Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Girish Karnad's Naga-mandala:
Problematising Feminism

Anupama Mohan

      I cannot invent plots therefore I use myths. I cannot invent stories and hence go to history.
      (Girish Karnad)[1]

  1. G.P. Deshpande's caveat on any overview of modern Indian theatre is a useful one, especially for gaining a fuller appreciation of Girish Karnad's place in the history of Indian dramatic traditions. Deshpande observes that Indian theatre is not a timeless, atemporal entity, and that such has been a Western fascination with Indian epics, legends, and folklore that 'Rousseauism and Romanticism led us to believe that there always was and is an "Indian theatre." This theatre was supposed to be the classical theatre.'[2] Kalidasa's Shakuntala was translated by Goethe into German a century before it appeared in the 1880s in any of the Indian languages. The nationalist movement, looking for anything 'Indian,' went on a resurrectionist spree and dug up Kalidasa as emblematic of a pristine, uncorrupted, and uncolonised India, and Sanskrit as the idiom of an erstwhile free Bharat, whose theatre vying with the likes of Greece and Rome, had inspired such poets as Goethe. As Deshpande says,

      a pre-modern theatre was taken to be eternal theatre. It did not seem to be material to this search [for an authentic "Indian" theatre] that modern Indian theatre was being written in different languages and as such different language-cultures and situational specificities mattered as much to this theatre as to the theatre based on the epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.[3]

    The middle and late nineteenth century saw many writers in colonial India, notably Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (Sharmishtha in Bangla), Annasaheb Kirloskar (Subhadra in Marathi), Vishnudas Bhave (who experimented with akhyan or verse narrations and Yaksha-gaan, a Kannada folk art form) struggle with this atemporal legacy, and begin to reorient myth and folklore towards negotiating contemporary Indian realities. As he avows himself, Girish Karnad owes as much to this strain of 'Indian' theatre history as he does to the psychological complexity and individualism of the European dramatic tradition.[4] This sensitivity, then, to the cross-pollination of multiple dramatic traditions is crucial to any assessment of Karnad's position vis-à-vis Indian drama. It allows one to recognise the uniqueness of Karnad's dramatic vision and see him also as part of the post-independence 'modern' phase of Indian theatre, one where he shares space with Badal Sircar (Evam Indrajit), Vijay Tendulkar (Ghasiram Kotwal), K.N. Panikkar (Ottayan/The Lone Tusker), and Indira Parthasarathi (Aurangzeb), to name just a few.

