Two sentries patrol the ramparts of the fort of the new capital, Daulatabad. It’s Scene Eight of Tughlaq, and the dreams of a visionary king have already been dragged through dust.
Girish Karnad recalls a moment in the production of his play in 1986, two years after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in her home by her guards. The younger one, convinced of the invincibility of the fort, says: “No army could take this.”
The older, wiser one, says: “Invariably, forts crumble from the inside.” “The moment the line was spoken, the whole audience drew its breath and gasped: hah!” says Karnad, his palm dramatically shutting his mouth, his eyes wide to mime the surprise of the audience. “It was a play about a 14th century sultan. But they immediately related it to Indira and what had happened to her,” he says.
Karnad wrote Tughlaq (1964) when he was 26 years old, creating a metaphor for authoritarianism that becomes relevant with each new bend in modern Indian history. When it was first published, the play’s depiction of Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s idealism, his efforts at creating a more secular state, his far-sighted ideas about the economy and his eventual disintegration into a mad tyrant seemed to provide a striking parallel to the disenchantment with Nehruvian ideals that had swiftly set in after Independence. During the Emergency, Tughlaq’s ruthlessness became a way to understand the way democracy could be gamed by a popular leader. “History is interesting because it gives me the essence of today’s living,” says the playwright, who turned 80 this year.
Six years after he wrote his last play, Karnad returns to history in Rakhsasa Tangadi (written in Kannada, like all his plays), which was released last month in Dharwad. “There is an interesting contradiction in the concept of a historical play. It is about history, which means it has happened in the past. But it’s a play, which means it is happening in front of you…This is the marvellous thing about theatre. The audience continually relates it to their own lives,” says Karnad, when we meet at his apartment in Bengaluru. In an orange khadi kurta, he is striking in appearance, if a little wan. He plugs in his oxygen pack matter-of-factly, explaining that it his “third lung”, one he needs 24×7. His sentences are shorter, the task of talking wears him down, but his attention seldom wavers.
Rakhsasa Tangadi is about the life of Aliya Rama Raya (1485-1565), the last ruler of Vijayanagara, a man who ruled over the most powerful kingdom in south India but was never proclaimed the king because he was an Aruvuri, a member of a so-called lower caste. To Karnad, Rama Raya is a tragic figure, an 82-year-old man who plunged into the Battle of Talikota in 1565, confident that nothing could touch him. He lost the battle and his life. “The most contemporary resonance of the play is Rama Raya’s hubris,” says writer Vivek Shanbhag. Readers of the play have likened the league of four sultans against Rama Raya as the coming together of a “mahagathbandan”, says the playwright. “A certain megalomania had set in Rama Raya. Is that contemporary? You decide,” Karnad says. “But I am not interested in deliberately echoing the present. When I write, I don’t think of relevance. If I am relevant, if my consciousness is relevant, then the play will be too,” he says.
In the play, Karnad also goes into battle with the idea that a tide of Islamic aggression destroyed the “Hindu” Vijayanagara empire. In the 16th century, the Vijayanagara empire sprawled south of the Krishna river, while the Bahmani Sultanate north of the river had split up into several kingdoms: Bidar, Golconda, Bijapur, Ahmednagar. But Deccan was not a land divided by religious animosity, as Richard Eaton points out in A Social History of Deccan 1300-1761 (2005), a book which spurred Karnad on to write this play. “The Sultans were often at war with each other. But every time there was a fight, they would come to Rama Raya. He would side with one man one day, and another the next. He played them against each other. Adil Shah, the ruler of Bijapur, called Rama Raya father. All this has been swept aside by historians when they say this was a battle between Hindus and Muslims,” says Karnad.
Karnad isn’t looking history in the eye alone. After six decades of life as a playwright, cinema actor, television actor, filmmaker and often irascible public intellectual, he continues to pitch himself into the battles of the present. On September 5, at an event to mark the first anniversary of journalist Gauri Lankesh’s assassination and a couple of days after the arrests of lawyers and activists by Pune police, the actor-playwright turned up with a placard hung around his neck: #MeTooUrban Naxal. “[The fantastic allegations] shows that the police… are implicitly saying that we can say what we like, which means we can do what we like,” he said to a packed audience.
A year ago, he had turned up at Town Hall in Bengaluru to take part in a protest following Lankesh’s assassination. In 2015, Lankesh had been with him at the same spot — in a protest against the murder of scholar MM Kalburgi. As it now turns out, an invisible net had been tightening around these three public figures from Karnataka. Investigations by an SIT of the Karnataka police has uncovered a far-right, militant Hindutva conspiracy to kill Lankesh and Kalburgi — and a hitlist of targets. The first name on the list was Girish Karnad.
What is to be an Indian? How could one be an Indian artist? “After Independence, artists and writers of my generation felt an urgent need to define that. To be contemporary and Indian was not so easy,” recalls artist SG Vasudev, whose friendship with Karnad began in Madras of the 1960s, where the young playwright worked for the Oxford University Press. It was a question the two friends, both Kannada-speakers, discussed often — on long drives together to Bengaluru, or discussions over art and literature at Chola Mandala, where Vasudev was a student, or when poet AK Ramanujan visited Madras.
