4, Girish Karnad: Cows and Tigers


Before making Ondanondu Kaladalli and Utsav, and just a year after Manthan (1976), which he both wrote and starred in, Girish Karnad joined forces once more with B. V. Karanth (with whom he had made Vramsha Vriksha in 1971), to film another (and earlier) novel by S. L.. Bhyrappa, Tabbiliyu Neenade Magane. As a kind of acknowledgment of the two different films worlds in which Karad now operated, the film was made in both Kannada and Hindi versions with different casts. The Hindi version was rather quaintly retitled Godhuli (“cow-dust” or twilight). Although this was very much a return to Karnataka for Karnad (the film was shot just outside Bangalore), he retains his associates both from his time at the FTII and from his work with Shyam Benegal. The film is in colour and cinematography, in a more intimate style than that of Karnad’s other films, was by Apurba Kishore Bir, another FTII alumnus, who had won acclaim for his work on 27 Down, A. K. Kaul’s superb 1973 Hindi film. Benegal regulars, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Om Puri, all appear in the Hindi version and, since the designated Kannada actor was unavailable, Nasir appears in both versions.

In Manthan, a modern-thinking doctor (played by Karnad himself) convinces a dairy-farming community of the importance of change; in Tabbiliyu Neenade Magane, a modern-thinking agriculturist, newly returned from the USA, Kalinga (played by Manu in the Kannada version), fails miserably to convince a dairy-farming community of the importance of change. Both are concerned with cows and milk and, if the optimism of the former is understandable so too is the pessimism of the latter. Cows and milk, as we shall see, are a complicated battleground for tradition and modernity.

Karnad had reserves about the novel (or about his reputation) even at the time. He told the press that he did not think it was one of S. L. Bhyrappa’s best works and described it as “confrontation between East and West” where, in the end, “it is proved in no uncertain terms that the West is wrong and that the sacred values of India will eternally be upheld.” He implies that his film version, by contrast, tells a purely personal story. “The American girl in the film is merely an individual with an alien cultural background. She is not representative of the West nor, for that matter, is the village representative of Indian culture per se.”

No doubt Karnad’s film does shift the emphasis of the story somewhat, but “within the given narrative”, as the article in question points out, “the difference can merely be one of emphasis” and Karnad’s caricature of the novel is unjust and inaccurate. The story of Tabbiliyu Neenade Magane does not represent a confrontation between East and West but rather, like Vramshavriksha, a confrontation between “tradition” and “modernity” and, as in that novel, this is not a subject that Bhyrappa approaches with any certainty or much optimism. I see no sign anywhere in the story that he is concerned with upholding “the sacred values of India” but rather that he is concerned, perfectly legitimately, by the inevitable challenge to traditional values – sacred or otherwise – represented by an ever-encroaching modernity.

The “American girl” (she is, I think, supposed to be an English girl Kalinga has met in the US) is in no sense a ‘representative of the West” nor is she primarily responsible for the confrontation that occurs. In some ways, although her behaviour is often gauche and foolish, she is simply the victim of the clash between her husband Kalinga, the agriculturalist, and the rather narrow–minded Brahmin priest, Venkataramana (played by Naseeruddin Shah in both versions). The dispute in the film is not triggered by Kalinga’s wife slaughtering of a cow so that she can eat beef; that is done in a fit of pique after the priest has cursed her unborn child. It is triggered in the first place by Kalinga’s purely commercial decision to sell unserviceable cattle to the slaughterman which follows an equally insensitive earlier decision to divert water from the temple.

The film begins with a village theatre performance of the janapada Panyakoti Govina Haaadu, from which the film’s title (“Child, you have become an orphan”) is itself taken. The cow Panyakoti, accosted by a hungry tiger, pleads to be allowed to feed her calf one last time before being eaten, promising the tiger she will return. Having fed the calf and given it the bad news of its imminent bereavement, Panyakti rejects all suggestions that she should make good her escape and insists on keeping her promise and returning. The tiger is so impressed by the cow’s honesty that it refrains from eating her and ends by throwing itself off a cliff.

Like most such tales in all cultures, Panyakoti Govina Haaadu has, on the face of it, a very straightforward moral message. Be good, be dutiful, be honest. But like most such tales in all cultures, like all good art, it has a certain ambiguity. While Panyakoti the cow is ostensibly admirable, it is difficult to feel much empathy for those who act from duty and who, since they consider no other course of action, make no real moral decision. The tiger in the story, on the other hand, behaves in a way that is entirely “human”, spontaneously making a moral decision of some courage – it will cost him his life – against his own nature and interest.