  2. In this essay, I attempt two things: to see in what ways Karnad achieves in Naga-mandala[5] an interface between myth and history, and from a feminist perspective, resurrects through such interface her-stories. At the same time, I shall explore how despite the play's emphasis on women's stories, the act of telling and, by extension, its potential to engender lasting change continues to be circumscribed by the strictures of phallocentric myth so that the vision offered at the end of the woman-centric play remains, from the feminist point of view, deeply problematic albeit productively so. Naga-mandala: Play with a Cobra is, as Karnad says in his note to the play, based on two oral Kannada tales he had heard from his mentor-friend and well-known poet, translator, philologist A.K. Ramanujan, to whom Karnad also dedicates the play.[6] In fact, a comparative reading will reveal that, as with the plots of much Greek drama, the plot of Naga-mandala is a reworking into the dramatic medium of the 'folk-mythologies' whose stories Ramanujan retells. Two plots make up Naga-mandala: the framing plot of the male playwright and his curse is a re-telling of the story that Ramanujan calls 'A Story and a Song,' while the plot that deals with the story of Rani is based on 'The Serpent Lover.'[7] But originality is not the play's chief cache and though the story and the plot is known, it is what the playwright does with that story, where he chooses to lay emphasis that makes for innovation. In this sense, the meaning and value of these tales go beyond those of the local variations and specificities that Ramanujan suggests they have within their 'folk-mythologies,' as sthala-puranas or stories of local/regional life. In Karnad's hands, folklore transforms to resonate not only for whom the Natyashastra calls the sahridaya spectator (the spectator who knows the story and hence can readily relate to it) but also for the urban reader for whom the tales can, in transformed ways, emblematise crises in identity-formation and articulation. In this way perhaps, Karnad hits upon a strategy to combine the impulses of Western realistic theatre with the paradigms of Indian folkloric drama, creating a form of 'complex seeing' that he borrows from Brecht as much as he does from Ramanujan, the Yakshagana and the natak companies of his childhood.[8]
  3. The first plot of Naga-mandala is told by 'The Story' of the folk tradition, which opens up a discursive space for the exploration of a writer's predicament both as man and as playwright, thus placing the play firmly in the context of a metatheatrical dialectics. The concept of a framing plot is one that other playwrights like Badal Sircar (in Evam Indrajit, for instance) and Panikkar (in The Lone Tusker) have also effectively used to achieve not only Brechtian effects of defamiliarisation in theatre but to reinforce the orality and performative aspects of their stories in ways that allow audience engagement. Like Jean Anouilh, a dramatist whose influence Karnad has acknowledged, Karnad also makes use of myths and folk forms in his plays to exorcise socio-cultural evils. He says in his Introduction to the play, 'The energy of folk theatre comes from the fact that although it seems to uphold traditional values, it also has the means of questioning those values, of making them literally stand on their head.'[9] In Naga-mandala, Karnad not only exposes male chauvinism, the oppression of women, the great injustice done to them by patriarchal culture and men, but also overtly deflates the concept of chastity that undergirds the patriarchal mythic imagination across religion and language. As Ramanujan notes, myths and folk tales in a patriarchal society represent primarily the male unconscious fears and wishes and are patriarchal constructs and, in this sense, 'man-oriented.'[10] In these stories, women's inner subjectivity and experiential realities often get subsumed into male concerns and troubles, usually to do with women and policing women's desire.
  4. The framing plot of the play works in two ways: one, it is an ingenious alienation device to remind the audience it is watching a dramatic presentation. It is, indeed, crucial not to leave everything to the audience's common sense. It is the commonsensical audience whose active or passive complicity in perpetuating oppressive power structures, especially those structures that keep women subservient and marginalised, that requires questioning. Additionally, the identification of the Flames of the framing plot with young, sprightly, vocal women, and the female gender of 'The Story,' the primary narrative voice of the play, constitutes a compelling device for creating a particularly female context and content in the 'man-oriented' folk tale. Karnad creates within the play the strong association between oral narrative traditions and women's sub-cultures existing within patriarchal societies. Their stories, as he puts it, represent 'a distinctly woman's understanding of the reality around her, a lived counterpoint to the patriarchal structures of classical texts and institutions.'[11]
