A Fresh Look from a Marxist Perspective
G V Krishnarao (1914-1979), a Telugu poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, literary critic and translator, like Sanskrit play writers of the yore, borrowing an incident—Vyasa nishkramana, exit of Vyasa from Kasi—from Srinatha’s Kasi Khanda and tweaking it in such a way that it reflects modernity in terms of ‘dialectical materialism’, wrote Bikshapatra, a three-act Telugu playlet in the year 1938. It was translated into all the sixteen Indian languages and was broadcasted by All India Radio under its ‘National Program of Drama’.
We shall examine here how the playwright achieved universal validity for his dialectic interpretation of a puranic-incident to drive home the fact that even an aristocratic and a towering personality like Vyasa 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 the Indian aesthetics.
The storyline of the original episode runs thus: Poet Vyasa stayed in Kasi with his students imparting them knowledge. They were supporting themselves with the traditional madhukaramu as their means for satiating their hunger. One day, as they set out for their biksha on the streets of Kasi streets, Lord Visveswara (Siva), desirous of testing Vyasa’s mano-sthirya (firmness of mind), asks Goddess Annapoorna to ensure that no one offers them biksha. Accordingly, she manifests herself in everybody to say ‘no’ with an invented reason at every household. As a result, all of them are forced to go empty stomach that day.
Next day too same is the experience. Vyasa furious at the haughtiness of the citizens of Kasi, 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 Kasi shall go without wealth, education and salvation”. At this juncture, Goddess Annapoorna appears before Vyasa and invites them to her house and serves sumptuous food.
After partaking of food, the Goddess speaks her mind thus: “‘cause for a day you didn’t have biksha, how dare you think of inflicting such a curse on Kasi? …You think Lord Visveswara would keep quiet if you curse Kasi?” Then, Lord Visveswara appears and declares, “He [Vyasa] is not fit to be in Kasi. Why discuss? Ask him to leave.” Shuddering at the anger of Siva, Vyasa and his disciples prostrate and pray for mercy. Then Lord Visveswara directs him to stay 30 miles away from Kasi and instructs him to live, henceforth, by controlling his anger and never to curse divine abodes.
GVK, perhaps, driven by a philosophy that “literature is a social institution and has a specific ideological function”, picked up this story which is partly mythological and partly spiritual to articulate the real problems of the world of his days and its affairs through the format of a play-let. Even at that young age of 24 years, GVK appears to be deeply rooted in India’s traditional values and beliefs while at the same time having 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, Bikshapatra, altering the original storyline as required.
Opening Scene: Rationalism versus Spiritualism
The opening scene of the play depicts Vyasa Petham—the academy of Vyasa—located abutting Manikarnika Ghat of the Ganga in Kasi. There, under a mango tree, are Sumanthudu, Bhruguvu, Nandeswarudu, and Devaludu. They are all of the same age with gho-shpadapu pilakalu (tuft of hair, about the size of a calf’s hoof print), rudraksha (beads) garland around their necks, and rudraksha kundala (ear rings).
Among them, Sumanthudu appears weak and his eyes are drooping. 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: “Aakali! Aakali!” (Hunger! Hunger!).
Responding to him, Bhruguvu says, “Recite Brahma Sutras. Meditate on Jaimini teacher’s commentary.”
Devaludu joins him in consoling Sumanthudu, but satirically saying, “Yes, your hunger will get satiated—indeed it tantamounts to eating paramannam [a sweet pudding].”
Disturbed by the loud chanting of the students assembled under the Banyan tree—“athato- brahma jijnasa”, “athato- brahma jijnasa”—Sumanthudu asks Devaludu to tell them to read silently.
Accordingly, when Devaludu asks them to read silently, they question his right to instruct them. Unmindful of all this, Sumanthudu whispers: “daham! daham! … Gurudeva …Gurudeva!” (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 turn anxious.
Watching all this, Devaludu wrenching with anger, blurts: “Athato- brahma jijnasa’, ‘Athato- brahma jijnasa’—doesn’t matter whether you are suffering from pain or dying, ‘Brahma jijnasa’ must go on!” He goes on uttering: “Today only 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 an illusion. And life is a bubble, you mad fellow!” He 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 leaves. Nothing is permanent. Brahmam alone is eternal, without attributes, and immutable.”
Listening to him, Devaludu taunts him thus: “Yes, yes, the whole academy should listen. …Your hunger will be satiated. You would all be blessed”.
As the skirmishes continue, Nandudu accuses Devaludu for falling into the trap of atheism and preaching the worst kind of 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 the animal. Eternal bliss alone is the ideal of men with pure reasoning. That bliss alone is the Brahmam.” He goes on to question that when the great saint Vyasa himself accepted poverty—the other side of Narayana—silently, why this anxiety among his disciples?
As Sumanthudu again whispers for water, wondering, “Am I to die of this hunger!”
Devaludu responds to him 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, through his own lens of what constitutes 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.
Vyasa Exposes Jaimini’s ‘False Consciousness’
As the students are thus debating over Sumantha’s plight, Vyasa Maharshi walks in along with Jaimini, his second in line of command of the Gurukula.
