Deconstructing HAYAVADANA

Payal Trivedi, School of Humanities, IGNOU, NEW DELHI. (India)

Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana reexamines the popular belief that head is the master of the body and enables a mortal being to attain completeness or perfection in the world. The play introduces an uncanny figure (hayavadana) with a horse head and a human body. He wants to get rid of his animal head to become complete or perfect in his appearance. The main plot of the play is the story of Padmini, the beautiful woman who longs for a complete man with a combination of brain and brawn. This story is based on the folktale of a woman named Madanasundari that occurs in the Kathasaritasagara (Collection of ancient Indian folktales compiled by Somadeva). According to the folktale, Madanasundari accidentally mismatches the heads of her husband and brother in the temple of goddess Durga. The argument regarding rightful husband of Madanasundari is resolved by adopting the conventional solution that head governs the human body. The folktale ends with Madanasundari’s acceptance of the man with the husband’s head on the brother’s body. The question of incest does not arise in this tale recognized as a moralistic narrative aimed at preaching the importance of the human head.

Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana attempts to question this outright precept that head is the master of the human body conveyed in the folktale. However, the play does not challenge the folktale; it rather challenges the conventional habit of people to accept the absolute norms passed through the means of such old stories. This is implied as the play begins with Gajavadana or invocation of lord Ganesha not simply to execute a convention but to ask the significance of the precept that head governs the body. Bhagavata or sutradhara(an integral character of traditional Indian theatre who regulates any performance) asks the reason for the exaltation of Ganesha as the lord and master of perfection in spite of his animal head and human body:

O Elephant-headed Herambha Whose flag is victory / And who shines like a thousand suns, O husband of Riddhi and Siddhi / Seated on a mouse and decorated with a snake. / O single-tusked destroyer of incompleteness. / We pay homage to you and start our play. / How indeed can one hope to describe his glory in our poor, disabled words? / An elephant’s head on a human body, a broken tusk and a cracked belly- / Whichever way you look at him he seems the embodiment of imperfection, of incompleteness. / How indeed can one fathom the mystery that this very Vakratunda-Mahakaya, with his crooked face and his distorted body, is the Lord and Master of Success and Perfection? / Could it be that this image of Purity and Holiness, this Mangalamoorty, intends to signify by his very appearance that / completeness of God is something no poor mortal can comprehend

(Hayavadana, 1; 2006)

Bhagavata’s query on Ganesha certainly undermines the straightforward acceptance of the norm that head rules the body. Moreover, it also subverts the conventional belief that a human head on human body signifies symmetry which is essential for considering a personality complete or perfect. Nonetheless, Bhagavata also recognizes the fact that Ganesha being god is immune to survey or interrogation:

It is not for us to understand this Mystery or try to unravel it. Nor is it within our powers to do so. Our duty is merely to pay homage to the Elephant-headed god and get on with our play (ibid, 2006)

Bhagavata’s words are an indication of the involvement of some other character in the play in order to question the meaning of completeness. Thus, the play involves another creature from the mortal world with the horse’s head and a human body. As Karnad says:

…it is unfair to challenge the thesis of the riddle by using a god. God after all is beyond all human logic, indeed beyond all human comprehension itself… the dialectic had to grow out of grosser ground and I sensed a third being hovering in the spaces between the divine and the human- the horse head man. (Dodiya, 1999)

While Ganesha retains his image as god in Karnad’s play, the horse-head creature highlights problems that arise in the human society for those who are different from the normal populace. His urge to become a complete human indicates that similarity in appearance is a requisite to gain acceptance in the midst of people. Oddity like that of god is not at all beneficial for the horse-head creature which implies that he belongs to minority sections of society who perpetually strive for recognition amidst the majority groups. Critic Erin Mee says the horse-head creature embodies the post-colonial subject struggling to attest his identity engulfed in the midst of cultural identity and colonial influence:

…Hayavadana comes from two different worlds, but does not feel at home either. He represents the divided self of the post-colonial subject- a character attempting to decolonize his own mind. (Mee, 2008)

The visits to various places of pilgrimage could not bring completeness for the horse-head creature. He tells Bhagavata that all his journeys ended only in despair. This undermines the conventional norm that lays importance to the worship gods and goddess for fulfilling desires. However, Bhagavata suggests horse-head creature to go to temple of Kali to fulfill his yearning for completeness. This indicates that mortal beings are left with no choice but to approach divinity for finding solutions to irresolvable predicaments. As the creature proceeds on his journey, Bhagavata’s final words, ‘May you become successful in your search for completeness’ (Hayavadana, 11; 2006) implicate that there is hope but no guarantee that his search would be successful. This diminishes the belief that completeness or perfection is an attainable aim in the mortal world which forms the main theme of the story of Padmini’s search for complete man in her life narrated by Bhagavata.

Padmini longs to have a complete man in her life with a combination of sound body and sound intellect. This implausible demand in the mortal world with fallible humans is exposed by the chorus in the play:


Why should love stick to a single sap of a single body? When the stem is drunk with the thick yearning of the many-petalled, many flowered lantana, why should it be tied down to the relation of a single flower.

