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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Bikshāpātra, a Telugu Playlet: Critiquing from a Marxist Perspective

G V Krishnarao, like many ancient Sanskrit play writers, borrowing an incident—Vӯasanishkramana, exit of Vӯasa from Kāsi—from Srinatha’s Kāśī Khanda and tweaking it in such a way that it reflects modernity in terms of ‘dialectical materialism’, wrote Bikshāpātra, a three-act playlet. It was translated into all the sixteen Indian languages and was broadcasted by All India Radio under its ‘National Program of Drama’. An attempt is made here to trace how the playwright achieved universal validity for his dialectic interpretation of a purānic-incident to drive home the fact that even an aristocratic and the towering personality like Vӯasa could not escape the pangs of hunger—hunger for physical gratification and the hunger for truth, self-analysis, and ideation, all culminating into a reasoned exposition of the complex relationship between “infrastructure and superstructure spectrum” without of course, losing sight of Indian aesthetics.


  G V Krishnarao (GVK), wrote Bikshāpātra, a three-act playlet, in the year 1938 unraveling many layers of human understanding and emotions. He said that it was written while he was undergoing the frustration of not being able to secure an employment immediately after his graduation and the resulting hunger pangs. Obviously, the anger and frustration of the author at his inability to secure a job and stand on his own feet, that too, at that formative phase of his life—hardly 24 years old—well reflects in the play.
  The storyline of the original episode runs thus: long ago poet Vӯasa stayed in Kāsi with his students imparting them knowledge, duly supporting them with the traditional madhukaramu as their means for daily food. One day, as they completed their morning course of discourse and set out for their biksha to Kāsi streets, Lord Visveswara (Siva) desirous of testing Vӯasa’s manōsthirya (firmness of mind) asks Goddess Annapoorna to ensure that no one gives them biksha on that day. And she, being sarvabhūtani manifests herself in everybody to say ‘no’ with an invented reason at every household. As a result, neither Vӯasa nor his disciples could get even a morsel of biksha. And all of them are forced to go on a kind of fast for that day.
  Next day too same is the experience—no one gives them biksha. Vӯasa becoming furious at the haughtiness of the citizens of Kāsi, flings his begging bowl to the ground and taking water into his hands, is about to curse the citizens thus: “For three generations the citizens of Kāsi shall go without wealth, education and salvation”. At this juncture, Goddess Annapoorna presenting herself to Vӯasa saying, “Why are you so angry, my child? Come with me to my house and have lunch, then we shall talk about” takes them to her house and serves them sumptuous food.
  After they had food, she lets them know her bit of mind: “’cause for a day you didn’t have biksha, how dare are you to think of inflicting such a curse on Kāsi? How could you, being such ill-tempered, write puranas, sort out Vedas and write Mahābhārata with such sweet words? How could you, who being just not able to secure biksha for a day prepared to inflict such a calamity even on the divine land like Kāsi, become a rishi? You think Visveswara would keep quiet if you curse Kāsi?”
  Then, Lord Visveswara presenting himself, declares, “He is not fit to be in Kāsi. Why discussion? Ask him to go out.” Shuddering at the anger of Siva, Vӯasa and his disciples prostrate at his feet and pray for mercy. Then Visveswara directs him to go and stay 30 miles away from Kāsi and also instructs him to live, at least henceforth, with control on his anger and never to curse divine abodes.
  It is this story of the past which sounds partly mythological and partly spiritual that GVK, perhaps driven by a philosophy that “literature is a social institution and has a specific ideological function”, took to articulate the real problems of the world of his days and its affairs—as indeed he himself had no job in hand to secure himself from hunger—through the format of a playlet. Even at that young age, GVK appears to be deeply rooted in India’s traditional values and beliefs while having at the same time a good insight into Marx’s formulation about the “relationship between economic determinism and the social superstructure.” It is perhaps to draw the attention of the audience to what Marx said, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being, that determines their consciousness” and make them realize that “liberty and poverty are incompatible” that GVK wrote his play, Bikshāpātra, altering the original storyline as required.
  This paper shall now attempt to explore in more detail how GVK could successfully use this simple premise—the socioeconomic conditions and the classism of the Vӯasa’s time—to create a thought-provoking and theatrically captivating excursion into unchartered world of the left-wing ideology aimed at kindling audience’s enthusiasm to question, to dwell on the rationality of whatever being said, even by the holy and the learned rather than simply accepting as it is, and be aware of socioeconomic aspects of the culture and to sensitize them about the dire need to “change the system.”