Walking in, Vyasa, inquiring Jaimini if duplication of Puranas is going on alright, murmurs: “How nice it would have been had my books not spread in the world!”
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 (genius) is unparalleled. Your epics should spread far and wide. But I fail to understand why you desire their banishment.”
Vyasa then shoots a question: “Do my books appear that great even today!”
Jaimini, reaffirming that Gurudev’s prathibha has no boundaries, says, “Whenever I read your epics an indefinable glow of knowledge pervades my whole heart.”
Smiling melancholically, Vyasa 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 Vyasa, looking at his eyes, says, “Your eyes are reflecting your unexpressed suffering”.
Jaimini says, “I have no suffering, whatsoever”.
But Vyasa 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 even 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.
Vyasa 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 cannot 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 Vyasa.
Red faced, Jaimini reaffirms: “Your books are great. They describe man in totality. Whatever you might say, there are no deficiencies whatsoever in your books.”
But Vyasa goes on saying, “Oh my dear fool, I have played my veena with no drone string!” As Jaimini, shocked by it remains silent, Vyasa 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 preachings of Vyasa. Indeed, it is the earlier disposition of Vyasa that had socially constructed Jaimini to want nothing else. Being thus content with his lot, Jaimini experiences difficulty in understanding Vyasa’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 Vyasa 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.
Vyasa Questions His Own Ideology
Later, as they get ready for bikshatana (seeking alms), a teardrop falls in the bikshapatra from the eyes of Vyasa. “Had only this teardrop rained earlier in the bikshapatra! No, it didn’t and therefore I hummed the drone-less raga all along and this stupid world nodded its head in ecstasy”, laments Vyasa.
Innocently, Jaimini inquires, “Why not sing a new raga 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 Vyasa.
“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 bikshapatra, Vyasa soliloquizes: “In my formative phase of life no tear drop fell on you [bikshapatra]. Nor did a thunder bolt. Had it happened, how wise I would have been! I might have had Sachidananda drusti… it is because of the absence of that empathetic look I consigned this academy and this impoverished mankind to sufferings. I assigned them chaturvarnam [division of society into four varnas (castes)] simply based on the division of occupation—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 Geta remains in this world I ensured that there is no salvation to the people. I told them to live with this bikshapatra. 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 guise of religion, I preached them tuschha bhouthikatatvam—‘corrupt-materialism’. Idealistically passing on the bikshapatra, 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 bikshapatra 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 the Vedic doctrine, Vyasa, to such an intense philosophic inquest, GVK succeeds in releasing the repressed unconscious of Vyasa and in the process projects “a true, more concrete insight into reality” and through it rouse the audience to look for “the full process of life.” Through Vyasa’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 Vyasa 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 bikshapatra in the hands of Vyasa shakes. The playwright, perhaps, in his anxiety to forewarn audience that something shuddering is likely to happen, crafted this scene.
As Vyasa and Jaimini enter, all the students stand up to greet them except Sumanthudu and greet them. Jaimini then enquires: “How is Sumanthudu?” Without letting his anger explicit, Devaludu utters: “Not yet dead”. Shrouded in fear, the students stare at each other.
Jaimini says, “avajna! (Disrespect) gurudroham!” (being ungrateful to the teacher).
And Devaludu is not the one to remain silent. He says, “Avajna, what avajna when life is at peril” (Vyasa turns his face aside).
Meanwhile, Vysampayanudu whispers, “If only we can get, at least a fistful biksha, today!”
Nandudu immediately responds thus: “How do we get if we sit here? Must undergo karma, else dharma gets harmed.”
Devaludu in his own indomitable style utters: “True! It’s not life but dharma that would be lost!”
Then Jaimini turning to Vyasa says, “Gurudev, we shall go for biksha and return quickly. You please be in the ashram”.
Vyasa, staring at him furiously, commands, “Let’s go!”
As the Act II starts, we see Vyasa and his entourage walking on the roads of Brahamanavatika of Kasi. The students are chanting, “Ya esa supteshu jagrati / kamam,kamam puruso nurmimanah / tadeva sukram tad Brahma / tadevmrtamucyate / tasminlokah sritah sarve / tadu natyeti kascan” (That person who is awake in those that sleeps, 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: “… Ekas tatha sarva-bhutantaratma / rupam rupam pratirupo-bahishca” [Fire, though one, enters the mundane world 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, “Bikshandehi” (seeks offerings of food for a Brahmin bramachari). No response. Moves onto another house and supplicates, “Bikshandehi.” The houselady responds thus, “Food, is not yet readied.” Yet another house, “Bikshandehi” and the lady asks them to come later. Then Jaimini joins them praying for food in the name of Vyasa, “Pujyapadaya Vedavyasaya Bikshandehi.” The fourth lady too turns them away.
