Plays of Girish Karnad:
A Plea for Religious and Communal Co-existence
Dr. R.T. Bedre
Assistant Professor at ACS College, Gangakhed. Dist. Parbhani (Maharashtra)
Ph. 9765404305email :
Ph. D. Researcher, SJJT University, Jhunjhunu (Rajsthan)
Religion has been a guiding and controlling force
-cum- agency of behaviour of human community of all the times. It has
been the belief system for the believers and a source of solace for
people. It not only constructs a structure of code of ethics but also
punishment awarding institution. In the course of time, as it got
established as an institution, it became a bastion of evils also. It
started exercising upper hand in its allied institutions like society,
politics, family and other. Occasionally, it sidelined morality and
goods of humanity too. Philosophers and artists started attacking the
evils in religion from times immemorial. Socrates, Charwak, Martin
Luther King, Sant Dnyaneshwara, Mahatma Basweshwara, Sant Tukaram,
Mahatma Kabir, Carl Marx are some major examples. Some Indian dramatists
with a sense of humanitarian commitment have tried in their own way to
expose and protest these evils. Adya Rangacharya observes the
everlasting relation between drama and religion, "Time and again,
clerical wrath has been brought down upon its unpredictable cousin, yet
pulpit and stage have remained inextricably intertwined in function and
Girish Karnad is one of such committed Indian performing artists of the
present times. As he is a socio-politically most sensitive and mature
citizen, apart from being an artist, though he does not adhere to any
political ideology, he has fearlessly expressed his views on different
occasions at different platforms. As a responsible artist, he has given
vent to the concerns over the contemporary religious and communal
tensions, the gift of the British in colonial times and of the
politicians in the post-colonial times.
A noteworthy observation is that in six of these plays religion occupies
an important place. It not only governs movements and activities of the
individuals but also shapes the course of their lives. The present paper
aims at how Karnad focuses on the disastrous role played by religion and
makes a plea for religious and in his three famous plays namely Tughlaq
(1971), Bali: the Sacrifice (2004) and Tale Danda (1993).
Tughlaq, Karnad's pan classic in Indian drama, deals with the great
dreams of the most intelligent but termed as foolish emperor of Delhi-
Muhammad bin Tughlaq, and grand failure of his dreams. When he plans
shifting his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad, one of his ambitious
dreams, the cordial co-existence of the Hindus and Muslims is at the
back of his mind. He explains to his subject:
MUH: […]. But for me the most important factor is that
Daulatabad is a city of the Hindus and as the capital, it will symbolize
the bond between Muslims and Hindus, which I wish to develop and
strengthen in my kingdom. […]. With their help I shall build an empire,
which will be the envy of the world (Tughlaq 8).
But the fact that the ruler and subject belong to different
religions paves distrust among the Hindus. His secular policies
benefiting Hindus displease his Muslim subject and, Muslim religious and
political establishment insist on Islamic upper hand in the State. The
Ulemas and Moulwis want him to work at their dictates. Sheikh Imam ud
din, one of the characters in the play, advises Tughlaq, "But if one
fails to understands what the Koran says, one must ask the Sayyids and
the Ulemas. Instead you have put the best of them behind bars in the
name of justice" (26) The Imam wants that State should shoulder the
responsibility of spreading religion on behalf of the Ulemas. He says:
IMAM: […]. The Arabs spread Islam round the world and
they struggled and fought for it for seven hundred years. They are tired
now, limp and exhausted. But their work must continue and we need
someone to take the lead. You could do it. You are one of the most
powerful kings on earth today and you could spread the Kingdom of Heaven
on earth. God has given you everything- power, learning, intelligence,
talent. Now you must repay His debt (27).
Tughlaq refuses to be under their control and arrests those Ulemas who
interfered in the State affairs. Imam warns Muhammad against his
distancing religion from State:
And you will do it without the Koran to guide you?
Beware, Sultan, you are trying to become another God. It's a sin worse
than parricide. […]. Religion! Politics! Take heed, Sultan, one day
these verbal distinctions will rip you into two (27).
The angry Ulemas and displeased Sayyids attempt his murder that
makes him turn an insane and cruel bloodthirsty dictator. The more
Muhammad imposes cruelties on his subject, the more strongly they oppose
him and his policies. In nutshell, the conflict between religion and
State power for supremacy brings fall to his State and his cherished
long ideals. Through this play, Karnad gives message of the Hindu Muslim
unity attempted long back in history.