  5. Naga-mandala builds on the folkloric tradition implicitly and has intimate connections with the ways mythic systems of belief coexist with ontological realities. The play problematises what Panikkar has called through the Chakyar figure in his play The Lone Tusker the lokadharmi and natyadharmi functions of any story. The Chakyars are a community in Kerala who perform the koothu and koodiattam in the temples of Kerala, both styles of drama being intensely performance-oriented and only minimally text-based. The lokadharmi play deals with worldly affairs (of the loka or the world) and calls for 'bare representation' hence validating realism or vraisamblance over versification or 'embellishments.'[12] The natyadharmi play (to do with natya or dramatic art) revels in verbal and linguistic pyrotechnics, allowing the Chakyar to forge an intellectual bond with the more learned among his audience, one that would match his piquant and allusive social commentary, and give him credit for his wide learning and technical artistry through subtle ways of encouragement. It goes without saying that folklore has always been both lokadharmi and natyadharmi: informal, extempore, performance-oriented and at the same time, richly allusive, a 'mosaic of quotations' that forms the palimpsest of myth. Karnad deploys this twin-facetedness of the folkloric tradition but critiques it by capturing the prefatorial first plot of the male storyteller in a moment of dramatic crisis. Staving off sleep and sure death (an equation that takes on a special piquancy within the theatre), the figure of the male writer of this first plot must pass the last night of the month without sleeping in order to survive a mendicant's curse. By directly addressing the audience, the male playwright engages them in his crisis, and as soliloquy flows freely along with dialogue, his conversation with the audience simulates and recreates the domestic space of telling and hearing within the very public theatrical space.[13] When the female-voiced Flames enter into the action, a new kind of dramatic situation occurs on stage and the male writer is transformed from protagonist to interloper and internal audience. This new mise-en-scène provides a peculiarly female counterpoint to the mediated border zone between audience and protagonist created by the 'lone' playwright whose dilemma now temporarily recedes, as a choral, communal and distinctly women-centric ethos takes over the stage. By endowing the Flames with a female presence, Karnad brings to life those subcultural impulses of women's tales that often work in robust opposition to male mechanisms of folkloric communication. The professional Chakyar of Panikkar's play is, after all, a tremendously masculine figure, and his looming power is encapsulated by the analogy with the big lumbering elephant, the tusker that has 'strayed from his herd' and with whom the Chakyar is dramatically and existentially aligned. The Chakyar's lone mythology, like the accursed condition of the male writer in Naga-mandala's prefatorial plot, strikingly contrasts with the Flames, 'those nonprofessional tellers of tales' for whom 'the whole tale is the tale of her acquiring her story, making a person of her, making a silent woman a speaking person.'[14]
  6. Agency, Karnad suggests in Naga-mandala, as indeed agency in women's tales in general, is intimately connected with their being able to tell their own stories, and of those stories being heard. The idea that stories need to be told if they are to have life recalls Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, published the same year as Karnad's play. It was Rushdie's first novel after The Satanic Verses and a writer's response to the fatwa in the only way he knew how: by writing. In tune with the central dilemma of that immensely popular short novel where an allegorical apocalypse of silence looms large over creative expression, Karnad's play also underscores the reiterative power of stories—a story exists to be told; by extension, the teller exists to tell. And for women, whose stories for centuries have either been erased, or submerged, or appropriated by patriarchal structures, speech is power. The old woman tries to 'choke' and 'imprison' her creativity but the story and the song escape her clutches, and earn a life of their own. The critique here is not only of the structures that imprison the old lady within a bickering marriage, but also of her tacit imbibing of those repressive structures that inhibit and keep her from expressing her identity, her subjectivity.
  7. It is however the tale of Rani—the primary vehicle of the play's feminist agenda—that poses the contradictions that trenchantly critique androcentric myth by questioning if the vision offered towards the close of the play is in any real way emancipatory for women. In many ways, Naga-mandala is an explicitly feminist play, and within the rubric of folk-mythology, it develops the oft-used themes of fate, chastity and women's social role and combines it with the unexpected ending one has come to expect of folk stories. As Brenda Beck and Peter Claus have noted, reversal or double-crossing or upturning of old mores (usually through trickster figures or through tricks deployed by a main character) form an integral part of that Bakhtinian carnivalesque function that folktales often perform.[15] In Karnad's hands, the success of Rani, her social and divine elevation, fulfils the reversal-function but also, at a different level, remains an unsatisfying dramatic escape that does not adequately exorcise those social ills that may have been the play's intent to vanquish.


