The flood of obituary encomia speaks of Girish Karnad’s clearly immoderate pursuit of distinction. Even a fraction of what he achieved in diverse fields — in theatre and cinema, as a writer and a performer, actor, director, institution builder, as a public intellectual who embodied courage but also grace — would have been sufficient. More than, Karnad’s career is an amalgam of many different kinds of excellence. Excellence such that, for instance, the Rhodes Scholarship and the Oxford Union presidentship are barely visible in the glow that comes from all the other marks of recognition: The numerous Padma awards, President’s awards, Sahitya Akademi, Sangeet Natak, Jnanpith, you name it — awards for direction, for acting, for writing; for positions held with distinction. And even, on occasion, forsworn with distinction: He resigned from the directorship of the Film and Television Institute of India following the declaration of Emergency in 1975. All things considered, so to speak — the sums don’t add up: All of this couldn’t just relate to one man. It is entirely appropriate then that this is no longer about one man — Karnad has become an icon. And this is my brief, preliminary exploration of the meanings of this iconicity. (Forgive me, my friend.)
The last time I saw Girish Karnad was at the memorial meeting for Gauri Lankesh, in Bengaluru — on the first anniversary of her murder. Many people have recalled his showing up at the auditorium that day. He was in frail health, he was strapped to his wheelchair and was carrying breathing apparatus as well as an oxygen cylinder, and a placard that read “I am an urban naxal”, alluding to the idiot accusation that is being bandied about by the geniuses in the home ministry to quell dissent. As I recall, the memorial meeting was conducted mainly in Kannada. But I remember feeling very moved by the occasion itself — and by Girish’s noble, exemplary presence there. He was already being absorbed into myth: A figure from a lost world of intellectual distinction and of moral courage, in which honour could coexist with grace and subtlety and nuance, and not degenerate into toxic machismo. My own Kannada being somewhat limited, I left early.
In the Delhi I know, such a meeting would have been conducted in English, it would have been attended by people who are effectively — and all too often, I fear, ineffectively — Anglophone. In the Allahabad I live in now, such a meeting could only be in Hindi — but a memorial meeting for someone who had attracted the ire of the Hindu right would be inconceivable. It would be attacked by mercenary louts whose headbands reflect the colour of the ruling dispensation — currently, saffron. Between the metropolitan Anglophone possibility and the mofussil vernacular impossibility, there is a story waiting to be told, about the fate of bilingualism in our India.
The fate of bilingualism has drawn the attention of scholars from time to time. Ramachandra Guha’s reflection on the phenomenon of Girish Karnad, written on the occasion of his 80th birthday, remarked on Karnad’s multilingual being — he was revising the proofs of the Marathi translation of his original Kannada work. Apropos Karnad, the argument is a relatively simple one: Karnad’s monstrous creativity was fuelled by the fact that he tapped into several different linguistic traditions, contexts and resonances. Culturally promiscuous, Karnad tapped into different languages, into myth and folklore, into the classical and the popular, into what was indigenous and what was foreign but only until it had been assimilated — so Yayati, so Hayavadana. As moralists have always warned, promiscuity breeds — which is why the cultural nationalists in khaki shorts are so committed to cultural virginity. Creativity has consequences. There is an irony in the fact that Karnad the “urban naxal” first came to national attention with his epoch-marking representation of the much-reviled Nehru as Tughlaq, back in the 1960s. Because, of course, in a time of cultural vigilantes, that same Nehru is now also much-missed.
But there is a larger argument there. Many of the leaders of the freedom movement — Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Azad and Bose — were fluently multilingual. (Even Savarkar was bilingual, but he probably had rather less to do with the freedom movement.) However, it has been remarked that there has been a decline of bilingual competence in our political leadership. Some might even suggest a decline of linguistic competence generally, and a replacement thereof by a certain post-lingual reliance on muscle and machismo. However, that is not germane to my argument which, by way of obituary tribute to Karnad, seeks to raise the question of what has happened to our polity as a consequence of these developments.
At a popular level, of course, multilingualism has always been the norm in India. Perhaps the only difference is that a kind of English — like this only — has become part of the assertive vernacular mix. However, at the level of public discourse, there has been a total fracture: The Anglophone universe — Lutyens’ Delhi, Khan Market Gang, whatever — is counterposed, in a reciprocally abusive relationship with its vernacular others. This is a multiple tragedy, of which the present denouement is a mere prelude, mere appetiser.
In an essay on “bilingualism”, Guha refers to U R Ananthamurthy’s notion of “vernacular anxiety” — the familiar avidity with which the vernacular intellectual seeks “English” recognition. As a counterpart to this vernacular anxiety, Guha proposes a notion of “cosmopolitan anxiety” — the complex condition of the metropolitan Anglophone, locked in a contradictory position that is compounded of social privilege and a longing for secularism and progress and modernity. These complementary anxieties, the tense stand-off between English and the “vernacular” languages imparts a kind of toxic, Cold War-like stability to the status quo. But English is too deeply implicated with privilege to be an adequate guardian for secularism and modernity — indeed, it might even be a liability. Further, the Anglophone elite is ill-positioned — too burdened with social guilt — to call out the pseudo-democrats who conceal their commitment to caste privilege behind the mask of the vernacular. The resultant political impasse is ominous — and is, I suggest, the explanation for why an ailing Karnad dragged himself in his wheelchair, to a meeting in memory of the murdered Gauri Lankesh. And why it matters that Kannada was the predominant language there.
The writer taught at the Department of English, Delhi University