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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Semiotic Significance of ‘Mandala’ in Girish Karnad's Naga-Mandala

This paper is written by Sarjoo Shah.
Mandala is a sign, a symbol. Understanding of the mandala as a sign involves applying the rules of an appropriate, familiar code. A code reflects certain values, attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and practices of a particular culture and community; they can be traditional, ritualistic, social, etc. Thus, ‘mandala’ in the play ‘Naga-Mandala’ plays a distinct role of a sign, a symbol, a signifier, a representamen, that helps in the construction of meaning with the help of certain codes.

Mandala, briefly refers to a concentric diagram having spiritual and ritual significance in Indian and Buddhist traditions.1 It is not just an image, a physical entity. The word is derived from the Sanskrit language meaning something ‘having essence.’ It depicts an actual moment in time and can be used as a vehicle to explore art, science, religion, and life itself. According to Carl Jung a mandala symbolizes "a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness." It is "a synthesis of distinctive elements in a unified scheme representing the basic nature of existence."2

Thus, the symbol, sign of mandala signifies Karnad’s vision of theatre as a whole, unifying, complete experience. The setting and overall structure of the interrelated stories and plots, the symbolism offered by each one of them, the different narrative levels, the triangular relationships, and the triple ending can be visualised graphically as a mandala.3The way the playwright structures the play and presents and resolves the conflicts is analogous to the way a mandala imposes order over chaos and leads, with the help of concrete geometric structure, to a centre and resolution.

According to Bharata Muni’s ‘Natyashastra’, theatre is of divine origin having an intricate interweaving of all the three worlds - the celestial, the terrestrial, and the infernal - the supernatural, the human, and the subhuman. The play ‘Naga-Mandala’ also has the presence of all these elements. As Dolors puts it, ‘the mandala evokes the complexity of the cosmos and interweaves the three worlds.’4 The juxtaposition of the natural and cultural elements in the title ‘Naga-Mandala’ reflects the concept of mediation between nature and culture.

Mandala also reflects the binary between Hindu myths, rituals and philosophy and the play as a whole. The inherent meanings and interpretations of the play exist due to the presence of certain aspects of Hindu culture and tradition. The play’s meaningful existence is possible to the existence of the other. Mandala, a religious symbol, signifies this binary.

‘Mandala’ is not only a vehicle for the exploration of life; at times it becomes the metaphor for life itself. In the play, it becomes the metaphor for the life of an Indian woman. The shape of mandala comprises of two triangles, put together, one facing upward and the other downward. Thus this mandala can be seen as the play itself, with the three corners of one triangle depicting the three main characters of the play – the Naga, Rani, and Appanna, and the three corners of the other triangle depicting the three endings of the play, with Rani / the Indian woman forming the Centre. Different endings will show an Indian woman in different light.

The basic structure of the mandala will remain the same, in whichever way the corners of the mandala is shifted according to the ending. This is the syntagmatic structure of the play. The three different endings can be regarded as the paradigms of the play. In whichever direction the mandala structure or the three corners of the ending triangle are shifted, the Indian woman will still be at the centre. Different endings will give different interpretations about the condition of a woman in an Indian society. The first ending is the typical, conventional fairy-tale ending, wherein Rani’s chastity is accepted by her husband and she gets personified as the Goddess. In the second ending, the naga kills itself, as he cannot see Rani with someone else. The ending also depicts the loyalty of the Indian Wife. In both these endings, parallels can be drawn with the Indian myths of Sita’s Agni Pariksha and the concept of ‘Pati-vratya.’ However, according to the third ending, Rani saves cobra by hiding it in her hair, “the symbol of her wedded bliss.”5The third unconventional ending gave rise to many controversies as it runs in opposition to the socio-religious Indian belief system. Thus Satyadev Dubey considers Karnad to be “the only playwright in the history of Indian theatre to have treated adultery as normal and treated adulterous women sympathetically.”6

Mandala has the potential to create awareness among an individual about his/her own self, the society, and ultimately, about the purpose of his/her own life. It helps in attaining personal growth and creating wholeness. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung saw the mandala as "a representation of the unconscious self.7 The metamorphosis of Rani’s character, from a daughter, a wife, a mother, a goddess to a certain extent, is due to her own unconscious self. The Naga and Appanna are two forms of the same man, perceived differently by the wife. As Karnad himself suggests,

“The position of Rani in the story of Naga-Mandala, for instance, can be seen as a metaphor for the situation of a young girl in the bosom of a joint family where she sees her husband only in two unconnected roles – as a stranger during the day and as a lover at night. Inevitably, the pattern of relationships she is forced to weave from these disjointed encounters must be something of a fiction.”8

Thus, the naga-mandala signifies this fictional world of Rani, created unconsciously, to make sense of her life, gain awareness about her own self, and construct her identity. This again depicts the condition of an Indian woman.

To conclude, mandala represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself--a cosmic diagram that can be understood through one’s relation with the world that extends both beyond and within one’s body and mind. Thus, the structure of the play, as well as the society and the metamorphosis of the character of Rani are intricately weaved together through the mandala in ‘Naga-Mandala.’


Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th ed. Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Delhi. 2005.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. Routledge. 2007.

Collellmir, Dolors. Mythical Structure in Girish Karnad’s Naga-Mandala.

F.J. and Woodword, Karen. For a Semiotics of the Theatre. SubStance, Vol. 6, No. 18/19. Theater in France: Ten Years of Research (Dec. 1, 1977). University of Wisconsin Press. P.135-138.

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Karnad, Girish. Collected Plays. Volume One. Oxford University Press. Delhi. 2005.

Prasad, Tarni. A Course in Linguistics. Prentice Hall of India Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. 2008.

Rukhaya MK. Feminism in Girish Karnad’s “Nagamandala.” September, 2008.


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