Playwright. Actor. Screenwriter. Producer. Activist. Girish Karnad wore multiple hats in his inspiring life. Friends and people who have had the opportunity to interact with Karnad closely called him a simple man. So much so that his last wish was to have a low-key funeral sans floral procession and attendance of VIPs.
“People would have given Girish Karnad a grand send-off like UR Ananthamurthy and Ambareesh. But he made sure to tell his family to avoid all that. His family did not even allow people to see his mortal remains at his residence today morning as they wanted to prevent a gathering of any sort. This was Girish Karnad,” Agni Shridhar, writer and journalist, said.
Shridhar had the opportunity to closely work with Girish Karnad during the scripting of Aa Dinagalu (2007), a gangster drama that centered on Bengaluru’s underworld in the 1980s. “After I finished writing the script, I gave it to Girish Karnad for his comments. He told me that the script needed no correction,” he recalled.
Karnad had also played a key role in the film, which had actor Chethan Kumar in the lead role.
“He was a bridge between western and Indian culture. He portrayed it through his plays. He was a Rhode scholar. He stood for his ideologies. He stood against divisive and hate forces. He supported decriminalization of section 377. He fought until his last moment. I will remember him for that,” Chethan said.
Girish Karnad demonstrated his ability to scale great heights in the world of literature from a very young age. Poet and playwright Chandrashekar Patil, popularly known as Champa, was a junior to Karnad at Karnatak Arts College, Dharwad. “Right from his school days, he was known to be a very talented student. As a writer, he brought international fame with his work in Kannada literature,” he noted.
Karnad never endorsed or criticized political leaders in public. He expressed his political and social opinions through his work, while refraining from public demonstrations. “He never used to take part in protests. But, always lend his support morally and ideologically to progressive movements,” Champa said.
In 2017, however, it changed. Girish Karnad participated in the ‘Not in my name’ protest that was held at the Town Hall in Bengaluru in the light of series of mob lynching against innocent Muslims in north India. “I remember that occasion. It was around the time of the brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh. He came out openly and called himself ‘an urban Naxal’,” Champa added.
“As a playwright, he has a significant place in Kannada literature. His plays like Tughlaq, Taledanda and Hayavadana were translated in many languages of the world. He was a man of integrity. He would never sit on a fence on any issue. He was against communalism, fundamentalism and superstition. He believed that writers should have a very keen sense of political consciousness and should have some kind of social commitment. He lived up to that image,” said Champa, who describes himself as a distant friend of Girish Karnad.
Girish Karnad’s primary love was literature. His interest in acting played second fiddle to his devotion to literature. People who have known him point out that he never desired to pursue a lucrative career as a screen actor. He had the looks, charismatic voice, fluency in multiple languages and everything else that is required to make it big in cash-rich Bollywood.
“When Vinod Khanna left acting, film pundits predicted that Girish Karnad would replace him in the Hindi film industry. But he never desired money and stardom. If he wanted, he could have made a lot of wealth. He lived a very simple life,” Agni Shridhar said. “He was very choosy about doing films.”
The endearing element of Girish Karnad’s plays was his use of modern-day Kannada, which distinguished him from his peers such as Lankesh, Devanur Mahadeva and Ananthamurthy. “He saw language as just a tool to express himself,” Agni Shridhar noted.
“When you read a play, you should forget about the writer and get involved in it fully. And you should identify yourself in it. That is the measure of a great writer,” he said while describing the work of Girish Karnad.