The Body and Its Memories: The Trauma of Partition in Hayavadana

‘You cannot engrave on water,

Nor wound it with a knife

Which is why

The river has no fear of memories’

Girish Karnad, Hayavadana

The midnight of August 14, 1947 witnessed a separation that defined lives thereafter. The body of a nation was split and sundered – the union of India split into Pakistan, India and East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh). While families were separated, the nations’ body stored their memories, which were spatialized and brought forth through numerous cathartic writings and art practices in the post-Independence days. While on the one hand, the violence of the Partition was enacted on the woman’s body, her body, on the other hand, was also considered as the site of nationalistic and idealistic goals – her body became the repository of all the memories that had to be stored in preservation of cultural values that were threatened by the geo-political divorces.

As Jisha Menon reestablishes this history of violence in her essay, ‘Rehearsing the Partition’:


When British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, the violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs was enacted upon the bodies of the women of all three communities. Official numbers of abducted women during Partition are 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan. The multiple forms of sexual violence included inscribing tattoos on their bodies, parading them naked in sacred spaces like temples, mosques, gurudwaras and cutting their breasts off. Sometimes families traded their women in exchange of freedom, at other times women were urged to take their own lives in order to protect communal “honour.” Many women simply disappeared. The symbolic elevation of “woman” as the embodiment of the sanctified, inner recesses of culture and tradition ironically positioned real women as targets of violent assertions of family, community and nation.[1]

While many women suffered for being idolized and magnified in the nationalistic context, some others suffered for being treated just as sexual bodies open for exploitation, rape, murder, and disfiguration. The nation (or rather the ‘nation’ that was being formed and defined by patriarchal consciousness), thus, was defining women and dividing them into two kinds, where the choice for them in either case was limited – one kind was extolled, idolized, spiritualized and robbed of a body with concrete flesh-and-blood emotions. She was often considered a metaphor for the ‘nation’ itself. The second kind was placed at the opposite end of the spectrum and treated only as a body without a consciousness or a mind capable of making choices of desire or sexuality. She was the one whose body was objectified and exploited, sundered and torn, raped and plundered, which resembled a reenactment of the violence surrounding the event of Partition.


My essay, through an analysis of Girsh Karnad’s play, Hayavadana, looks at these linkages over separated bodies (either body of a nation, or families or relationships) created through memories. I argue that Karnad reverses the trope of superimposition of the nation’s body on the woman’s body, which has been a common practice in post-Partition India. I also argue that Karnad’s play actively engages in overturning the notions of womanhood and sexuality, which have been the predominant themes in the performance of nationalism. In an introduction to Three Plays, he mentions:

My generation was the first to come of age after India became independent of British rule. It therefore had to face a situation in which tensions implicit until then had come out in the open and demanded to be resolved without an apologia or self-justification: tensions between the cultural past of the country and its colonial past, between the attractions of Western modes of thought and our own traditions, and finally between the various visions of the future that opened up once the common cause of political freedom was achieved. This is the historical context that gave rise to my plays and those of my contemporaries.[2]

Even though Karnad talks about the tensions between the different pasts of the country, his plays seem to incorporate a meeting point of those differences. Karnad also states that ‘one of the basic concerns of the Indian theatre in the post-Independence period has been to try to define its “Indianness”’.[3] Trying to define ‘Indianness’ in his plays, Karnad seems to have overturned many other definitions of nationalism and what nationalistic ideals entailed, while engaging in reestablishing the Sanskrit cultural roots of the country by incorporating several ancient Indian theatrical traditions – such as the use of masks, curtains, dolls and live music.


The play, Hayavadana, begins with the narrator-figure, Bhagavata, offering prayers to the elephant-headed God, Ganesha, quite ironically, ‘the single-tusked destroyer of incompleteness’[4]. Karnad goes on to raise further questions, ‘An elephant’s head on a human body, a broken tusk and a cracked belly – whichever way you look at him he seems the embodiment of imperfection, of incompleteness. How indeed can one fathom the mystery that this very Vakratunda-Mahakaya, with his crooked face and distorted body, is the Lord and Master of Success and Perfection?’[5]This play is replete with examples of incompleteness and imperfection. The title of the play itself translates to ‘the one with a horse’s head’. There are primarily two stories in this play that intersect with each other on the common thematic element of incompleteness – one is the story of a man with a horse’s head in search of completeness; the other is about a woman in love with one man’s body and another’s mind, and the subsequent transposition of their heads, which leads to further complications and questions about identity and interpersonal relationships.


