As I entered the apartment block in Bengaluru in 2018, I realised the Karnataka state government has assigned a special gunman 24/7 for Girish Karnad’s protection. And so, I had to explain to the security force stationed at the gate as to who am I and what was my relationship with India’s most popular living playwright. The dialogue could have been from Crossing to Talikota, Karnad’s newest play set against the backdrop of the Battle of Talikota in the once-famous Vijayanagar empire.
Soldier: Where are you going? Can you understand me?
Civilian: Let me explain. Yes, I can speak your tongue. A little.
S: Where are you going? At this time?
C: To meet …
S: Where do you live? Where have you come from?
C: Here. There’s no other place.
S: Where’s your family?
Not much has changed on this planet since Hampi 1565.
For me, Karnad was always one of the Big Four. Writing contemporaneously with Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar and Vijay Tendulkar, Karnad brought his unique sensibility to theatre. He delighted audiences by overturning conventions, and with a freewheeling use of mythology.
I recall a theatre masterclass in Pune (his favourite theatre city) where he talked to theatrewallahs about the structure of a play. He deployed the Yayati myth in the Mahabharata to explain three things: the distinction between dialogue and conversation; the ability of Character One to “persuade” Character Two on stage and how good playwriting is about persuasion; and finally philosophy. “A great playwright is a semi-decent philosopher.”
The talk was in English, but he digressed, here and there into Marathi and Kannada and Konkani. It was a penny drop moment for me because I realised he was doing a simultaneous translation from one language to the other, from the podium. It helped me understand his role in translation of plays. Karnad has translated all his plays (with the exception of Yayati) into English.
During the golden period of Indian theatre, the Big Four valued each other’s work. And so, Karnad translated Sircar’s Evam Inderjit to English; while Tendulkar translated Karnad’s Tughlaq and Sircar’s Evam Inderjit to Marathi. Besides this, there were theatre directors like Satyadev Dubey (Hindi), Shombhu Mitra (Bengali) and Arvind Deshpande (Marathi), who mounted productions of these plays.
What it meant was a pool of 25-30 splendid playscripts were ready to be performed by theatre groups in different corners of India.
In our country, with its 108 official languages, theatre, above all, is language.
On November 19, 2017, when he was invited at the Tata Literature Live! Festival at the NCPA in Mumbai, he spoke about languages: “Playing on Twenty Tongues”. He spoke about his mother tongue (Konkani), the language he studied (Marathi), the one he fell in love with (English) and his language as a playwright (Kannada).
He uttered some truths about VS Naipaul and there was a furore. Some accused him of being PR hungry. What most of his critics do not know is how he criss-crossed across the country to defend the rights of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) artistes, who were charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) of the Indian Penal Code. When Karnad spoke up at a press conference in Mumbai, the KKM defence committee was grateful, since almost every single theatrewallah in Mumbai or Pune had declined to attend the press conference.
The committee offered Karnad a cheque to cover his travel and other expenses. He tore the cheque. And then very nonchalantly said, “I am very hungry. Can I get a vada pav?”
This was the era before May 16, 2014. Our nation was supposed to be a better place, back then. Every time we met since, Karnad would always enquire about the arrests across Maharashtra, about the future of groups like KKM in Pune and Deshbhakti Yuva Manch in Nagpur. What are Sambhaji Bhagat and Sheetal Sathe doing, he once asked? I informed him that everyone is erring on the side of caution. He wanted to know why. Fear, I told him. That’s silly, he said. “I agree, but we need someone in our corner of the boxing ring to drum up support and cheer us.” His reply, “I can be there.”
Then he tinkered with his oxygen pack (“my third lung,” he joked) and organised lunch. It was a meal for a maharaja. He regaled me with stories about mathematics in Dharwad, the early days at Oxford University Press, FTII, Bollywood superstars, Kannada indie films, and Raghu Karnad’s book The Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. I mumbled I’ve written a play about World War, set in Mumbai.
He paused, and said, “Send it to me.”
I told him I would but my inner voice was saying, “You idiot! You are not sending anything to him. This is Girish Karnad! He is India’s biggest playwright. Plus your wife has a massive crush on him.”
Rest in peace, sir. Till we meet again.
Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright with plays such as 3, Sakina Manzil and Cotton 56, Polyester 84 to his credit