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03 February 2016



the bitter-sweet headache of identifying the protagonist

Presented as a Paper at a Symposium on Indian Literature in English held at the Department of English, University of Madras, Madras on 11th March, 1994.

Lionel Abel, in his book Metatheater: A New View of Dramatic Form, writes that [it is] “the necessary form for dramatizing characters who, having full self-consciousness, cannot but participate in their own dramatization” [fall into the canon of meta-characters]. Citing this, Joesph Federico says that the heroes of the metatheater have “the consciousness of a dramatist as well as that of a character...” This implies that it leads to a conscious role-playing by the character that cannot participate, and also cannot but participate. Is this ambiguity or ambivalence? That is the question of the day.

When the idea of finding what actually Naga-Mandala is all about came, I was confounded, like so many scholars who still break their heads about the chicken or the egg question regarding Paradise Lost: ‘Who is the hero?’ My trouble was, is there a hero in Naga-Mandala at all? Is the story-teller in the play the hero? After all, the meta-play is about his predicament. Or is it either of the two - Naga and Appanna - in the story told? Or is the story-teller without the play - Girish Karnad, the author - himself? The second question was easily solved - neither Naga nor Appanna could be the hero since, if we went by the normal norms of tragedy, Naga does not have any fatal flaw. First and foremost, Naga-Mandala is not a tragedy; second, Naga is only an instrument. Appanna is too unrounded a character and again a sort of an instrument to explore Rani’s drama that his character lacks any weightage. Then, he cannot be a hero. If we can take the story within the story, or the play within the play more seriously than the Man’s story, then Rani stands to qualify as the protagonist. However, since the story of Rani is only a story told by ‘the Story’ to the Man on grounds of mutual help, it really does not qualify for any further discussion. What can be noticed already are the various layers to the play that makes this Chinese box a fascinating conundrum.

The story of Naga-Mandala is more a story of ‘the Man’ and ‘the Story.’ Of the two, the dominant role is that of ‘the Man’ since the crux of the argument is about his predicament and his imminent death, if he does not keep himself awake at least for one full night. It is obvious, the situation, as the Man says and I quote:
I may be dead within the next few hours. I am not talking of ‘acting dead.’ Actually dead. I might die right in front of your eyes. A mendicant told me: ‘You must keep awake at least one whole night this month... If not, you will die...’ [...] I asked the mendicant what I had done to deserve the fate. And he said: ‘You have written plays. You have staged them. You have caused so many good people... to fall asleep...’ (N-M, pg 1 - 2)
It is a matter of life and death for him, whereas, for ‘the Story’ it is not so crucial. Of course, a story lives only when it is retold. That is the quintessence of oral tradition and that is one of the drive-home points in the play. But then, if ‘the Story’ could not narrate the story that it possesses that particular day, it could be done some other day. For ‘the Man’ though, as he says, ‘Tonight is the only chance.’ Without the Man, the Story-teller, the playwright, the story could not be passed on. Hence we can safely conclude that the play is about the Man.

At this stage of my analysis, a new ambiguity arose, a new temptation to question: Can Karnad qualify as the protagonist of the play? Even as Shakespeare used to play with the modal ‘Will’ in his plays and poems in multifarious ways to imply to him in a playful conceit, is Karnad playing with the idea of the story-teller, playwright? The reasons are not far to seek. The Karnad of the Haya-Vadana who wrote in 1972 that ‘... there is our large-hearted audience. It may be that they fall asleep during a play sometimes,’ and the Karnad of Naga-Mandala who writes in 1988 that ‘[I] have caused so many good people... to fall asleep, twisted in miserable chairs...’ are two vastly different playwrights. That is the journey. That is his curve. The Bhagavata of 1972 has evolved into the Man, the Story-teller of 1988.