Opening Scene: Rationalism versus Spiritualism
The opening scene of the play depicts Vӯasa Pētham—the academy of Vӯasa—located abutting Manikarnika Ghat of Ganga in Kāsi. Amidst its groove, there in the center is the Muktimantapi (the central pavilion) from where Vӯasa used to deliver his philosophical discourses. Visitors used to copy Vӯasa’s books sitting in that central court. There, under a mango tree, are Sumanthudu, Bhruguvu, Nandeswarudu, and Devaludu. They are all of same age with ghōshpādapu pilakalu (tuft of hair, about the size of a calf’s hoof print), rudrāksha (beads) garland around their necks, and rudrāksha kundala (ear rings) hanging from their ears. They have draped themselves in cotton dhovathis (a long loincloth worn by Hindu men) and are adorned with yajnōpavētam (sacred thread) across their trunks and vibhūtirēkhalu (three horizontal lines drawn with holy ash) all over the body.
Among them, Sumanthudu appears weak and his eyes are drooping. As he sweats profusely, the vibhūtirēkhalu on his body fade away. Devaludu—an intelligent boy among the students whom the others respect perhaps, more out of fear, and are at the same time jealous of him—looks restless, for Sumanthudu is murmuring: “Ākali! Ākali! (Hunger! Hunger!)
Responding to him, Bhruguvu says, “Recite Brahma Sūtras. Meditate on Jaimini teacher’s commentary.” Devaludu joins him in consoling Sumanthudu, of course, satirically saying, “Yes, your hunger will get satisfied with it—indeed it is tantamount to eating paramānnam [a sweet pudding].” Nandeswarudu, a traditionalist, intervenes: “When there are Vālmiki Rāmāyana and Vӯasa’s Vēdāntasūtras what else is needed!”
In the meanwhile, Sumanthudu cries, “O! my God, my belly is burning. Body is shriveling. Eyes are sinking. How long this fast? No food for the last seven days. Intestines are rumbling. I will gulp down anything that I can lay hands on in one go.” Devaludu, who till then sat by his side, distancing himself from him utters, “Devour me not.” “If there is no biksha for another two days, I shall do the same”, replies Sumanthudu.

Disturbed by the loud chanting of the students assembled under the Banyan tree—“athātō brahma jijnāsā”, “athātō brahma jijnāsā”—Sumanthudu asks Devaludu to tell them to read silently. Accordingly, as Devaludu asks them to read silently, they question his right to instruct them. Bhrugudu, another student, intervenes to pacify them explaining the plight of their fellow student, Sumanthudu.
Unmindful of all this, Sumanthudu whispers: “dāham! dāham! … Gurudēva … Gurudēva! (Thirst! Thirst! Oh noble teacher!). As Devaludu is looking for water hither and thither, Vysampayanudu picks up a tumbler and hurriedly hands over to Sumanthudu. He attempts to swallow a few sips but as he fails to draw in, his eyes roll up. Everyone surrounding him suddenly turns anxious. Pushing them all away, as Vӯsampayanudu keeping Sumantha’s head in his lap massages his chest, Sumanthudu moaning, “amma” shuts his eyes. Watching all this, Devaludu’s heart wrenches with anger.
“‘Athātō brahma jijnāsā’, ‘Athātō brahma jijnāsādoesn’t matter whether you are suffering from pain or dying, ‘Brahma jijnasa’ must go on!” says Devaludu. He goes on uttering: “That very day I argued with the guru that men need food. Economic stability is a must. For, it is on the economic-pulley that man’s history rolls on.” But Nandu retorts: “This world is illusion. And life is a bubble, you mad fellow!”
Nandu continues: “Buds unfurl into flowers and drop. Clouds aggregate, give rain and dissipate. Similarly, man also plays on the stage called world for a couple of days and goes away. Nothing is permanent. Brahmam alone is eternal, without attributes, and immutable.” But Devaludu calls it untrue. The rest of the students accuse him: “You appear like an atheist. Be careful, else, we shall inform the Gurudev [teacher].” Devaludu brushes them off saying what they are uttering is not backed by reason and it cannot become rational simply because some fool has uttered it repeatedly.
Nandu, ignoring what Devaludu said, proposes to explain to his fellow students what he has written on Brahmam ten days back. Listening to it, Devaludu taunts thus: “Yes, yes, the whole academy should listen. Listen you must all with your hungry stomachs! Your hunger will be satiated. You would all be blessed”.
