In the Mahabharata, King Yayati is cursed to old age in the prime of life for a sexual
misdemeanour of his and tries to circumvent the catastrophe by demanding that his son,
Pooru, lend him his youth in exchange for the curse. This unusual myth about a parent's
aggression against his offspring has inspired some of India's most eminent writers to
explore it in fiction, poetry, and drama.
Girish Karnad was only twenty-two when he attempted his interpretation in the play,
Yayati. What makes his version of the tale so resonant, and startlingly original, is that he
rejects the traditional glorification of the son's 'self-sacrifice' and, against a backdrop
of lust, jealousy, and racial tensions, foregrounds the tragic choices with which the young
prince and his bride are confronted. Angry, energetic, ambitious, and strongly, influenced
by the tragic vision of the Existentialists, the play immediately established Karnad's
reputation as a dramatist in Kannada and launched him on his celebrated career in the Indian
theatre. Yayati has been translated into different Indian languages, and has continued to be
performed all over the country during the half century since it was written.
About the Author
Girish Karnad was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Apart from working in the theatre, he
has directed and acted in films. He has served as Director, Film and Television Institute of
India; Chairman, Sangeet Natak Akademi (the National Academy of the Performing Arts); and
Director, Nehru Centre, London. He was Visiting Professor and Playwright-in-Residence at the
University of Chicago. The Cuthrie Theatre, Minneapolis in the US and the Haymarket Theatre,
Leicester in the UK, have been among the theatres that commissioned him to write for them.
He has been honoured with the Padma Bhushan and conferred the prestigious Jnanpith Award.
Back of the Book
'When I first read Yayati, I was amazed. Those characters, those minds, so alive and true!"
'The playwright has dramatized this short tale investing it with an epic force
reminiscent of the great Greek tragedies. The characters are titans, and their desires,
motives, fulfillments and frustrations too are of epic dimensions.'
'My Girish Karnad seems to have begun where playwrights generally end. Yayati
announces the rise of a new star on the Kannada literary horizon
Yayati ranks among the
best in Mannada'
'The most memorable feature of Yayati-and a striking accomplishment for a
twenty-two-year-old author-is its quartet of sentient, articulate, embittered women, al of
whom are subject in varying degrees to the whims of men, but succeed in subverting the male
world through an assertion of their own rights and privileges
Yayati establishes at the
outset of Karnad's career that myth is not merely a narrative to be bent to present
purposes, but a structure of meanings worth exploring in itself because it offers
opportunities for philosophical reflection without the constraints of realism or the
necessity of contemporary setting.'
-Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker, Introduction to Girish Karnad, Collected Plays
Yayati is my first play. I wrote it in 1960. The plays I have written since then-with the
exception of Anjumallige-have all been translated into English and included in the two
volumes of my Collected play. But I have not, so far, allowed Yayati to be published in
English, although an excellent translation was produced by Priya Adarkar as early as the
mid-sixties. For some reason, I felt uncomfortable with the work and decided to treat it as
part of my juvenilia. The play however has been translated into different Indian languages
and continues to be staged. I have had to face complaints from students of Indian theatre,
as well as those wishing to stage it, about the non-availability of the text in English.
Hence this version.
Confronting the play again, the temptation to tinker with it has been irresistible.
But it would be not just silly but disastrous to tackle at the age of sixty-nine a play I
had written at twenty-two. I would have to rewrite it entirely. On the other hand, when I
wrote it, I had no experience of theatre, and over the years I have been fortunate to have
received comments from the professional who have actually staged it, such as Satyadev Dubey,
Dr Shreeram Lagoo and C.R. Simha. It would have been unfair not to incorporate their
insights into the text before making it available to a new public. But these suggested
revisions, small as they were, were scattered through the play. So instead of bothering
Adarkar again, I decided to translate the revised text myself. I would like to express my
sincerest thanks to Adarkar for the earlier translation.