It is interesting to note how Karnad brings in the stereotypes of class, gender and nationalistic tropes and subverts them himself in his play. At the very outset, Bhagavata, the narrator, describes the two men in his play. ‘Comely in appearance, fair [italics mine] in colour, unrivalled in intelligence, Devadatta is the only son of the Revered Brahmin, Vidyasagara…The other youth is Kapila…He is dark [italics mine] and plain to look at, yet in deeds which require drive and daring, in dancing, in strength and in physical skills, he has no equal.’[6] Karnad soon intervenes through his stage directions to establish a hierarchy between the men of two different colours: ‘Devadatta gets down on the floor to sit beside Kapila. Kapila at once leaps up and gestures to Devadatta to sit on the chair. Devadatta shakes his head but Kapila insists, pulls him up by his arm. Devadatta gets up….Sits on the chair. Kapila sits down on the ground happily. A long pause.[7] In this little piece of stage directions, Karnad’s conflicts play out most beautifully in their theatricality. While Bhagavata narrates and establishes the hierarchies and the binaries of power, status, colour and class, Karnad, through his stage directions, attempts to subvert them. He makes Devadatta, who is clearly placed at a higher level by Bhagavata, come down on the floor, trying to equalize the levels. But Kapila himself ‘pulls him up by his arm’ and ‘sits down on the ground happily’ only after Devadatta ‘sits on the chair’, thus enacting and summarizing a Hegelian master–slave dialectic[8]. In these little conflicts between the intent of the characters, one can almost see Karnad’s own internal conflicts, Bhagavata almost appearing as Karnad’s alter ego.


The caste/colour/race differences are further polarized and enhanced by Karnad through the emphasis of their professions and even the castes to which they belong. While Devadatta is the son of a Brahman (and therefore Brahman himself) and ‘is unrivalled in intelligence’, Kapila is the son of an ironsmith and excels in strength and physical skills. Even though Karnad has not particularly mentioned Kapila’s caste, in all probabilities he represents a caste lower in status, since professions determined castes in India, and Kapila belongs to a family of ironsmiths. Besides, it is made very clear that Devadatta, being a Brahman, is definitely intellectually superior to Kapila, whose name means ‘the dark one’. Thus the hierarchy spills over to the issues of colour – the ‘fair one’ is the Brahman, who is the possessor of the supreme knowledge; ‘the dark one’, who is definitely not a Brahman, and therefore belongs to a lower caste, excels in his physicality.


The binaries created thus are fairness, intellectual strength and higher caste on the one end of the spectrum, and darkness, physical strength and lower caste on the other. In the latter part of Act I, when the two men’s heads get transposed because of a mistake made by Padmini (who is given a chance to join the heads of these men by Goddess Kali, after they have cut off their respective heads in the temple), Karnad not only reverses the tropes of hierarchy existing in colour, caste, race, and physicality, he also engages in overturning the tropes of womanhood and nationalism. Nationalism has been typically performed through acts of sexual and national violence on women, or the assignment of divinity and martyrdom. Unlike the typical post-Partition stories of spiritualizing or deifying a woman on the one hand and objectifying or dehumanizing her on the other, Karnad creates these binaries (of the mind and the body) over the characterization of these two men, and creates a flesh-and-blood ‘human’ heroine. The woman’s body in his play is not the site of violence, but rather becomes the seat of desire and sexuality. Karnad’s heroine, Padmini, is no longer the embodiment of extremes of divinity and servitude; she has a body of flesh and blood that actively wants, desires, reminisces and takes action. As the female chorus articulates: ‘Why should love stick to the sap of a single body? When the stem is drunk with the thick yearning of the many-petalled, many-flowered lantana, why should it be tied down to the relation of a single flower?… A head for each breast. A pupil for each eye. A side for each arm. I have neither regret nor shame. The blood pours into the earth and a song branches out in the sky.’[9]


Through these lyrical verses, Karnad almost reenacts the scene of Partition. One must also remember that the event of the Partition also coincides with India’s Independence from the British colonial rule. Karnad reminds us the price one had to pay for the Independence – ‘the blood pours into the earth and a song branches out in the sky.’ He also reminds us that because of the ‘thick yearning for the many-petalled, many-flowered lantana’ (symbolizing the multiple, diverse political and religious interests of Independent India), there was an inevitable divide that caused violence, separations, bloodshed, confusion and trauma, while earning ‘freedom’ at the same time. Even though Padmini is free to make choices and even free to desire and articulate her desires, this freedom is not free from conflict and violence. This story about the three lovers concludes not only in death of the two men, but also a willful performance of Sati by Padmini. Here, too, we see Karnad intervening in lending Padmini more agency in not only expressing her own desires and sexuality, but also in desiring her own death. As Erin Mee points out, ‘Karnad added an ironic twist: Padmini’s sati marks her devotion not to one man, but to two. Her sati is not an expression of loyal devotion to her husband, but to the fulfilment of her own desire and her disregard for societal convention. She refuses to conform to the “traditional” image of an “ideal” woman.’[10]