In the meanwhile, Sumanthudu slurping his tongue mutters “dāham dāham.” Devaludu advises Sumanthudu: “You mad fellow listen Nandudu. He is going to offer you ambrosia … take a little of it, and you will get up alright!” “While my whole body is craving for food, why this taunting?” murmurs Sumanthudu.
As the skirmishes go on, Nandudu accuses Devaludu about his falling into the trap of atheism and preaching worst materialism, and asserts “material comforts and wealth are not permanent and they are not the end of man’s pursuit. If it were, there would have been no difference between man and animal. Eternal bliss alone is the ideal of men with pure reasoning. That bliss alone is the Brahmam.
Nandudu goes on to question that when the great saint Vӯasa himself accepted poverty—the other side of Narayana—silently, why this anxiety for you people?
As Sumanthudu again whispers for water, wondering, “Am I to die of this hunger?” Devaludu responds to him but satirically: “Why die, we have our Nandudu.” Turning to Nandudu, he requests him: “Kindly shower a little of your preaching on Sumanthudu and save him from death.”
Igniting such a rational questioning by Devaludu, who refusing to accept the condition in which the Gurukula (the academy) finds itself volunteers to confront the injustice at large, of course, from the frame of his own justice and making Nandudu respond to it from his traditional spiritual frame of mind, the playwright effectively delineated the conflict between the hard reality of hunger and its pangs on the one hand and spiritualism represented by Nandudu that attempts to be indifferent to the happenings in the Gurukula on the other. In the process, GVK also succeeded in uncovering those buried forces—the distribution of economic power that undergirds the society—and making them visible to the audience. 
Vӯasa Exposes Jaimini’s ‘False Consciousness’
As the students are thus debating over Sumantha’s plight, Vӯasa Maharshi, the head of the academy, walks in along with Jaimini, his second in line of command of the Gurukula. For Devaludu, Vӯasa’s glowing face looks like a moon shadowed by clouds and it makes him wonder: “Terrible fasts shriveled even such strong-willed persons.” Walking in, Vӯasa inquires Jaimini if duplication of Purānas is going on alright. “Duplicating is over; indeed they are being read in every house”, says Jaimini. “How about Bhāratam?” asks Vӯasa. “More than Purānas, it is the Bhāratam that spread widely. By the bye, why are you asking about it?” asks Jaimini.
“How nice it would have been had my books not spread in the world!” murmurs
Vӯasa. Disturbed by the comment, Jaimini responds thus: “Your epics are great. No other poet could have created such epics which you have presented to the world. Your prathibha (genious) is unparalleled. Your epics should spread far and wide. But I fail to understand why you desire their banishment.”
Vӯasa then shoots out a question: “Do my books appear that great even now!” Jaimini, reaffirming that Gurudēv’s prathibha has no boundaries, says, “Whenever I read your epics an indefinable glow of knowledge pervades my whole heart.”
Smiling melancholically, Vӯasa questions, “Even in this fasting do they appear so to you?” “It is your epics that are enabling me to put up with the current fasting with least difficulty”, replies Jaimini. Then Vӯasa says, “Look at me, your eyes are reflecting your unexpressed suffering”. Jaimini says, “I have no suffering, whatsoever”. But Vӯasa asserts: “You don’t know. You are suffering”.
Then Jaimini says, “I haven’t heard you speaking thus ever in the past. You sound unusually new today”.
Stammering, “Not for you alone, I have become something strange to my very self” and enquires with Jaimini in a sad tone: “Would it not be possible to free this world of my books?”
“Why are you so worried about your epics? There is nothing to be worried about them at all”, repeats Jaimini.
Vӯasa replies, “Vatsa! That’s not the fact. Having imbibed all my past nature your heart has been hardened. It cannot traverse beyond that. You still need experience. You are delighted by my epics. So long as you are in that ecstasy you can’t notice the deficiencies in them.”
“Deficiencies in your epics! It is impossible. I cannot agree. The whole of Bharatavarsha praises your critical sense of observation, your brave heart and above all your aesthetic sense,” replies Jaimini.
“It’s not gurukulam. It’s not Bharatavarsha, it is your young heart that is saying this—in your anxiety to prove your prathibha you are making me a great man and saying my books are great”, replies Vӯasa.
With a reddened face, Jaimini reaffirms: “Your books are great. They describe man in totality. Whatever you might say, there are no deficiencies whatsoever in your books.”
But Vӯasa goes on saying, “Oh my dear fool, I have played my veena with no drone string!” As Jaimini, shocked by it remains silent, Vӯasa mutters, “I realized it only today!”
