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Janardan Ghosh’s Theatrical adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana: A Transcendental Experience –

Dr. Payal Trivedi

Theatre director Janardan Ghosh (Kolkata) stands apart from his contemporaries on account of his philosophical approach to theatre which is unlike the commercial outlook of the urban Indian drama largely oriented towards making monetary profit. Ghosh’s statement, “Theatre I pine for (is)… A Transcendental leap into the unknown with the calmness of a Sannyasin”…(Ghosh interviewed 2010) is certainly a unique perspective which recalls for us the sacred tradition of art in India devoid of materialistic concerns espoused by the ancient Indian treatise the Natyasastra(200BCE – 200 CE). This is best reflected in his presentation of the renowned Indian playwright Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana (Padatak Theatre Kolkata 2010) The production can undoubtedly be called ‘old’ considering the fact that it is almost been five years since its inception. Nevertheless, Ghosh’s illumination of the spiritual aspect in Indian playwriting as endorsed in the classical Indian treatise Natyasastra has made this theatrical presentation of Karnad’s Hayavadana inimitably timeless and thus perennially worthy of attention.

Ghosh’s production invokes ArdhanareshwaraShiva and Shakti or purusha and prakriti in the setting of the play before the beginning of the performance. It primarily brings about the realization that Natya or drama in the Indian tradition springs from the NatarajaShiva who is to be rightfully prayed during the start of any production and that Indian theatre is not just another commercial activity pursued for minting money. This cleanly distinguishes art in the Indian concept  from that of the West which I feel is a realization that becomes mandatory in today’s times when urban Indian theatre with ‘lights, camera and action’ is largely seen devoid of its revered meaning. The director says, “The set has been designed by Sri Partho Mazumdar, who preferred a Human female’s body as a scenic backdrop to engulf the performing space. ..I found the female body to be a symbol of impersonal nature fettered to the tide of time that represented the stage…the body suggests the nature…that of a woman ready to offer herself to her beloved…that is the strong image of pleasure-giving and fertility…And the Actors in the space as males (irrespective of the sexes) were free to move with their creative urge exploring the space. It was a symbolic copulation of Shiva( the neutral space) and Shakti (the actors) …(Ghosh’s Brochure on Hayavadana 2012)


Ghosh’s choice of the set-design emblematic of the union of Shiva and Shakti also seems a veritable recognition of the fact that the proportionate blend of two apparent binary opposites stri and purusha or male and female enables counter the incompleteness felt by men and women throughout their lives. The combination of a man’s sense and a woman’s sensibility makes a complete or a perfect persona and no man or woman is solely perfect or complete. This is an integral message implied in Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana. The female protagonist of Karnad’s play is Padmini, the beautiful damsel in search of a “complete man” with a combination of sound body and sound intellect based on the common understanding that head is the master of the human body. In order to fulfill her wish, she avails a chance to exchange the heads of her intellectual husband Devadatta and his able-bodied friend Kapila but this exchange does not bring any benefit to her. The men with their heads interchanged cannot satiate her urge for a complete man as their bodies soon turn to their original shape. As a result, Padmini gets utterly disillusioned for her attraction towards Kapila’s macho physique which proves that her desire to obtain a complete man is futile as there is no complete man in this world; a known fact which is implicitly conveyed by Karnad in the play through the story that is actually borrowed from Kathasaritasagara (The Ocean of folktales 11th century attributed to Somadeva). In the original story, a woman Madanasundari happens to accidently exchange the heads of her husband and her brother and accepts the man with her husband’s head based on the common notion that head is the master of the body. Karnad’s Hayavadana dismantles this thinking and questions whether head actually rules the human body and the question is increasingly pertinent in today’s world wherein we see humans not making sense out of their apparently sensible organ i.e. the head misusing it for destructible purposes. To put across this message in front of the audience, Janardan Ghosh intelligently uses some of the photographs of celebrities with their heads exchanged on a bulletin board for instance Manmohan Singh’s head on Soniya Gandhi’s body etc., It seems an indirect way of questioning whether heads exchanged on bodies would or would not make any difference to humans. It is evident that Ghosh has a very candid way of getting across the message in Karnad’s play. However, this straightforward mode does not overshadow his philosophical way of telling Karnad’s tale to the spectators resorting to the primeval Indian spiritual concept. While he puts these weird photographs in front of the people, he also makes sure that he begins his presentation with a MantraBhadram Karnebihishnuyamdevaha from the Rigveda. Mandala (Book) 1: Sukta (Hymn) 89: Mantra (Line/ Stanza): 8 which elucidates the importance of the sensory organs like eyes and ears that are meant for humans to see and hear the preaching or values of morality. Beginning with this recitation, Ghosh not only indicates his viewers that he means to present an Indian play executing the ancient Indian theatrical tradition of initiating any performance with an auspicious invocation to the deity, (as he also indicates with his set-design alluding to Shiva and Shakti) but he also implies that his audience must comprehend the spiritual message ingrained in Karnad’s play. (at least, I feel so)


