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T.P. ASHOK
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BOOK The city is the protagonist in Girish Karnad’s new play, Benda Kaalu On Toast

Benda Kaalu on Toast

A Kannada play by Girish Karnad

Manohara Granthamala, Rs. 70

Girish Karnad is arguably among the finest playwrights of modern India. He has 14 plays to his credit. “Benda Kaalu on Toast” is his latest play. A versatile genius, Karnad has drawn his material from a repertoire of resources — myth, history, folklore and contemporary life — and has been comfortable with each one of them.

A modern playwright, Karnad is not interested in plain, linear presentation of a story in the mere dialogue form. Instead, he creates situations where characters and ideas get problematised exhibiting multiple dimensions of the existential and civilizational problems and possibilities of perception. Karnad’s plays raise many important, fundamental issues and questions regarding the meaning and the very purpose of human existence, power structures and human relationships which have no simple answers or solutions. He does not use myth, history and folklore only to retell old stories to the modern audience in the dramatic form. Instead, he creatively transforms them into metaphors, and employs them to encounter and interpret the immediate. These metaphors provide him a larger canvas and the archetypal energy to deal with contemporary problems and situations. While dealing with contemporary domestic and social life Karnad shows the ambition of elevating the present to metaphysical heights.

“Anju Mallige”, “Maduveya Album”, “Odakalu Bimba” and ‘Benda Kaalu on Toast” are the plays in which Karnad sets his situations in the present times. If “Anju Mallige” and “Odakalu Bimba” attempt to probe the labyrinths of human consciousness, “Maduveya Album” and “Benda Kaalu on Toast” take on social, cultural and political issues. Steeped in the specific details of the Saraswath brahmin world “Maduveya Album” observes the tensions and changing aspirations of a small community through a close examination of the institution of marriage which is under pressure from various corners. In “Benda Kaalu on Toast” — Bengaluru, the metropolis, itself is the protagonist! According to a legend king Veera Ballala, while hunting, got lost in a forest. An old woman saved the exhausted, hungry king by offering him ‘benda kaalu’ (baked beans). In gratitude, the King built a town there and gave the name Bendakaaluru to it. In course of time, Bendakaaluru became Bengaluru. If one observes closely, it’s not only the nomenclature but also an entire value system that has undergone a sea change. The title of Karnad’s new play, which is half Kannada and half English, seems to epitomise this transformation. The play may be read as Karnad’s metaphorical response to contemporary Bengaluru, the epitome of the contradictions and complexities of contemporary civilization.

If this new play of Karnad outwardly appears a bit patchy, disjointed and loose it is understandable. One shoud not-expect a neatly woven tight plot in this kind of a play. It is very interesting to note that Karnad, in the Author’s preface, declares that the play is his humble tribute to Shoodraka’s play “Mricchakatika”. And that explains the logic and motivation behind the structural strategies of “Benda Kaalu on Toast”. It does not have a single plot. Each main character — drawn from different class, generation and strata of society — has his/her story. These individual stories meet at some point or the other but most importantly, in spite of being unique they are able to weave a colourful, complex tapestry, thereby offering a micro visual of contemporary Bengaluru. The metropolis seems to be collapsing under its own weight. But it is also a hope, dream and the ultimate goal to the middle and the working class outside Bangalore. One character — Prabhakara Telang -- sums up this aspiration when he says: ‘The city air, however polluted, is like a breath of fresh air for me after that suffocating growing-up in the village’.

Other characters, especially the working class, echo the same sentiment. It is an irony that Pops Iyer convinces Prabhakar that even Bengaluru is suffocating, too small a place for people like Prabhakar, and induces him to improve his prospects by going abroad.

Even as a number of other characters have found lucrative careers, Kunal refuses to pursue the same course and braves all threats and challenges to explore a new space in music.

The grand old lady Anasuya Padubidre finds her space in the race course while her daughter-in-law Anjana Padubidre finds solace in philanthropic activities. Thus everybody in this play demands their share of ‘Bend Kaalu’ in spite of Benda Kaaluru’s own pressures and constraints. It is this contradiction that Karnad’s play attempts to reflect and grasp.

T.P. ASHOK


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