Through this simple but captivating conversation between the two intellectual giants of yore, GVK succeeds in bringing out to the fore the ‘cultural conditioning’ that Jaimini is suffering from, which led to his accepting the system—though unfavorable—without a protest or questioning it. He could also make the audience realize how Jaimini had unconsciously accepted the subservient, powerless role in the society that has been prescribed by the earlier preaching of Vӯasa. Indeed, it is the earlier disposition of Vӯasa that had socially constructed Jaimini to want nothing else. Being thus content with his lot, Jaimini experiences difficulty in understanding Vӯasa’s agony. The whole scene could thus symbolically suggest how ‘interpellation’—a process by which working class is manipulated to accept the ideology of the dominant one—operates in the society. Secondly, through the lamentations of Vӯasa at the spread of his epics far and wide, the playwright, perhaps, wants to convey to the audience how right Marx is in his belief: “Literature is a powerful tool for maintaining the social status quo because it operates under the guise of being entertainment.” Cumulatively, GVK makes the audience wonder if they have unconsciously accepted the subservient, powerless roles in the society that have been prescribed by others.
Vӯasa Questions His Own Ideology
Later, as they get ready for bikshātana (seeking alms), a tear drop falls in the bikshāpātra from the eyes of Vӯasa. “Had only this tear drop rained earlier in the bikshāpātra! No, it didn’t and therefore I hummed the drone-less raga all along and this stupid world nodded its head in ecstasy”, says Vӯasa.
Innocently, Jaimini inquires, “Why not sing a new rāga with Sruti afresh.”
“I lost the past melody of my tone. Even otherwise there is no scope of singing in this country. No use singing to the uncultured,” replies Vӯasa.
“At every passing minute I realize I am getting distanced from your heart. Am I not fit to be revealed what is troubling your heart?” pleads Jaimini.
Staring with an intriguing look at the bikshāpātra, Vӯasa soliloquizes: “In my formative phase of life no tear drop fell in you. Nor did a thunder bolt. Had it happened, how wise I would have been! I might have had Sachidānanda drusti… it is because of the absence of that empathetic look I consigned this academy and this impoverished mankind to sufferings. I assigned them chāturvarnam [division of society into four varnas (castes)] simply based on the division of occupation, and created a caste system. Preaching the doctrine of karma and the doctrine of incarnations that are offensive against mankind, I made them accept slavery. So long as my Gēta remains in this world I ensured that there is no salvation to the people. I told them to live with this bikshāpātra. I committed a great crime. I haven’t realized that man had such intense greed for power and that he would be so egoistic. Believing in this egocentric heart asked them to strive for refining their hearts. Under the goose of religion, I preached them tuschha bhouthikatatvam—‘corrupt-materialism’. Idealistically passing on the bikshāpātra, I spoiled the educated lot. Jaimini! Jaimini! Look at these young students. See, how their tender cheeks withered away! Their eyes are so appalling! So pathetic! How am I to stare at their faces! Leaving their parents behind and having faith in me they came seeking my support. They asked for education. They have been serving me all along. In return, what am I giving them! Kept them on fast for the last seven days with no food whatsoever! And what am I going to preach them in the future too? Am I not going to preach them to hold this bikshāpātra and walk all over the world with hunger! Abba, nipping off the very revolutionary heart”, ... his throat chokes. Saddened, Jaimini fails to speak.
Subjecting no less than the most sacred guru of Vedic doctrine, Vӯasa, to such an intense philosophic meditation, GVK succeeds in releasing the repressed unconscious of Vӯasa and in the process projects “a true, more concrete insight into reality” and through it rouse up the audience to look for “the full process of life.” Through Vӯasa’s lamentation at the hunger that his gurukula is suffering from and the resulting sense of his powerlessness, GVK succeeds in reflecting Marx’s proposition: “Reality is material, not spiritual. It is not our philosophical or religious beliefs that make us who we are, for we are not spiritual beings but socially constructed ones. We are not products of divine design but creations of our own cultural and social circumstances.”
Devaludu, the Metaphysical Rebel, a Raissoneur?
As Vӯasa and Jaimini walk towards the students, the atmosphere in the academy suddenly becomes hostile: whirlwind blows up creepers and twigs, Sun has become intensely hot, nature suddenly becomes all threatening—even the bikshāpātra in the hands of Vӯasa shakes. The playwright being a student of dhvani doctrine, perhaps crafted this scene to suggest that something shuddering is likely to happen.