Hayavadana is a play that interrogates the significance of the human head on the human body and for the same; Karnad uses the imagery of Ganesha the lord with an elephant head and human body. The play initiates with Ganesha prayer followed by Bhagavata’s (sutradhara’s) question on the apparent imperfection of the lord’s appearance which is taken for granted as perfection. This, at the very outset signifies to the readers that the initiative is towards comprehending the essence in Ganesha’s apparently distorted image. Among all the performances of the play that I’ve seen so far, Janardan Ghosh’s, Hayavadana explores this implied meaning in Karnad’s text brilliantly on the stage. The viewers are taken from an open air location to a closed auditorium while reciting hymns in praise of Ganesha. The significance of meditation is implied in this brief journey of the audience from outside to inside paradigmatic of the journey within the consciousness to understand the import of the philosophical question ‘Who am I’.  Initiating the play by implying the necessity to ‘know thyself’ in order to comprehend the meaning of completeness, Janardan Ghosh appears paying a tribute to Indian spiritual school of thought which promotes the understanding that completeness is beyond the material definition of perfection and Ganesha is an apt evidence of the same as his animal head and human body is an imperfect image as per the social standards and yet he is the lord of perfection. Karnad’s play brings in the emblem of Ganesha and denotes that perhaps human head and human body are not enough to be perfect or complete humans. Janardan Ghosh highlights during his representation of the play that humans have to enter into the process of self-introspection in order to comprehend the meaning of completeness as he takes his audience from the mundane outside world to inside the closed silent auditorium which demands switching off the mobile phones as his actors demand at the very onset of the action thus indicating that all worldly concerns have to be discarded to gain the realization of the highest order. This Indian spiritual terrain advocating the negation of the earthly attachments in order to arrive at an understanding of completeness becomes further conspicuous in Ghosh’s production of Karnad’s Hayavadana during his interpretation of the main plot of Padmini. In Karnad’s Hayavadana, Goddess Kali satisfies Padmini’s desire to obtain a complete man by exchanging the heads of the two men Devadatta and Kapila. Director Janardan Ghosh sees Kali in the play as Chinnomosta Devi. He states, I preferred Chinnomosta in place of Kali because she is a version of Kali as a Tantric goddess of Rasa. The juice of life. The cutting of her head and drinking her own blood signifies the sustanence of life on life itself. (Ghosh’s Brochure on Hayavadana 2012)


The goddess Chinnomosta sacrificed her head in order to fulfill the thirst for blood of the fellow goddesses after killing the danavas or demons. Chinnomosta is an embodiment of self sacrifice. When Padmini is described as Kali who kills the demons and Ghosh identifies the goddess Kali as Chinnomosta, his interpretation seems to bear the implication that femininity in the Hindu tradition is aggressive and intimidating bloodthirsty goddess but is also the sublime prakriti that nurtures the world through her sacrifice. Ghosh signifies in his production that this Chinnomosta Devi when fulfills Padmini’s desire of having a complete man in her life, self-sacrifice is accompanied in her boon. This is because, when Padmini becomes a Sati in the end as her desire to obtain a complete man remains unfulfilled and she dies in the funeral pyre of both the men who kill each other in a sword fight, Ghosh makes her take an eminent flight from the worldly to the non-worldly abode where all material attainments become insignificant and the only truth that remains is union of the Jiva with the Shiva. Therefore, in this respect, Ghosh’s choice of stage design alluding to Shiva and Shakti also seems the apt backdrop for the rendition of Karnad’s play highlighting its spiritual import.


