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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A semiotic study of Girish Karnad's "Nagamandala

By Anjali Nambiar
What is Nagamandala?
Nagamandala is an elaborate and spectacular ritual of serpent worship at present found in Tulunadu, especially in Mangalore and Udupi districts. Nagamandala is also called hudiseve, mandlabhoga or mandlaseve by the Baidyas. But nagamandala is a term generally used by all to denote this form of worship.

The term nagamandala is a compound of two words: naga and mandala. Naga means serpent and mandala implies decorative pictorial drawings on the floor. The decorative drawing in this context means the drawing of the figure of serpent god in a prescribed form. Nagamandala depicts the divine union of male and female snakes.
Noted play writer Girish Karnad wrote a play titled Nagamandala in 1987-88. Like the ritual this also revolves around the union of a snake. However, here the union was not with another snake. Instead it was the union of a snake in the form of a human with another human. The play is based on two folk-tales that Karnad heard from his mentor A.K Ramanujan. The above paper will take a direction towards the idea of snake in the play and its various connected concepts to the Indian culture.

Nagamandala by Girish Karnad-
The play Nagamandala revolves around the character Rani. Rani is a young bride who is neglected by her indifferent and unfaithful husband, Appanna. Appanna spends most of his time with his concubine and comes home only for lunch. Rani is one of those typical wives who want to win her husband’s affection at any cost. In an attempt to do so, she decides to drug her husband with a love root, which she mixes in the curry. That curry is spilled on the nearby anthill and Naga, the King Cobra drinks it.

Naga, who can take the form of a human being, is enchanted with her and begins to visit her every night in the form of her husband. This changes Rani’s life completely as she starts to experience the good things in life though she never knows that the person with her is not her husband but the Naga.
One of these days, she gets pregnant and breaks the news to Appanna. He immediately accuses her for adultery and says that he has not fathered the child. The issue is referred to the village Panchayat. She is then asked to prove her fidelity by putting her hand in the snake burrow and taking a vow that she has not committed adultery. It is a popular belief that if any person lies holding the snake in their hand, they will be instantly killed by the snake God.

She does place her hand in the snake burrow and vows that she has never touched any male other than her husband and the Naga in the burrow. She is declared chaste by the village Panchayat. Later, Appanna accepts Rani and starts a new life together. Karnad gives a binary ending i.e. one were the snake is been killed by the villagers and another ending is of Rani after realizing everything helps the snake to live in her hair thereafter. This sort of a happy and a sad ending to the play is been given by Karnad which is been kept open for the readers to select and interpret.

Semiotic analysis-
One of the most important theories on which this research can get connected to is semiotics. This is concerned about signs. In general, it refers to everything that stands for something else. Here, signs can mean words, gestures, images and so on.
While speaking of semiotics, theories of two people, Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Pierce become significantly important. Saussure held that semiotics was a science that studied the role of signs as part of social life. Saussure claimed that linguistics was a branch of this science.On the other hand for Charles Pierce, semiotics was a formal doctrine of signs which was closely related to logic. He was of the opinion that people think in terms of signs. Unless someone believes that one particular sign stands for something else that they have known, that sign has no value.

The Saussurean model:
Saussure offered two-part model of the sign (figure 1.1). Focusing on linguistic signs (such as words), he defined a sign as being composed of a ‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’. Contemporary commentators tend to describe the signifier as the form that the sign takes and the signified as the concept to which it refers. Saussure makes the distinction in these terms:
A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept (signified) and the sound pattern (signifier). The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. This sound pattern may be called a ‘material’ element only in that it is the representation of our sensory impressions. The second pattern may thus be distinguished from the other element associated with it in a linguistic sign. This other element is generally of a more abstract kind: the concept.
(Saussure 1983, 66)

For Saussure, both the signifier and the signified were purely ‘psychological’. Both were form rather than substance. Figure 1.2 may help to clarify this aspect of Saussure’s own model.