Bali: the Sacrifice, one of the two latest full-length plays of
Karnad, enacts most intense tension between two religious ideologies.
The play has the most serious concern of all his plays. It records a
tussle of three individuals representing different religious principles.
The play has only four characters throughout the performance. They are
the King, the Queen, the Mother Queen and the Mahout. The King, who is
born to a Hindu mother, marries to a Jain queen and embraces her faith.
In a cold night, infatuated by melodious song, the queen finds herself
in the arms of an ugly mouth. The king and the mother queen reach there
and find the queen with the mahout in a ruined temple. For the atonement
of the sin of the queen, the mother queen orders the royal couple to
sacrifice a hundred fowl. Naturally, the queen strongly opposes the
idea. As a solution, the mother queen suggests offering a cock of dough,
but the queen, who is a staunch follower of Janise principle of
non-violence, refuses to participate in the act. The king sees folly in
the act but does not find anything wrong, as it does not involve any
bloodshed in it. But the Queen objects the very intention behind the act
and terms it as much violent as an actual killing. She objects,
"But…but… this sword. This plunging in of the blade. The act…it's
Both the Mother and the Queen are adamant over their stance. After a
long hot verbal debate, the Queen agrees to participate in the act. To
her, the cock of dough appears to have come to life. In fit of madness,
she kills herself with the same knife brought for sacrifice and offers
her own life as sacrifice. In the play, the Queen stands for
non-violence advocated by the Jainism, the Mother represents Hinduism
that deems violence involved in sacrifice divine and sacred. Extreme
obstinacy of the Queen and the Mother bring tragedy in the lives of all.
The King is for peaceful tolerant co-existence in life. Karnad wishes to
tell that intolerance and fundamentalism in all religions have to give
in before the tolerance and liberal co-existence based on compromise and
that would ensure peaceful living in the country and in the world.
Tale Danda, drawn from the 12th historical event of Karnataka,
enacts the last few weeks from the life of Mahatma Basweshwara and fall
of his reformative movement called Virshaivate or Sharana movement.
During an interview with Tutun Mukherjee, Karnad explains the atmosphere
the play was written in and the relevance of the play. He says:
When I returned from the USA, India was in turmoil over
the Mandal-Mandir issues. The society was being polarized and the
country was moving in dangerous directions. Tale Danda is a solid
issue-oriented 'literary' text that tries to address issues of religious
belief that create social and political crises. Whereas Tughlaq was
obliquely political, this was straightforwardly so. I wanted to present
the consequences of religious fanaticism and highlight the futility of
such attitudes in the face of people's aspiration for happiness, peace
and prosperity (45).
Tale Danda presents a brilliant analysis of the ills that plague
the Indian society today. The play also depicts the clash between the
zealous reformative forces and the prevailing traditional bastion of
power in society endorsing the caste system. In the Preface to the play,
Karnad has explained its relevance to the Indian situation. He writes:
I wrote Tale Danda in 1989, when the Mandir and the
Mandal movements were beginning to show, again, how relevant the
questions posed by these thinkers were for our age. The horror
subsequent and the religious fanaticism that has gripped our national
life today have only proved how dangerous it is to ignore the solution
they offered (i).
In this play too, Karnad describes a conflict between the
religious reformative movement and the orthodox defenders of the
establishment. Basavanna and his followers advocate and practice a
casteless society based on equality. The King Bijjala describes the
nature of the movement:
BIJJALA: […]. Basavanna wants to eradicate the caste
structure, wipe it off the face of the earth. Annihilate the Varna
system. What a vision! What a prodigious courage! And he has the
ability. Look at those he has gathered around him: poets, mystics, and
visionaries. And nothing airy-fairy about them, mind you. All hard
working people from the common stock. They sit together, eat together,
argue about God together, indifferent to caste, birth or station (Tale
The growing support to the Sharana movement increase worries of
the Hindu priestly class. They see the Varna based social structure in
danger. The royal priest Damodara who is a strong defender of the
traditional system terms it plague to society. He praises the existing
DAMODARA: Indrani, the Rig Veda tells us that the four
varnas flowed out of the Primordial Man: the Brahmin from the head, the
Shudra from the feet. […].
