Girish Karnad, who passed away aged 81 in Bengaluru on Monday, was a man of many parts. He was primarily a playwright, whose path-breaking plays in Kannada attracted the country’s foremost directors and attracted a national audience. He was associated with the New Wave in Indian cinema as a scriptwriter (Samskara), actor (Manthan) and director (Vamshavriksha, Kaadu and Utsav). On television, we saw him as actor (Malgudi Days) and a science communicator (Turning Point). All through his life, he sided with the new and the progressive, and spoke his mind when he felt the foundations of the Republic were under threat.
Politics was the extension of art for Girish Karnad, and art the expression of his politics. Last September, an ailing Karnad attended a memorial for Gauri Lankesh wearing a placard that read Me Too Urban Naxal, calling attention to the debasement of language and politics. That he was allegedly under threat from the criminals who had killed Lankesh, and before that M M Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar only made him more resolute about the need to be vocal about constitutional morality and freedom of expression. Theatre was an act of conscience for him, and he lived the principle all his life.
Karnad’s early plays, Yayati and Tughlak, which he wrote in his 20s, were powerful commentaries on contemporary India. He drew from history and mythology to express the growing disillusionment with Nehruvian India. Like Badal Sircar, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, C N Sreekantan Nair, Kavalam Narayana Panikar, Mohan Rakesh elsewhere, Karnad too was engaged in the making of an Indian theatre organically linked to its performative traditions.
The puranas, myths, the Yakshagana tradition were resources he explored for themes and subjects. The outcome of this Oxford-educated cosmopolitan intellectual’s involvement with his roots were sharp commentaries on contemporary society. Form never totally subsumed Karnad, he subverted form and myth to speak the unspeakable, the truth. Plays like The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, which retrieved the memory of the Mysuru sultan from prejudiced eyes to uncover a ruler who had died dreaming of building a modern state, were nuanced excursions into history and contemporary politics.
Karnad was one of the few representatives of a literary culture that was rooted in the local language and milieu but confidently engaged with the West and a modernity that spoke mostly in English. Like his peer, U R Ananthamurthy, Karnad too preferred Kannada, his mother tongue, for creative pursuits, while speaking to the larger world in English. In him, India and Bharat were a seamless whole: The politics that emanated from it, naturally, rejected exclusivist narratives.