The Peircean model:
At around the same time as Saussure was formulating his model of the sign and of ‘semiology’, the philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his own model of the sign, of ‘semiotic’ and of the taxonomies of signs. In contrast to Saussure’s model of the sign in the form of a ‘self-contained’ dyad’, Peirce offered a triadic (three-part) model:
1. The representation: the form which the sign takes (not necessarily material).
2. An interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign.
3. An object: to which the sign refers.

A sign (in the form of representamen) is something which stands to something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, it creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen.
(Peirce 1931-58, 2.228)

The interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as ‘semiosis’.

Structural analysis-
Structural analysis is an important part of semiotics. It refers to the existing structural relations in a given semiotic system. Structural analysis is concerned identifying the constituent units in a system and the structural relations between them. These relations can be correlational, oppositional or logical.
An important part of structural analysis would be the understanding of the horizontal and vertical axes that exist in any system. Saussure pointed out that meaning would arise based on the difference in the signifiers, which can either be syntagmatic or paradigmatic in nature.

While syntagmatic relations are possibilities of combination, paradigmatic relations are functional contrasts- they involve differentiation . Temporally, syntagmatic relations refer intratextually to other signifiers co-present within the text, while paradigmatic relations refer intertextually to signifiers which are absent from the text. The ‘value’ of a sign is determined by both its paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations. Syntagms and paradigms provide a structural context within which signs make sense.

Cultural code of naga in Nagamandala:
Cultural code works on the principle of shared world view. It exploits information that persists it one culture and uses it to the best of its ability. By using appropriate cultural codes a lot of decoding is made easier for the readers.
It throws light on the beliefs and superstitions that exist in that particular culture. For example, in that culture the snake is regarded as a sacred species. It is also feared by many and there is a saying that if one talks of the snake, the snake tends to appear immediately. The Snake primarily represents rebirth, death and mortality, due to its casting of its skin and being symbolically "reborn".
The best use of cultural code would be the snake ordeal that Rani performs in order to prove herself not guilty. Traditionally in that culture it is believed that to prove oneself not guilty one would either have to hold red hot bars of iron in the hand and plead innocence or perform the snake ordeal. Here Rani takes ordeal where she has to put her hand into the termite hill and pull out the snake. After which she has to prove her statement by promising in the snake’s name. It is a belief in that society that if that person has said the truth then the snake would bless that person, if not, it would bite the person which eventually led to the death of the person.

In Rani’s case the snake blesses her. Immediately the society divinizes her for her supreme powers and capacity and expresses guilt in putting her through the ordeal.

The play has made use of the snake effectively to bring out many massages. Unless and until the snake was personified, given a human form, the play would not have been able to get the message across. The snake here through its games and acts has given the rigid hero a new way of life. It has thrown light on the new relationship pattern and the importance of a wife and her love in a man’s life. It is through the snake which is worshiped for fertility that Rani conceived and it is this point on her life that brought a complete change. Snake led to effected lives of many and redefined many relations especially of Rani and Appana. To conclude, people especially the devotees, strongly believes that the ultimate results of nagamandala is nagamangala i.e. prosperity of the village, prosperity of the town and bless for all living beings.

1. Chandler Daniel ,Semiotics The Basics, Routledge, New york, 2003
2. Karanth Meenakshi, Nagamandala: the Entwininng and Untwining of Relations , 2007.
3. Karnad Girish, Naga-mandala : Play With A Cobra, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997.


sangeeta said...

Kindly explain the signifier and signified in the text. the article is incomplete, disjuncted.

Anil Pinto said...

Dear Sangeetha,
I have sent a request to the author to rewrite. If she does will make necessary changes. Thanks for the suggestion.

Sosha said...

Thank you, this was helpful.

Anil Pinto said...

We are glad it was useful. Thank you for taking a moment to mention it.

Syl said...

How does all the semiotic and structural theory relate to the text? That is where the link is mising.

Anil Pinto said...

Dear Syl, I agree with you about the missing link. I am not too sure if the author of the post will revisit the post. Hence, looking for someone who can do that bit. Would you like to add. Thank you for the comment.