Karnad’s first few plays hinted at the path he would take — an engagement with Indian history, myth and folklore, but on his own terms. “Even though I wrote about myths, I found pouranic (mythical) plays boring because they treat Rama and Krishna as figures from the past. The whole point is to tell you that bhakti will save you,” he says. His first play Yayati (1960), written months before he boarded a ship to England to study at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, took a small story from the Mahabharata, about a greedy king who transferred the curse of old age on to his son. It explored what Karnad saw as the fundamental archetype of Indian psychology, its reverse Oedipal complex: the father who forces his son to sacrifice his desires. His second was Tughlaq — “I thought no one would touch it with a barge pole,” he says. The play turned him into a national icon.
Three other playwrights, working in different regions, were coming up with their own answers to that question — Badal Sircar in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi. “All four lived at a moment in the history of this nation that threw up fundamental issues of how life was to be lived in the new nation, how it was to be viewed in terms of its past, what aspirations would it make possible, if at all. Most importantly, they felt their generation was responsible for building the nation into one that was primarily just,” says writer and critic Shanta Gokhale. Together, says playwright Ramu Ramanathan, they shaped “this beast called modern Indian theatre.” “They were a crossbreed of people who were unapologetically modern but at the same time rooted in Indian sensibility. But essentially, they were critiquing the past,” says Ramanathan.
“We were all working independently. But we looked at each other and read each other’s plays. We knew we were doing something important,” says Karnad. “We were, as young men, proud of India. We were the only newly democratic country where illiterate people had the vote and where everyone — Hindu, Muslim or Christian — was an Indian,” says the playwright. He is disheartened by the religious hatred that seems to course through India in 2018. “It has been transformed into this utterly futile and dangerous game in this dream of becoming a Hindu rashtra. We already had Pakistan and this way we are creating another one. It is dangerous because Hindutvawadis never tell you how this Hindu rashtra will accommodate untouchables, tribals, women.”
Karnad was drawn to theatre as a child in Sirsi, Karnataka, an outpost in the back of beyond where his father, a doctor, had been stationed. His parents were deeply fond of the proscenium theatre staged in the glow of gas lamps by professional troupes, called companies. “As the medical officer, my father would get free passes to the plays,” says Karnad.
This wet, malarial place was also the heart of yakshagana. “In those days, yakhsagana was considered a low-caste form. My parents would never be seen at such a performance. I was sent to watch with the servants,” says Karnad. In Scattering Golden Feathers, a documentary on him made by filmmaker KM Chaitanya in 2016, Karnad recalls devouring the stories of the Puranas, epics and myths in Sirsi. But it was in Dharwad that he grew up, in an unconventional family of Saraswat Brahmans. His mother was a child widow, who was left with the responsibility of a child. Against all odds, she educated herself, and trained to be a nurse in Belgaum, where she met her second husband (Dr Raghunath Karnad) and lived in his home for about five years before they finally married.
Krishnabai Karnad remained a big influence on her third son’s life, allowing him to conceive of women’s desires in plays like Hayavadana (1971) and Nagamandala (1988). The house in Dharwad was also full of girls his age — two sisters and four cousins. “You know what a first cousin means in south India? She could be a sister or a wife. You are with her at a time when you have become sexually aware, and you know the ambiguity of the relationship. In most communities in north Karnataka, after the age of eight or nine, girls and boys hardly communicate. In our community, there is much more openness. We used to sit together and talk, about who we felt attracted to, or how Raj Kapoor was very handsome,” he recalls.
Karnad grew up determined to become a poet of the English language. To fulfil his dream of “conquering the West”, he applied and was awarded the Rhodes scholarship to study in Oxford. On the brink of leaving home, the young modernist found himself writing a play — in Kannada — and about a myth of Mahabharata. “I wanted to become a poet and I had become a playwright. But I decided that if that was my genuine response, I must follow that. I used to paint, I stopped,” he says.
Karnad was unimpressed by the theatrical traditions his generation had inherited, whether it was the Parsi theatre or folk forms. “From the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, the Company Nataks produced nothing of consequence. Like Hindi films, there was great entertainment and spectacle but very few great films. Only music that will live on forever,” says Karnad. The first great modern Indian play, according to him, was Bijon Bhattacharya’s Nabanna (1943), which was about the Bengal famine, followed by Dharamvir Bharati’s 1954 play Andha Yug, which reacted to the division of India. “From then on, you get Badal Sircar, Tendulkar, Rakesh, people who took the art seriously,” says Karnad. “They believed that their theatre had the power to change things,” says Ramanathan. Most importantly, he adds, they translated each other’s work — Karnad would translate Sircar’s Ebong Indrajit to English, Tendulkar translated Tughlaq in Marathi and so on. In the 1960s and 1970s, this crop of playwrights and dramatists would converge at Bombay’s many addas for theatre, from Walchand Terrace to Chhabildas School.