Besides, Karnad is aware of the limitations of these reversals of the stereotypical tropes that he makes in his play. Whether just a passive body or an active perpetrator of the separation, the consequences are not much different. After the heads were transposed, it was only a matter of time, before each of those men returned to their original forms – the head dictated what the body should be like. On a larger, metaphoric scale, the split in the nation[11]’s body meant separation of millions of families across the split. Not only did it mean the separation of families, but the dislocation also resulted in what may be termed the split between the body and the mind for each individual experiencing the Partition – the bodies dislocated to different geographical locations, beginning to resettle themselves in the their new physical environment had memories of their pre-Partitioned lives coming back to them. Soon, the memories of their ‘homes’ dictated how they resettled themselves in their new clusters and colonies, which became simulated versions of the ‘homes’ they have left behind. The idea of home was destabilized. As Anjali Roy Gera and Nandi Bhatia point out:

The narrative of Partition remains unredeemed by the myth of the homeland and the possibility of return home even though the desire to return, at least for a visit, does not die out. The Partition-displaced person is acutely aware of the impossibility of return for more than one reason. There is a certain ambivalence that marks the longing for the homeland in the Partition refugee since positive sentiments attached to the homeland are darkened by fear and insecurity. Moreover, the return to the homeland is impossible because it has become altered beyond rcognition….the Partition refugee is disoriented in the homeland that has an uncanny resemblance to the real, but can only survive in an imaginary homeland.[12]

The divisions and separations take place not only externally (between the head and the body) but also internally (between the conscious and the subconscious). In a way, the second act of the play can be read as the dramatization of a healing process. The healing is necessary from the violence, pain and trauma that were consequences of the transposition (or Partition). Padmini takes agency, one more time, to engage in the traditional ways of healing, ‘which assume reliving a trauma or decathacting desire from the lost object and reinvesting it elsewhere…’[13]. The memories of trauma play and replay themselves in the subconscious through reminiscences and dreams:

I’m not going to be stupid again. Kapila’s gone out of my life – forever. I won’t let him come back again. (Pause.) Kapila? What could he be doing now? Where could he be? Could his body be fair still, and his face dark? (Long pause.) Devadutta changes. Kapila changes. And me?[14]


Padmini not only engages herself in these traditional ways of healing, but also in a ‘relationship with death’[15] that Veena Das considers a way in which we need to think of healing. In her essay, ‘Language and Body’, she further explains that ‘in the gendered division of labour in the work of mourning, it is the task of men to ritually create a body for the dead person and to find a place in the cosmos for the dead’.[16] She talks about those of the Aghori sect who live on cremation grounds to free the soul of a dead person (who died an unnatural or violent death) from the ‘fate of a homeless ghost’, by consuming parts of the dead body. Padmini not only takes responsibility for freeing the dead souls, but also takes the onus of reversing the gender role in the ritual of mourning, although her consumption of the dead in the form of Sati involves consumption of herself in the sacrificial fire.


The intersecting story of the man with a horse’s head, Hayavadana, adds to this theme of incompleteness and homelessness. Erin Mee points out:


As the child of a princess and a celestial being in the form of a horse – as the progeny of miscegenation – Hayavadana comes from two different worlds, but does not feel at home in either. He represents the divided self of the postcolonial subject – a character attempting to decolonize his own mind.[17]

Hayavadana is hassled throughout the play for this incompleteness of his anatomy, and at the end, he turns into a complete horse, thus proving again the hierarchy of the head as the dominant centre for control, which had been established right at the outset of the play. He successfully represents the angst of the postcolonial subject, who is homeless not only physically and geographically, but also psychologically and emotionally. The postcolonial subject has been exiled twice – once due to the traumatic separation that resulted from the geo-political divides of the Partition; and simultaneously, due to the retreat of the colonial rule, which meant engaging in a search for a new definition of ‘nationalism’ once more, which had been diluted in the process of colonization. The angst is an inevitability that is caused by the coincidence of a nostalgic yearning for the past, and at the same time, an awareness of the impossibility of return to a ‘pure’, ‘uncontaminated’ identity. He becomes a subject who has to bear the burden of Independence and pay the price for it through separation, homelessness and the traumatic silence that surrounded these events.


