Article Hindi Kannada

Girish Karnad (1938-2019): Renaissance Man bids adieu


Writer, playwright, actor, director, thinker, Girish Karnad embodied the emulsion of ancient and modern knowledge that shaped the modern Indian stage. 

Shriram Iyengar

The death of Girish Karnad, Rhodes scholar, Jnanpith award-winning playwright, Padma Bhushan, director and actor, truly brings the curtain down on an era. A man who wore many hats, Girish Karnad was unique in a world that is slowly but surely moving towards specialization.

Born on 19 May 1938 at Matheran, a quaint hill station near Mumbai, Girish Karnad was the fourth of five children. From an early age, he was exposed to theatre, as the family would make it a point to attend performances by travelling Marathi natak mandalis (drama troupes) as well as by Yakshagana groups. (Yakshagana is a traditional folk theatre of coastal Karnataka.) These performances, mostly based on Indian folklore and mythology, were to shape Karnad's literary style in the years to come.

This early exposure to the performing arts kindled the creative genius in young Girish. In a documentary, the playwright has revealed how he would, at the age of 16-17, make sketches of famous writers and personalities like TS Eliot, Sir CV Raman, WH Auden and Sean O’Casey and seek their autographs upon them. Irish playwright O'Casey wrote back to the young Karnad, saying, “Stop wasting time collecting autographs. Do something worthwhile that will make others seek your autograph.”

Karnad took his advice. Completing his BA in mathematics from Karnataka college, Dharwar, he went on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar completing his master's in philosophy, economics and political science. He was elected president of the Oxford Union in 1962-63.

Karnad returned to India to work for a while with the Oxford University Press in Madras (now Chennai), where his love affair with theatre was reignited. While forming a friendship with members of the theatre troupe The Madras Players, he decided to turn writer professionally.

He had written his first play, Yayati, at the age of 23 while still at Oxford. The play reimagined the tale of Yayati, an ancestor of the Pandavas, with its themes of history and mythology. But it was only with Tughlaq (1964), based on the story of the 14th century Delhi sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, that Karnad’s mythical allusions found their mark.

Staged at the Purana Qila in Delhi by Ebrahim Alkazi, the play was a landmark in the history of modern Indian theatre for its statement on authoritarianism and government control.

In an interview with The Indian Express newspaper on his 80th birthday, the playwright said, "History is interesting because it gives me the essence of today’s living." In Karnad’s historical and mythological works, Indian audiences found a resonance of the contemporary world, the phrase ‘history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce’ brought vividly to life.

His works, along with those of Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, and Mohan Rakesh, defined modern Indian theatre, one that was informed by the history and mythology of its past, but questioning it through the prism of a new and changed world. Karnad's plays Hayavadana, Agni Varsha, Yayati, Nagamandala were examples of this syncretism.

Girish Karnad in Shyam Benegal's Manthan (1975)

The parallel cinema movement, which emerged with Bhuvan Shome (1969), found Karnad a willing and eager participant. Teaming up with the talents of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Anant Nag, Satyadev Dubey, Amol Palekar, Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah, among others, the playwright also turned actor.

He did it first with Pattabhirama Reddy’s Samskara (1970), for which Karnad himself wrote the screenplay based on UR Ananthamurthy's novel, and which won the President’s medal for Best Film. He went on to win four National awards, three for Best Direction and one for Best Screenplay (Bhumika, 1977).

Karnad was part of some of the most iconic films of the movement like Vamsha Vriksha (1971), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977), Godhuli (1977) and Swami (1977).

He continued with acting well into his last years, balancing the act between independent films like Hey Ram (2000) and Iqbal (2005) and the very commercial Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017). 

But his love for theatre remained unshakeable. “As a youngster, I was an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theatre in our village. They influenced me a lot. It was then that I made up my mind to explore its depth — but I now realize I am yet to touch even the edge of it,” said Karnad in a March 2007 interview to an online website.

Despite the humility, there is no doubt about the playwright’s position as a giant of Indian literature and theatre. His works continue to be staged in Hindi, English and Kannada, in India and abroad. Something that would please the writer, who once said, “Language is a personal choice. Every writer has his own emotional language. Ultimately the play should be good, then language will fall into place.” 

Both Karnad and his theatre belonged to a time when questioning authority was the norm. This was ingrained in his personality and his education. He quit as director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in protest against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Yet, when he took up the tag of ‘Urban Naxal’ to show his support for the late Gauri Lankesh, he was immediately branded ‘anti-national’. Ailing, he stood by his words. Something he had done all his life. 

His death brought prime minister Narendra Modi to praise this very same 'anti-national' for his contribution to the arts. 

It would not have fazed Karnad. He was, above all, a man of knowledge and education vast enough to realize the power of such words, and the need to redefine them. Till the end, he remained a staunch defender of the artist's sacred freedom to express.

It seems almost symbolic that Karnad’s demise has come in an era when ‘intellectual’ has almost become a pejorative term. From Europe to Asia to even the United States, a wave of anti-intellectualism seems to be all-pervasive. As the poet Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar' once wrote, ‘Jab naash manuj par chhaata hai / pehle vivek mar jaata hai [When destruction looms / rationality is the first victim].'

Girish Karnad was one of the stalwarts of the rationality that needs to prevail if civilization is to survive.