As Vӯasa and Jaimini enter, all the students stand up except Sumanthudu and greet them. Jaimini then enquires: “How is Sumanthudu?” Without letting his anger explicit, Devaludu utters: “Yet not dead”. Shrouded in fear, the students stare at each other. Jaimini says, “avajna! (disrespect) gurudrōham! (being ungrateful to the teacher). And Devaludu is not the one to remain silent. He says, “Avajna, what avajna when life is at peril” (Vӯasa turns his face aside).
In the meanwhile, Vӯsampayanudu whispers, “If only we get, at least a fistful biksha, today!” Nandudu immediately responds thus: “How do we get if we sit here? Must do our karma, else dharma gets harmed.” Devaludu in his own indomitable style utters: “True! It’s not life but dharma that would be lost!” A clear expression of rejecting the sacrosanct!
Then Jaimini turning to Vӯasa says, “Gurudev, we shall go for biksha and return quickly. You please be in the ashram”. Vӯasa, staring at him furiously, commands, “Let’s go!”
As the Act II starts, we see Vӯasa and his entourage walking in one of the roads of Brāhamanavātika of Kāsi. The students are chanting, “Ya esa suptēshu jagrati / kāmam, kāmam puruso nurmimanah / tadēva sukram tad Brahma / tadevmrtamucyatē / tasmin lokāh sritāh sarve / tadu nātyeti kascan” (That person who is awake in those that Sleep, shaping desire after desire, that, indeed Is the pure, That is Brahman, that indeed is called the immortal. In it all the Worlds rest and no one ever goes beyond it.) Then Jaimini joins them: “… Ēkas tatha sarva-bhutāntarātma / rūpam rūpam pratirupō bahish ca [Fire, though one, enters the mundane worlds and expands its sentient form into many forms. Similarly, the Supersoul who resides in the hearts of all living beings expands His one form into many, many forms, and the jiva (whom He accompanies) is separated form of the Lord].
As the entourage is thus proceeding, Devaludu standing in front of a house pleads, “Bikshāndēhi (seeks offerings for the daily food of a Brahmin bramachari, student). No response. Moves onto another house and supplicates, “Bikshāndēhi.” The house-lady responds thus, “Food, yet is not readied.” Yet another house, “Bikshāndēhi” and the lady asks them to come later. Then Jaimini joins them praying for food in the name of Vӯasa, “Pujyapādaya Vēdavyāsaya Bikshāndēhi. The fourth lady says, “Cannot be given.”
Suddenly everyone notices Vӯasa speedily going much ahead of them. Seeing the ferocious posture of Vӯasa, Bhrugu shivers. Jaimini attempts to catch up with Vӯasa by speeding up himself, but could not. In the meanwhile, Vӯasa himself calls out, “Bikshāndēhi. Fifth house: “No”.
At it, Devaludu soliloquizes thus: “No biksha to the scholar who classified the Vedas. The philosopher, who preached ideals with proof to mankind, is not fit for biksha. The commentator of Brahma Sūtras has no biksha. Horrible! Horrible! If not in Kāsi that is known as the abode of education, where else Pratibha could find a place? Durbharam! (Unbearable!) What for this Brāhmanyam (colony of the Brahmins) of Kāsi? What for Viswanatha? To set on fire? The scholar, who, writing each slōka (verse) by shedding a drop of blood, had composed so many epics for this world, has no food. The Rishi who has chanted manjula slōkas (sweet verses) all along has to wither away with hunger! That resonant voice, must it die today? Arts, poetry, manēshi, beauty, aesthetics, must all have to wither away! They have no place here. Is it in the illusion that I lived till now?”
Suddenly, Bhrugu utters, “Aho! Aho! Bikshāpātra shattered into pieces.” Nandudu joins him saying, “in that emotional sway, Gurudev’s palm is not reaching out to get sāpa jal” (water used for cursing some one). Here, the irrepressible contempt of the playwright for the passivity of the mankind erupts so intensely that he makes Devaludu utter: “Why Jaimini is coming in the way? Stupid! He needs only this kind of nēcha (corrupt) world. Pūjyapādulu (venerable teacher) does not tolerate this kind of world.” Through this utterance, the playwright exhibits Devaludu as a rebel: he questions the ‘sacrosanct’ and is always eager to get answers to human problems in terms of ‘reason’. It is precisely because of this questioning nature of Devaludu, every word that he utters sounds as an act of rebellion, of which we see more in the later part of the play, as against the utterances of Jaimini, who is deeply rooted in the world of sacrosanct, that appeals to the listeners as an act of grace.