      Even if I understood a little, a tiny bit—I could bear it, but now—sometimes I feel my head is going to burst![16]

  8. Positive female agency within Naga-mandala emerges in multiple forms: as suggested earlier, the Flames with their stories present a new dramaturgical domain, and as they tell the story of Rani, an alternative space for an active female agency emerges. Rani's story questions the patriarchal moral code that demands the faithfulness of a woman to her husband but not the faithfulness of a man to his wife, and evocatively foregrounds the emotional and psychological anxieties that women face during the socialisation processes of childhood, marriage and motherhood. The story of Rani's domestic and marital troubles allows for an explicit undermining of social double standards with regard to sexual desire: while Appanna can sleep with a prostitute in complete public knowledge, Rani's single alleged act of adultery has the entire village up in indignation, fury and retribution. The tale presents remarkable psychological access to Rani's own consciousness, in ways that defy folkloric stereotyping. Interestingly, the story in the 'original' myth as retold by Ramanujan, from whom Karnad borrows, also devotes space to the woman's misery within an unconsummated marriage, and Karnad compounds our sympathy for Rani by allowing us to witness her incomprehension and longing for a fantasy world where she rules, and is, indeed, rani of all. The play also has the rather militant figure of Kurudavva, the blind woman whose expertise in herbology comes to Rani's aid, and allows the women to take the course of their lives in their own hands. Their bonding also situates sexual desire within the realm of female agency, but it is a telling difference that while Appanna can take recourse to promiscuity, the women must seek consummation within institutionalised marriage.
  9. The rise of Rani to the level of goddess instantiates a special kind of transformation: at one level, it is the actual fulfillment in social terms of her name, and is a potent subversion of the standards of a conservative patriarchal system. To the play's explicitly feminist vision, the ironies inherent in Rani's success in the snake-trial are vital. As a test of her chastity, the trial defeats the purpose for which it was devised in the first place. The snake ordeal mocks the classic Hindu mythic chastity test, the test of truth. In the Ramayana, Sita comes through the ordeal of fire because she is truly chaste and faithful. In Karnad's play, the woman comes through the ordeal of handling a venomous snake only because the snake is her lover—'it is her very infidelity that comes to her aid in proving that she is a faithful wife.'[17] This is where Appanna's incomprehension is a poignant elaboration by Karnad—for Appanna knows he has not slept with Rani, so that she must have necessarily been promiscuous to have become pregnant. He, however, is silenced by the public spectacle of power Rani demonstrates, and what should have been the touchstone by which Rani is condemned and ostracised becomes instead the vehicle of her exoneration and mystic elevation. In this sense, the play is also a sensitive take on men's circumscriptions by patriarchal codes. By far the lesser sufferers, men too bear burdens of masculinity that come with a system so rigidly predicated on a binarist division of experience. The split in the male figure between 'the sullen husband by day and the passionate lover by night' is, of course, a comment on how women perceive their partners in a cloistered system of unequal marriage.[18] It is however also an implicit pointer to the extreme division of the male persona and its inability to cohere in a system where open affection is taboo and demonstrativeness is seen as indicative of promiscuity.
  10. If these are the virtues of commission, then the play also reaps an interesting benefit from omission. Ramanujan's source story has an important sub-plot that involves Rani's besting of the concubine with whom her husband has an extra-marital relationship. The prostitute's social humiliation, arranged once again by the serpent's magical means, and her final denudation to serfdom in Rani's house completes the latter's triumph. These are complications of plot that Karnad does not re-dramatise in his play. While this may be purely a matter of choice or convenience, it is also quite conceivable that such a reversal may have projected a disunity in the ranks, as it were, that might perhaps have served to enfeeble the feminist thrust of Rani's story. This way, the omission allows the tale of Rani's triumph over men's unjust patriarchal injunctions to stand on its own.
  11. All this, then, clearly sets out the feminist concerns of the play; and yet, in many ways, the play's agenda is significantly compromised by different aspects of Rani's story. For instance, Rani's failure to discover the truth and her continued belief in Naga's dissembling instantiates a Derridean rupture in the logic of her tale. Indeed, one of the Flames notes this ('No two men make love alike') and the failure constitutes an important gap in the folkloric theme of emancipatory reversal.[19] This failure is more than simple naiveté; it is a suppression of Rani's reason and intuition, indicating her tacit (and unheroic) acceptance of the injunctions of Naga and Appanna to not ask questions. It is a comical moment, but one with serious implications, when Rani realises that her husband by day and her lover by night both ask her to be silent, both attempt at curbing her questions. There is a poignancy to her sense of entrapment within the strictures of marriage and infidelity, both of which begin to increasingly hem her in: 'Even if I understood a little, a tiny bit—I could bear it, but now—sometimes I feel my head is going to burst!'[20] It is perhaps Karnad's point that Naga the snake is, after all, masculine too.[21]
