Naga Mandala

nagamandala-2.jpgAbout the Play:

Quotes from Maya Pandit’s article “A Dark Continent: Modernity and Gender Perception in Modern Indian Theatre.” on the play by Girish Karnad from Theatre India 7: National School of Drama’s Theatre Journal (May 2003):

Appropriating an Indian folk tale and the form of storytelling in an innovative manner (the flames like women narrating stories to each other ), in order to explore into the ideologies that constitute the private domain of ‘family’, it highlighted the problem of woman’s sexual desire, autonomy, fulfillment and transgression. According to Karnad, [Nagamandala} is the sotry of a young girl in the bosom of a joint family where she sees her husband only in two unconnected roles- as a stranger during the day and as a lover during the night.


The problem of sexuality and fulfillment is represented by Rani who is married to Appanna but who refuses to treat her better than a door mat. His affections are engaged elsewhere and poor Rani is locked in the house. It is the magic potion which Kurudavva, the old blind woman, gives her to gain the affection of her husband, but which naga (the snake) drinks, that becomes a key to her desires.


Naga’s nocturnal visits awaken her womanhood and arouse her desires, so far forbidden. The contradiction between the colourful nights with Naga , in the shape of her husband, and the drab and dull existence when the real husband comes home to eat at day, symbolize the contradiction in women’s life in general.There are multiple signs in the play when Rani tries to consciously obliterate the struggle between desire and knowledge. Rani tries to turn a blind eye to all the tell tale signs which proclaim that the husband in the night and the husband in the daytime are not one and the same. The scratches on his body disappear in the day; she sees Naga’s reflection in the mirror as a cobra when she opens her toilet box to take out a medication for applying on his wounds and yet she cannot let him go because it is he who has opened up a whole new world of forbidden desires to her.


The power relations between the husband and wife and between Naga and Rani are in a sense quite identical. Rani is not supposed to ask any questions about the treatment that is being meted out to her. She says, ‘Scowls in the day, embraces at night. The face in the morning unrelated to the one in the night. But day or night, one rule does not change. Don’t ask questions. Do as I tell you.’…But she is not ready to confront the questions within herself. She is assailed by self doubts. ‘Suppose what I think is the truth turns out to be false?’ she wonders when she has to face the snake ordeal. And then when blind Kurudavva contronts her with questions about her son’s whereabouts, she is enabled to open her eyes to her own predicament, ‘Do desires really reach out from some world beyond to get into our bed?’


Her wish to accept the kiss of the cobra and the dark silence of the anthill is in a sense her rebellion against the patriarchal norms of her society, which make her face the snake ordeal on the charge of adultery by her husband. But these same norms do not question him at all about his duty by his wife, about his illicit affair with another woman, about his heartless treatment of his wife. She comes out of the snake ordeal successfully, with her glory restored, her image idolized. She has turned into a goddess overnight. And the husband who had treated her so shamefully, is suitably enslaved to her. The elders tell him, ‘ Don’t grieve that you judged her wrongly and treated her badly. You were the chosen instrument for revealing her divinity’. It is not only her husband, even his concubine becomes her servant.


Naga, her lover, is strangled in her hair, an obvious symbol of sexuality, and is destroyed without harming her reputation as a divine woman in any way. The problem is solved. But the story does not quite end here. As the flames say, ‘Why cannot a woman live in peace and harmony? Why should this ending, signifying the death of the extra-marital relation be accepted? Then comes the second ending, whereby Naga is able to live happily in her hair. Not only that, she continues to live happily ever after with both her husband and the lover intact. The marital bliss remains intact and so is the gratification of sexual desire.


About the Playwright:

Girish Karnad was Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He has served as Director of the Film and Television Institute of India, Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (the National Academy of the Performing Arts) and Director of the Nehru Centre, London (the cultural wing of the High Commission of India). He was Visiting Professor and Playwright-in-Residence at the University of Chicago. He has been elected Fellow of the Sangeet natak Akademi, and has received the Sahitya Akademi, and has received the Sahitya Akademi award as well as the Jnanpith, India’s highest distinctions for lifetime contribution to literature and the arts. He has been decorated with the Padma Bhushan. His career as a dramatist has been paralleled by an equally celebrated career as actor, screenwriter and diretor of film and television, through which he played a pivotal role in the Indian Parallel Cinema movement from the 1970s to 1990s.


Quote from Chaman Ahuja’s article “Theatrical Phulkari” from Theatre India 4: National School of Drama’s Theatre Journal, November 2001

Girish Karnad’s Nagamandala was Neelam’s first major work. For the first time, speech, narration, recitation, songs, dances, costumes, props, movements, stood unified. In a sense, she did not just direct the play, she recreated it- a recreation that earned full approval from the playwright. ‘You are the only person who has really understood my play,’


Review of the Performance by Nirupama Dutt from the Chandigarh Tribune, Nov. 8, 2005

Against a backdrop of shimmering dotted and striped fabric, so like snakeskin, sewn together, sits the beautiful Rani experiencing a strange marriage in which her husband is a tyrant by day and a lover by night. Trying to fathom this dichotomy, Rani tells her snake man: “All these days I was never sure I didn’t just dream up these nightly visits of yours. You don’t know how I have suffered. When I saw your scowling face in the mornings I would be certain everything was a fantasy and almost want to cry.”


This is a scene form Girish Karnad’s famous play Naga-Mandala (Play with a Cobra) that is being rehearsed in Studio Theatre in the backyard of Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s home in Chandigarh’s Sector 4. The play is to be staged at the playwright’s Convention at Bangalore on November 13. This is not the first time that Neelam is doing this fascinating play in a fine translation in Punjabi by poet Surjit Patar. In fact Neelam took up this same play some time in the late eighties and it proved to be a turning point in her journey as a director. It was a remarkable play by Karnad in which two Kannada folk tales were woven together. The first tale commented on the paradoxical nature of oral tales that have an existence of their own independent of the narrator and yet they live on only when they are passed on from one to the other. Within this tale is the story of Rani who flowers in the fantastic rather than the realistic.


Neelam had got an exquisite translation, songs and all from Punjabi. I recall Neelam telling me then, “It is an amazing story about women for lovers and love exist more in their fantasy.” As a director this play helped her weave together her traditional naqals, many of them female impersonators, in a cohesive manner with her urban contemporary actors. It was the play that received many rave reviews at the national level and remained a favorite with Karnad. Now many years later when Neelam was thinking about working on stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, a proposal came that she stage Naga-Mandala all over again. Neelam says: “I wasn’t very excited to begin with. I didn’t know if I wanted to do a tale about snakes and women all over again. The Manto festival at Lahore got cancelled and I just started reading Naga-Mandala again.” The story had the power to grip her again and so she picked up the same script and most of the same actors and started work on it all over again.


The result is a freshly designed production with many new elements. The concept is reworked with the accent on duality and thus we have two leading ladies instead of one. Ramanjeet is at her emotive best and finely supported by Payal and the brand new snake is a talented young man called Rocky. A lotus pond, carpets of dried leaves, snakey paintings on trunks make this half-realist and half-fantastical tale come alive brilliantly with Pamela singh singing soulfully the lyrics by Surjit Patar.




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