Friday, 26 August 2011

Naga Mandala: The Interface of Myth and History


                                                   Synopsis
The research paper endeavors to study interface and interaction between myth and history. It further examines the cataclysmic results produced in the play: Naga Mandala by Girish Karnad; where myth takes over reality. The concern of the paper is to explore the manner in which the mythical pattern and plot lead to the empowerment of the female protagonist.
Girish Raghunath Karnad is a contemporary Indian playwright, actor and movie director in Kannada language. He is among  the seven recipients of Jnanpith Award for Kannada, the highest literary honor conferred in India. Girish karnad wrote a play titled Naga Mandala in 1987-88.The play is based on two oral Kannada tales he had heard from his mentor-friend and well –known poet, translator and philologist A.K.Rumanian, to whom Karnad also dedicated the play. Through the interesting blend of history and myth, he talks about socio-cultural issues of the India.
                                                   







                                                                Introduction
The play Naga Mandala (play with a Cobra) incorporates a mythical plot which Girish Karnad utilizes with powerful subtlety and resonance to activate the syntax acquisitive energies of the reader. The commanding genius (Hinduism) has nurtured these myths and they have stood the test of time. The artist takes on the role of the creator to recycle and re-establish these myths for the contemporary audience.
            Karnad’s concern is the objective portrayal of myth serving as an interlude to the story of a woman overwhelmed in the quest for identity and self actualization in a mechanized and constricting society.
Literature Review
According to The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, one of the meanings of the word “myth” is, “a ‘sacred’ narrative, from which legends and fairy tales are not always clearly distinguishable” (407).Its significance lies in the fact that how much it is adaptable to serve the authorial intentions.
      According to The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics “myth is a narrative or a group of narratives which recount the activities of a culture’s gods and heroes. These narratives are the product of communal and (often) sacred impulses to sanction and reflect the cultural order existing at the time of their creation” (806). A close study of the ancient civilization divulge the fact that the myth relating to a particular culture are dependent on the origin of the world, essence of the gods, man, society and law. The Greek sophists regarded myths as, “allegorical and symbolic means of conveying truths about nature and the world, as well as human ethics” (807). Euhemerus (3d C.B.C) perceived myths rather as, “covert accounts of purely naturalistic or historical occurrences and personages” (807). Vico’s approach to myth was the amalgamation of the earlier works of the Greek sophists and Euhemerus. He represented society as divided into different fractions and the prevailing attitudes and the mythical figures comprising the class symbols of the society. Formative theorists like Goethe and Herder in Germany, found myth to be, “a self-sustaining structure of the human spirit which is a necessary and essential mode of belief and of conceiving reality” (807). Literature developed in close relation to myth as exemplified by those myths held and venerated by individual, ethnic and national groups. Thus Indian literature is shot through with mythic materials, characters, subject matter, plots and action. The contemporary artists like Girish Karnad deliberately reach back to retrieve, revive and recycle the myths of their region.
 From a historical point of view myth is directly proportional to custom, culture and conventions. In a nutshell it is used to reinstate the socio-religious structure and order in society. However, the artist who is more concerned and fascinated with the structural, thematic and narrative dimensions of myth, by applying his creative genius, explores these possibilities.
Myth and literature are not cent per cent reliable and accurate records of historical events. Yet both are taken seriously and held to possess meaning and significance because of their close socio-religious affiliations and the way they are woven in a particular society. It is plainly a matter of belief. Members of a culture might accept it as a model or paradigm of past or future events. But they are skeptical about the credibility of these myths. Members outside the culture might consider it fictitious but it is a matter of perception and reality. In following mythic phraseology, the perceptions of the critics were shaped by many literary perspectives; but in relevance to the paper the psychological perspectives will be stretched further.
Different versions of a myth represent adaptation to the needs of a group or individual. As the story, involving a myth, progresses it is subjected to the activities and interpretations of different storytellers. An individual might use it to express personal perspective and experiences which formulates the literary versions of a myth. As Girish Karnad pointed out in an interview, “while I was writing the play, I saw it only as an escape from my stressful situation. But looking back I am amazed how precisely the myth reflected my anxieties at the moment…” (1997-3). A scholar might use it to draw inferences about people and societies which is the rationalized vision of a myth and simultaneously they become a part of particular ceremony or ritual of a society---the working version of the myth. In this, Girish Karnad further adds that the myth regard of Yayati from the play Yayati involving the sacrifice of the son’s youth for the benefit of his father, “enabled me to articulate to myself as a set of values that I had been unable to arrive at rationality…the myth had nailed me to my past “(1997-3).
