Karki Venkataramana Shastri Suri’s “Iggappa Hegade Vivaha Prahasana athava Kanyavikrayada Parinamavu”, considered the first social-realist play in Kannada, is radical in terms of both content and language. The writer, displaying rare courage, chose to dramatise the most despicable customs prevailing in his Havyaka community in North Karnataka during the 19th century, and more importantly, openly named his community. The other significant point is he wrote the play in his native Havyaka-Kannada dialect, instead of in the standard literary Kannada of the time.
The author chose to call himself only as Havyaka Hitechchu (well-wisher of Havyakas) on the cover-page of the first edition of the play, published in 1887 in Mumbai. The play remained in the shadows mostly because of disapproval from traditionalists within the community and also because of the restricted understanding of the Havyaka dialect elsewhere. A second edition in 1953 restored the author’s name to his play. Dr. Shalini Raghunath brought out a critical edition of this play in 1988, with a comprehensive introduction, the play in its original Havyaka-Kannada dialect, and a hosagannada translation, making for an interesting inter-dialectal translation exercise within Kannada.
The play opens with Iggappa Hegade, Vasappa Hegade and Ganesha Bhatta sitting around chatting, chewing arecanut and tobacco, and complaining about the bad quality of tobacco flooding Sirsi’s market. The conversation then casually turns to Iggappa’s buffalo, which no longer produces milk because there is nobody to take care of it after Iggappa’s second wife passed away a year ago. Iggappa wants to sell the buffalo back to the seller, even at a loss, because he says he wants to rid himself of responsibilities now that he is 60 years old, his second wife too has died, he has no children, and he has yet to repay the loan amount that he had borrowed to pay the kanyashulka (bride-price) for his second marriage. Vasappa and Bhatta slowly and cleverly convince Iggappa that age is not a factor and that he can get married for the third time provided he has the money because there are parents willing to offer their young daughters in marriage to old men for the right kanyashulka. Then they discuss ways to arrange another loan and bargain for a reduced bride-price, as if marriage was another business deal like buying arecanut and selling buffaloes. Thus, the main concerns of the author – kanyashulka, child-marriage, bad loans, paying interest – are all outlined in this remarkable opening scene itself.
Iggappa approaches the moneylender, Raya, for a loan. Bhatta, the middleman, manages to match horoscopes and takes money from both parties. Vasappa, Iggappa’s brother-in-law and the mastermind behind this plot, knows that Iggappa would not live long. If he could get Iggappa married to a young girl, he could convince the girl to transfer the property to his name after Iggappa’s death. He could repay the loan and also take her under his care. The author informs us that the religious head of the Havyakas had issued a directive forbidding the practice of bride-price. The moktesara (administrator) of the monastery allows this practice for a price and hides this information from the head. Savithri’s (the bride’s) father is tempted by the offer from Iggappa and consents to the marriage.
Iggappa falls ill soon after the wedding and is bedridden. In this pathetic state, while talking to Vasappa, Iggappa angrily tells him that his wife has had a miscarriage when he had never slept with her and calls his wife a prostitute. Savithri denies this accusation saying that no one else had come into their house and it is Iggappa’s inability to consummate the marriage that is the cause of such angry remarks. But at the end of the scene when Vasappa winks at Savithri and signals her to leave Iggappa’s room, there is a suggestion of intimacy between these two and that Iggappa‘s suspicion is not entirely unfounded.
Iggappa does not survive for long. Vasappa convinces the unlettered Savithri to transfer Iggappa’s assets to his name. But as he goes to repay the loan he realizes that there was an earlier loan taken by Iggappa which he was not aware of and so he has to forfeit all claims to Iggappa’s land as well as his money. His dreams of acquiring land and money through this scheme are shattered. Meanwhile, a year has passed since Iggappa’s death and the town is rife with rumours of Savithri’s pregnancy and that Vasappa has bribed the head and the moktesara to conceal the matter. Vasappa manages to get the pregnancy aborted. The police come to know of it and question Savithri and the foetus is found discarded in a manure pit. Savithri, Vasappa and Nanjunda Hegade, Vasappa’s brother-in-law, are arrested and interrogated by the police. A case of foeticide is brought before the Sirsi Sessions Court. The judge after giving a long speech on the disastrous effects of practices like bride-price that result in child marriages, taking of loans, and bribing people to hide their crimes, pronounces that since these three people had come before the court for the first time, the court wants to deal with them sympathetically. Savithri is given a simple punishment of three months’ imprisonment, whereas the other two, Vasappa and Nanjunda, as instigators and abettors, are sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment under each section.
There are a number of ways in which Iggappa Hegade… reflects contemporary society adapting itself to new norms. Raya, the money lender, represents the manipulative nature of the private banking system. The modern postal and law and order systems are already in place. In the last scene at the Sirsi Sessions Court we see the workings of the new legal system. We hear various dialects and registers in this play – colloquial Havyaka-Kannada spoken in North Karnataka, colloquial Kannada spoken below the Ghats, Konkani, literary Kannada, the legal register of courts, and the register of loans and interests. This play is probably one of the earliest modern Kannada literary works in prose to have established the relationship between literature and the spoken language.
(The photos of the play are from a production staged in Mysore in the early 1980s. These photos are taken from Dr Shalini Raghunath’s book)