Karnad weaves a small sub-plot of a horse-head creature in Hayavadana. This creature has a horse’s head and a human body and he longs to become perfect by getting rid of his animal head in order to become a complete man. Karnad chooses this figure to question the significance of human head on human body as he feels Ganesha being the awesome God would not serve the purpose in the same endeavor. We see that the horse-head creature does become a complete horse in the end, but does not become a complete human. Director Janardan Ghosh does not choose to elaborate the sub-plot of the play in his production. It seems closing his play with Padmini receiving a discourse from the sutradhara/preceptor (played by Ghosh himself) on the fleeting nature of human life, the director makes his intent of philosophical interpretation of Karnad’s play very clear. Ghosh chooses an artist who sits outside the auditorium regularly making statues which seems indicating that till the humans remain circumscribed by the material, it would make illumination regarding self impossible. This is the message implied in the Kathopanishada which describes the necessity of the human mind to keep control over the swift horses that represent material desire in order to attain spiritual enlightenment (Vatsyayan 22-23). As Ghosh gives a discourse to his heroine in the end about the ephemeral human existence and nature of the soul, this thought of the Kathopanishada is reverberated in the mind and it starts traversing the empirical abode escalating towards spiritual enlightenment.


Ghosh has not only given a new meaning to Karnad’s play by interpreting the play in the Indian spiritual light but has also underlined the significance of performing a play in the Indian dramatic tradition wherein every theatrical rendition as candidly presented in the Natyasastra is a sacred activity of the Yajna for it germinated in order to illumine humanity towards the attainment of transcendental state of beatitude or moksha. As the director says, … ‘Theatre is purgatory it sanitizes me and my actors, and even purges the society.  It prepares us for a healthy journey and a coveted end, presumably Moksha.’ (Janardan Ghosh, bio-brief via email 2013)


Works Cited:-

Janardan Ghosh’s Brochure on Hayavadana. 2012. (sent via email)

Karnad, Girish. Hayavadana. OUP, 1976.

Karnad, Girish. “Preface on the Natyasastra in Knowledge, Tradition, Text. Approaches to Bharata’s Natyasastra”. Sangeeta Natak Academi Ed Amrit Srinivasan. : Hope India Publications, 2007.

Kurtkoti, Kirtinath. “Girish Karnad An Introduction.”. Contemporary Indian Theatre, 1989(September): 79-83.

Kapoor, Kapil. Literary Theory: Indian Conceptual Framework. New Delhi: EWP, 1998.

Rangacharya, Adya. Trans. The Natyasastra. Munshiram Manoharlal Publications, 1996.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Bharata: The Natyasastra. Sahitya Academi, 2001.



*Hayavadana: An inspiring play by Girish Karnad that talks about the incompleteness experienced at various mortal beings in life as they constantly equate completeness with physical or material perfection. The play has a horse-head creature(Hayavadana: who has a horse’s head and a human body)in search of completeness. He wishes to become complete human by getting rid of his horse-head. The main plot of the play has the female-protagonist Padmini who mismatches the heads of her husband Devadatta and his friend Kapila in a Kali temple in order to avail a complete human in her life with a combination of brain and brawn. She thus makes the mistake of equating completeness with physical perfection and finally has to pay a heavy price for her misconception. She becomes completely disillusioned as her husband Devadatta’s head attached to Kapila’s body fails to retain the agility of Kapila and thus becomes fragile. Thus, Padmini does not get a complete or perfect combination of sound mind and sound body but rather remains dejected as her husband’s body converts into a frail built. Finally, she runs to Kapila who manages to transform Devadatta’s delicate body into a strong physique through the means of exercise. However, Kapila also talks about the memories of the body independent of the head on which he fails to have control. In the meanwhile, Devadatta comes in search of Padmini and finds her with Kapila. Thus, seeing his wife with his friend, Devadatta gets annoyed and engages in a duel with Kapila. In the end both the men die and Padmini becomes Sati. The play is based on the story of Mandansundari (in Kathasaritasagara)- the woman exchanged the heads of her husband and brother in front of goddess Durga. Thomas Mann’s novella Transposed Heads also inspired Girish Karnad to compose this play. The strength of the play lies in its undertones regarding the inability of humans to become complete at the human/ mortal level which makes it philosophically relevant and provokes the quest for the meaning of completeness or perfection in the metaphysical sense.