This ambiguity has a considerable relevance to both novel and film. There is no idealization here of traditional village life. The mother is mute, the village headman is tubercular (a condition associated with drinking unpasteurized milk), Kalinga has nearly died as a child as his son will nearly do in the course of the film, the entire village is farouchely opposed to any kind of change. If, as in Vamsha Vriksha, the case for “tradition” is far from straightforward, the case for “modernity” is equally flawed. Kalinga is, to say the least, grossly insensitive in his behaviour and his English wife, not an especially attractive character, behaves with needless stupidity when she orders one of the precious punyakoti cows to be slaughtered so that she can eat beef.

Bhyappa’s strength lies in his appreciation that “tradition” and “modernity” are two impostors, that have no real existence except as ideas, by which we choose either to validate existing customs (often in practice when they are becoming impractical due to social change) or to validate and endorse a belief that all change is necessarily “progress” (often without profoundly considering the issues involved). Kalinga’s mother (beautifully played in both versions by Laksmi Krishnamurthy)  is a sympathetic character; both she and the priest who takes her side could reasonably be regarded both as “good” and “honest”, but the mother’s cow-obsession is excessive – the cow puja that precedes her death is moving but grotesque and Venkataramana’s attitude, as he comes to accept, is principled but rigid. In the end it is the common sense of the ordinary villagers, reacting, as humans will, inconsistently and spontaneously to situations that arise, that provides the only really hopeful (even joyous) moment of the film, when, despite the dispute, they allow Kalinga and his wife’s sickly baby to be suckled by a cow.

Commenting recently on the story, Bhyrappa himself cites the general question of vegetarianism as being the one that most concerned him. This he certainly does specifically relate to Indian traditions, citing the example of Jainism and an association between vegetarianism and a belief in reincarnation. Vegetarianism is, however, not in the least specific to India (even if this was rather more the case in 1968 than it is today).  Traditionally vegetarianism was spurned by Europeans because of its association with poverty while meat-eating was strongly associated with wealth and prosperity. Vegetarianism only began to become common in Europe during the nineteenth century but has increased slowly but steadily ever since.

Because there is no custom of vegetarianism in Europe or in the US (or many other parts of the world), vegetarianism and veganism there will always tend to be “principled” (based broadly speaking on a belief that life is sacrosanct). This is evidently also true of the vegan Jains, who do not consume dairy products. Hindi practice by contrast is very variable. A great many Hindus are not vegetarians at all, many of all castes are so more in theory than in practice while many of those who are vegetarian are so more from convenience or custom than from principle.

This is a perfectly comfortable compromise for those who practice it, but it is a compromise. The rather awkward truth that principled vegetarians have to face is that it is only in fact the Jains and the vegans who are logically consistent. Forget those vegetarians who eat chicken, fish or eggs. In the modern world, any milk-drinker is in practice complicit in the maintenance of the beef industry. As an article in the Hindu pointed out some years ago:

Beef and milk are two sides of the same coin, especially in India where cattle and buffaloes are farmed primarily for milk. There are no “beef” animals in India. Yet, bovine meat constitutes 62 per cent of India’s total meat production. Beef, in India, is sourced from the dairy industry, which is economically sustainable only because it is supported by the meat and meat by-products industries (such as leather).

(Dark and dairy: The sorry tale of the milch animals, The Hindu, 8 November 2014)

The reasons are very simple and very obvious. Only the female of the species (the cow) produces milk. In the “traditional” past, bullocks were almost equally valuable for draught and freight, but, in a “modern” world where this is no longer the case, they are either left to starve to death (a common practice in India but hardly sensible from any point of view) or sold for slaughter. This is why India, although it raises nothing like the quantity of cattle produced by the US, Argentina, Brazil or Uruguay, is one of the world’s largest exporters of beef-cattle, even if officially the meat is all described (quite impossibly) as “buffalo”.  To put it simply, for every so many gallons of milk drunk, someone somewhere has to eat a beefsteak.

The conclusion of the film Tabbiliyu Neenade Magane does in fact confront this problem of India’s “bovine burden”. When, at the end of the film, Kalinga attempts to make amends for his insensitive behaviour by retrieving the cattle he has sold, he is quite unable in the gathering cow-dust to identify his own cattle among the slaughterman’s anonymous herd. The conclusion of the article quoted above is even more categoric. “Drinking milk causes as much suffering as eating meat, if not more. Indeed, milk involves more cruelty than meat does.” So if cows (or those who raise them) were really entirely honest, there would be no reason for tigers to go hungry.

If Karnad had reserves about the Bhyrappa novel in 1977, he nevertheless strongly defended both the “honesty” with which the book was written and accepted that,  in so far as the human situation was concerned, the treatment was “superb”. He was more unreserved on the subject at a later stage of his career. “Now, I repent for doing injustice to myself and Bhyrappa as well, as our basic principles have been entirely different. I now feel that I supported anti-cow slaughter bill (by making the movies). I did not know that the BJP will come to power and implement a law that takes away the right to food of a certain community,” This of course was in a rather different political context and when Karnad had come to be regarded as another kind of Indian monstre sacré, a “public intellectual” and those developments I shall discuss in more detail in the next article in the series.