Nature is iniquitous. […]. But civilization has been made possible
because out Vedic heritage controls and directs that self-destructive
energy. How large hearted is our dharma! To each person it says you
don't have to be any one but yourself. One's caste is like one's
home-meant for one's self and one's family. It is shaped to one's needs,
one's comforts, and one's tradition. And that is why the Vedic tradition
can absorb and accommodate all differences, from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari.
And even those said to be its victims have embraced its logic of
A hypergamous marriage between a girl of a Brahmin Sharana and a boy of
a Cobbler turned Sharana provides an excuse to unrest spread among the
priests. They see it a threat to the caste-based foundation of society.
For them it is an impudent scum, a perversity, a sacrilege a profanity.
The marriage brings these two forces to a flashpoint. King Bijjala tries
to deescalate the tensions by giving security to the marriage ceremony.
The priests Damodara Bhatta and Manchanna Kramita air the ambitious
prince Sovideva against King and dethrone him. The Sharanas are chased
and forced to flee for survival and orthodoxy is restored in the state.
SOVI: Pursue them. Don't let them escape. Men, women,
children- cut them all down.
Set the hounds after them. Search each wood, each bush. Burn the houses
that give them shelter. Burn their books. Yes, the books! Tear them into
shads and consign them to the wells. Their voices shall be stilled
forever... The villains! The traitors! It proves they had a hand in
killing my dear father, my revered father, King Bijjala, founder of the
glorious Kaluchari dynasty. Destroy them.
From this moment all Sharanas, foreigners and free thinkers are expelled
from this land on pain of death. Women and the lower orders shall live
within the norms prescribed by our ancient tradition or else they'll
suffer like dogs. Each citizen shall consider himself a soldier ready to
lay down his life for the King, for the King in god incarnate. (90).
The reformation fails and orthodoxy gets upper hand. In this play too,
the religious forces defeat the reformative zeal and defend evils in it.
At one place, Basavanna protests any kind of violence in the name of
religion or caste. He says to his followers, "Violence is wrong,
whatever the provocation. To resort to it because someone else started
it first is even worse. And to do so in the name of a structure of brick
and mortar is a monument to stupidity" (29). Karnad expresses his
disapproval against all kinds of violence and tensions in the name of
religion and castes.
In all these three plays, religion (religious establishments) emerges as
a destructive force and brings panic and suffering to the believers. The
playwright focuses on the drastic results of the orthodoxy of the
religious behaviour in the multi-cultured and heterogeneous country like
India and elsewhere in the world. In a country like India, with
competing religions and cultures, religious and cultural tensions
leading to unsatisfactory compromises are inevitable. His plays
dramatize such religious tensions and the resulting consequences. The
message given in his plays is that the policy of compromise and
tolerance of co-existence at the individual and the community level can
avert the communal clashes that modern world has been facing in the
bygone centuries. Karnad disapproves unwanted and baneful interference
of religion in individual, social and political affairs. Tutun Mukherjee
observes Karnad's intention and relevance of use of religion in his
In addition to urging a re-view of history (and myths and
folktales) these (Karnad's) plays are written against the backdrop of
growing fundamentalism and communal frenzy in the country present
individual endeavor towards communal integration during epochs of
To sum up, the dramatist has proved in the historical and
mythical context the non-tenability of the practice of extreme
philosophy of violence and non-violence, which brings only destructions
of beings. At the same, the play interrogates the survival of the
time-honored practices prevalent in all religious rites. Here Karnad has
used the myth of Jainism to unveil the psychological obsessions of the
men and women with the concept of violence involved in sacrifice. In
this conflict, all three characters are losers no one wins.
Dharwadkar, Aparna. Introduction. Collected Plays. By
Girish Karnad. Volume One. New Delhi:
OUP, 2005. vii-xxxvi).
Karnad, Girish. Collected Plays. Vol. One. New Delhi: OUP, 2005.
… Collected Plays. Vol. Two. New Delhi:
Mukherjee, Tutun. 'Of Text and Performance: Girish Karnad's Plays'
Girish Karnad's Plays: Performance and Critical Perspectives. By
Mukherjee (Ed.) New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2006. (11-26).
Rangacharya. Adya. The Indian Theatre. New Delhi: National Book Trust,
(Published in Kafla Intercontinental
- Jan-April 2013)