Yayati, Girish Karnad’s play about the Puranic king who longs to enjoy passion and his power, has long been hailed as representing the modern alienated man. Karnad wrote this in Kannada, his first play, when he was just 22 years old, and it has been translated into many languages and staged several times around the world.
The current production of Yayati, in English, at Jagriti in Bengaluru, is powerful and the many elements of the play: lust, prejudice, betrayal, greed and sacrifice are adeptly handled by veteran director Arundhati Raja.
The story is about the all powerful king Yayati who revels in his power and pursuit of carnal pleasures. Cursed by his enraged father-in-law, he is in danger of instantly becoming old and decrepit. He is saved when his son Pooru takes the curse upon himself. Redemption comes with Yayati’s disenchantment with worldly pleasures. In the events that lead up to this instance, there is rivalry between two women, an Asura (demon) princess and a Brahmin’s daughter. But the rivalry is not just about their interchanged saris; the power play between castes is the underlying current.
Arundhati says that in the present context of racial, social and religious intolerance, where the word caste is misused, it is important to understand the social setting of the era which the play depicts. A king was as bound by his kshatriya dharma as was a Brahmin or a Vaishya or a Shudra. This was the cause of Pooru’s angst when he quailed from the task of ruling. Intertwining these emotions is lust, and the crux of the play is a single sexual act that triggers a chain of events from which there is no going back.
In an earlier production with a different cast, in 2007, Arundhati had treated Yayati as an epic. This time around, her focus is on the strong female characters who encounter male dominance at every turn, irrespective of their position in life. Queen or slave, wife or daughter, a woman is always subdued by a man. And that remains true today in innumerable situations for far too many women.
Karnad is a master of well-scripted dialogue and these lines from a desperate and stricken Chitralekha, Pooru’s wife, pack a punch: “I didn’t know Prince Pooru when I married him. I married him for his youth. For his potential to plant the seed of the Bharatas in my womb. He has lost that potency now. He does not possess any of the qualities for which I married him. But you do.” Even a man as sensual as Yayati is taken aback by these words.
The young princess challenges him further: “You have taken over your son's youth. It follows that you should accept everything that comes attached to it.” Epitomising all too human frailties, Yayati is relevant to contemporary times.
A skilled director, Arundhati Raja expertly manages to keep the 100 minute play fraught with tension, aided by the talented (and very good looking) cast comprising Jagdish Raja, Divya Jain, Vandana Prabhu, Swati De, Rohn Malhotra, Vivek Vijayakumaran and Urvashi Goverdhan. Original music specially composed by Prakash Sontakke is a crucial element in the production’s success. Lighting and stage design by Rebecca Spurgeon are brilliant and costumes designed by GS Jayanthi while nodding to the past, are fetching contemporary ensembles.
Text by Sandhya Mendonca
Photos by Roy Sinai