Hayavadana, Girish Karnad’s popular play, fulfils our romantic fantasies. A woman aspires to the perfect man, pursuing her dream of being complete. And a man with a horse’s head yearns to be fully human. Side by side, these two characters want to alter nature to reach their idea of perfection. Both characters desperately pray to Kali, the four-armed Goddess of Time and Death. Kali presented regally, stifles a yawn, and ignores the needs of her worshipers. Padmini desires both her poetic husband and her hunky crush. Two great friends, Devadatta and Kapila long for Padmini’s love. The two men are opposites: Devadatta is a brainy poet, handsome, and high-born. Kapila is a physically strong, low-born man. Although beautiful Padmini falls in love with and marries Devadatta, she continues to flirt with his friend Kapila.
Storyteller Bhagavata introduces the title character, Hayavadana, the horse-face or horse-man. With a man’s body and a horse’s head, Hayavadana inhabits two separate worlds: the human and the equine. Since he cannot fully belong to either world, he yearns to shed his horse face and become a complete man. Karnad’s magical and bizarre tale draws us into a complex world of gods, animals, and puppets.
The theme of being incomplete is personified by all of the characters. Devadatta and Kapila are brain and brawn respectively, but neither feels truly complete. This is mirrored by Padmini; she chooses to take Devadatta as her husband but she still finds herself longing for the physicality of Kapila. She feels incomplete because she has been abandoned twice by the same two men, which emphasizes her incompleteness to her.
Devadatta and Kapila feel a sense of incompleteness after they have each other’s bodies joined to their heads. At first, it seems that Devadatta gets the best deal because he gets to keep his sharp mind, and also has the muscular physique of Kapila. Kapila has his strength of mind but has Devadatta’s soft, unathletic body. He begins to feel incomplete as soon as the switch has occurred; however, when both men start to find that their bodies are returning to their prior state, they still both feel incomplete because they realize that they are living half existences.
The most obvious example of incompleteness is Hayavadana, who wants nothing more than to be made complete. He wants to be made fully a man but Kali makes him fully a horse instead. Even when she does so he feels incomplete because he still has the voice of a man. When he can change this and achieve the ‘neigh’ of a horse instead he finally feels that he is complete.
In the play, Padmini is the closest to the ‘complete’ of all the characters. She might be a wife and mother, as traditional Indian society would dictate, but she is not complacent, quiet, or docile. She is a desiring, sensual woman who pursues what -or who -she wants. She is openly selfish and independent-minded, something that the goddess Kali admires. Karnad allows her subversiveness to come through both her own words and those of the Female Chorus, which articulates her discontent with her conjugal life. Her sharp tongue and subtle subversiveness make her much more than a subaltern.
The play engages with the question of which is more powerful, the body or the mind. By all accounts, it is the mind, as shown in Hayavadana, Devadatta, and Kapila’s experiences, but Karnad also suggests the body has more power than one might initially assume. The body has a memory, a memory that stubbornly resists the mind’s desire to sublimate it. The body’s physical engagement with the world leaves a residue within, and when considering this as well as the putative supremacy of the mind, one must consider the two parts as near equals and both important to the formation of a complete identity.
One of the main themes of the play is that of creatures that are hybrids of different things; the title character, Hayavadana, is a hybrid of a man and a horse, and even Kapila and Devadatta end up being hybrids of each other. At the start of the play, being a hybrid is something godly and special; the opening prayer is to Ganesha, a god who is a boy with the head of an elephant. He is the lord and master of perfection which is paradoxical given his appearance. However, as the play continues, the hybrid characters seem less and less perfect to themselves and all ultimately feel that they are incomplete because they are not fully one creature or another.
Devadatta represents the city, a place dedicated to commerce and the pursuits of the mind, not the body. The woods are associated with Kapila in that they are a place where the physical body feels most at home, most complete. Nature is not opposed to the intellect, but it values strength, perseverance, and resilience; there the currency is not money but physical power. Padmini is a woman of the city but is increasingly drawn to the woods, which represents her desire for both Devadatta and Kapila. Her son is naturally of both places, though, being raised in one and then the other, which suggests his identity will be more complete.
Karnad plays with the different levels of reality and drama throughout the piece. Bhagavata asks Ganesha for a blessing and speaks of the play’s beginning, which is then interrupted by an actor and Hayavadana. This is part of the play, though we are supposed to think it is not, and following it Bhagavata segues into a completely different story. A chorus and Bhagavata comment on the action, the latter speaking to and about the audience occasionally. And at the end, the two seemingly disparate plots suddenly converge, all done in a way to make the audience reflect on the didactic nature of theatre, the fusion and fragmentation of drama and real life, and the nature of storytelling.