The very English diction, despite the Indianness of his folk-tale rendition, albeit verbal than oral, of Haya-Vadana has metamorphosed into the quintessential oral more than verbal folk-tale rendition. He has in the sixteen in-between years found the oral idiom and has also effectively fused it into the Western experimental play-within-a-play theatrical tradition. This is not to negate the fact that the objective Prologue rendered by the Stage Manager is a Natya-Sashtra tradition and hence the play-within-a-play is nothing new to the Indian milieu. In fact, Karnad largely approaches the Scheherazade paradigm of keeping the audience awake with a story that travel within and within which there is further story, which again can be mirrored in the Kathasarithsagara and others of similar plumage. To stress this, come to think of it, most oral traditions have the Chinese Box in them. From Mahabharata to Homer’s twin epics, The Aeneid to the Chinese myth of The Monkey King. Such is the scope of inference in Karnad’s work, in general and Naga-Mandala, in specific. 

In Naga-Mandala, not only that, the oral mode is untopographised. Not only is it given a cross-generical treatment, also does the story-telling cross the parochial Kannada limits from where he gets his base story (via A.K. Ramajunan’s collection: A Flowering Tree and other Folk Tales, OUP), and reaches out for a oneness of national cultural flavour. This is achieved not just through what Karnad describes the folk-theatre style in the following words: ‘...although it seems to uphold traditional values, it also has the means of questioning the values... (allowing) for a “complex seeing”.’ It is achieved through the simplicity and disarming way in which he names the characters. The relative word for ‘The Fair One,’ ‘ The Dark One,’ ‘Rani’ (meaning Queen) or ‘Kurudavva’ (meaning ‘The Blind One’) exists in all Indian languages. This ubiquity has evolved with Karnad’s evolution itself through the last 16 years. Also to be mentioned as Karnad’s greatest triumph, to use the words of our honoured Chairperson for the day, Dr. Raju, is ‘the story and the flames. They are invested with recognisable personalities.’

Despite these reasons, there are also certain pitfalls in calling Karnad the protagonist of the play. The first reason, in a slightly amusing way, is to be found in the following lines uttered by the Man: ‘I swear by this absent God... I shall have nothing more to do with themes, plots or stories. I abjure all story-telling, all play-acting.’ (NM, pg 2) If these words are taken literally as those of Karnad in the garb of the Man, it is contradictory in that in order to survive that night, he proceeds as a narrator to relate a tale and he says: ‘I suppose I have no choice... I have no choice. Bear with me, please. As you can see, it is a matter of life and death for me.’ (NM, pg 5) 

The second and more serious reason is the fact that he acknowledges in the Preface that he has only weaved two oral tales that he heard from A.K. Ramanujan. Here again, he is just an instrument or a catalyst bringing together two existing elements to evolve a third element. So, going back to our original argument, it is obvious that the final remaining candidate is the Man; but then, uncertain clouds mar this supposition when we acknowledge a fact. ‘The play’ has been so carefully crafted that ‘the Man’ does not really get to his Act of leading this play till the end. The moment he explains, although apologetically, why the play is being done, he ceases to hold our attention. The Story takes over. The Man becomes a mere audience: an audience beyond the real audience. How then can he be the protagonist?

Naga-Mandala is more about this audience, an audience-within-an-audience than about a play-within-a-play. At the same instance, the narrator, the playwright and the leading character all become audience to the unfolding spectacle. This, in fact, could be the very crux of Post-modern western theatre whose preoccupation has come more to be identified on a generic front - the focus on the form. The very form of the theatre is an attempt to confront the hostile world by turning inward. It results in two things: one is, it results, as can be seen in the contemporary German plays by Peter Handke, in ‘total autistic withdrawal into an imaginary role;’ two is, it results in a ‘capitulation to a social mask. In either case, the true self succumbs to an artificial existence.’ The self-conscious narrator or the confronting playwright becomes an actor.

In the case of Naga-Mandala, by the time the tale of Rani begins, the Man, a playwright by profession, is condemned to be an audience - moves from one mask to another. Overcome by an impotence, faced with extinction, he accepts to face the same treatment he has been meting out to so many in the audience. It is not just a tactic he is adopting, it is his fate. It is an end in itself and a means to survival.