Sigmund Freud portrays myth as , “a representative of the basic elements of human existence as developed by the ego of the child and persisting in some  measure into adulthood. Occurrences such as copulation, coupled with the feelings of aggression, anxiety pleasure, disgust, self-actualization and pride they arouse, are projected into fantasy form” (811).The advocators of ego psychology viewed myth and folklore as, “providing individuals and groups, escape mechanism from socially imposed repressions such as taboos on incest or polygamy as well as from blockage drives other than sexual” (811).
           Girish Karnad in his play, Naga Mandala centers upon projecting the female protagonist, Rani, under the influence of similar psycho mythical nexus. The story of Sita in the Ramayana represents the currents situation of the woman in the Indian society. History is replete with such examples in which women have to undergo cumbersome ordeals to prove their virginity. According to the Ramayana, Rama elates Sita from Ravana’s prison. But after this Rama abandons her by accusing her of “sleeping in another man’s house” (Web). Thus Sita undergoes a self inflicting trial and throws herself on a funeral pyre in anguish, and her purity is proven when she is spared by the flames. Famous philosopher Schopenhauer believes that if a woman succeeds in withdrawing from the mass or raising herself above the mass as an individual, her growth takes a quantum leap.
Anupama Mohan’s article, “Girish Karnad’s Naga Mandala”(play with a cobra) highlights that Karnad  “crafts a head on collision, as it were, between local/material realities of women’s lives in Hindu India and the universal/mythical discursive idealization of woman that structures women’s existence”(Web) . Dr.S.Prasanna Sree discusses the condition of women in general and the character of Rani in specific thus:
            Day and night women must be kept in subordination to the males of the family; in childhood to the father, in youth to her husband, in of her to her sons…Even though the husband be destitute of virtue and seeks pleasure elswhere, he must be worshiped as God (Web).
         Anupama further argues that , “by foregrounding the limits of its own dissidence, the play presents a searching critique of the strictures that circumscribe women’s agency in the real world”(n.pag). This paper will examine how the myth proves to be instrumental in the empowerment of the female protagonist and how it comes at the forefront and takes over the reality.


Research methodology
The research methodology employed is a qualitative one: the discourse analysis as it best suits to the dissection of the semantic structure of the play. The grueling attempt has been taken to access the required material from as much varied resources as possible, in electronic as well as print form. However, both the credibility and the reliability of the source material are not compromised in the slightest. To facilitate the connection relevant myth criticism is applied. An anthology of short stories and Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel The Bride are used as supporting texts, keeping in view the time and space constraint and chance of human error.
                                                            Data Analysis
 The title of the play Naga Mandala (play with a cobra) is extremely significant. It highlights one of the dramatis personae of the play around which the entire plot circles. Thus the anthropomorphically depicted cobra acts as centripetal force in the play.
            Girish Karnad’s play Naga Mandala is dense with literary allusions and mythical references and evocative sensual images that stimulate the sensory perceptions of the readers. They prove to be instrumental in weaving a thematic nexus and for the progression of the plot. The artist, keeping in view the treatment of mythin and the historical narrative, tries to reinstate them  by applying them aesthetic structure of his writings. The mythical plot and structure of the play is presented in a four dimensional matrix: thesis, antithesis, static harmony and final consummation.
              The play commences with an enigma. The opening lines of the prologue suggest that “the presiding deity of the temple cannot be identified” (247). In the light of Hindu mythology it  can be infered  that the broken idol is that of Ganesha because he “removes obstacles and vouchsafes wisdom.He is propitiated at the beginning of any important enterprise and is evoked at the commencement of books”(73).As we have given an identity to the nameless deity, similarly we shall acknowledge the identity of the female central character, Rani. The character of Rani is not a woman in person but a woman in effect. Therefore it was unstable and had no identity. The writer suggests her a proper name. The opening lines of Act One say: “A young girl. Her name…it does not matter. But she was an only daughter ,so her parents called her Rani”(253).
            Joan Riviere,a psychoanalyst, in “Womanliness as a Masquerate” argued that “ women adopt a public mask of ‘womanliness’ or feminity in accordance with a male image of what a woman should be. Thus they conform to the stereotypes of patriarchy”. In simpler words they acquire an imposed female identity. The first strand of the broader mythical design is the development of the thesis point.
