Girish Karnad wrote his first play on a ship to England. He was 22, travelling to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and leaving behind a family acutely anxious about the departure of their son to foreign lands. In that “intense emotional turmoil”, he found himself writing in Kannada, the language of his childhood.
He found himself writing about the legends that he had soaked up as a child in Sirsi, a small town in Karnataka that was the heart of yakshagana country. His ambition, till then, was to become an English poet in the mould of TS Eliot, but Yayati (1960), about a king who cannibalised his son’s youth, “nailed him to his past.”
For one of India’s greatest modern playwrights, modernity was not a repudiation of the past but a conversation with it. Through parables mined from history, ancient myth and folklore, he found a way to articulate the anxieties of the here and now, and the muddled-ness of being an Indian. It was a project he carried into his last play Rakhsasa Tangadi, about the hubris of an old king and the destruction of the Vijayanagara empire, which he wrote last year. “He was an international figure, but he never lost his connection with Indian life,” says Kannada writer-playwright Vivek Shanbag.
His death on Monday at 81 — he passed away in his sleep at his home in Bengaluru — brings to a close a glorious chapter in modernist Indian theatre which he helped shape through his work, from the early 1960s onward. Together with Badal Sircar in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi — and several other artistes in post-Independence India — Karnad asked the question: what is it to be Indian? The answer, articulated robustly in various Indian languages, affirmed a belief in equality, secularism and constitutional morality.
A cosmopolitan erudite liberal rooted in a thriving tradition of Kannada modernism, Karnad was a true Renaissance man, ranging from theatre to cinema and television. (Two of his most-loved roles were in Turning Point, a Doordarshan show on science education, and in Malgudi Days.) To him goes the distinction also of co-writing a film (Aa Dinagalu) with a reformed underground gangster Agni Sreedhar.
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Karnad grew up in a Saraswat Brahman home in Dharwad, an important centre of scholarship and classical music. The city was also home to Manohar Granthamala, the publishing house which bet on him when he was an unknown writer in his 20s. It was where he met the two men who shaped his imagination, poet AK Ramanujan and critic Keertinath Kurtakoti. Till the end, he called himself “a Dharwad man”.
As an actor, he was part of the influential parallel cinema movement with stellar roles in Shyam Benegal’s Nishaant and Manthan. To Kannada cinema, he brought a fresh perspective through award-winning films such as Vamsa Vriksha. He
debuted as a film actor with Samskara, based on a novel by fellow Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy, for which he wrote the screenplay.
For those who pilloried him as an “anti-national” and part of a creaking, corrupt ancien regime in his last years, it is important to remember that Karnad’s pathbreaking Tughlaq (1964) — written at the astonishing age of 26 — captured the disenchantment with Nehruvian ideals that had set in after Independence. It became a metaphor for authoritarianism during the Emergency and the Indira Gandhi years and remains a powerful depiction of the impulse to overweening, unchecked power in Indian democracy.
After the declaration of the Emergency, Karnad resigned from his post as the head of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in protest against impossible demands from the government.
On Monday, in accordance with his wishes, his last rites were held at the Kalpally crematorium in a low-key ceremony attended by a few friends and well-wishers. Karnad had asked his family to refuse any offer of state honours, or official pomp. “It was a metaphor for the fiercely private person he was,” said Shanbag.
For a generation of artists that came after him, Karnad’s plays offer a way of thinking about Indian society, its caste hierarchies, and its disillusionments with politics, all at once. Some of his most popular and influential plays include Hayavadana (1972), Nagamandala (1988) and Agni Matte Male (1995), which staged the clash between desire and tradition, hierarchy and freedom.
In 1990, at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Karnad wrote Tale Danda, a play inspired by the 12th century anti-caste revolution led by poet-statesman Basavanna and his followers, the sharanas, in Basavakalyan.
Till the end, through six decades of public life, Karnad continued to pitch himself — his frail body, his breathless self — into the battles of the present. From trying to douse the communal conflagration over the Babu Budangiri shrine in Chikmagalur to standing up against state excesses against Kabir Kala Manch, from speaking out without fear against majoritarianism and hate, Karnad’s voice rang loud and clear. “People listen to me,” he said matter-of-factly, when this writer met him last year at his home. That outspokenness incurred costs.
If the abiding image from the last few years has been of a frail Karnad, a breathing device stuck to his nose, turning up to protest the murders of first MM Kalburgi, and then Gauri Lankesh, both alleged targets of militant Hindutva groups, it must also be remembered that the playwright’s name was on top of that hit-list. That did not deter him, of course.
Last year, Karnad turned up at a memorial function for Lankesh, wearing the placard #MeTooUrbanNaxal — as a protest against the arrest of human rights activists and lawyers Sudha Bhardwaj, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Sudhir Dhawale, and others.
“The terror is not in what police are saying. The terror is in the words. (The fantastic allegations) show that the police don’t care, they don’t have to be rational. What they are implicitly saying is that we can say what we like, which means we can do what we like,” he said that day to a packed audience, ending his short speech with, “I won’t say more, I have run out of breath.”
But the power of his ideas and his plays never will.
Karnad is survived by his wife Saraswathi Ganapathy and children Raghu Amay and Radha Shalmali.