Even Padmini’s voluntary participation in the healing process cannot break the traumatic silence of the child born of the union between Padmini and Devadatta. The child is Hayavadana’s contemporary, and shares his travails. While Hayavadana is the embodiment of the angst associated with Independence, the child is a witness to the painful separations in the event of Partition – the price paid for the freedom – ‘this one doesn’t speak a word. Doesn’t laugh, doesn’t cry, doesn’t even smile. The same long face all twenty-four hours. There’s obviously something wrong with him.’[18] The silence of the child in the play depicts the trauma of partitioned nations, lives and relationships, and the hostility that resulted from the memories of violence and acrimony.


Veena Das, in her enquiry into post-Partition trauma, interviewed many women who had witnessed the event first-hand. In her findings, she recorded:


When asking women to narrate their experiences of the Partition, I found a zone of silence around the event. This silence was achieved either with the use of language that was general and metaphoric but that evaded description of any events with specificity so as to capture the particularity of their experience, or by describing the surrounding events but leaving the actual experience of abduction and rape unstated.[19]


Similarly, talking about the traumatic memories would mean reliving the experiences of trauma for the child. He recoils into a zone of silence and neutrality. Alan Radley, however, looks beyond the relationship between remembering and language.


The emphasis upon language tends to hide interesting questions which arise once we acknowledge that the sphere of material objects is ordered in ways upon which we rely for a sense of continuity and as markers of temporal change. As an example of continuity, we remember the layout of our homes without needing to speak of it or to recollect where everything is.[20]


The silence in the child is not forgetfulness or a lack of memory. It is rather a struggle against memory, when memories formed are unpleasant and painful. The remembrance is also unstable because of the lack of markers in an unstable physical space of homelessness and displacement. However, similar to what Veena Das describes, the child too breaks into a song, ‘general and metaphoric’ in nature, which his mother had taught him. But the song itself is about travel, displacement and death, in a metaphoric and veiled language.

Here comes a rider.

From what land O what land?

On his head a turban.

Sleep now, sleep now.

Why his chest

Red O red?

Why his eyes pebbles?

Why his body

Cold O cold?

Where goes the horse?

Nowhere O nowhere.[21]

The rider, the subject in the song, suggests travel; while his ‘cold’ body, ‘red’ chest, eyes like ‘pebbles’ and repetition of ‘sleep’ suggest death, and that he goes ‘nowhere o nowhere’ suggesting displacement and homelessness.


Even though the play recognizes and repeats the stories of angst, violence, and the trauma of Partition, Girish Karnad is also aware of the possibilities of redemption through the use of humour, empathy and playfulness in this situation, which is an outcome of a complex history. While Hayavadana’s cries prompt the child to talk and attempt to calm him down with the help of a song, Hayavdana volunteering to take the child on his back breaks the latter’s silence and evokes laughter. There is a sense of mutual sharing of suffering and pain, and, therefore, empathy between the child and Hayavadana. Hayavadana’s playfulness and the child’s empathy create a sense of completion at the end, with Karnad offering a solution to the fragmentation and homelessness that the complex history of colonialism, Partition and Independence has marked on these subjects of time.



[1] Jisha Menon, ‘Rehearsing the Partition: Gendered Violence in Aur Kitne Tukde’, Feminist Review, No. 84, Postcolonial Theatres (2006), p. 30.

[2] Girish Karnad, ‘Hayavadana’, Three Plays (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 1.

[3] Girish Karnad, ‘Hayavadana’, p. 17.

[4] Ibid, p. 73.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Girish Karnad, ‘Hayavadana’, p. 73, 74.

[7] Ibid, p. 84.

[8] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by A. V. Miller (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 1998), pp. 115-19.

[9] Girish Karnad, ‘Hayavadana’, p. 82.

[10] Erin B. Mee, ‘A New Hybrid Theatre: Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana’, Theatre of Roots (London: Seagull Books, 2008), p. 158.

[11] I have often used ‘nation’ interchangeably with ‘India’ or rather the pre-Partition union of India.

[12] Anjali Roy Gera, Nandi Bhatia, ‘Introduction’, Partitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement, and Resettlement (Delhi: Pearson Education India, 2008), p. xix.

[13] Veena Das, ‘Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain’, Life and Words: Violence and Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007).

[14] Girish Karnad, ‘Hayavadana’, p. 119.

[15] Veena Das, ‘Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain’, p. 48.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Erin B. Mee, ‘A New Hybrid Theatre’, p. 144.

[18] Girish Karnad, ‘Hayavadana’, p. 134.

[19] Veena Das, ‘Language and Body’, p. 54.

[20] Alan Radley, ‘Artefacts, Memory and a Sense of the Past’, David Middleton and Derek Edwards (eds), Collective Remembering (London: Sage Publications, 1990), p. 46.

[21] Girish Karnad, ‘Hayavadana’, p. 137.