  12. Rani's pregnancy provides the play with its climactic dilemma; it is a moment intensely personal and threateningly public. Karnad's skill here lies in his capturing the moment of woman's fertility as at once a fulfilment of the patriarchal desire as well as a recognition of it as patriarchy's deepest threat. The revelation of the pregnancy occurs twice in the play: the first is Rani's disclosure of her pregnancy to Naga, a personal moment, rendered as deeply affecting and yet also very anxiety-ridden. Naga's response to Rani's disclosure invokes a familiar discourse of secrecy and shame. Rani's moment of feminine triumph, as she astutely notes, is transformed by Naga to one of clandestine shame. The second disclosure occurs when Appanna finds out, and is a violent one, and this initiates a public acknowledgement of the private desire and act. Through both revelations, Rani's own voice gets subsumed, and Naga's injunction to her and the Village Elders' diatribe against her enact processes of silencing that have the same effect on her agentic capacity.[22]
  13. Finally, although the tale that the woman narrator tells makes a mockery of the misogyny and male-centeredness of the patriarchal system, as also the exaggerated male claims on and ambitions to control female sexuality and virtue, the tale itself is not disruptive of entrenched oppressive structures. Rani's success is engineered throughout by Naga and although the sympathy of the audience is firmly with her, it is important to recognise that Naga paves the way not only for the restoration of her rightful place in the marital home, but also procures retributive justice for the erring husband. The story is, in this sense, a punitive fantasy of social chastisement for the straying flock, and substitutes a manufactured closure in the place of true resolution or understanding. The story's ending sees the reintegration of Appanna and Rani in a contrived union, where Appanna is semi-comprehending (he still does not know how Rani became pregnant) and Rani is socially elevated to the position of a living goddess, the ramifications of which, outside of the space of the theatre, cannot but be deeply problematic. The birth and rearing of a beautiful son brings Rani and Appanna together in the classic heteronormative happy ending while a society that tests women's 'virtue' by horrific violent means is satiated both by the spectacle of Rani's success and by the smug reassurance of its testing methods. Rani and Appanna's continuing felicity within the world of the play, then, becomes a vindication of the existing social set-up and its unequal codes, a tribute to status quo. At the level of the audience, however, an important metamorphosis has been effected, and the knowledge of the many ironies inherent in Rani's success stands as a compelling subversion of social control.
  14. The unique challenge of Naga-mandala lies in its exposure of its own limitations as a work of art. In this sense, the play is attuned to its contradictions with regard to women's experiences of desire, and the modes of self-expression available to them within existing discourses. The play hints, indeed, that these contradictions lie at the heart of myths as a whole. Karnad's way of reckoning with the anxiety this can generate is the classic postmodern theatrical device of multiple endings. It appeals to the postmodern sensibility of the late twentieth-century of which Naga-mandala is a good example. The transformative power of women's retelling of myths is kept intact by the play with closure—happy/unhappy, complete/ambiguous—thus foregrounding the important question: for whom is it happy? In whose eyes is it ambiguous? The double ending presents to the audience a choice of belief: in End One, Naga's sacrifice paves the way for Rani's happy married life. In End Two, the snake does not die. He is allowed by Rani to live in her tresses. The lover is thus accommodated within the marriage, and although, the rubric of myth allows his transmogrification, symbolically, he lives with Rani, within the family. The danger to the male authority of husband and patriarch lives on constantly, at close quarters, within the woman's imagination. The play with the ending points to the artifice of all story-telling, including the telling of those stories that come closest to our ontic truths. This, however, is not the last word—the framing plot has its own mock-closure. At the end of that story, the male writer has survived the dark night and though he had at the start of the play vowed 'to have nothing more to do with themes, plots, or stories,' the company of the Flames and the stories they have shared suggest an inner transformation whose effect we see in his final bow before the audience, a tacit recognition that he has 'realised…plays [have] that much impact.'[23]