A head for each breast. A pupil for each eye. A side for each arm. I have neither regret nor shame…

(Hayavadana, 11; 2006)

The chorus hints at Padmini’s unconventional intention to obtain a complete man at the stake of having a relationship with two men instead of one. The two men that appear in Padmini’s life are two fast friends Devadatta and Kapila. Caste divides both of them. Devadatta is a Brahmin and Kapila is the son of an ironsmith and thus belongs to a low caste. Their interests are also different. Devadatta is absorbed in his books and Kapila in his wrestling matches. However, both of them play stereotypical roles like Rama and Laxmana attributed to them by society. Bhagavata calls them two friends who are "one mind one heart". (ibid, 2006) Padmini on the other hand is the woman who defies being classified into a specific category formed by the society. Her boldness is revealed as she outwits Kapila by proving that words of a language cannot have fixed meanings and thus the master of her house cannot necessarily be her father and vice versa:

PADMINI : Do you want my father or do you want the master of this house?

KAPILA : Aren’t they the same?

PADMINI: Listen, my father could be a servant in this house. Or the master of this house could be my father’s servant. My father could be the master’s father , brother, father’s servant. My father could be the master’s father, brother, son-in-law, cousin grandfather or uncle. Do you agree?

(Hayavadana, 18; 2006)

Padmini’s clever reply to Kapila implies that she is not ready to fit into any fixed role-play as a docile or domestic housewife. Yet, she is married off to Brahmin Devadatta and is forced to act as an obedient and loving wife. Though, she executes the role, her dissatisfaction with Devadatta’s fragile built and attraction towards Kapila’s macho body gets revealed very soon in the Kali temple where she mismatches the heads of the two men. The play does not clarify whether; Padmini’s act is deliberate or accidental. However, Kali’s words that ‘there should be a limit even to honesty’ (Hayavadana, 33; 2006) do indicate Padmini’s preference for a complete man based on the conservative norm that head is the master of the body. In her interaction with Kapila, Padmini defies the orthodox belief that woman has to be necessarily obedient in her demeanor towards a man. In fact, the female chorus exposes her anomalous nature right at the start of the play. Nevertheless, Padmini resorts to the conventional belief that head rules the body in order to fulfill her intention of having a complete man with the combination of the brain and brawn. Thus, when the rebel complies with an orthodox norm simply to satisfy her selfish interest, the outcome is disastrous. Gradually, after the exchange of heads, Kapila’s, macho body under Devadatta’s head converts into original fragile built of Devadatta. Padmini is left with no resort but to run to Kapila in the forest with her child where she sees that Devadatta’s fragile body is turned into a macho physique under Kapila’s head. However, Kapila speaks of the memories in the body that cannot be controlled by the head:

KAPILA: One beats the body into shape, but one can’t beat away the memories in it. Isn’t that surprising? That the body should have its own ghosts- its own Memories? Memories of touch- memories of a touch- memories of a body swaying in these arms, of a warm skin against his palm- memories which one cannot recognize, cannot understand, cannot even name because this head wasn’t there when they happened…

(Hayavadana, 58;2006)

Kapila’s words disregard the conventional norm that actually the head is responsible for governing the functions of the body. Finally, Devadatta reaches there in search of Padmini and finds her with Kapila. Both the men die in a sword fight and Padmini becomes sati by immolating herself in the funeral pyre of the men. Her death can be read as submission to conservative norms that do not permit an anomalous woman to live in the world. However, before dying Padmini tells Bhagavata to raise her child as a Brahmin and also as a wrestler. This conveys her defiance of conventional precepts that deny a woman to accept two men in her life instead of one. Erin Mee notes:

Padmini’s Sati marks her devotion not to one man but to two. Her sati is not an expression of loyal devotion to a husband, but to the fulfillment of her own desire and her disregard for societal convention. She refuses to conform to the traditional image of an ideal woman. (Mee, 2008)

Retaining dual implication in Padmini’s death, Karnad distances himself from conveying any fixed didactic message through his play. The playwright merely raises a question regarding the validity in accepting a conservative belief that head is the supreme entity of a human body. Thus, unlike the folktale that directly conveys a moralistic message that head on body signifies completeness, Girish Karnad retains ambiguity in Hayavadana with respect to the question about completeness. The playwright uses symbolism like Ganesha, horse-head creature and an incredible phenomenon like exchange of heads indicating the contemporary readers and audience to revise their belief that head rules the body and human head on human body denotes perfection. Therefore, the horse-head creature does not attain completeness at human level. He becomes a horse instead of a complete man in the end. This indirectly serves to undermine the belief that completeness is guaranteed by a perfect combination of human head and human body. It can be concluded that deconstructing Hayavadana, the implicit meanings that emerge from the text are exemplary of French philosopher Jaques Derrida’s statement that:

…Any text inevitably undermines its own claims to have a determinate meaning, and licenses the reader to produce his own meanings out of it by an activity of semantic ‘freeplay’


Works Cited

Karnad. Girish. Hayavadana. OUP. 2006.

Kathasaritasagara. Trans. C.H. Tawney. Vol II. Munshi Manoharlal Publications. 1992. Pp.263-64. Derrida, 1978, in Lodge, 1988, p. 108.

Dodiya, Jaydipsingh. Ed. The Plays of Girish Karnad: Critical Perspectives. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1999. P. 33.

Mee. Erin. B. Theatre of Roots. London: Seagull Books, 2008. P. 144, 158.


(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2014)