, a poor woman, declares in anger: “ That wretched king! One doesn’t know how many people the he gets killed and what for!” Kallappa responds: “Damn his mother! Look, I cannot bear even to look at such people.” Sangavva the prostitute defends her profession with the king: “ Sir, we also have certain principles. They do not change from person to person; king or commoner, they are the same for all.” The thief, Chikkayya, who comes from Kashmir (sent by his king) to kill Basavanna, goes through a change of heart and becomes a Sharana, a follower of Basavanna. All these details establish the fact that Basavanna’s movement had percolated even to the lowest strata of society and had deeply influenced their lives. The ones that remained untouched and away from the socio-religious movement of Basavanna were those that belonged to the upper strata of society like Harihara the scholar and palace-dwellers.
The entire play of Kambar is built on the binary contrast of ‘Aramane-Mahamane.’ ( ‘Aramane’ means the palace, an institution established by kingship; ‘Mahamane’ was the meeting place of all Sharanas irrespective of their class or caste.) At the climax of the play, both these binaries confront each other, at midnight, at the house of Sangavva the prostitute. Whereas Basavanna, representing Mahamane comes there in search of Sangayya the innocent, the king, representing the palace, comes there seeking pleasure. This is the most dramatic point in the play: the saint confronting the king in a prostitute’s house, on a dark ning of new-moon day, when the king’s soldiers are hunting down the saint’s followers everywhere. The playwright exploits this incident to establish the values and principles of ‘Mahamane’ and ‘Aramane.’
Basavanna treats Savantri the prostitute as ‘mother,’ but Bijjala the king treats her a low woman who lives selling her body. ‘Aramane’ (palace) connotes rules and regulations, scandal mongers, spies and soldiers; ‘Mahamane’ is a place where all the Sharanas meet irrespective of their caste-creed-class and discuss their experiences. The language of ‘Aramane’ is Sanskrit, the language of gods (‘devabhasha’); the language of ‘Mahamane’
is the spoken language of all people, scholars and commoners .
On this occasion, the words spoken by Basavanna to Bijjala constitute the organizing motif of the play:
“ Sir, a king’s laws should be based on god-consciousness; and they should
respect every man’s self-respect. You continue to be a king only till
your laws do not violate these two principles. But your laws violated them;
hence we had to seek a path different from yours.”
Bijjala comes to fully understand the purport of these words of Basavanna when he is about to be killed by Jagadeva and Bommarasa. “ After all is said and done, I am a ‘Bhavi,’ a man of this world; pardon me, Basava,” Bijjala confesses with regret and gets ready to die.
Kambar uses the Vachanas (sayings) of Basavanna and other Sharanas in appropriate places, which lend the play a different dimension altogether.
They are not quoted either directly or in full; rather, their echoes are heard in certain phrases and sentences, which not only make such situations more dramatic but also harp back to the poetry and concerns of the Sharanas, and give a spiritual grace to such passages.
The title ‘Shivaratri’ is charged with meaning at many levels. Interestingly, even the highly experimental and allegorical novel Chakori also is narrated by dreams ‘on the night of Shivaratri.’ The term ‘Shivapura,’ a fictitious name that occurs in most of Kambar’s poetry and plays as a metaphor for ‘ideal society’ echoes ‘Shiva –ratri.’ This play, at a particular point, equates Kalyana (Bijjala’s capital) with ‘Shivapura’ (‘. . . It was our dream to make stagnant water flow, mix it with new and fresh water, and thus create ‘a meeting of rivers’ called Shivapura’ ).
At another level, the term ‘Shivaratri’ is charged with terrible irony. According to ancient Hindu myths, the rituals conducted on the day of ‘Maha Shivaratri’ (on the 14th day of the black fortnight, in the month of Magha) symbolize such life-giving values as ‘non-violence, Truth, sympathy, and forgiveness.’ But, as the play shows, that particular Shivaratri was charactedrised by heartless violence let loose by a cruel political system. As the Sutradhara says, “ on that day, nothing was there, in the city of Kalyana, in the proper place and order. None had any trust in others. . . . in that night, the night of Shivaratri, Kalyana didn’t sleep at all.” What we find on that night, in the place of Shiva’s worship and prayers, are the bloody chase and murder of the Sharanas by the soldiers; the abominal cruelty of kingship that doesn’t want to return even the deadbodies to their relations but prefers to offer them as food for hawks and crows; fathers who force their children to steal from the palace; the established thief who becomes a Sharana; the prostitute who adheres to certain principles even in her lowly profession; Sangayya the innocent who insists on performing his linga-puja only in the prostitute’s place; and, to cap it all, the meeting between the saint and the king in the house of a woman of low repute --this is indeed and absurd world and the play’s title compels the audience to grasp this absurdity.