            Rani’s husband, Appanna, takes her to his house after marriage. Appanna treats her as a care taker and servant. They have no physical union. Their marriage is incomplete because he is interested in a “concubine”. So he spends his nights with a “bazar woman” instead of his wife. He only comes home to satisfy his basic instincts like bathing and eating. Rani sacrifices her pleasures and serves her husband faithfully. In “The Arsonist” Bapsi Sidhwa portrays Jerbanoo being advised that “it was their duty as women to win their men folk…She might try to do those little things men liked so much” (81)
           Every night Rani is left alone by her husband so she pines for liberty and reunion with her parents. As Appanna locks her every night so her dreams become a source of relief for her. She dreams of an Eagle and asks him:
           “Where are you taking me?”And the Eagle answers: “Beyond the seven seas and seven isles. On the seventh island is a magic garden. And in that garden stands the tree of emeralds. Under that tree, your parents wait for you”. So Rani says: “Do they? Then please, please take me to them---immediately. Here I come”. So the Eagle carries her clear across the seven seas… (254). Her soliloquy works as an alternative to her dreams to escape from her isolation. She talks to herself as:
             Then Rani’s parents embrace her and cry. They kiss her and caress her. At night she slept between them. So she is not frightened any more…In the morning, the stag with the golden antlers comes to the door. He calls out to Rani. She refuses to go.’ I am not a stag,’ he explains, ‘I am a prince’… (255).
            In a nutshell, the dream and monologue serve as an escape mechanism for Rani. The span of the plot progresses further with the introduction of the characters of Kurudavva and her son Kappana. Their appearance highlights the theme of peer support which serves as a lifeline in her hard times. Kurudavva’s character and actions can be classified into three steps. The first step is that of Kurudavva’s being a silent observer and inspecting the house through the eyes of Kappanna. After learning about the presence of Rani in the house she adopts the role of an informer when she informs Rani about her beauty. She discloses the affair of her husband with a whore. In the last phase Kurudavva provides her with a magical root to cast a spell on her husband. The taste of the root will open Appanna’s eyes and “he won’t go sniffing after that bitch. He will make you a wife instantly” (262). The theme of resourcefulness of women is highlighted in Fahmida Riaz’s short story “The Daughters of Aai” as well. The village woman are termed as “active collaborators” and they ‘did not abandon Fatu’ in her tough times. They explained “Fatu’s departure and re-appearance in the village” in her pre and post delivery period.
             A proverb by Charlotte Bronte in Villette compliments Rani’s situation. She said:”Peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not passive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as liberty lends us her wings, and hope guides us by her star”(Web).
             The enchanting root is a sign of hope for Rani. Later on ,while cooking curry with the paste of the root she observes it  “boils over, red as blood”. She hesitates to serve the curry to her husband and  “puts  it in that ant- hill”. A cobra dwells in this ant-hill. It eats that curry. Thus the miraculous root that was aimed at Appanna cast a spell on the cobra. This action leads to the first appearance of Naga. As “Nagas are serpent-genii figures in the Hindu mythology. They have a friendly disposition and are a symbol of fertility and regeneration” (81). So Naga takes on Appanna’s shape and approaches to Rani at midnight. He acknowledges her beauty, calls her a ‘tender bud’, and tries to come close to her. Rani looks confused and hesitant. She constantly questions herself about the binaries in her husband’s persona triggered with the change of hours. Here Rani’s situation is akin to that of Zaitoon in the novel The Bride. In it the author, Bapsi Sidhwa, describes the perplexity of the character thus:
          “She had a vague recollection of an unpleasant dream: she had been standing by the river, admiring its vivid colors, when a hand had come out of the ice-blue depths and dragged her in, pulling her down, down…Now her experiences of the previous day crowded confusedly into her mind” (156).
            The meeting of Naga and Rani continues in the same fashion. She is on a rack of indecision and calls it a dream. And as the play suggests:”they make love”. Later Rani acknowledges that she is “not fantasizing” about these nocturnal meetings. She then utters “I am pregnant”.
            The second strand of the mythical plot is the antithesis. Rani’s innocent utterance invites a tough time for her. Appana brands her as a “harlot”, a “slut”. He questions her about her chastity and ‘the bloated tummy’. He says: “I locked you in, and yet you managed to find a lover! Tell me who it is? Who did you go to with your sari off”? (284).  In the night Naga visits Rani and informs her about the Elders’ judgment which will be going to be held in the morning. Rani pleads him to save her from the humiliation and take his words back.
                        RANI: Why are you humiliating me like this? Why are you striping me naked                                                                          in front of the whole village? ...Look at the way you talk---as if you were referring to someone else...After you complained to the Elders about me .Now you can go and withdraw the complaint. Say my wife isn’t a whore (285).
