Quest for Knowledge and Supremacy in Girish Karnad’s the Fire and the Rain

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Man, since his early existence on earth has been craving to achieve more knowledge. His quest for knowledge provokes him to achieve whatever he desires. Knowledge is one of the most powerful factors which assist man to acquire name, fame, success, power and position in his life. The Fire and the Rain is the sixth successful play of Girish Karnad, published in 1998. It is based on mythology for which the dramatist heavily depends on the myth of Yavakri from Vana Parva of the Mahabharatha. Karnad has deliberately deconstructed this myth to present the contemporariness of the society. He has been frequently using historical and mythological sources to project the social issues related to the contemporary society. In the play The Fire and the Rain, his characters possess revenge, hatred, fury, jealousy, unrestrained desires and malaise to assert their self identity. The key argument of the paper explores man’s thirst for knowledge and supremacy over others which are driven by aspiration, competitiveness, envy and finally by vengeance. Knowledge without experience is hazardous to mankind is the message postulated by Karnad using the myth.

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Girish Karnad occupies a prestigious place in Indian writing in English. He is internationally known as contemporary Indian playwright, a versatile actor and film director. As literature reflects the society, Karnad employs myths, legends, folktales and histories in his plays to portray the contemporary situations. Some of the major awards received by Karnad for his contribution to literature are the Mysore State Award for Yayati in 1962, the Kamaladevi Award of the Bharatiya Natya Sangh for the Best Indian play of the year for Hayavardana in 1972 and the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the most creative work for Naga-Mandala in 1992. The amalgamation of the past and the present is a technique adopted by Karnad to make the historical event more relevant to the present- day situation. Karnad’s The Fire and the Rain is a trans-creation of his Kannada play Agni Mattu Male.

Karnad divides the play The Fire and the Rain into three acts. It commences with a prologue and concludes with an epilogue. In his preface to the play, Karnad confesses that he has borrowed the tale from Vana Parva (Forest Canto) of Mahabharata. He also mentions in his preface that this story revolves around Yajna ceremony and two sages Bharatwaja and Raibhya and their sons. Raibhya is a highly studious and aspiring man. Bharatwaja focuses mainly on his spiritual practices. The prologue provides the significance of the yajna ceremony that is the primary setting of the play. Karnad employs yajna as a medium to attain God Indra’s blessings in the formation of rain.

The plot of The Fire and the Rain is set in the small region of India that has experienced famine due to lack of rain for ten years. The King intends to pacify God through fire sacrifice so that God will be contented and send rain to the parched land. In Indian tradition, older people have been given priority as they are regarded as sagacious because of their wider experience. According to this tradition, the well-educated Raibhya must have been appointed as the chief priest. But considering about the longevity of life span, the King decides to appoint Paravasu as the chief priest of the Royal Fire sacrifice. This appointment of Paravasu leads to the disappointment of certain other characters in the play. Even his father Raibhya gets infuriated. Instead of being pride, Raibhya is envious to observe his son getting the honour of chief priest. The consequence of his ambition leads him to death by the hands of his son, Paravasu. Karnad strives to explore the ambitious nature of human being.

Karnad exhibits that humans have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, power and superiority. ‘Knowledge is power’ is a very popular and effective proverb quoted by Francis Bacon in his play Meditationes Sacrae in 1597. It denotes that the more knowledge a man obtains, the more powerful he becomes. Power can be classified into two kinds: physical and intellectual. The physical power involves man’s strength and skills to do things. The intellectual power refers to the skills required for recognition, reasoning and imagination. A person can gain new knowledge through a long process of dedication, patience and continuity. In this play, Yavakri is a symbol of an ambitious person who wants to acquire knowledge directly from the Gods and not “from human gurus” (FS 1.9). Even Indra warns him: “No, Yavakri, you can’t master knowledge through austerities. It must come from experience” (FS 1.13).

Yavakri, the son of Bharatwaja is too ambitious right from his childhood. Though he undertakes penance for ten years, he is unable to overcome his emotions and desires. He is disappointed, because he feels that his father has not gained the expected acknowledgement in the Kingdom. Paravasavu’s marriage with his former beloved, Vishaka and his appointment as a chief priest disturbs Yavakri profoundly. He creates vile designs in his mind to take revenge with Raibhya and his family. One day driven by his lust and vengeance, he wantonly molests Vishaka in order to defame Paravasu and to distract the yagna ceremony. He uses his love as an instrument to implement his revenge upon Raibhya’s family. In an ambitious tone, he utters: “The time has come to show the world what my father’s son is capable of. This is my moment” (FR 1.23).

The character of Yavakri can be compared with that of Christopher Marlowe’s tragic hero Dr. Faustus in the play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Like Yavakri, Dr.Faustus also craves to acquire power. He has a thirst for knowledge, fame and fortune that drives him to give his soul to Lucifer, the King of devils in return for cosmic powers. Both Marlowe and Karnad explore the fact that their protagonist’s involvement in acquiring insatiable desire for knowledge, power and superiority show them in a bad light.

