Karnad’s Broken Images explores crisis of identity
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: shanta.serbjeetsingh@gmail.com

February 15, 2010

'For you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter...'
- TS Eliot

At the just concluded NSD festival, Girish Karnad’s 2004 play, ODAKALU BIMBA in Kannada, BIKHRE BIMB in Hindi and BROKEN IMAGES in its English version was staged at the Kamani.  BROKEN IMAGES has a live performance by Shabana Azmi and was directed by Alyque Padamsee.  

A one-character, one-act monologue, the play marks a departure from Karnad’s earlier concerns with mythology, the epics and the roots of tradition (Yayati, Tughlaq, Nagamandala).This time around, he still explores roots but they are of another kind, those expressed through language, the  search for identity, the technology driven hyper, virtual reality created by a media focused on navel-gazing and engaged in both inventing and celebrating celebrityhood, to the exclusion of all else.

BROKEN IMAGES has one set – a TV studio – but a multi-layered theme. It weaves in issues as far apart as the hegemony of English over Indian languages and the hollowness of a media which bestows greatness on a work that lay unnoticed in its original language but when translated into English becomes the toast of the global literary world.  It also deals with psychological repression of an inverted kind.  The central character Manjula, the now successful, Kannada-turned-English writer has a handicapped, wheelchair bound sister, Malini.  But it is the disabled Malini who turns out to be the really healthy and whole person.  It is Malini who not only wins the love of Manjula’s husband, Pramod, but is far more centered and happy than her caretaker sister, Manjula.Not just that.  After her death, it is Manjula whose loveless married life ends by Pramod walking out and moving to Los Angeles and the phenomenal success that she has wrested from Malini by stealing Malini’s unpublished MSS tasting like poison. 

The metaphor of Manjula aka Shabana talking about her heroic exploits with the book on a live television show ends with her finding that her image just does not leave the monitor. It is not her, of course.  It looks like her but it is Malini and the conflict between the self and the image,  between delusion and reality, between the outer mask and the inner truth that emerges in the tussle between the sisters and is the very stuff of the drama.

Broken Images takes many a side swipe at all those writers in English who are constantly in the news, for fat advances from foreign publishers, for works that are many years away to seeing the light of day, for invitations to foreign colleges, lecture tours and autograph signing sprees. There are also the questions that stare in the face: are the Indian English  cut off from the "smell of the soil," have they sold out to a market-driven economy, have they struck a trade-off with their conscience by not writing in their native language, etc. etc.

In appropriating the stolen novel, one in which her sister has caricatured her and made her out to be a pushy, conniving, duplicitous relative, a defiant Manjula shouts: "I wrote the novel in English because it burst out in English....What baffles me - actually, hurts me - is why our intellectuals can't grasp this simple fact." We see Manjula Nayak subjected to an interrogation that teases, taunts and finally strips the secrets from her soul.  The TV image reveals the sordid truth about Manjula's marriage, her far from easy relationship with her dead sister Malini and the mysterious circumstances in which the best-selling novel that was written by Malini (with the help of Pramod who, too, was always at home) and now published by Manjula, finds her conceits punctured and her deceptions gradually unravelled.

Finally she is forced into anger or emotional collapse. The 55-minute play progresses towards a tight and stirring finish as Manjula seems to morph into Malini as "differences of ink and blood and language" are obliterated in a Babel of voices and a jumble of television images. 

Talking about the technical facet of the play, director Alyque said, "There are two Shabanas in the play, it is Shabana speaking to Shabana. With the aid of technology, there are two Shabanas on the stage at the same time!" Meanwhile, the equally excited Shabana says, "The minute I finished reading the script, I said I was on! The play is so dramatic and challenging. It is a technical nightmare; I have to react to my own televised image on the screen. The image is shot as a single one hour shot, so the timing is crucial, there is no room for mistake."

It is in these climactic moments that Shabana Azmi proves her dramatic worth and for just a few seconds, like the computer image breaking into a million shards, she captures the trauma of the two sisters’ existence.  As for Padamsee’s direction, it is nothing to write home about.

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.