November 5, 2002
I met B.V. Karanth only once. I was working as a TV reporter and needed a soundbite on the dramatic reception of Shakespeare in India. It was a summer afternoon in Delhi and he was rehearsing with the Sriram Centre Repertory at their basement studio.
He wondered whether my request for a brief interview was to be just another commercial product that used him in or for a film. He must have acquiesced to such requests a hundred times, no questions asked. But this time he asked me what he would gain from talking to me.
I am convinced that had I not chased him out of a rehearsal, the one thing he did not like, he would never have asked me that question. For the ability to give selflessly and devote his entire life tirelessly to his work was his defining trait. One of India’s greatest theatre personalities, and one of its finest musicians, B.V. Karanth died last month, largely unmourned.
Karanth came to NSD through the most circuitous of routes, and joined it at a time (in 1966, I think) when a young Ibrahim Alkazi was securing the future of his baby — the National School of Drama — with a spate of dazzling productions. He was born in a Karnataka village and had run away at a tender age with a Nautanki company, so much was he in love with theatre.
This reminds you of the protagonist in Maare Gaye Gulfaam, a Renu short story. Later, he joined a Yakshagana company. Yakshagana is a Karnataka theatre form that brought the chorus, music and acting together to create magic. At 18, he joined Benaras Hindu University and achieved degrees in Hindi and Sanskrit. He topped this up by training under Alkazi and was thus uniquely at home in two vastly different theatrical cultures.
His other unique quality lay in his utter otherworldliness, a trait Barry John, the well-known theatre personality, who had worked with him in 1977, testifies to. Karanth, John points out, was uneasy with power.
‘He poured his life into his work. He breathed theatre in all senses: language, music, learning and humility. And he always found time to work with children, from the beginning to the end of his life,’ says John. Karanth was in the mould of Ustad Rashid Khan, who once responded to President Radhakrishnan’s query as to what should be done to improve classical music. Replied the ustad, ‘Please do something about Raag Darbari. It is a beautiful raga and upstarts have begun to sing it in all kinds of ways.’
John, who had also worked at Bharat Bhavan — an institution Karnad headed in the early eighties — recalls to this day the music of every production he did. It left a greater impact on the audience than the plays themselves. In addition, Karanth, with his training in Sanskrit, did a breathtaking Urdu translation of Grirish Karnad’s Tughlaq.
Indeed I know that text, for I have already directed it twice and can attest to its majesty. John believes Karanth was Alkazi’s alter ego, and the two together straddle the entire spectrum of Hindustani theatre.
I had seen Karanth a number of times at Delhi’s Mandi House and he was distinctly disorderly in his appearance. He seemed to have poured all the order and shape in his personality into his work. ‘There are clear lines of form in his work,’ says John. Unfortunately, Karanth has left few documents behind to signify his greatness. But his devotion to theatre finds an echo in the work of all those who knew him. He also continues to live in their hearts. That is true greatness indeed.
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