At a time when glowing tributes from at least three worlds — writing, cinema, activism — are pouring in, I ask myself what for me have been the enduring lessons from Girish Karnad, whose work I obsessed over regularly for at least the first decade of my career. Karnad’s Konkani, Marathi, Kannada, and English are as continuous as the different words of arts and politics he was part of. But what are his major insights?
Let me begin at his beginning, which is the first question of lineage and inheritance in Yayati. I had with me only its Hindi translation, hidden behind dusty books in the Gujarat Vidyapeeth. It may be a good idea to begin at this beginning, since Yayati was Karnad’s own coming-of-age play in some sense.
But a story first, as a tribute to Karnad’s own stories within stories.
An academic friend from Columbia University once told me a story about this. A Korean student came to him, and in the course of conversation broke down, saying she didn’t know what research topic to take for her mind was distracted by her parents’ demands of her. They wanted her to become a doctor, while she wanted to do literature. “What do we owe our parents?” she asked. And that became her research question.
It had reminded me of Karnad’s Yayati. In this first play, Karnad provides an allegory of responsibility, his way of grappling with his family whilst in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Yayati demands of Puru what does not belong to Puru alone, for no sacrifice involves only the giver and taker, it has repercussions on others around us. Karnad taught me early on to be wary of tales that glorify.
I also learnt from him a fundamental insight into politics. The political resides not where it officially announces itself, but in the generation of narratives. If we need to challenge it, we must do it by puncturing narratives, overturning them, making them stand on their heads. If the mechanical conception of mind and body made one superior to the other (in fact a lot of casteist hegemony rests upon the division of intellectual and physical labour), the play Hayavadana distorts this conception to shift the narrative weight. The body of the Brahmin asserts itself over the mind, and the mind of the athlete asserts itself over the body. In the play Hayavadana, Karnad reminds us that we cannot have a complete man (of the Raymonds’ kind). It is the greed of this completion that wreaks destruction.
In Nagamandala, Karnad is more overt about the power of narratives. Karnad post-scripted tales he inherited and made them stretch their logical worlds to create new political meanings. If chastity tests prove fidelity, Rani in Nagamandala had proven hers. But we know that she slept with a man who was not her husband, and who she thought was her husband. Does that make Rani a liar, a deceitful person? Karnad reminds us that we could do what we want with the story, but remember, that is our need to bring the story to an end.
Karnad’s Tuglaq taught me to think of time, of presentness of the past. It had seemed to Karnad that India of the 1960s provided a striking parallel to the 14th century of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. To compare Nehru with Tughlaq seems odd today, considering how Nehru has receded, and the changing of currency is a whim we associate with our times, than with Nehru.
In the subsequent years, Karnad continued to post-script narratives, interpreting for us histories and myths, forging an idiom of writing that was tethered to both the past and present. In him is one of the ideas of India — the idea of India as a story.
For reasons I cannot remember, I veered away from the idea of doing a doctoral thesis on his ouvre, instead made his plays an integral part of my pedagogy. Karnad would not have known that far from the metropolitan centres of arts and drama, generations of students in different institutions of Gujarat studied his plays and discussed the malleability of narratives. Pedagogic contexts are invisible to a clamourous worlds of opinions, which fortunately makes many things happen. A community of tellers and listeners was formed at St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, through the plays of Girish Karnad. A story, a proxy, a metaphor enabled us to think beyond the oppression of history, and flirt subversively with myths. It is this that Karand made possible, he reminded us that the art of the political lies in what we do with narratives.
At a time when the entire nation seems to have subscribed to an alluring narrative, it is particularly important to remember that it is after a story, and that tellers change the tale, that protagonists can ask questions they had not before.