Jnanpith award-winning actor and playwright Girish Raghunath Karnad passed away Monday at the age of 81. As a multi-talented personality, he is best remembered for his contribution to Indian playwriting, especially in the 1960s which saw a new form of political theatre emerge in India. For four decades, Karnad composed plays, often using history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues. And on his passing, many theatre personalities remembered him fondly.
Paying their last respects to the thespian, theatre artistes remembered him as a “revolutionary thinker” and an “honest voice” who brought socio-political issues through his “contemporary writings”.
“I am extremely saddened to hear about his passing away. He was the complete pillar of Indian theatre. As an excellent playwright, he was always in the forefront of literary discussions,” said eminent theatre director Feisal Alkazi.
Arvind Gaur, founder, Asmita Theatre Group, who started his journey in theatre with Karnad’s classic play Tughlaq told indianexpress.com, “It is a personal loss for me as I was really inspired by his socio-political issues which he incorporated in his playwriting.”
Gaur said that as the “last pillar of the 1960s playwrights”, who gave a new lease of life to theatre including Dharamvir Bharati, “it is the end of an era”. Especially when “honest voices” who speak their minds are reducing, he said it was “a tragic loss”.
Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra director Shobha Deepak Singh fondly remembers her association with Karnad back in the late 1980s when he was the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. “I remember him first as a person with no pomp, no show. It is a huge loss for performing arts,” she said.
Playwright at Films and Theatre Society of India, Atul Satya Koushik called his contribution to theatre “unparalleled”. “I first met him personally in 2008-09 at a performance in Mandi House where he encouraged me to always write with a lot of heart and hardwork and stressed on original thinking. His demise is a huge loss to many worlds of arts,” he said.
Karnad wrote his first play, the critically acclaimed Yayati in 1961, while still studying philosophy, politics, and economics as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford from 1960–63. Centred on the story of a mythological king, the play established Karnad’s use of the themes of history and mythology that would influence his work over the following decades. Karnad’s next play, Tughlaq, written in 1964, about the 14th-century sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, established him alongside greats like Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh and Badal Sircar.
He also translated his plays into English, which received wide acclaim. His plays have been translated into some Indian languages and directed by directors like Ebrahim Alkazi, B V Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Prasanna, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta, Shyamanand Jalan, Amal Allana among others.
Karnad’s other popular work as a playwright includes Hayavadana in 1971, which was widely recognised as among the most important plays of post-Independence India. For his contributions to theatre, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1974, the Padma Bhushan in 1992 and India’s highest literary prize – the Jnanpith Award – in 1999.