By the time Girish Karnad wrote Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and The Rain) in the early 1990s, he had already pocketed the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Padmashri, the Padmabhushan, and the Karnataka Sahitya Parishad Award…all of which he had amassed on the wreckage of Indian culture and history, broadly speaking. His soft-porn Utsav might have been a commercial disaster but it was truly an Utsav (celebration, festival) insofar as his career was concerned. Then there was the brazen Brahmin-bashing excuse of a play titled Taledanda, the brother-sister incest porn titled Anju Mallige…not to mention the glorification of the Islamic tyrant and mass-murderer in Tughlaq…To paraphrase the character of Razia in Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s Aavarana, it appeared that the more one abused Hindu and native Indian culture, tradition, heroes, symbols, and practices, the greater the number of awards and rewards one got.
So by the time Girish Karnad wrote Agni Mattu Male, the basic, moot question of whether he was even qualified to attempt such a theme didn’t even figure in the discourse surrounding such artistic murders.
I distinctly recall the near-orgiastic atmosphere that had prevailed during the period, fresh when Agni Mattu Male was seeing repeat performances across the country and mindlessly lauded mostly by the Page 3 types. It might or not be coincidental but that was also the period when the real Page 3, the heinous “City Supplements” of the loathsome Times of India was at its peak. Pictures of wealthy, aged uncles wearing garish waistcoats and over made-up and underdressed middle-aged aunties celebrating the “success” of yet another staging of Agni Mattu Male were liberally splashed all over the pages of Bangalore Times.
My other distinct memory was a long interview where Girish Karnad spoke about Agni Mattu Male. Here is the paraphrased gist of it: the inspiration for the play apparently came from Rajaji’s incredible abridgment of the Mahabharata. Karnad found it significant that Rajaji had included a minor episode, which he later took up and developed into Agni Mattu Male. He claimed that “the play lived in my mind for 37 years” before it took its present form.
Agni Mattu Male is arguably Girish Karnad’s most lavish and successful play, speaking purely in terms of its production values and popularity in the urban “cultural scene” (sic). It was translated into Hindi as Agni aur Varsha and staged to similar acclaim. Eventually, it hit the celluloid as the pathetic Agni Varsha which boasted of a star-studded cast including everyone and his grandfather, sexy aunty, and poor cousin: Amitabh Bachchan, Jackie Shroff, Nagarjuna, Prabhu Deva, Milind Soman, Raveena Tandon, and even an item girl in the form of Deepti Bhatnagar (who perhaps tried to atone for her various sins by later anchoring the TV show, Yatra). Quite obviously, it bombed at the box office.
I continue to read Rajaji’s extraordinary Mahabharata even now and never cease to marvel at his grasp of the grand epic. It is clearly written by a person who has read, mastered, and internalized the essence of the Mahabharata and the spirit and vision of Bhagavan Veda Vyasa. The manner in which he has heavily condensed the original is a superb feat in itself. It can be likened to a beautiful “ready reckoner” of the original reminding us of a similar feat in Kannada by Prof A.R. Krishna Sastri: Vacana Bharata (you can read a superb, ongoing translation at the Prekshaa Journal).
So what is the minor episode in Rajaji’s Mahabharata that Girish Karnad claims inspired him to write Agni Mattu Male? Answer: it is the story of Yavakrida. True to form, Karnad once again falls back upon his tried, tested, and finely-honed literary deception that we observed in Yayati: of taking the sublime and reducing it to the ridiculous.
Yavakrida’s story is one of the nearly-innumerable Upakhyanas or stories that different sages narrated to the Pandavas during their exile.
Yavakrida is the son of sage Bharadwaja, a close friend of another sage named Raibhya. Raibhya has two sons, Paravasu and Arvavasu. While Bharadwaja was renowned for his humble, and self-effacing nature, Raibhya was more famed as a scholar regularly invited to royal courts. Raibhya’s sons too, earned their own share of fame, courtesy their father and their own learning and merit.
Yavakrida grows up nurturing strong jealousy towards Raibhya’s sons. He is also unhappy with and doesn’t approve of his father’s inward-looking, quiet and contented nature. In his quest to gain fame equal to or surpassing his rivals, Yavakrida seeks to grasp the secret of the Vedas directly—without the guidance of a Guru. His father is against this and dreads his son’s foolish methods. It is significant to mention Bharadwaja’s cautionary words to his son; it is a highly pragmatic, and insightful piece of advice:
The Devatas grant boons to fatuous people who persistently practice penances, as intoxicants are sold to fools for money. The consequence is a loss of self-control, which leads to the warping of the mind and ends only in disaster. It is thus not merely enough to ask a boon: a wise man knows what boon to ask, and whether his penance is worth the object he seeks to attain through it.
In this, Yavakrida resembles the Rakshasas who performed severe penances but asked for petty boons, which ultimately boomeranged on them.