I lived in Dharwad when I wrote the play and among the many institutions that made
the city virtually the cultural capital of north Karnataka in those days was the publishing
firm, Manohara Grantha Mala.
The Mala was started, more as a vocation than as a business enterprise, by an
unusual person called G.B. Joshi in 1935, when modern Kannada literature was still trying to
find its feet. Readership for Kannada books was tiny and only someone as quixotic as Joshi
would venture to publish contemporary fiction. Joshi promised 'good, tasteful' literature of
a certain number of pages per year for a fixed subscription and about 1,500 readers trusted
his judgment. On this entirely informal understanding, he had been able to discover some of
the best writers of that period and bring out books which are today acknowledged as
classics. To be published by the Mala was to gain immediate recognition. But Joshi was also
besotted with theatre and had squandered a large portion of his personal fortune on that
Joshi's own taste in literature was erratic and the early titles brought out by the
Mala varied in quality. In the mid-fifties, however, Joshi acquired a youthful adviser with
vision, called Kirtinath Kurtkoti. A student of English literature, Kurtkoti had an
insider's familiarity with Kannada, Sanskrit, and Marathi literatures and impeccable
judgment. He transformed the Mala into a modern, vibrant, critically-aware publishing firm
and the Mala transformed Kurtkoti into a major critic.
This was fortunate for me. For having written Yayati, I carried it, with immense
trepidation, to Joshi. He took the manuscript home with a grace characteristic of that era
and returned it two days later with the mysterious comment, 'The maid's monologue in the
last act is very well-written' I accepted that as a polite rejection.
Within the next few weeks, I left for Britain, carrying the play with me. I
continued to fiddle with it there, and discovered an uncomfortable truth: it was impossible
for me to rethink the play in English.
A few months later, I received a letter from Kurtkoti. 'Joshi described your play to
me last night,' wrote Kurtkoti. 'I am intrigued by your use of the Yayati myth.' He asked me
to send him the script, adding that he hoped it was not a psychoanalytic reinterpretation of
the myth in the manner of Eugene O'Neill. This proviso alarmed me, since, while in England,
I had been bowled over by O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra and would have loved to
achieve the same kind of quivering intensity in my play. Taking the bit between my teeth, I
reworked the play and mailed it to Kurtkoti.
Kurtkoti worked on the language of the play which was inevitably wobbly since I had
spent my youth preparing to step into the shoes of Eliot and Yeats. (This was by no means an
unusual occurrence. Many writers in Kannada started their literary careers writing in
English.) Joshi published the play-which was an act of immense courage, since there was an
even smaller market for drama than for fiction.
One of the first people I met on my return to India was the young Satyadev Dubey. He
had taken over the mantle of the Theatre Unit in Bombay from Ebrahim Alkazi, who had moved
to New Delhi to take charge of the National School of Drama. I had seen and had been deeply
influenced by Alkazi's productions in Bombay which had all been in English. So I was
unprepared for Dubey's fierce dedication to Indian languages. Our meeting didn't begin too
well. The atmosphere was tense with suppressed truculence until Dubey suddenly turned on me
and demanded, 'What's the point of writing plays in English? How can you write anything
meaningful in that language? I stammered that my play was in Kannada and not in English. In
fact, I had found myself incapable of writing in English even when I was keen to do so.
Dubey's face fell. Abashed, he asked me if I would read out my play to him.
After a three-year struggle to get the right budget and cast, Dubey presented Yayati
in Hindi, a magnificent production with Amrish Puri in the eponymous role.
It speak for the entirely altered place of English in the Indian theatre today that
Dubey has not only produced many English plays since then but has recently written one
I would like to use this occasion to acknowledge the immense load of gratitude I owe
the three who shaped the life of this play: G.B. Joshi, Kirtinath Kurktoti, and Satyadev
My thanks are also due to Sunila Pradhan in New York (the original Devayani) and
Arundhati Raja of the Artists' Repertory Theatre, Bangalore, who persuaded me to take a
serious look at Translating it into English.
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