*Janardan Ghosh

Research Fellow,

RKM Vivekananda University.                                                                Phone – 098302 60233

Email – /

Inspired by his School Principal Fr. Hess S. J. and his father Ranjit Kr. Ghosh, who was an amateur actor in Dhanbad, he started his theatre activities at a very young age. Though he started studying engineering, he left it after a year and did his major in English from Calcutta University and simultaneously was passionately involved in theatre and worked under Subhasish Sarkar (Taranga), Jayati Bose (Sutrapat), Anjan Datta (Open Theatre), and Anjan Dasgupta (Nabanatyam).  He took training in Puppetry from Partho Majumdar (Calcutta Puppet Theatre), Voice Projection from Samaresh Ghosh (PEX, AIR), Audio and Video Skills from Urmimala Basu (Actor) and Jagannath Basu (Director, Door Darshan).


He launched his own theatre group OGLAM (Organization to Give Life A Meaning) with an experimental performance based on Milan Kundera’s text (Immortality) in Derozio Hall (Presidency College) when he was an undergraduate student. He was trained specially by Wolfgung Kolneder (Grips Theatre, Berlin) for the first Bengali Grips production Care Kori Na, which turned out to be a turning point in his life. Immediately after that, he directed a major production “Flounder – Ekti Aitihasik Bhool” (based on Gunter Grass’s novel Der Butt) in collaboration with the Goethe Institute. Badal Sarkar (Shatabdi, Kolkata), Julien Beck (Living Theatre, USA) and Jerzy Grotowski (Poland) are strong theatrical influences in his aesthetical approaches. He has attended workshops conducted by Badal Sarcar, John Retallack (Company of Angels, UK) and Royal Shakespeare Company (UK). His most experimental work till date is “Ha Radhe… Let me be as She was” based on Chaitanya’s Raganurag Bhakti and Rilke’s Duino Elegies. It was a solo performance exploring the transcendental sexual discourse of a male devotee trying to be a Manjari (Radha’s Sakhi).


He wrote and directed plays for Taranga, OGLAM, Premier High School and College students and other Cultural Groups. He collaborated with many non-proscenium and informal theatre artists like Parnab Mukherjee (Theatre Curator and Activist), Sanchayan Ghosh (HOD, Kalabhavan, and Shantiniketan), Deb Kumar Paul (Mime Artist) and Brian Russo (Theatre Scholar, Actor, USA). He created a niche for himself through his off-off ‘Academy’ theatre.


He has received awards for Acting and Direction from various West Bengal based Annual Theatre Competition Organizers and received the Monash Golden Flame Award from Monash University, Australia, hosted by The Telegraph, Kolkata and Co-coordinator, International School Award, British Council. He was later given an opportunity by the legendary thespian Shyamanad Jalan to work for Padatik as a Resident Director. He started his Padatik-OGLAM journey with Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana. After that followed Ek Je Chillo Brikkho and Beyond Freud. He is strongly involved with the young people’s theatre and has taken up major projects for Sangeet Kala Mandir, Apeejay School, Queen of Missions School, MC Kejriwal Vidyapeeth, The Heritage School, Krishnamurty Schools, Pune and Varanasi, De-Nobili Schools, Dhanbad, Sijua, Digwadih and Mugma, and many others.  He writes articles on Education, Performance and Spirituality for NIE, Times of India and conducts workshops for actors, students, teachers and executives.


All this while he had strived for a fresh and new method to engage with his passion and used Yoga extensively in his Theatre Art. He was trained in Yoga from the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, Divine Life Society, Hrishikesh, and he attended a crash course in Yoga-Theatre under the guidance of Dr. Ananda Giri of Yoganjali Natyalayam, Pondichery.


He is presently doing an academic research on “Acting as a Spiritual Discipline” from RKM Vivekananda University, Belur as a Research Fellow and Teaching Assistant.  He is directing Mukta Mon based on Tagore’s philosophy and Khela… The Game by Sishir Kumar Das for Padatik-OGLAM, scheduled to be launched in March 2013. He was invited by ZID Theatre, Amsterdam for a Summer Project to read a paper on Experimental Indian Theatre, and he also represented India as an Artist in the Connecting Classrooms programme in UK (Stratford-upon Avon), for a seminar on Shakespeare for Students hosted by Royal Shakespeare Company and British Council. He has recently participated in the International Ibsen Festival, Delhi as an actor under the supervision of the world famous Polish Theatre Director W. Steneweski.


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