Hayavadana (meaning horse-face), a play written by Girish Karnad, is the story of three protagonists Devadatta, Kapila, and their lady-love Padmini. The play is based on Thomas Mann’s Germans play The Transposed Heads, which in turn was based on the sixth story of Vetala Panchavimshati Katha, written in Sanskrit.
Benaka, one of the oldest theatre groups in Karnataka founded by theatre veteran and parallel-cinema pioneer B.V.Karanth, staged the play at Rangashankara. The star cast was led by noted film maker T.S. Nagabharana as the narrator, Mico Chandru as Devadatta, Poornachandra Tejaswi as Kapila, and Vidya Venkataram (all familiar faces on television and theater circuit). B.V. Shrunga of Boy With A Suitcase fame joined Pavan, Nagabharana’s son Pannaga Bharana and others as a companion of the narrator. Not surprisingly, Rangashankara was jam-packed.
The play has a three-part structure.
Part 1 – Introduction: Hayavadana starts with a "Naandi": traditionally a song meant to invoke divine blessings for the prosperity of the kings, Brahmins, the land where the play is being staged and the organizer/producer/writer of the play. In Hayavadana, the entire troupe led by the narrator seeks blessings for the politicians instead. Not sure about the blessings but this definitely "invoked" laughter from the audience who didn’t see it coming. As the Naandi ends, Hayavadana, the horse-faced human being, approaches the narrator and asks for a solution to his curse of being horse-faced. The narrator sees him off by suggesting that he seek the blessings of a goddess in Chitrakoota mountain, and introduces the play.
Part 2 – Main act: The play is set in Dharmapuri, home of two inseparable friends Devadatta and Kapila. Devadatta, from a scholarly Brahmin family, is a gifted poet and Kapila, son of a blacksmith, is brawny and illiterate. Both friends fall in love with Padmini, a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky girl from the same town. Circumstances force Padmini to marry Devadatta and what happens next forms the main story. In the course of the play, we are treated to a fascinating love triangle love replete with a mélange of romance, insecurity, jealousy, sacrifice, opportunism and deception.
Part 3 – Closure: Hayavadana, who has completely transformed into a horse now, returns to the stage. The narrator introduces him to Padmini’s son and they leave the stage together. The narrator ends the play thanking the audience.
Benaka stuck to the original script throughout the play, with minor modifications to the introduction and closure to bring in humour. Right from the Naandi to the final thank you note, the dialect of the source is retained.
Several factors make this play stand out. First, the time-honoured way of a Naandi leading into the play and the return of the narrator to close the play. It reminded me of my high-school days when we studied plays structured in a similar fashion (Abhignana Shakuntala, if I remember right). The lead actors display complex emotions such as confusion, indecisiveness, and pretense effortlessly, without any exaggeration. Their body language in the scenes where they are questioned about the genuineness of their behaviour by another character, or when they doubt the appropriateness of their own behaviour in short soliloquies, were perfect examples of their talent.
Another factor I was impressed with is the performance of the supporting cast. Characters such as Hayavadana, Goddess Kali, and the talking dolls have only about five minutes of stage time, however their performance lingered in my mind for quite some time after I walked out of the auditorium.