SM: You wrote Yayati when you were so very young, just 22. What are your thoughts, looking at the current production at Jagriti?
Girish Karnad: “I wrote Yayati, my first play, in 1960, and it happened when I was set to go to Oxford on a scholarship.The elders in the family were worried about my trip. Those days, the journey to UK took three weeks by ship. They were anxious that I would be away from home for three years, and they cautioned me against ‘white’ women. I was 22 years old; I was very defiant those days and wanted to break away from the fetters of family. I was a student of Mathematics, I had not focused on literature yet. Suddenly out of nowhere, Yayati, the play, came to me in Kannada. I was like a stenographer, writing it down feverishly.
In the original story in the Mahabharata (Adi Parva), Pooru, Yayati’s son, is nothing more than a cipher. In my play, Pooru is a rebel and questions the path chosen for him by his elders. My 22-year old self identified with this character as I felt my father’s generation was forcing me to do something that I didn’t want, and wanted me to sacrifice my choice.
In the West, as epitomised in Oedipus, the son is the aggressor and challenges the father. But in Indian mythology, and I suppose by extension, in Indian society, the father is the aggressor. This is so in the case of Yayati, and in other epics: Ram has to sacrifice the kingdom to keep his father happy, and Bhishma virtually castrates himself to please his father Shantanu. In my play, I touched this very core of mythology. There were many others who wrote about Yayati in the ‘60s, such as VS Khandekar, whose work won him the Jnanpith award; but his take on the story was different.
My play was staged by Satyadev Dubey in Hindi and became a success. It was not staged in Kannada as four women characters in a play was too much for Kannada amateur theatre in the ‘60s. I translated the play into English only in 2007 at Arundhati Raja’s request when Jagriti wanted to stage it. When I was translating, I saw it with new eyes and realised that Pooru was more important.
When I first wrote the play, women’s sexuality on stage was virtually unknown. When the women, first Devayani and later, Sharmistha talk to Yayati about him holding their right hand, those lines were considered revolutionary.
Chitralekha’s questions to Yayati were considered shocking, but now it looks logical, as society has changed. The characters of both Pooru and his wife are more socially acceptable. They do not shock the way they did 40-50 years ago; from being shocking, they have become more representative. My mother, who was widowed when she was very young, raised me in a liberal environment. She employed maids who had been thrown out after they became pregnant – she looked after them. Women’s sexuality was openly discussed and I was influenced by my domestic atmosphere. I did not know it then, but my mother and father had lived together for five years before they got married. My sisters were very upset with me when I wrote about this in my autobiography, but mother herself had written a short autobiography of 20 pages in which she talks about this.
In the original story, Yayati enjoys a thousand years of youth before giving it up, as it was like putting ‘ghee into the fire’. But you can’t show a thousand years on stage. So I got the idea of creating a wife about whom Pooru does not give a damn and takes the decision to accept his father’s old age.
I created the characters of Chitralekha, Pooru’s wife and Swarnalatha, the maid. No one has questioned me about why I did so. Folk theatre has a tradition of recreating myths, and in Yakshagana, actors are meant to interpret the stories, and I had grown up in Company Theatre. The play holds good 50 years later, and that speaks of the strength of the production (staged at Jagriti in July 2017).”
Interview by Sandhya Mendonca
Photos : Roy Sinai