This whole scene and the expressions of Devaludu clearly reveal the worldview of the playwright, which he depicts not as of an individual, but more as a reflection of the views of a group of people. Yet, we cannot wish away the fact that GVK could evoke such realistic feelings through that soliloquy of Devaludu more out of his personal crisis supplying the necessary incandescence. Indeed, that anger is clearly visible in many of the dialogs that he put in the mouth of Devaludu.
Lord of Kāsi Tricks Vӯasa
As the infuriated Vӯasa is about to curse Kāsi to suffer for three generations to come with no education, wealth and bhakti, Goddess Annapoorna, presenting herself in the scene, calls in an indefinable sweet tone: “Dwaipāyana! Dwaipāyana!” Enthralled by her sweet voice, “Vatsa!” Vӯasa turns to that side. And as usual, Devaludu expresses his unhappiness at the turn of the events thus: “Dammit! It somersaulted!”
Then Annapoorna Devi says, “Vatsa! You are the one Rishi who understood the universe. You are the ideal for the men. And you are the one who defined the mānavakartavyam—duty of mankind.” As she finishes her statement, Devaludu utters, “two, three, four.” Vysampayanudu enquires Devaludu: “What are you counting?” In the meanwhile, Annapoorna Devi continues her praising Vӯasa thus: “Vidyādātavu! You are the dispenser of free Education! Over it, you are a poet. You have been expending all your might for the good of the universe. All that you need for gratifying your hunger is very little. And you have endured it for all along!” As she finished, Devaludu utters, “Nine”. Nandudu enquires: “What nine?” “Reasons for [Vӯasa] being ineligible for biksha!” It is through this enquiring mind of Devaludu, GVK perhaps, attempts to remind audience to shun their passivity and inertia and lead an ‘examined-life’.
Vatsa!” Annapoorna Devi says, “Why delay? Today I offer you Biksha in my home. My husband must be waiting for your arrival!”
Turning his face away, Vӯasa says questioningly, “Biksha, for me alone!” Then turning to Jaimini, she says, “for you too.” As Jaimini says, “there are many in the gurukulam”, she finally invites all the inmates of the academy. At it, Devaludu, true to the spirit of Marxist philosophy, whispers sadly: “Murder! Murder! She is fishing out the heart with the fang of a cobra. Death is better than this pity.”
Here again, the playwright saying that as Vӯasa and his entourage finally walk along with Annapoorna Devi silently into the house as the mere shadows of sorrow, her anklets clink sadly, subtly alerting the audience to something terrific that is likely to happen soon.
That aside, what is more interesting to note here is: offering food to Vӯasa and his entourage, the power base has tricked them to give off their chosen path of revolt and thereby ensured that their powerbase is maintained intact. Thus GVK, though symbolically, makes the audience aware of the fact that how power centers manipulate politics, government, education, arts, indeed all aspects of culture to maintain their position. This scene makes a categorical “social commentary” about the uncaring and unjust nature of the power centers.
Lord of Kāsi Steps in to Maintain Hierarchy
As all of them are eating food, suddenly Lord Viswanatha arrives on the scene. In a great surprise, they all stand up. Vӯasa stands as the Mēru sikharam—the peak of the mighty Meru mountain. For Viswanatha, Vӯasa however, appears as a poete maudit, and perhaps of it he bursts out thus: “You are a mean fellow, meanest of the mean. It’s a sin to see your face. You prepared to curse this holy city that fed you and your gurukula since long. There is no other ungrateful fellow such as you! Because you didn’t get biksha just for two days, you got ready to destroy this ancient city and this gurukulam. Is it the reward for serving you for all these years? What did you say? ‘Mā bhūtri purūshamdhanam!’ You are not fit-enough to live on the earth.”
In his anger, being unable to say any further, as he stares at them fiercely, except
Vӯasa and Devaludu, the rest, saluting him, pray for pardon.

Viswanatha says, “I cannot tolerate adharma. I cannot keep quiet when the dharma of caste-system is thrown to winds. Studying Vedas, japamu (prayer), tapamu (austerity and penance), yōganishta (restraining the mind-stuff from taking various forms) have been prescribed for you people. That’s all! Rest is none of your business.”
Then Jaimini pleads: “Hunger pangs. No food for the last seven days.”
“No food! So, you snatch justice into your hands!”
