Use of Myth by Girish Karnad

Generally, a myth is a tale or a narrative with a symbolic meaning. Human, non – human and super-human characters appear in myths. And the presence of these super-natural agencies endows myth with a numinous character. Likewise, as these characters are transcendent, they raise ‘awe and fear’ in us (Barthes 1957). Myths are considered to be pre-historical, and, therefore, they belong to no specific author. They have a social or collective authorship. The most remarkable characteristic of myth is its normative nature. It sets down rules which specifically apply to the moral realm (Chakravartee 1991).

Culture defines society. The cultural ethos of every society is unique in its form and essence representing the character of its people, their experiences and beliefs. Myths, legends and folklore are in fact the embodiments of these cultural ethos that represent the underlying values and principles of life, the shared experience of the race, the rules and the codes of society. Girish Karnad has time and again returned to eternal roots of his cultural tradition, taking inspiration from mythology and folklore.

As a reader of Karnad’s plays, one has to pay attention to their sources. Almost every text has a source in that the plot is derived from somewhere. The common sources of his plays include myth, folk tale, Puranas, historical chronicles, epics etc. He seems to have inspired from Shakespeare who follows the same tendency of adapting recognized plots. The modern dramatists tend to use original plots, or any well known historical or political event, or adapt a popular Greek myth. There is nothing wrong with the practice of adapting any known or unknown text since it may provide you with the new insight into the source text. Some critics even say that every literature is based on another literature as it carries the echoes of its procreator. For Peter Allen, literary texts ‘are built from systems, codes, and traditions established by previous works of literature’ (2000: 1). The exercise of finding how the original texts are adapted and the new meaning generated in the process is worth attempting; it offers us with a new perspective on the subject, event, plot etc.

It is surprising and interesting indeed that a modem playwright like Girish Karnad, alienated from his background and his own language for quite a considerable time should fall back upon ancient resources of myth and legend, in writing his plays.

Karnad’s taking to myth and legend in his plays was more an act of im­pulse rather than intention. Perhaps it was inevitable for Karnad who was exposed to traditional forms of theatre in childhood. The three kinds of theatre between which he moved, swiveled and wrote plays, were the company Natak, Yakshagana and the west­ern theatre, and he must have been influ­enced by them, whatever the reason, whether it is the influence of traditional the­atre upon him or it is his incapacity to invent new stories as he confesses, he had rightly chosen to use myths and legend for his plays. He feels they are very much relevant today, and hence, seeks to adapt myths and folk forms in his plays. Thus he effects a synthe­sis between the ancient and the modem to serve his purpose of using the past to illumi­nate the present. Karnad comments “We keep acrobating between the traditional and the modem, perhaps we could not hit upon a form which balance both”.And, thus he attempts to balance.

Indian drama written in English by Indian playwrights makes extensive use of tradition, myths, legends and folklore. Girish Karnad’s plays vividly exemplify this trend. Girish Karnad is a major dramatist who has significantly gone back to the roots of Indian myth, tradition and culture and has re-created for us the rich and vibrant picture of Indian society, culture and its people. In all his plays he genuinely portrays the Indian way of life with all its positive and negative aspects, its tradition and their relative contemporary importance and relation.

Karnad takes his inspiration from the rich tradition of India’s past and weaves it through the web of his imagination into tales of his own. Karnad’s first play Yayati is a story taken from the Mahabharata. The mythical story is a tale of responsibilities, sacrifice and self-realization. The play The Fire and the Rain is also taken from  Mahabharata. It is based on the myth of Yavakiri and includes also the conflict between Indra, Vishwarupa and Vritra. Karnad’s plays, Bali – The Sacrifice, and Flowers: A Dramatic Monologue are mythical tales taken from a Kannada and a Sanskrit epic respectively.

Karnad uses myths, legend and folk tales in his plays Yayati, Tughlaq, Hayavadana and Nagamamdala. His ‘Yayati’ is a re-interpretation of the familiar old myths from Mahabharata, which deals with the exchange of ages between father and son. In Tughlak Karnad handles a his­torical myth for the modem theatre, depict­ing the ‘absurd’ conception of the human situ­ation. His Nagamandala is based on two folk tales from Kannada which he heard several years ago from Prof. A. K. Ramanujan. Karnad thus revels in root­ing the contemporary concern in old myths.

Hayavadana – Reshaping a Myth In Hayavadana, Karnad re-shapes an ancient Indian myth from the veralapanchavimsati to point to man‟s eternal quest for completeness, or self-realization. With its highly stylized action and mimicry, especially the scene at the temple of Kali and the sword fight between Devadatta and Kapila in the second act, Karnad invests the play with a significance, which brings out the emptiness of the “incomplete” human being. Padmini – An Archetypal Figure In this play, the central figure is a woman, Padmini. Selfishness and sensuality find expression in her insatiable desire for both brain and brawn, which are symbolized by Devadatta and Kapila respectively. Married to Devadatta, Padmini craves for the „muscle‟ and „body‟ of Kapila. In the myth, and in the play as well, the craving is not explicit, it runs as an undercurrent in Padmini‟s sub-conscious. She desires deeply for both the body and the intellect, though sub-consciously. It is difficult to prophesy whether or not she would have behaved differently had there been a proper equation of physical strength and intellectualism in either Devadatta or Kapila. The happenings in the Kali temple, where she transposes the heads of Devadatta and Kapila, reveal her sub- conscious desire. Padmini‟s act, though unintentional, is indicative of the “incomplete” human beings “silent cry for wholeness.”