Yavakrida then performs intense penance for long years. Indra, who knows of his foolish desire tries his best to persuade Yavakrida from his disastrous quest. Yavakrida however, does not yield. In a last desperate bid, he begins to cut off his limbs and offers them to Agni so he could obtain the desired boon. Indra finally relents and grants him the secret knowledge of the Vedas.
Drunk with arrogance, Yavakrida molests Paravasu’s wife when she was strolling alone in the garden near the hermitage of Raibhya. When Raibhya learns of this, he is seized with fury. He plucks a hair from his head and offers it to Agni, reciting a mantra. At once, a maiden, as beautiful as his daughter-in-law, emerges from the blazing tongues of Agni. Raibhya then plucks another strand of his hair and offers it to Agni again. This time, a terrible fiend rises from Agni. Raibhya commands both the maiden and the fiend to kill Yavakrida.
They both arrive at the place where Yavakrida is performing his morning Sandhyavandanam. The maiden goes near him and begins to allure him. When his guard is sufficiently lowered, she teasingly takes his water-jug (Kamandalu), and begins to run slowly. Suddenly, the fiend appears from nowhere with an uplifted spear in its hand.
Yavakrida stands up in fear. He knows that his mantras would not have any impact unless he cleanses himself with water. But the water-jug is missing. When he realizes what had happened, he rushes to a pond nearby but the pond has miraculously dried up. He then darts towards his father’s hermitage for refuge. However, the half-blind man guarding the hermitage stops him as he cannot recognize Yavakrida, who then tries to force his way in. Meanwhile, the fiend’s spear has found its mark.
When Bharadwaja finds his son’s corpse, he understands that it was because of his son’s disrespect for Raibhya as well as his shortcut method of learning the Vedas. But fatherly love gains supremacy in his hour of grief and manifests itself as a curse:
May Raibhya who caused my son’s death, himself be killed by one of his own sons!
But when his anger subsides, Bharadwaja realizes that he now has an additional loss: his dear friend, Raibhya. Filled with great remorse, he enters the funeral pyre.
Meanwhile, the King Brihadyumna, Raibhya’s disciple requests the Rishi to send his sons to officiate a grand Yajna he has undertaken. Accordingly, the brothers, Paravasu and Arvavasu arrive at Brihadyumna’s capital. After several days into the sacrifice, Paravasu leaves for his hermitage to visit his wife. As he nears the hermitage post-twilight, he spots an antelope straggling wildly. Fearing that something is amiss, Paravasu kills it. Then, to his horror and grief, he discovers that he has actually killed his own father who had worn the skin of an antelope on his body. The dim light had deceived Paravasu. He hurriedly performs Raibhya’s last rites, and later informs Arvavasu about the mishap. He requests the younger sibling to perform the remaining rites on his behalf and to keep the accident a secret so as not to hinder the king’s Yajna.
Arvavasu accordingly performs Raibhya’s last rites, and returns to assist his brother. However, the sin of killing a virtuous Rishi has tainted Paravasu’s character because a sin cannot be washed off by proxy expiation. So, Paravasu proclaims in public that Arvavasu had no right to enter the Yajna hall because he had killed a Rishi. The Assembly believes Paravasu and bans Arvavasu.
Angry and dejected, Arvavasu undertakes intense austerities and pleases the Devatas. When the Devatas ask him to choose a boon, Arvavasu, whose austerity has elevated him from base passions asks the following:
May the lives of my father, the Most Exalted Rishi Raibhya, the Spotless Rishi Bharadwaja, and Yavakrida be restored. May my brother’s ignorance be destroyed and his transgressions be pardoned.
The Devatas happily grant the boon.
Among other things, the entire episode underlines the important distinction between knowledge and virtue, broadly speaking. Mere knowledge in and by itself doesn’t instill virtue. In order to be meaningful and even believable, virtue has to be consciously lived. The cruel irony and tragedy of Yavakrida’s life illustrates the former: he has learnt nothing less than the secret of the Vedas but what does that translate into in his own life? By contrast, Arvavasu’s anger and dejection are sublimated in his penance, which then becomes refined as pure virtue, and he becomes a Rishi.
As is his wont, Girish Karnad takes this elegant story and twists it into a perverse disaster. Here are the things you will not find in Agni Mattu Male: sublimity, virtue, insight, and cultural and literary grandeur. Here are the things you will find in Agni Mattu Male: perversion, lewdness, crudity, and a wanton plumbing of the filth of human depravity. The literary trait of Girish Karnad’s works is akin to a person who only sees the dog urinating in front of say the grand Brihadeeshwara Temple and starts an NGO demanding that the funds of the temple be used to build toilets for stray dogs.