At it, Devaludu, the young brahmachari, like any other metaphysical rebel of Camus (1951), with a belief that he is justified in his rebellion, reacts thus: “Power monger is talking! This moron doesn’t know that society will walk over these kings and the other wealthy lot!” It should be appreciated here that Devaludu who is accused by his fellow students earlier as an atheist, is certainly not an atheist, but being a metaphysical rebel, attempts to talk to God as is equal and in the process, won’t mind even to blaspheme God, for he tend to talk to god not in polite dialog but more in a polemic language as the metaphysical rebels said to behave, as they are often found charged with a desire to conquer Him. And the playwright has wisely capitalized on this phenomenon to derive maximum dramatic effect by making Devaludu utter, “This moron doesn’t know….”
Hearing it, Pramadhanathudu (chief of Lord Shiva’s army) draws out his sword saying, “What did you say? I will break your head into pieces.”
In a typical imperialistic reaction that Marxists often accuse them [ruling class] of, Viswanatha, ordering Pramadhanatha to hold back, says: “This revolution cannot be nipped off that way. This fellow will make the revolution successful more by dying than living. No revolution should ever emerge in my kingdom.”
At it, in great surprise, Jaimini utters: “Are we fanning a revolution?”
Staring at Vӯasa, Viswanatha says, “Good, we have wakened well before those ambers from the blazing fire that he [Vӯasa] was about to set fell on the other dry stubs! Otherwise, the whole country would have suffered.”
The whole episode reveals how true Marx is in his assertion that “men are not free to choose their social relations, they are constrained into them by material necessity”, and as Eagleton (1976) opined, it is impossible to truly and completely see an issue from a different perspective. That aside, through the declarations of Viswanatha, the playwright makes it abundantly clear to the audience that how the dominant class using its power entraps the suppressed class to believe that the identity offered to them by the ruling class is the right one to live with and thereby ensures the continuity of the prevailing system and remains in control.
Vӯasa Defies the Hegemony
Reacting to what Viswanatha said, Vӯasa asserts: “Nothing is lost yet! My pen is still sharp”. Then as Visveswara orders him to leave Kāsi within two hours, else their heads would be chopped off, Vӯasa proclaiming thus: “The kingdom of this mōrkh, moron, does not deserve my gurukulam; I myself will desert this dēsam” (country), calling, “Devala!” Vӯasa walks out of the temple. Devaludu, Jaimini, Nandeswarudu, Vysampayanudu and other students follow him silently duly accompanied by the armored Pramadhanathudu.
As they are all walking out, Devaludu murmurs: “Something being heard!” Smartly, the playwright greets the dénouement with a chant, hearing which, the audience is sure to realize the irony of the whole scene:
Swasthi prajābhya paripālayanthām,—
Nyāyena mārgena mahēm maheesaha,
Gōbrāhmanebhyo shubhamasthu nithyam,
Lokā samasthā Sukhinō bhavantu.
Kalē varshathu parjanya, Prauthwee sasya shālini,
Desō yam kshōbha rahithō, Sajjana santhu nirbhayaha.

(Let good things occur to the king of the country,
Who looks after his people well, in the path of justice
Let Cows and Brahmins have a pleasant life daily,
Let all people of the world have a very pleasant life.
Let the monsoon be timely and plentiful, Let earth be covered with vegetation,
Let the country live without problems, And let good people never have fear.)[1]

And the playwright makes his protagonist, Vӯasa, to express without reserve his ‘indignation’ at the unfairness of the lords of the society thus: “This is the world!” And the curtain drops silently. Thus, putting together the chant and the indignation, the playwright succeeds in elevating the climax scene to achieve the desired objective of the play.
Yet, this simple sounding indignation of Vӯasa—the one “passion” as Jacques Copean[2] opined, “that urges, compels, forces, and finally overwhelms us”—carries Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’ pretty loudly to the audience: that all change is the product of the struggle between opposites generated by contradictions inherent in all events, ideas, and movements—a thesis collides with its antithesis leading to a new synthesis, which in turn generates its own antithesis, and so on resulting in a change. This well structured scene that expresses a complex and valuable social idea—the idea of opposing the repression by the dominant—with such artistic simplicity, besides exhibiting Vӯasa as a fighter and a builder of new order, is also sure to win the ‘intellectual respectability’ from the audience for the radical political cause that the playwright attempted to expound in his play.
Interestingly, this last scene also reveals another important dimension of Marxisim. The playwright by making Vӯasa utter, “Nothing is lost yet! My pen is still sharp” confirms that literature can be used to make the populace aware of social ills and also make them sympathetic to any action that attempts to wipe those ills away.