          Athough myths seem to uphold traditional values,they  have also been the means of questioning these values. These myths focus and question the patriarchal moral code that demands the faithfulness of a woman to her husband but not the faithfulness of a man to his wife. Naga’s words bring frustration for her when he informs her that ‘it can’t be done’. He advises her to ‘undertake the snake ordeal’. She trembles with fear while she hears this. She says: “won’t the Cobra bite the moment I touched it? I will die like your dog and your mongoose” (286). But Naga informs her that the Cobra will not bite you unless you tell a lie.When Rani refuses to do so Naga gets angry and says: “I can’t help it; Rani.That’s how it has always been. That’s how it will always be” (287). Through these lines of Naga, Karnad shows the practice of male companion in the Hindu society in particular and on a universal level in general. Through these lines he beautifully projects the sufferings of the female gender in the male dominating society.
           Appana goes to the village Elders. Next day a huge crowd gathers in front of Rani’s house. The Elders suggest Rani to take her oath by holding red-hot iron in her hand. The village Elders evokes the theme of peer pressure and victimization of women in the hands of old customs and traditions. Appana proposes to the Elders to throw Rani and her illegitimate child into boiling oil. The advice of Naga comes into Rani’s mind. Rani is left to confront the conflicting impulses related to the difficult decision which she has to take regarding her future. She strikes a deal with the village Elders and decides to undergo the snake test to save her image. Rani shows uncanny strength, indomitable courage and remains firms and resolute turning down the alternative offer of the village Elders. She goes to the ant-hill, puts her hand into it and takes the Cobra out. The Elders advise her to ‘be quick’ in taking her oath. So she swears by the Cobra that: “I have not touched any one of the male sex. Nor have I allowed any other male to touch me. If I lie, let the Cobra bite me” (292).The Cobra does not bite her and it “slides up her shoulder and spreads its hood like on umbrella over her head”. It becomes submissive and “moves over her shoulder like a garland”. The third strand of the mythical pattern is the static harmony where contraries in Rani’s life balance. The Elders call it something supernatural. One of the Elders says: “A miracle! A miracle” (292)! Rani is taken to be a Devi who in Hindu mythology appears “to hold the universe in her womb: she lights thee lamp of wisdom”(72).Everybody present there immediately recognizes the role reversal and this lead to her transformation from terrestrial creature to celestial creator. This event portrays myth leading to ethnic cleansing of the society at large. The Elders “prostrate before her” .Mubarak Ali writes in his article “History and Morality” that “… great people were above ordinary moral values. Therefore, they should not be judged on these bases” (15). Appanna repents on his past unjust behavior to his wife. But one of the Elders tells him that: “…your wife is not an ordinary woman. She is a goddess incarnate. Don’t grieve that you judged her wrongly and treated her badly. That is how goddesses reveal themselves to the world.”(293). Appanna goes to his wife and begs for forgiveness from her. She forgives him and “takes him in her arms”. When Appanna’s concubine watches this miracle she “feels ashamed of her  sinful life and volunteered to do menial work in Rani’s house” (293).After sometime Rani gives birth to a beautiful baby boy and in this way the play leads to the fourth strand that is desire consummation.
            One day Naga thinks of Rani .He wishes to see his “queen”. He visits her in the same old fashion. When he watches her sleeping with her husband and son,he feels jealous. He decides to kill her but stops because his “love has stitched up ‘his lip”. He decides to live in her hair and so he “becomes their size now. Enter her tresses! Make love to them” (296). Rani feels something heavy in her hair. She asks her husband to comb her hair. When he combs, a Cobra falls down. Both of them are frightened to see it. Appanna acknowledges Rani’s goddess like qualities and says that: “Your long hair saved us”. Appanna goes out to find a stick in order to kill the snake .Rani recognizes the snake and let it “climb into” her hair because the relationship between Rani and Naga is like a lifeline that sustains her through the heartache of marriage. She can neither leave nor betray Naga.  
                                               Conclusion
The play Naga mandala (play with a cobra) portrays the commoditization of women in a society where women are not valued as objects of individuality but as objects of possession. They are subjected to social indoctrination and their voices are marginalized. The place of women is shaped by topical references and the idea of a woman holding power of any sort over a man attackes  the male ego.
            Girish Karnad has facilitated the projection of his vision with the aid of historical myths and legends. He wants to empower the female gender and strives for the recognition of their individualistic identity; he feels it is mandatory to reinstate coherent order to the word beyond the self that is the world of human relationships, of nature, of society as a totality.

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