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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Semiotic Analysis of Girish Karnad’s "Tale Danda"

This paper is written by Anju John (2009)
Semiotics is a systematic “study of signs and signifying practices”1. Umberto Eco, states that “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” (Eco 1976, 7)2. Semiotics is not just study of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, it also about anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, words, images, sounds, gestures and objects all form signs. Saussure believes that ‘semiology’ was ‘a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life’. But for Charles Peirce “a sign... is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228)3. He declared that ‘every thought is a sign’ (Peirce 1931-58). Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as part of semiotic ‘sign systems’ (such as a medium or genre). They study how meanings are made through signs (Sturrock 1986, 22).

Semiotics is often employed in the analysis of texts. A text is an “assemblage of signs (such as words, images, sounds and gestures) constructed (and interpreted) with reference to the conventions associated with a genre and in a particular medium of communication. Through this essay, a semiotical analysis of Girish Karnad’s Tale-Danda is done. The main purpose of the study is to unravel the paradigms that lie in the play. The paradigms then can be grouped together to form a larger syntagm. It is a conscious effort to derive meaning from a complex interplay of codes, signs and conventions that lie within the text.

Tale-Danda follows the historical narrative in which the ‘present’ is understood by returning to the ‘past’. The playwright has taken the theme for his play from the history. It tells the story of Basavanna, a poet and social transformer who is believed to have lived in 12th century in Kalyan (present Karnataka). Tale-Danda “goes back in time to uncover the history of the majority religion [Hinduism] turning against itself.”4(Collected Plays, emphasis mine, p.p.x). The play focuses on the hierarchical structure in the caste system in Hinduism. The play unveils the various paradigms that can be connected together to form a complex syntagm. “Syntagms are created by the linking of signifiers from paradigm sets which are chosen on the basis of whether they are conventionally regarded as appropriate or may be required by some rule system (e.g. grammar).”5 This essay thus looks for the hidden paradigms that form the part of the underlying structure and the syntagm it creates. The play itself is considered here as a syntagmatic statement. Moreover the historical narrative which Karnad has used in the play itself is a syntagmatic structure. Synatagmatic analysis of the lay mainly focuses on “the importance of part-whole relationships: Saussure stressed that ‘the whole depends on the parts, and the parts depend on the whole’ (Saussure 1983, 126; Saussure 1974, 128).”6

Tale-Danda is written in 1989 in the backdrop of Mandir-Mandal conflict in India. Thus we can say that the play is a syntagmatic exposition of the Mandal and Mandir controversies of 1980s. But before coming to this conclusion it is necessary to analyze the various factors that help to form this statement. It is necessary to identify and analyze the underlying paradigms in the play. A paradigm is a set of associated signifiers or signified which are all members of some defining category, but in which each is significantly different. The first paradigm that is considered here is the title of the play itself. The title Tale- Danda is a symbolic sign that signifies a larger whole. Larger meaning can be evolved from the name itself. The literal translation of Tale is head and Danda means punishment. So it means ‘paying with your head’. There are probably more painful/less ways of killing. And yet, one way that seems to have found favour over the ages, especially when a certain kind of person needs to be executed, is Tale-Danda. You think with your head, worse still, you dare to feel with your head. And that’s why it must be chopped. It splits not only the body into two, but the entire human self, pride and existence. Now, if we look at the title with reference to the story in the play and the social scenario in which the play is written we can see that they are very closely connected. The concept of ‘paying with your head’ is clearly visible in both the situations. The victims in both places are the common people who are being used for the needs of those in the power. The commoners (Sharanas) in the play are being used according to the whims of Basavanna and others. Sharanas opposed idolatry, rejected temple worship, upheld equality of sexes, and condemned the caste system .But event took a violent turn when they acted on their beliefs and a brahmin girl married a ‘low caste’ boy. The movement ended in bloodshed. Similarly, the common people are again the guinea pigs in the Mandir- Mandal controversies of 1980s. They are exploited as a result of religious fanaticism and political upheaval.

The second paradigm that is of prime importance in the play is Basavanna, a Brahmin poet-priest of Kalyan. Moreover the intertextuality is very clear here. It goes back into the history of Kalyan (present Karnataka). Basavanna was a social reformer who revolted against the religion and caste practices in the 12th century. Basavanna advocated “a new way of life wherein the divine experience was the center of life giving equal opportunity to all aspirants regardless of the gender, caste, and social status.”7 He wanted the entire world to be with only one religion, where there will be no partiality among the people. He did not advise to believe in god, instead he advised to believe in themselves. Most of the people from different religion and caste converted into his Lingayat8 religion during his period. He accepted madigas (untouchables during that period) into Lingayat religion and became the revolutionist. Basavanna conveyed the principles of religion in the language of the people, Kannada, which thus became the best means and medium of carrying conviction to them. He educated the mass through his Vachanas. Thus the century gave rise not only to a new religion but also a new form of literature (Vachana literature) which later became an asset to the Kannada literature itself. Basavanna is not just a historical character for Karnad. The important question for us to engage with is ‘why Basavanna’. The answer to this question is clear if we read the play in the light of Mandal-Mandir controversy9. Thus Basavanna is an indexical sign which leads us to a larger reality. Basavanna could not save any of his disciples from the bloodshed followed by the intercaste marriage. He was caught in the structure of the caste system and could not make the society to come out of it. Similarly the people and the political leaders of the present day society is caught in the holds of religious fanaticism by which many innocent people lose their lives in various parts of the country. Karnad through the play “seeks to enforce the identity between communal and caste violence, and to show that the effects of intra-religious conflict are very similar to those of inter-religious conflict.”10

Semiotic analysis mainly deals with how messages are formed and meanings are derived in a text. Meanings give shape and lend significance to our experience of reality. Various signs help us to derive the meaning. This is by analyzing the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships that are present in the text. Thus, in the essay we have identified and analyzed the various paradigms that lie within the play. The paradigms help to form the larger meaning that the play is the syntagmatic exposition of the Mandal- Mandir controversies of 1980s in India.


Karnad, Girish. Collected Plays. Vol. 2. New Delhi: OUP, 2009.
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Patil, My. Si. Who is Basavanna. As on 27-08-09.

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