What do we remember a writer for? For the written work of course; the answer may seem obvious. But in the case of Girish Karnad, the obvious falls flat. It remains partial. To describe Girish Karnad as a major Indian playwright, or a versatile actor, or an influential intellectual, is simply not enough. There are other stories we need to pay attention to if we want to describe, and pay tribute to, a man who packed the work of many lives into one life.
Karnad’s recent involvements may be a good place to start. The last time I heard Girish Karnad was in September last year, when he spoke at a literary meet for tolerance in Bengaluru. “A literary meet for tolerance”— these words say much about the daunting task Karnad faced, and that all writers face today. It’s no longer enough for a writer to struggle in a private space, making sense, through words and ideas, of the real world and the world of stories; the past and its new lives in the present; the little mysteries of human relationships, and the larger terrors of relationships based on power. More and more it seems, writers also have to speak on the public stage, even march in the streets. This is a difficult thing for most writers to do. But Karnad did it.
He spoke that day, soon after several activists were either arrested or hounded with what he called “fragile, false FIRs” accusing them of almost anything, from the situation in Kashmir, to the violence at Bhima Koregaon, to an assassination plot against the prime minister. Karnad stood up slowly. A small tank-like object was strapped to his waist, sending him oxygen through tubes connected to his nose. But what he told us went to the heart of the matter. There’s a new language among us, he said.
The kind of language with words like lynching and urban naxal and anti-nationalist and tukde-tukde. The kind of language that spawns strange, horrible or meaningless words, and makes them the stuff of everyone’s lives. This new language distorts politics, the rights of citizens, and their everyday lives — because language and action are closely intertwined. This is something a writer like Karnad knew well, and he did not shy away from saying it aloud.
He did not let ill health keep him quiet after that talk either. In April this year, just before the elections, he was among the writers who issued an appeal to citizens to vote out hate politics. He was among the theatre artistes who called for bigotry, hatred and apathy to be voted out of power. The election results tell us that his appeals, and ours, and our new writerly tasks, are far from done. So now that he is gone, how do we continue to hear Girish Karnad? How do we let his rich voice strengthen ours?
We could begin with the foundation of his creative efforts: His vital connection to the many-tongued world of stories he grew up with, soaking in Marathi theatre, Yakshagana, myths and tales waiting to be made sense of afresh. The myth, he said, “nailed me to my past”. But Karnad’s powerful relationship with myth and tale was an intelligent one. Out of this resource he drew ways of understanding ourselves in the present. In the Prologue to his first play Yayati, he says, “We turn to ancient lore not because it offers any blinding revelation or hope of consolation, but because it provides fleeting glimpses of the fears and desires. within us. It is a good way to get introduced to ourselves.”
But Karnad makes it clear that this introduction through myth will take us forward, because it is firmly rooted in the present, in reason, and in plural ways of seeing: “Our play this evening deals with an ancient myth. But, let me rush to explain, it is not a ‘mythological’. Heaven forbid! A mythological aims to plunge us into the sentiment of devotion… Our play has no gods.”
We can continue hearing Karnad by recalling his connection to the legacy of mentors such as D R Bendre and V K Gokak who nurtured open discussion, and a sense of community in creative endeavour. We can remember them once again in a time that name-calls intellectuals and crushes their questions. We can recall Karnad’s memory of a cultural centre such as Dharwad — a precious memory in a time when Dharwad has become infamous for the assassination of the scholar M M Kalburgi. Again, in a time when institutions are crumbling under assault, we can remember Karnad’s efforts at strengthening public institutions such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi, the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, and the Nehru Centre in London.
Whatever he did, whether as an institutional leader or a writer or an actor or a public intellectual, Girish Karnad lived his chosen narrative. “We must trust the narrative we have chosen for ourselves,” he said. “Invent bits if necessary, but go on.” His plays are, of course, a part of this narrative. But there is time to go back to them, let each yield new meanings. For now, we need to remember — and keep alive, both for our sakes and in tribute to Karnad — other parts of his chosen narrative.
These, taken together, make a narrative with creative and intelligent links with our syncretic cultural and historical resources. It’s a narrative that includes large numbers of people speaking in different languages, many of them speaking words of dissent. It’s a narrative that returns writers, readers and citizens to the centrestage where they belong, so that they may learn, teach and live what freedom of expression really means. This is the modern narrative we must continue to be part of, not necessarily in Karnad’s voice, but in our own.
(The writer is a founder member of the Indian Writers’ Forum. Her latest work of fiction is ‘I have become the tide’)