The sequencing of the events and the development of the plot to make people aware of the economic evils of the society is captivating. The names of the characters are authentic and significant too, adding credibility to the plot. All the characters have a tremendous respect for the protagonist, Vӯasa, and admire him for his knowledge and his aardrata (tender-heart) coupled with rectitude and resilience. This obviously makes it easy for the playwright to call into question the existing “superstructure” by painting a great scene of human passion and suffering and leave it to produce its own effect upon the audience.
GVK, essentially a thinker, displays different levels of interaction and interfaces of Bharatēyata, rationalism, Marxism and above all humanism in this playlet of three acts—all in a hurry to exhibit man’s story from the perspective of ‘dialectical materialism’ by bringing out the very meaning of hunger, compassion, reverence, and duty into the realm of a fictional play. He exhibits his characters as the prototypes of the universal suffering humanity.

Using a mythological setting—the whole coloring of which is, of course, that of an ordinary life—and chiseling Sanskritized-Telugu dialogs that are “crisp as sand / clear as sunlight, / cold as the curved wave”[3] GVK develops his theme seamlessly offering a spiritual meditation on the profound grief of hunger that dialectically evokes Vӯasa, the great sage poet of ancient India, to demystify what his writings have hitherto offered and come up with a new perspective on life and its living. The character of Vӯasa indeed symbolizes that life is not meant for ‘psychopathism’ or ‘escapism’ but to confront it bravely and meaningfully. In the process, Vӯasa questions his own thesis, voices antithesis and walks out of Kāsi, perhaps to live with a new synthesis.
With large-hearted and open-minded rationalism, without of course, losing his cultural moorings/affiliations, GVK succeeds in delineating the ills of the then society using a right background, the layout, the personae and the incidents that are drawn from the narratives that ran through Indian blood for centuries reflecting authenticity and ‘nativism’ but through the idiom of a western ideology. Here it must be categorically stated that GVK had not only paid great attention to the ‘what’ (content) of the play but also gave equal importance, if not more, to the ‘how’ (form) of it. His presentation nowhere misses the aesthetics; indeed he uses dhvani doctrine to enhance the play’s appeal to the Indian audience.
As the curtains are drawn, we do not however witness the usual ‘revolutionary upheaval’ propagated by the ideology of Karl Marx; instead Vӯasa, true to the spiritual traditions of the land, prefers to exile himself from Kāsi, “a fool’s kingdom” that does not appreciate his new-found ideology. And gracefully walks out with his entourage, perhaps in search of a place where the pursuit of individual happiness would not be curtailed by the onerous mechanism of any state machinery.
Incidentally, GVK’s belief that people are not anonymous members of a state-controlled society but are with faces of their own—‘powerful individualism’—and his immense faith in the functional epithets of democratic ideals and the resulting preference for social and economic changes through evolution rather than a violent revolution are clearly discernable from the play. These ideals, that have, of course, become more apparent in his subsequent writings, might have stalled him [GVK] from giving the play its logical end from a Marxist perspective—of gurukula physically revolting against the hierarchy of Kāsi.
Or, believing in the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson—who said: “The antidote to the abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the individual. The appearance of the character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State”—GVK, not being enslaved to any one particular system, might have been satisfied with the emergence of Vӯasa as a new ‘character’—a character that is energetic enough to resent the ills in the society by defying even the highest authority and proceed to build a new order through pen peacefully.
There could yet be another reason: the ‘ecumenical’ sense of spirit that flows as an undercurrent in GVK functioning as a guiding post, perhaps, cultivated a kind of respect in him for ‘plurality of voices’ and ‘multiplicity of vision’ that might have ultimately influenced his Vӯasa to limit himself to resent but not to revolt and create ashanti (unrest) in the society. The playwright also thus appears to have consciously limited himself to the extent of making the social inequalities and imbalances of power a public knowledge.
 Nonetheless, it must be admitted that to the end of the play, which is utterly engrossing and blisteringly smart, GVK succeeds in depicting ‘inequities in social classes’, ‘imbalance of power among people’, manipulation of the ruled by the ruling class and the injustice prevailing in such societies and in the process enables audience to realize that every living idea being dynamic warrants to be affirmed by revaluations and reconsiderations. Thus, in the visceral theater of hunger, this play would remain as the sharpest political commentary emanating from a mythical incident of yore.

[2] As quoted in Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012.
[3] The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013, Selected by Glyn Maxwell, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Courtesy: IUP Journal of English Studies


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