Shivaratri, echoes back to Kuvempu’s Smashana Kurukshetram19 (the cemetery called Kurukshetra) and Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is the latest, different and powerful play –a major contribution to Kannada theatre.
1 Shiva-pura: the locale of most of the plays and poems of Kambar is called
‘Shivapura.’ The term ‘Shiva’ connotes not only the name a god but it also has many other meanings like ‘auspicious’ and ‘good’; hence, intentionally, Kambar seems to use that term as a metaphor for the ‘ideal society.’
All the translations from Kambar’s poetry and plays, excepting the ones acknowledged, are mine.
2 Agrahara, Krishnamurthy, “kanimoli’; monthly column in Mayura (Sept. 2011),
3 (coll.) Maitri, K. M., Kumararama Mattu Krishna Gollara Kavya (Vidyaranya:
Kannada Univ., Hampi, 1999).
4 (coll.) Shankaranarayana, T. N., Junjappa (Vidyaranya: Kannada Univ., Hampi,
5 Adiga, Gopalakrishna, “Bhuta,” in Samagra Kavya (Bengaluru: Sapna Bookhouse,
6 tr. Sumatheendra Nadig, Selected Poems of Gopalakrishna Adiga (Sahitya Akademi, 2005), 29-30.
7 tr. Swamy, Nagabhushana, Rocks of Hampi (Sahitya Akademi, 2006)
8 Satchidanandan, K., “ Towards a Poetics of Inversion,” Indian Literature-180 ,
9 This is the famous statement in Mundaka Upanishad (3:1) which comments on
the relationship between the ‘soul’ and ‘body’ or God and individual soul; while the one, soul/God, remains unaffected by worldly affairs, the other, individual soul/body is always involved in action (karma) in the world. The full stanza is as follows:
“dw¹ suparª¹ sayuj¹ sakh¹y¹ sam¹nam vruk¬am pari¬aswaj¹te/
tayøranyam pippalam sw¹dwat nashnanyø abhich¹ka¶»ti//
(Two birds that look alike perch on the branch of the same tree; while one bird eats the fruit and enjoys its taste, the other just looks on.)
10 Bahubali, the brother of emperor Bharata, defeats his brother in war and then,
renounces everything and goes into meditation. This Bahubali-Bharata confrontation is dramatically depicted by the first epic poet of Kannada, Pampa (10th century) in his epic Adi purana. In the 15th century, Chavumdaraya got the famous idol called ‘Gommateshwara’ sculpted on the hill near Shravanabelugola (Karnataka).
11 Allama Prabhu is one of the revered mystic saint-poets, who was a part of the
Sharana revolution headed by Basavanna. Allama’s Vachanas have been translated into English by many; but the most well-known is: A. K. Ramanujan, Speaking of Shiva (Penguin Classics, 1973), 143-169.
12 Chenni, Rajendra, “ The Theatre of Chandrashekhara Kambar,” intro. Siri
Sampige and Other Plays (Bangalore: Provokeindia, 2009), xii.
13 Kambar, Chandrashekhara, “ My Writing,” intro. English tr. of Siri Sampige,
14 The story of ‘Satyavan-Savitri’ is found in many Puranas. As foretold before his
birth, Satyavan meets an early death; but his wife, Savitri, argues with Yama and persuades him to grant life again to her husband. Aurobindo’s epic in English, Savitri, is based on this myth. Markandeya, a mythical figure, is a devotee of Shiva; when Yama’s servants come to take away his life, he embraces ‘Shivalinga,’ the symbol of Shiva, and escapes death.
15 Amur, G. S., “The Mother Supreme,” intr. Mother Supreme, English translation of
16 Rajashekhara, 9-10th-century Sanskrit playwright-rhetorician, describes ‘pratibha’
or imagination in these words; according to him poetic imagination is always fresh and it seeks newer images and ideas.
17 For a detailed discussion of the Sharana movement and major ideals of that
movement, see Ramanujan’s detailed introduction to Speaking of Siva.
18 A few of the major plays on Basavanna and his movement in Kannada, in the 20th
century are: B. C. Balur, Basaveshwara; A. N. Krishna Rao (Anakru), Jagajyoti Basaveshwara; Lankesh, Sankranti; M. M. Kalburgi, Kettitu Kalyana; H. S. Shivaprakash, Mahachaitra; Girish Karnad, Tale-danda.
19 K. V. Puttappa (Kuvempu)’s Smashana Kurukshetram is a poetic play thatpictures the Kurukshetra battlefield on the last day of the war, and looks at the war from the point of view of common soldiers and widowed wives of dead soldiers.