In Hayavadana, the presence of goddess Kali reveals the religious sentiment prevalent in Indian society, culture and psychology. Devadutta prays to the goddess to win the hand of Padmini in marriage. Later he beheads himself as an offering to the goddess. Divine intervention unfolds the central theme of the play, ‘incompleteness’ and quest for completion. The theme also reveals the Upanishadic principle that visualizes the human body as a symbol of the organic relationship of the parts to the whole.

Karnad’s Creative Intervention into Myths Karnad does not take myths in their entirety. He takes them only in parts that are useful to him and the rest he supplements with his imagination. He combines the story of the transposed heads taken from Thomas Mann with the story of Hayavadana which is, in part, Karnad’s own imagination and invention. While making use of an ancient myth, Karnad makes certain changes in the original myth. For example, he has changed the names of characters. He remarked that he had changed the names deliberately, for he wanted the names to be „generic‟ terms applying to all human beings, because the characters are all types. “In Sanskrit, any person whose name you do not know is addressed as ‘Devadatta’. Kapila means dark and therefore earthy and Padmini is the name of one class of women in Vatsayana‟s Kamasutra” (Bernett 1982). Karnad’s Preference for the Non-religious Dimension of Myths Although, in Indian context, most myths are related to religion, Karnad is interested in the non-religious dimension of myths. Most myths have a strong emotional significance and the audiences have set responses towards them. Karnad re-interprets these myths from a non-religious dimension and exploits their inherent potential to arouse and sustain human emotions (Revathi Rangan, 1997).

Naga-Mandala was published in 1990. Originally it was written in Kannada and later the dramatist trans-created it into English. It is significant to note that the title of the play takes not after any human character, but after a snake-Naga Rani, the heroine of the play who is humiliated and derided as ‘harlot’ before the village elders, undertakes the ‘Snake Ordeal”, like Sita who undergoes the ‘Fire Ordeal’ and like Sita, she comes out unscathed. She is elevated to divinity and is hailed by all as a goddess. Her husband Appanna realizes his mistakes and accepts her with all humility and feelings of sincere remorse and repentance. It is a folk play and companion piece and sequel of Hayavadana rather than a work of striking originality. Naga-Mandala, a simple  tale, celebrates sensuality from a woman’s point of view. The noble features of this drama are the use of chorus and music. In the play, all the songs are sung by the flames. The flames are the metaphors of the women of the village who have gathered at the time of the night to tell tales and sing songs.

Religion and ritual not only forms a part of the narrative of Karnad’s plays but is also integral to the dramatic representation of the plays, a take-off of the folk theatrical tradition of the country. Hayavadana begins with an invocation of Lord Ganesha, the remover of all obstacles,who is to be worshipped first among the gods.


Girish Karnad makes use of myths, mythologies and folklore as his source for his plays, not for the glorification of the chosen myths but to relate the myths to the present and to the past beliefs found in these myths. Karnad provides us with a glimpse of the past as well as its relevance to an understanding of the contemporary world. In conclusion it can be said that myth and folktale merge and come together and weave a rich tapestry of meaning that explore the modern predicament. Myth can never be dismissed as belonging to the past, because a great deal of its charm lies in its principal quality- that of repeating itself. Thus the old-aged myth reappears in disguise form to confront us. Myths and folktales always interpret human life, and in the contemporary context they interpret modern sensibility or the modern consciousness. In this way by exploiting myth and folktale Karnad presents various problems of contemporary society.


  1. Madhu Jain, “Girish Karnad: Ancient Metaphors, contemporary Messages.” India Today 15 March, 1992. p. 161-162.
  2. Karnad, “Moutushi Chakravarthi talks to Girish Karnad” Tenor, September, 1991, p. 46.
  3. Karnad, “Acrobating be­tween the traditional and modem”, Indian Literature, vo1.32, No.3, May – June 1989.
  4. Meenakshi Rayakr, “An Interview with Girish Karnad,” New Quest No. 36 (November-December) 1982 p 341.
  5. M.K.Naik, Dimensions of Indian Literature, New Delhi, Sterling Pub­lishers, 1984, P.197
  6. Ibid, p. 200.
  7. G.S.Amur, “Modern Kannada Drama”, Indian Writing Today Vol. 5, No. 1, 1971, p 22.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Madhu Jain, “Girish Karnad”, Ancient Metaphors, India Today Op. Cit., p 161.

Prof. John P Mathai, Gujarat Commerce College, Ahmedabad

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