In memoriam: Girish Karnad

From a new perspective

Girish Karnad’s new play Rakshasa Tangadi has not only enriched Kannada theatre with a powerful tragedy but also given a rare insight into history

Robert Sewell, a civil servant in India, wrote A Forgotten Empire, in 1900, a historical narrative on the Vijayanagara empire. Owing to its framework of colonial discourse (‘Vijayanagara: Hindu bulwark against Islamic onslaught’ ) and his emotive language (“Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city”) the book became very influential. Literally, scores of stories, novels and plays in Kannada and Telugu were written faithfully following Sewell’s model. However, after Sewell, since new sources and bakhairs came to light/ got translated into English, historians and scholars in the post-colonial period began to have a re-look at the Medieval period. Girish Karnad’s latest play, Rakshasa-Tangadi, belongs to this tradition of post-colonial discourse. The brilliant play not only offers a new perspective on the battle of Rakkasa Tangadi but also does away with popular myths and legends about the decisive battle.

Two major myths associated with the battle are: a) Vijayanagara army was defeated due to two of its Muslim generals switching sides in the middle of the battle (a few ‘histories’ give their names as Gilani brothers); b) Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagara, was barbarously pillaged and plundered by the victorious Muslim armies. Karnad’s play rejects both these myths. He models his ideological frame, as he acknowledges in his Preface, on the scholarly work of Richard Eaton that the fatal battle was fought not on religious grounds but on mundane political considerations of survival, and that both the Hindu and Muslim courts at that time were pervaded with similar Persian culture. (A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761, 2006) Also, for a few incidents in the play (such as Rama Raya’s entering the battlefield sitting in a palanquin, sultanate cannons filled with copper coins wreaking havoc on the enemy lines, Rumi Khan’s capture of Ramaraya by chance, etc.), the play is indebted to Rafiyuddin Shirazi’s ‘eye-witness’ accounts. (Tazkiratul-Muluk, tr. 1987)

The play has a bipartite plot with two ‘induction scenes’. Whereas the first scene shows a few greedy soldiers, searching for hidden wealth in caves and underground caches, and getting brutally killed by disguised cave-dwellers, the second scene shows Tirumala, Ramaraya’s brother, fleeing the battlefield and transporting all the palace-wealth and women to a safe place, on the back of 1650 elephants. This ingenious juxtaposition of dacoits and royalty blurs the difference between the two.

Then begins the main play with two parts which are sharply contrastive at many levels. Whereas the locale of most of the action in the first part is Ramaraya’s palace, it shifts to the battle field in the second; the hero-villain of the first act is Ramaraya whereas the second act is centred on Nizamshah; and, if the first act ends with the beheading of Jahangir Khan, the second part ends with the beheading of Ramaraya. What is to be particularly noticed is the difference in the behaviour of the Hindu and Muslim queens. Satyabhama, Ramaraya’s wife, is passive; she can only plead with her husband in vain and die following his death. But, Begum Humayun, Nizamshah’s wife, is dynamic and clever; she gives her husband shrewd advice which, though reluctantly, her husband follows and wins the great battle. Such a contrastive bipartite plot admirably dramatizes the three possible reasons for the fall of the Vijayanagara empire: the megalomania and ruthlessness of Ramaraya, the advanced military tactics of the Shahi armies such as diversionary movements and camouflage, and lack of a second line of defence in the capital.

The complex character of Ramaraya is superbly drawn in the play. He is courageous and brave, and he protects the empire for two decades. But he is also egotistical, and disgruntled that while the Tuluva (Sadashivaraya) sits on the throne, he is expected to constantly fight for him and the empire. In order to legitimize his power, he traces his ancestry to the old Chalukya dynasty of Kalyana. He cynically plays the Shahi sultans one against the other, and, at every point humiliates them. He is so sadistic that he gets Jahangir Khan beheaded despite Nizamshah going down on his knees. With such a man at the helm of affairs, the fall of Vijayanagara doesn’t come as a surprise.

An intense feeling of tragic gloom of inevitability, built up by the fatal hubris of Ramaraya, haunts the whole play.

The play’s title, ‘Rakshasa’-Tangadi, is highly connotative; it suggests the demonic and violent forces let loose, on the fateful battleground of Rakkasagi-Tangadagi. Karnad has not only enriched Kannada theatre with this powerful tragedy but has also given a rare (and highly relevant) insight into history that the past cannot be understood in a simplistic frame of ‘virtuous WE and the evil THEY.’

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 11:42:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/from-a-new-perspective/article24992857.ece

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