Nagamandala by Girish Karnad
Nagamandala by Girish Karnad
The play starts with a Prologue. A prologue is something that is attached before the main text of a book to introduce it. A man is sitting in a ruined, deserted temple. He has an apprehension that he is going to die in a few hours. A mendicant has prophesied that because as a playwright he has tormented his audiences with his arid plays, the curses of all those audiences have befallen him. If he wishes to live, he must stay awake for one full night before the end of the month. But all his efforts to do so has failed and this is the last day of the month. Hopeless, now he is assured that he will surely die tonight and therefore he has run away from his house to have an anonymous death. He swears in front of the audience that he will give up theatre forever if he lives.
Soon, he hears the voices of some women approaching the temple. However, he finds that the voices are coming from “naked lamp flames”. These flames arrive there nightly to gather at this deserted temple and gossip till the night ends. One of the flames informs the others that an old lady had been keeping a story and a song secret for a while. The story and song were chocked because the old lady did not disclose them to someone. So, they came out of the lady’s mouth when she was napping. The story turned into a young woman and the song became her colourful sari. While the flame was still chattering about the story, the story-turned woman also follows her into the temple. Story wants to pass on her story to someone and the flames agree to listen. But, it will go in vain as the flames cannot help the story survive by passing it to other people. The man interferes and expresses his consent to listen and even agrees, though reluctantly, to pass on the story. So, it is settled that Story will narrate Rani’s story. The man and flames take their positions and Story starts speaking. Thus, the first act begins.
The Story starts her narration by introducing Rani, a beautiful, innocent and naïve girl, who was the only daughter of their loving parents. She had long black tresses that added to her charm. When she was still in her early adolescence, her father chose a suitable groom for her—a young, wealthy but spoilt man called Appanna whose parents were no more. She was married to Appanna but was not sent with him until she turned into a woman.
The play opens at Appanna’s house. Appanna has brought her bride to live with him as she has grown into a woman now. But, the married life of the couple is not pleasant. Appanna spends most of his time outside with his concubine, even nights. He turns back home only when he needs to have a bath or when he feels hungry. It can be said that Appanna has made an unpaid maid of her wife, Rani who took care of his household. When Rani tries to talk with her husband about her problems, he muffles her down saying, “Do as you are told.” He locks her inside the house and goes away living an unrestrained life. Being lonely, Rani feels being cursed, misses her parents and dreams of getting back to them.
Rani’s life becomes cyclic like a ‘mandala’ with no change in her situation, until a blind old woman named Kurudavva, who was like sisters to Appanna’s dead mother, comes to meet her. Rani informs her about her misery. Kurudavva decides to help her to gain her husband’s love and gives her two magical roots—one small and the other big. She instructs her to prepare a paste from the small root and feed it to Appanna. When Rani feeds the paste to her husband, he faints which terrifies her. Knowing this, Kurudavva asks her to go on with the bigger root. She prepares the paste again but when she glances at the blood-like texture and colour of the paste, she was horrified thinking that it may harm her husband. She decides to throw the paste into the ant-hill where Naga, a supernatural serpent lives. Naga, consuming the magical paste, is infatuated with Rani. At night he assumes Appanna’s shape and visits Rani. He talks to her like a loving husband, caresses her and makes her sleep. Naga continues visiting Rani nightly and makes love with her.
Rani could not figure out the reason for Appanna’s changed demeanour who behaves like a stranger in the day, but a lover at night. But she does not make any effort to solve this riddle because, despite Appanna’s rude behaviour during the day, she was having a great time with him during the night.
Days pass and Rani becomes pregnant about which she informs Naga. But, Naga seems indifferent to the news while Appanna is infuriated to find that her wife has committed adultery. He beats her and decides to call the elders of the village to find the truth of her pregnancy. That night Naga admits that it is inevitable for Rani to evade the ordeal to prove her innocence. He proposes she choose the snake-ordeal to testify her chastity. He informs her that she needs to utter something in front of the elders that is not a lie otherwise the snake will bite her.
The next morning, Rani is brought to the elders with the villagers surrounding them. Among other easier ordeals to testify her innocence, she finally chooses to go through the snake-ordeal. Holding the snake in her hand, she proclaims that since she came to this village she has touched only two males—one is Appanna and the other is the Cobra that she was holding in her hand. Since technically this statement is true, Cobra doesn’t bite her. It moves over her shoulder like a garland. Witnessing this miracle, the elders and the villagers declare her a goddess. The elders suggest Appanna spending the rest of his life in her service.
Story concludes her tale with a happy union of the couple. But, man remains unconvinced with this ending. He questions some unresolved complications in the narrative but Story tries to convince him saying that people often need to ignore things to lead a peaceful life. When Man asks about Appanna’s lifelong misery, Naga’s destiny and Rani’s confusion about Appanna’s changed behaviour during the day and night, Story changes the conclusion of the story. She continues her story with another resolution. She proposes a tragic ending for the story in which Naga sacrifices himself. Naga turns into a small serpent and gets into Rani’s beautiful long tresses where he dies, probably choked. While combing Rani’s hair, the dead serpent falls out. Rani and Appanna consent to ritually cremate the serpent.
However, the flames are not pleased with this tragic ending and ask Man to conclude the story happily. Man gives the story a happy ending in which Rani hides the small living serpent back into her tresses before Appanna could kill it. Rani allows the serpent to live in her tresses forever and says that her hair is the symbol of her wedded bliss.
It is dawn now. The flames disappear one by one and the man also leaves.
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