Gokhale remembers meeting Karnad for the first time in the ’60s. “Mothers of marriageable girls from his community were lining up to see if they could snag this tall, handsome, ‘Oxford-returned’, gifted young man for their darling girls. A dear friend of mine, a very fine actress, had a massive crush on him,” she says. Karnad disappointed all of them and waited for Saraswathi Ganapathy, a doctor he had fallen in love with in Madras, to return from America, Gokhale says.
Karnad’s first play, Yayati, was produced by Satyadev Dubey in 1967 — it would be staged by Kannada dramatists years later. But his first meeting with Dubey in 1963 didn’t go off well. “Dubey was as unpleasant as only he could be. He thought Girish wrote plays in English, and English theatre was at the time anathema to him. But when Girish assured him he wrote in Kannada, Dubey hugged him, metaphorically speaking,” says Gokhale.
For a generation of artists that came after him, Karnad’s well-crafted plays offer a way of thinking about Indian society, its caste hierarchies, and its disillusionments with politics, all at once. “If you look at his plays, they start from the surface and then travel inward. He does that not only to a character, but to the psychology of the nation. Even though he is setting the stories in the past, what he is examining is us — today,” says Chaitanya KM.
In 1990, 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. It was his response to the tumult of the Ram Janmabhoomi and the protests against the Mandal Commission recommendations. “Tale Danda ends in a massacre and a strong Brahminical backlash. But, for a moment, there is an imagination of freedom. It points out the possibilities that could exist, that do exist,” says playwright Sunil Shanbag.
But Karnad’s examination of the limits of idealism and its inevitable corruption also raises a question. Says Kannada playwright HS Shivaprakash, “The subtext of several of his plays — and I am not suggesting that this is conscious — suggests that any attempt to reform society is foredoomed…After an initial disruption, the orthodoxy reasserts itself.”
“Is it really possible for Gauri to be killed just for ideological reasons? For someone to kill for your thoughts?” Chaitanya KM, who has assisted Karnad on many projects, remembers him asking. The playwright had watched Lankesh, the daughter of P Lankesh, legendary writer-journalist and outspoken editor, grow up before his eyes. He had also nudged her towards a cause that transformed her from a journalist to an editor-activist. In 2002, a citizen’s committee, including Karnad, was heading to the Baba Budangiri shrine, nestled in the forests of Chikmagalur hills and revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, to douse the flames lit by the Sangh Parivar’s intention of turning it into the “Ayodhya of the south”. “We were all men, and we needed a woman on the committee. So I called her. When we came back, she took the lead, arguing and protesting. From then on, she was on her own.”
For decades now, Karnad has been an unequivocal voice against majoritarianism and excesses of the state. It is a voice that carries far — and as the backlash against his defence of “urban Naxals” show, including a police complaint against him — these days it has consequences. Ramanathan remembers that when activists of the Ambedkarite-Marxist cultural group, Kabir Kala Manch, were arrested in 2012 under the UAPA, few intellectuals in Maharashtra were ready to stand up and speak for them. “Karnad flew in from Guwahati. He was extremely well prepared and had studied the legal documents. He spoke lucidly about civil liberty and what was at stake,” says Ramanathan.
Karnad’s outspokenness has offended nearly everybody, from Tipu Sultan-haters to Kannada chauvinists and VS Naipaul acolytes. “He is so forthright that we have to think about protecting him. He clearly won’t,” says Chaitanya, who had considered putting the full footage of his 27-minute documentary, commissioned by Sahitya Akademi, online. But a mutual friend warned him: “The things he has said, someone might be offended.”
When the Emergency was declared in 1975, Karnad was six months short of completing his term as the head of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Soon, he travelled to Delhi to meet the Information and Broadcasting Minister, VC Shukla. “He said the West was attacking Indira Gandhi, and so we should make documentaries showing how corrupt it was, how it treated blacks, etc. I said you will make us the laughing stock of the world,” he recalls. “But as I sat there, I realised that — like today’s government to some extent — decisions were taken without any sense. If these people were running the country, I had to resign. And I did,” he says.
Karnad is dismissive about his name on a hitlist. He insists that he still needs to speak out. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. I would say that people like me who have been honoured by the state should use it for a purpose. This is the way I return my debt to the country,” he says.
Writing does not come easy to Karnad now, even if his mind is still as sharp. “One struggles for days, and, then, I suddenly write in a burst for five-six days,” he says. To friends and family, he remains the private person, deeply attached to his home; a stickler for punctuality who is known to have turned friends away if they were late — or early — for the appointment; a man of erudition who could hold grudges as well as be generous.
His plays have gone on to become landmarks, but he feels a certain distance now. “When I think of Tughlaq now, it is as if it is someone else’s play,” he says. But he recalls visiting Calcutta with Mohan Rakesh in 1968. “We were watching a Bengali musical, a song was going on, and it was all very melodramatic. He started laughing, and I started laughing. And then he turned to me and said, ‘Do you know why we are laughing? Because we know the future of modern Indian theatre is in our hands,” says Karnad.