Karnad uses prologue and epilogue in The Fire and the Rain to exhibit the connection between dramatic theme and myth in a modern background. The information provided in prologue is enough to understand the intricate theme, situation, characters and stage property of the play. In his work, Girish Karnad: Poetics and Aesthetics, Om Prakash Budholia rightly observes: “The entire plot structure of The Fire and the Rain is based on the performance of Vedic rituals, tradition and the art of Natya. On the pattern of Bharata’s Natyashastra, Girish Karnad follows the pattern of The Fire and the Rain” (Budholia 115).

The three perspicacious Brahmins Raibhya, Paravasu and Yavakri aspire to establish their supremacy over one another. Their quest for supremacy is the outcome of their complex relationships. In the play, Paravasu kills his father deliberately. While in the mythology, Paravasu kills his father in an erroneous way. Karnad’s Paravasu thinks that Raibhya has murdered Yavakri just to interrupt him from the fire sacrifice and hence he decapitates his father without any remorse. Here it is evident that Karnad’s characters like Paravasu and Raibhya do not bother about others rather they just concentrate on gratifying their own passions, almost like the modern man.

Patriarchal society in Vedic society is a fine example of social reality. When Vishaka realizes that she has been trapped by Yavakri for his selfish motive, she is offended. Vishaka avenges her insult by spilling out the sanctified water from kamandalu which leads to the death of Yavakri. Even her father- in-law Raibhya molests her instead of providing patronage to her in the absence of her husband Paravasu. Karnad portrays Vishaka as an object of male desire and lust. Her father- in- law Raibhya accuses her as “a roving whore” and “a buffalo that’s been rolling in mud” (FR 20). Despite Vishaka’s indomitable will, she fails to liberate herself from the male dominated society.

The plot of the story places revenge as one of its central thematic elements which makes most of the spectator sit on the edge of their seats. Revenge causes Paravasu to act blindly and he easily loses himself and his values. While perusing his path to revenge, Yavakri puts an end to the lives of those around him and eventually his own. Human beings fail to realize that revenge never has a positive outcome, as it usually leads to a person’s downfall. The Fire and the Rain is the riveting story which is driven by fratricidal violence. It is because of Paravasu who murders his father and imposes the guilt of patricide on his innocent brother Arvasu and annihilates his life. Meanwhile Arvasu is in love with a tribal girl named Nittilai. Paravasu devastates his brother’s life in two ways: One by imposing the guilt of patricide on him and the other by creating circumstances in which he fails to get married to Nittilai.

Nittilai, a tribal girl from a family of hunters is enriched with practical common sense. She forbids Arvasu from the idea of revenge because her inner instinct warns her that if Arvasu attempt to avenge his brother, it would only bring him more sorrows and agony. The knowledge attained by men like Raibhya, Paravasu and Yavakri do not lead them to live a self-disciplined life. Nittilai rightly asks: “Why didn’t Yavakri ask for a couple of good showers?” (FR 10).

Karnad also employs the myth of Indra, Viswarupa and Viritra which is retold by him in a new dimension. In this myth, Lord Indra, the king of gods kills the innocent Viswarupa treacherously. The motive of the dramatist is to utilize the myth of Indra as catalyst to liberate Paravasu and Yayakri from the human capitivity of fear and vengeance. The play within a play technique is woven skillfully by Karnad. Arvasu wears a mask and performs the role of Viritra in front of Paravasu and villagers. Lord Indra grants Arvasu a single wish. Using the boon, Arvasu restores Yavakri, Bharatwaja and Raibhya back to life and also he makes Paravasu forgets his sin. When Arvasu removes his mask of Viritra from his face, the rain instantly occurs. Only the innocent Nittilai and the unselfish Arvasu have the ability to redeem the parched land. At the end of the play, all fires of sex, hunger, power and jealousy are conquered, exhausted and damned as evil acts.

Various devices like mask, wind instrument, light, drums, music, flashback technique, the play within the play, fire and supernatural element are tactfully used by Karnad to create a atmosphere suitable for a mythological plot. The play mainly deals with the theme of over-ambition and revenge which leads to the destruction of all ambitious characters. The play is filled with multiple crimes as it mirrors bloodshed, molestation and murder.

The Fire and the Rain is highly symbolic because of the usage of Agni. Agni is used in the stage with an intention of performing rituals and rites such as for Yavakri’s penanace and for the cremation of Raibhya. Fire represents the rage, ill-temper, jealousy, violence, lust and death which may prove to be destructive. But it also represented as the annihilators of all evil and sin. Karnad gives equal importance to rain. From the prologue to the epilogue, it is Indra, the god of the sky and rain who plays a remarkable role in the play.

The target of Karnad is to teach morality to his audience. He also condemns that Brahmins in this play are over-ambitious and selfish instead of imbibing some virtuous qualities like uprightness, truth and sacrifice. Various characters like Paravasu, Raibhya and Yavakri are involved in the quest for knowledge and supremacy. They expose their avaricious qualities which lead to their downfall. Karnad furiously rebukes mendacity, hypocrisy, pride and egotism of male-dominated society. Exploitation of woman is the central issue of such society. The play is designed with double focus: On the one hand, the play criticizes the Brahmin society. While on the other hand, the play mirrors the contemporary society. Thus Karnad illustrates the uselessness of ambition and vanity by correlating the psyche of the mythological characters with that of the mentality of modern man. The Fire and the Rain presents the devastating effects of over-ambition, pride and self-centered nature of the contemporary society.

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