Suddenly everyone notices Vyasa speedily going much ahead of them. Seeing the ferocious posture of Vyasa, Bhrugu shivers. Jaimini attempts to catch up with Vyasa by speeding up himself, but could not. In the meanwhile, Vyasa himself appeals, “Bikshandehi”. 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 Satras has no biksha. Horrible! Horrible! If not in Kasi that is known as the abode of education, where else Pratibha could find a place? Durbharam! (Unbearable!) What for this Brahmanyam (colony of the Brahmins) of Kasi? What for Viswanatha? To set on fire? The scholar, who, writing each sloka (verse) by shedding a drop of blood, had composed so many epics for this world, has no food. The Rishi who has chanted manjula slokas (sweet verses) all along has to wither away with hunger! That resonant voice, must it die today? Arts, poetry, maneshi, 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! Bikshapatra shattered into pieces.”
Nandudu joins him saying, “in that emotional sway, Gurudev’s palm is not reaching out to get sapa jal” (water used for cursing someone).
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 necha (corrupt) world. Pujyapadulu (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 using ‘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 latter 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—hunger owing to his own unemployment for long after his graduation—supplying the necessary incandescence. Indeed, that anger is clearly visible in many of the dialogues that he conveys through Devaludu.
Lord of Kasi Tricks Vyasa
As the infuriated Vyasa is about to curse Kasi to undergo suffering for three generations to come with no education, wealth and bhakti, Goddess Annapoorna, presenting herself in the scene, calls in an indefinable sweet tone: “Dwaipayana! Dwaipayana!” Enthralled by her sweet voice, “Vatsa!” Vyasa turns.
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 mankind. And you are the one who defined the manavakartavyam—duty of mankind.”
Continuing, she further praises Vyasa thus: “Vidyadatavu! 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 all along!”
As she finishes her praise, Devaludu, finishing his counting of adjectives, perhaps, utters: “Nine … Reasons for [Vyasa] being ineligible for biksha!” It is through this enquiring mind of Devaludu, GVK perhaps attempts to remind the 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, Vyasa 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.”
Interestingly, letting the goddess serve the food, the playwright perhaps wants to suggest that the power base has tricked Vyasa and his entourage to give off their chosen path of revolt and thereby ensured that their powerbase is maintained intact. This scene makes a categorical “social commentary” about the uncaring and unjust nature of the power centres.
Lord of Kasi Steps in to Maintain Hierarchy
As all of them are having food, suddenly Lord Viswanatha arrives on the scene. Surprised, they all stand up. Vyasa stands as the Meru sikharam—the peak of the mighty Meru mountain.
For Viswanatha, Vyasa however appears as a poete maudit, and perhaps because of that 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? ‘Ma bhutri purushamdhanam!’ 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 Vyasa and Devaludu, the rest, saluting him, pray for pardon.
Viswanatha declares: “I cannot tolerate adharma. I cannot keep quiet when the dharma of the caste-system is thrown to winds. Studying Vedas, japamu (prayer), tapamu (austerity and penance), yo-ganishta (restraining the mind-stuff from taking various forms) are what 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 take 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 equal and in the process, would not mind even to resort to blasphemy, for he tends to talk to God not in a polite way but more in a polemic language as the metaphysical rebels are 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 strike your head into pieces.”
In a typical imperialistic reaction that Marxists often accuse them [ruling class], 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.”
Surprised, Jaimini involuntarily utters: “Are we fanning a revolution?”
Staring at Vyasa, Viswanatha says, “Good, we have awakened well before these ambers from the blazing fire that he [Vyasa] is about to fall 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.
Vyasa Defies the Hegemony
Reacting to what Viswanatha said, Vyasa asserts: “Nothing is lost yet! My pen is still sharp”. Then as Visveswara orders him to leave Kasi within two hours, else their heads would be chopped off, Vyasa proclaiming thus: “The kingdom of this moorkh, moron, does not deserve my gurukulam; I myself will desert this desam” (country), and calling, “Devala!” Vyasa 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 denouement with a chant, hearing which, the audience is sure to realize the irony of the whole scene:
Swasthi prajabhya paripalayantham,—
Nyayena margena mahem maheesaha,…
(Let good things occur to the king of the country,
Who looks after his people well, in the path of justice ….)
And the playwright makes his protagonist, Vyasa, 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 Vyasa—the one “passion” as Jacques Copean 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 the 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 Vyasa 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 Vyasa 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, Vyasa, 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 Bharateyata, 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 chiselling Sanskritized-Telugu dialogs that are “crisp as sand / clear as sunlight, / cold as the curved wave”, GVK develops his theme seamlessly offering a spiritual meditation on the profound grief of hunger that dialectically evokes Vyasa, 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 Vyasa indeed symbolizes that life is not meant for ‘psychopathism’ or ‘escapism’ but to confront it bravely and meaningfully. In the process, Vyasa questions his own thesis, voices antithesis and walks out of Kasi, 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 the right background, the layout, the persona 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 Vyasa, true to the spiritual traditions of the land, prefers to exile himself from Kasi, “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 discernible 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 Kasi.
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 Vyasa 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 Vyasa 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 as the play nears the end, 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 re-evaluations and reconsiderations. Thus, in the visceral theatre of hunger, this play would remain as the sharpest political commentary emanating from a mythical incident of yore.