    [1] See the full interview 'Theatre will survive: Karnad,' in The Indian Express, 28 March 1999, online:, site accessed 6 June 2008.

    [2] G.P. Deshpande, 'Introduction,' Modern Indian Drama: An Anthology, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2000, pp. ix–xviii; p. ix.

    [3] Deshpande, p. x.

    [4] 'The door banged by Nora in The Doll's House did not merely announce feminist rebellion against social slavery. It summed up what was to be the main theme of Western realistic drama over the next hundred years: a person's need to be seen as an individual, as an entity valuable in itself, independent of family and social circumstance.' See Girish Karnad, Three Plays, New Delhi: OUP, 1994, p. 9.

    [5] All references to Naga-mandala are from Girish Karnad's Three Plays, New Delhi: OUP, 1994.

    [6] Karnad, p. 20.

    [7] See both tales discussed with full text in A.K. Ramanujan's essay 'Towards a counter-system: women's tales' in The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan, ed. Vinay Dharwadker, New Delhi: OUP, 1999, pp. 429–47.

    [8] Karnad, p. 14.

    [9] Karnad, p. 14.

    [10] Dharwadker, p. 413.

    [11] Karnad, p. 17.

    [12] K.N. Pannikar, 'The Lone Tusker,' trans. K. S. Narayana Pillai, in Modern Indian Drama: An Anthology, ed. G.P. Deshpande, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2000, pp. 323–32; p. 325.

    [13] One might be led here to conceive of this binary that emerges on stage as a reproduction of the 'akam / puram' trope that forms a crucial component of classical Tamil poetry. Reading Tolkappiyam, the fourth-century or older Tamil treatise on grammar, phonology, and poetics by Tolkappiyar, T.P. Meenakshisundaram suggests that a concern with the 'akam' or inner or interior engenders 'the poetry of the phenomenon'—poetry that deals with humans without names or particularising traits, dwelling instead on ideali(ised) manifestations of Love, seen from a universal point of view. This universal love enables and consolidates mortal love which is the theme proper of 'puram' or outer or exterior, which addresses the more quotidian themes of love, war, and daily politics, and engenders 'the poetry of the noumenon.' This morphological division paves the way for understanding 'by context and contrast' the subtlety of the symbolism pervasive in the different, albeit connected, emphases of classical Tamil poetry: ultimately, however, both 'akam and puram are as the inner palm of the hand and its back.' In the space of the theatre, a reading such as this takes on a special validity and the story of Rani can be seen as connected to both 'akam' and 'puram' realms—at once the particular story of a woman's entrapment in an unequal marriage and the universal story of women's marginalisation, the drama of Rani's suffering, woven within the rich tapestry of lore and myth, takes on the power of an allegory. See T.P. Meenakshisundaram, 'Tolkapiyar's Literary Theory,' paper presented at First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 1966, in, online:, accessed 8 June 2008; A.K. Ramanujan, 'On Ancient Tamil Poetics,' in Indian Literary Criticism: Theory and Interpretation, ed. G. N. Devy, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2002, pp. 346–74; p. 368.

    [14] Dharwadker, p. 437.

    [15] Brenda E.F. Beck and Peter J. Claus, 'Introduction,' in Folktales of India, ed. Brenda Beck et al., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. xxv–xxxi; p. xxx.

    [16] Karnad, p. 51.

    [17] Dharwadker, p. 444.

    [18] Dharwadker, p. 445.

    [19] Karnad, p. 60.

    [20] Karnad, p. 51.

    [21] Interestingly, female performers have often worked with/around these gaps in ways that reflect on the remarkable potential of creative adaptation that inheres in folklore as well as theatre that re-works folklore. When Sharmila Sreekumar and K.C. Bindu produced Karnad's play, they eschewed what they call 'the central ambiguity that Karnad's text seemed to play with—whether in fact Rani knew that she had entered an adulterous relationship or not—[because it] did not ring true for us. We read her as a woman who must necessarily know, yet could not consciously admit the same to herself…' (my emphasis; pp. 216–17). In their 're-notated text,' Rani was performed as 'the owner of the agential body' and through an intricate use of mirrors and some creative stage direction, this feminist production of Karnad's play recast the question of women's agency within society on the one hand, and folklore on the other, as interconnected themes of a hermeneutic continuum (p. 221). See S. Sreekumar and K.C. Bindu. 'Performing Women, Performing Body: Adapting Nagamandala for Feminist Theatre,' in Girish Karnad's Plays: Performance and Critical Perspectives, ed. Tutun Mukherjee, Delhi: Pencraft International, 2006, pp. 216–21.

    [22] Karnad often deploys the confusion of identities as a running theme in his plays, most notably in Hayavadana. In Naga-mandala, the subplot involving Kuruduvva and her son Kappanna who goes missing presents a fascinating gloss to Rani's story. On the one hand, the blind Kuruduvva's help initiates the complications of plot that involve Naga and cause the eventual sainthood of Rani. On the other hand, her acute dependence on her son, who literally 'sees' for her, suggests limits to her agential capacities. The semantic and dramatic confusion of Kappanna and Appanna also suggests that the polarised male personas may be linked in other ways.

    [23] Karnad, p. 23.

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