Hayavadana (The man with face of a horse) is offspring of a princess and a white horse and he craves for completion, which is in his view, being a man. But Hayavadana and his quest for an identity is not the main story of Girish Karnad's epic play by the same name. It is just a backdrop or a subplot to tell a more bizarre story of three persons, a woman and two men, who is entangled in a web of desire, passion and identity crisis. Hayavadana is a story derived from Kathasarithsagara, retold by Thomas Mann and readapted for stage by Girish Karnad. So the story is a fusion of Eastern philosophy and Western sensibility. Thomas Mann goes beyond the riddle posed in Kathasarithsagara and gives it a practical answer. When it comes through Karnad, the story reaches a full circle, becoming a moral story or parable for Indian minds were a dispute of Eastern and Western identity is battled continuously.
Suthradhara or Bhaagavata is about to tell the story of two friends who are in no way identical, when a man with a horse face, Hayavadana, asks him for help. He is tired of his dual identity and want to become a complete man. Bhaagavata advises him to go to Goddess Kaali and ask help. When Hayavadana goes off to a distant Kaali temple, the story starts. Devadatta and Kapila are very close friends, former a handsome but physically weak, Brahmin poet and latter a dark, but solidly built Kshatriya athlete. Devadatta falls in love with Padmini and Kapila goes to ask her hand for his friend. After meeting Padmini, Kapila is convinced that he is a better match for her than Devadatta, and falls in love, but the love for his friend takes upper hand.
The marriage happens, but later Padmini becomes more attracted to well built Kapila, which burns Devadutta's jealous heart. While on a journey Padmini, humiliates Devadutta for his physical weakness, in-front of Kapila, and a grief stricken Devadutta chops off his own head going to a nearby Kaali temple. Kapila feels he is responsible and he too follows suit. Padmini when sees this cannot stop her grief and she too decides to commit suicide. Kaali appears and offers to give life back to the friends. She tells her to keep their respective heads on their bodies and gives life to them.
Now due to confusion (or may be wantedly) , Padmini goofs up and exchanges the heads. When they are alive a fight starts between friends for Padmini. Both claim to be Devadatta. Finally a saint declares that head is the master of the body and allows the athletic body with Devadatta's head to take her. A dejected Kapila decides to spent the rest of his life in jungle. Kathasarithsagara stops here. But in the play, the story moves on. Within some time, to the horror of Padmini, again the bodies attains their former respective selves due to the lifestyle and marriage is in shambles. She dreams of Kapila and one day goes to meet him in jungle and claims her right to his now athletic body. A fight ensues and both friends kills each other. They are not even sure they killed each other or was it a suicide, because while striking other, they are killing their own body. Padmini makes a pyre for both and does Sati in it.
Whle Bhaagavatha concludes the play, Hayavadana comes again. Kaali gave much desired perfection to his body, but instead of making him a proper human, he is turned to a full horse! Bhaagavatha advises him to enjoy the completeness and don't fret, which Hayavadana obeys and gets off the stage with a loud neigh.
Man tries to attain perfection, but never reaches it. It is the basis of all troubles. The play shows the importance of living the life, perfectly aware of ones defects and making the most of what one have to lead a happy life. In the starting there is a prayer to Lord Ganesha, and here Karnad question the answer given in Kathasarithsagara, that head is the master. Ganesha who is told to be the master of all knowledge, is having the head of an elephant. So, the answer given in the fable is incomplete and this play is an attempt to complete it. In this period of multiple identities, the play gives a strong message to confused souls.