Actually, Agni Mattu Male is a bizarre title because the play is based on what is originally a straightforward story. I dimly recall the blurb to the play, printed on the expensive and beautiful invitation card I received to its staging at Chowdaiah Memorial Hall. The tagline of Agni Mattu Male was something like this: “a tale of deception and passion.” Quite a revelation but not difficult to detect the convoluted rationale for this tagline. In Vedic ritual, Agni (Sacred Fire) is used. As we’ve seen earlier, the king Brihadyumna performs a Yajna to appease the Devatas to deliver rain (Male in Kannada) to his drought-stricken kingdom. Viola! “Agni Mattu Male: The Fire and The Rain, a play in English by Girish Karnad.”
Girsh Karnad’s protagonist in Agni Mattu Male is Arvavasu, the Existential Man. Arvavasu is the upgraded version of the existential freak called Puru in his seminal work of cultural vandalism, Yayati.
However, Karnad calls him Aravasu for reasons I cannot fathom. I’m sure Rajaji got the name of Arvavasu correct in his Mahabharata.
In any case, it appears that Karnad has deliberately chosen Aravasu (sic) because he is, relatively speaking, the perfect ingot into whose character Karnad can skillfully pour the thick lead of Existential nonsense. In Karnad’s hands, the original Arvavasu morphs into a person who should choose between his “personal good” and the good of others. In fact, much of Aravasu’s journey to this final act of choice is smeared with hideous episodes, which don’t exist in the original.
Bhagavan Veda Vyasa’s Arvavasu is no conflict-torn character. He knows he has been wronged, and like all humans, is angry at first at the betrayal. Both Arvavasu and his brother are Vedic scholars who equaled their learned father in knowledge and fame and conduct. This is an important premise, which Karnad not only discards, but blackens completely. After overcoming his initial anger, Arvavasu realizes that Paravasu’s treachery was the result of his unexpiated sin. Then Arvavasu’s conviction becomes clear: like a true Rishi who seeks only the welfare of the world (lokahita), he does penance for the benefit of others, even those who have harmed him.
Not Karnad’s Aravasu.
Karnad makes him wade through a quick succession of progressively grievous perfidies. Otherwise, the build-up to the abnormal finale wouldn’t be quite so spectacular as we shall see.
For reasons best known to him, Karnad introduces a character not present in the original: Nittilay. She is part of a drama troupe. More significantly, she is Aravasu’s girlfriend. To establish their relationship, Karnad tries to convince the audience that Aravasu somehow has a passion for acting in plays; he is also part of the drama troupe. These outlandish and inexplicable twists are necessary because they install the structural support for a mindless climax where Nittilay dies. This is also another instance of Karnad’s feverish creativity, which turns a straightforward Arvavasu into a playacting Existential monster.
Of all the worst elements in Agni Mattu Male, nothing is more repulsive than Girish Karnad’s characterization of Rishi Raibhya. He is depicted as a lewd old man — literally, a lecherous old father-in-law who lusts after his youthful daughter-in-law in the absence of her husband. But Karnad’s perverse ingenuity lies in the fact that he doesn’t paint this lewd picture offensively or directly. He does it through another perversion in the plot: Yavakrida and Raibhya’s daughter-in-law were lovers before she married Paravasu. The couple have their illicit trysts clandestinely after Yavakrida returns from his penance, having acquired his newfound power. It is during one of their passionate encounters that she reveals to Yavakrida her disgust for her lustful father-in-law…there are such delightful lines referring to the Rishi as, “he looks at me like a dog sniffs the arse of a bitch…”
Karnad later reveals to us that the daughter-in-law is truly devious: she is actually plotting Yavakrida’s death while faking undying love for him during their illegitimate trysts. The case of Paravasu killing his own father is no better: he murders willfully, out of true spite. In fact, Girish Karnad himself says it in so many words. In her saner days, the rabid Leftwing writer, Anna M M Vetticad had written quite a balanced review of Agni Mattu Male. Here is an excerpt where she quotes Karnad:
Agni aur Barkha…is based on a tale from the Mahabharata in which Paravasu, returning from a yajna, sees something moving in the forest, and thinking it’s a wild animal, kills it. It turns out to be his father. “You ask yourself, was there something else to it?” says Karnad. [Emphasis added]
So there you have it, in summary: at the end of it all, the impression is that all characters except Aravasu and Nittilay are vile, scheming, ungrateful, immoral and treacherous wretches.
The climax uses the familiar technique of play within a play. Aravasu, Nittilay, and their drama troupe stage a play for Brihadyumna. Nittilay is killed on stage. The Gods appear and tell Aravasu to seek a boon. They can bring Nittilay and all the others back to life with the following caveat (paraphrased):
Doing this will mean that we have to turn back time. There is no guarantee that the same events will not be repeated.
This portion is purely Karnad’s contribution to complete the wreckage of the original. The final nail in the coffin. A more chaotic or jumbled climax is unavailable, in my limited reading. As the play concludes, we hear a great thunder followed by torrential downpour.
Much to our disgust. And much-needed relief.
Perhaps Aldous Huxley anticipated the likes of Girish Karnad when he quipped, “A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.”