We might, so, be tempted to ask, in what way is it new, if this play has features like other western plays? The difference is, whereas in most other plays the narrator turned actor-cum-audience’s presence is felt continually, in this play, the moment the play-within-the-play begins, till the Story that narrates Rani’s story says: ‘Rani lived happily ever after...,’ we forget the Man’s existence. Also, it is at this point that Karnad’s main card is played. The Man does not want to give up. The dawn is round the corner. If he can be awake till sunlight, he will live. The story-teller in him does not give up. On two counts. One is the fact that it is an opportunity to live, which is actually peripheral to our consideration. The other is, it is his natural proclivity. At the point the Story ends the story, he says: ‘No one will accept this ending.... Too many loose ends.’ (NM, pp 40-41) He knows he has survived the worst. He can get back to business. He goes about tying the ends. The story-teller in him does not allow loose-ends to the narration. He tries ending after ending, in a bid to hand out impartial treatment to others in the tale - Appanna and Naga. Surely, Karnad’s coup-de-theatre! Karnad does not make the commitment for an overall happy ending come from the Man/Playwright. He makes one of the Flames question the Man. ‘Why can’t things end happily for a change?’ The Flames are also subverted into role-playing here. They sound as though they are a section of the audience asking for a satisfactory ending. This shows traces of the play approaching the Brechtian Epic Theatre.

This in fact, is one other element of the oral tradition, because, at the end of it all, it is difficult to imagine the play as a piece written work. The work, couched naturally in intense Indian images and felt words, does not come through as a read-piece. If the words are not to be felt, as they come from a teller’s mouth, then the work fails. Thus, this has to succeed. After all, as he maintains, Karnad has fused two oral folk tales to his convenience. If the Man / Playwright’s presence is not there, if the Story’s presence in physical terms is absent, the play cannot exist, because the whole edifice on which the work is built is the oral mode. However, the paradox lies here. The tellers are there only to give life feel to the story.

From such a point of view, the problem simplifies. The work depends on the narrator only in as much as it needs a person to say it. On this basis, the narrator is himself a connecting link between the word and the audience, the sound and the audience. Then, neither is the Man in Naga-Mandala the protagonist. For we have too many narrators, too many action-furtherers: the playwright Karnad who combines two folk-tales into one, the Man in the main plot whose personal story he unfolds, the Flames which animatedly gossip the stories of their respective households, the Story’s sad story, the story of Rani as told by the Story, Kurudavva who gives a magic root to Rani in an attempt to make Appanna enamoured by Rani, Kappanna who carries around Kurudavva (playing an indirect action-furtherer) and the story that Rani herself narrates in her story. So what / who then is the true protagonist? Here, it is not what is told or by whom it is told that is important, but how. It needs to be told, to be acted, to be sung; in short, to be vocalised.

The actual protagonist in this work then is the oral tradition, the act of vocalising itself; and it stems from the soil of culture. Everything else is comprised and subsumed in this generic form. It was there at the beginning of civilisation and at the beginning of a culture. It has been existing in its transmission from generation through generation, individual to individual. It has found, from time to time the need to equip itself in order to live, to be retold. And in this work of Karnad, the Indian oral, folk tradition has found a very potential existence, having been combined with the needs of an essentially western-oriented style of theatre. Although Karnad states that “it also owes much to hte Western playwrights as Bertold Brecht and Jean Anouilh who delved into classical stories... and retold them in a Western context,” this work has to be acknowledged as a new contribution to Indian Drama in English, since it transcends both the Western theatrical form and the Indian folk-theatre’s narrative style even while fusing both approaches.

I would conclude by saying that Naga-Mandala needs to be baptised as to its genre, for it is to Indian Drama in English what Midnight’s Children is to contemporary Indian Fiction in English.

- S. Krishna Kumar, Research Scholar
Dept of English, University of Madras
11 March, 1994