Hayavadana is not the ideal play to start on Girish Karnad. Yayati and Tughlaq make for better starting points. Hayavadana is more complex both in content and in stagecraft. It deals with the age old issue of which is superior - the mind or the body, but in a bizarre fashion. Two best friends, one a learned Brahmin and the other a well built iron smith, fall in love with the same girl. The girl gets married to the Brahmin, but desires her husband’s intellect and his friend’s body. Through a morbid process involving the goddess Kali, she exchanges the heads thus getting what she wanted in one frame, but what follows is more bewildering. The bodies change form to match with the head. The issues of who is the husband and later who is the father also have to be tackled.
Hayavadana has an assortment of secondary characters, some of whom interact within the main plot and others who run an almost independent narrative. Among the second lot is the title character Hayavadana or the man with a horse’s head. He is the product of mating between a woman and a horse and is desperately seeking completion. Ironically, but not surprisingly, he gets that by becoming a horse instead of the man that he wanted to become.
As is the case with all Girish Karnad plays, Hayavadana is written in Kannada and translated into English by the author. The play has a strong folk theatre flavour and this has been difficult to recreate perfectly in English. But this should not keep Karnad fans away from the play. The plot of Hayavadana is extant in ancient Sanskrit literature. However, Karnad bases his work on the modern retelling of the ancient narrative by Thomas Mann in his The Transposed Heads.