If there was one playwright who captured the essence of Indian mythology while still paving way for a new tomorrow, it would be Girish Karnad. His work- a representation his ideas, indulged in themes of philosophy and politics. His writing always urged to question and think, to perceive and draw one’s own conclusion.

The late actor, director, playwright and scholar made immensely remarkable contributions to the arts. It would be impossible and almost unfair to even attempt to summarize it all. But here we have compiled a list of seven of his most iconic and memorable plays.

Yayati

Written during his tenure at Rhodes, Yayati has its origins in a myth but the play progresses in the direction of psychoanalytical reinterpretation. It’s interesting how precisely Karnad employed the myth of Yayati and Pooru from Mahabharata to show the intricacies of Indian family structure and challenge its moral authority.

Written originally in Kannada in 1960, it was later translated to English. This was his first play and it is considered a marvel that was way ahead of its time.

Still from Yayati produced by Jagriti Theatre

Tughlaq

Was Mohammad Bin Tughlaq crazy or brilliant? Was he a visionary or an insecure politician?Written in 1964, when Karnad was barely 26 years old, the nationally acclaimed play explores the inner workings of the mind of the 14th century king. It takes you through the journey of a ruler as he disestablished his own kingdom.

The play was first performed at National School of Drama in 1966, directed by Om Shivpuri who was a student then.

Still from Tughlaq presented by Samudaya

Nagamandala

One of the reasons why theatre is an apt medium for transmitting myths and fables is perhaps because the earliest creators of mythology were possibly the first dramatists!

Nagamandala tells an enchanting story, combining two popular folklores wherein a naive wife falls in love with a snake who takes the guise of her philandering husband. With the most mind-blowing twists and hard-hitting dialogues this Kannada play entertained audiences all over and was also made into a motion picture starring Prakash Raj and Vijay Lakshmi.

Performed by the theatre dept. of New York based SUNY Oneonta

Hayavadana

Karnad has always explored the intermingling themes of folklore and religion sometimes infusing it with history. In this play, he looked at Padmini, Devadutta and Kapila. As a playwright he made some major breakthroughs through the concepts he portrayed. The storyline dramatizes the ways in which the mind (and tools of rationality) can be irreconcilably at odds with the desires of the body. Hayavadana majorly influenced the concept of play productions and acting style. And is regarded as one Girish Karnad’s most iconic works ever.

An adaptation of Hayavadna performed by Bangalore based The Big Fat Company

Boiled Beans on Toast

Directed by Lilette Dubey, this is one of his more contemporary plays. Karnad’s drama revolves around the unsung tales of everyday Banaglore citizens and their struggles. The cosmopolitan gaze lingers but the story warms the heart. The play’s title borrows from a myth but signals a departure from Karnad’s older works that are soaked in in historical and mythological themes.

Performed by Prime Time Theatre Co.

Odakalu Bimba

Originally written in Kannada (in 2005) the play marked Karnad’s return to direction after 30
years. It primarily focuses on the trials and tribulations of being a writer in two languages. What is the identity of a writer who betrays their mother tongue? It garnered mainly positive reviews and its English translationn was directed by Alyque Padamsee and featured Shabana Azmi in the lead role of Manjula Sharma.

Arundhati Nag & Girish Karnad in between rehearsal

The Fire and The Rain

The spheres of universal themes – alienation, loneliness, love, family, hatred – through the
daily lives and concerns of a whole community of individuals are illuminated in this play by Girish Karnad. It follows the story of Raivya, Paravasu, Arvasu and Yavakri, described in the Vanaparva of the Mahabharata, narrated by the sage Lomash. Through his dexterous ways Karnad magnificently relates this to the spiritual crisis of today’s world.

An all-female cast rendition by SETU
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