The Contradictory Career of the "Modern" Let me begin with a factual detail: the histories of modern Kannada theatre invariably begin their narratives in the 1880s. On the one hand, Sanskrit plays were translated and adapted, and on the other, a number of Shakespeare's plays had been brought into Kannada. There are varied views on the nature and the authenticity of the Shakespearean imports, but there is a general agreement that - as it is also the case with most of the desi theatres in India - these adaptations herald the beginning of the "modern"2 in Kannada drama and theatre. Most of these translations or adaptations were neither faithful to the original Shakespearean texts nor did they become significant independent plays in Kannada. The argument however is, that they mark a period of transition from the "traditional" to the "modern", in the history of the Kannada Theatre. Some years ago, an unexpected twist was brought into this narrative.
A respected scholar on the 19th Century Kannada culture published a short article in a periodical', which revealed that decades before these mainstream Shakespeare adaptations appeared, a traditional Yakshagana troupe had in fact created a Prasanga, based on the plot of Shakespeare's As You Like It! This seemingly insignificant example from the early history of modern Kannada drama, in my view, inverts the linearity of the narrative of modernity in Kannada theatre. By implication, it is a clear case of "modernity" entering the high abodes of Kannada Theatre from the back door, and more than that, what was perceived as "traditional" was quicker in acquiring its share of the "modern" than what was generally regarded as the "modern"! If this example seems trivial, let me cite another, a more substantial one. Iggappa Heggade Vivaha Prahasana is regarded as the first "original" social play in Kannada by historians. Written around 1890, the play focuses on the problems around marriages and remarriages in a traditional society. Written by a Hagaka Brahmin playwright from the Uttara Kannada district settled in Munribai, the play not only uses his erstwhile homeland as its locale, but also the dialect of that community, in a manner of making his social critique sharp and authentic. Therefore, this play is also regarded as the first attempt at "realism", even if in a very rudimentary way, thus setting the ground for the later plays that focused on contemporary social issues. Around the same year, another Kannada play which made its appearance seemed to have done exactly opposite of what the former intended to do. The play Sangya Balya, belongs to a traditional folk form Sannata, and is written in the form of verses that have to be performed with dance and improvised dialogues.
The plot of this play, which is a tragic love story facing the hurdles of an extramarital relationship, is but a reworking of the archetypal theme that was already present in an earlier form called Radhanata and not really "original" as scholars have rightly observed. However, for strange reasons, the play dispenses with archetypal places and people, but uses contemporary characters and locations. Therefore, till recently, most critics and historians perceived Sangya Balya as emblematic of an attempt by a traditional form to acquire its share of modernity. The use of contemporary names was only a façade behind which the archetype renewed itself, they believed.4 Because of these contradictory characteristics, till recently, the historians of Kannada Theatre placed these two plays in distinct lineages - the former as the precursor to modernity and the latter as among the last attempts of a hallowed tradition at updating it self.
A closer look at these two plays in- fact, reveals a much more complex phenomenon than what can be captured from these binary opposites of "tradition/modernity". It is obvious that Iggappa Heggade Vivaha Prahasana attempted to import a new mode of playwriting, an attempt at using dialect as language and with a contemporary theme. But on a closer look, you recognise that it has failed on all the above counts. The dramaturgy of the realistic/naturalistic narrative mode was so alien that it had to insert the following "stage direction" at the end of one of the scenes, to convey the plot without any discontinuity:
After saying this, he goes to bed. Meanwhile, Iggappa and Vasappa Heggade reach home by the next evening. Next morning, Iggappa tells Vasappa Heggade - "You must go to Sirsi today and finish the work with Rao and I will come and complete the work in Nadig's shop tomorrow" He goes back home then.'
Even the contemporaneity of the play can be questioned. It sets out to tackle with a "traditional" social malady like child marriage with a newly acquired "modern" perception, but ends in reducing it to a stereotype. The question, addressed in the court of law in the last scene of the play, has the "traditional" and the "modern" arguing it out as opponents. In hindsight, one wonders if the use of the Hagaka dialect in the play had the sole intention of infusing more "naturalism" into it or was it primarily a manufactured attempt (though historically valid) of bringing a minority dialect into the mainstream of modern Kannada literature. This in fact, is typical of that historical juncture. In other words, such a strategic employment of the dialect could possibly be seen as the emergence of an "identity politics", in an embryonic form.
The case of Sangya Balya seems much more intriguing today, and I have discussed this in my other writings, in greater detail.6 The basic thrust of my arguments on Sangya Balya is this: while Iggappa Heggade ... is noted today mainly for its historical role, Sangya Balya looks much more "modern" than the former.
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