Girish Karnad (1938-2019): ‘He delighted audiences by overturning conventions’

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He uttered some truths about VS Naipaul and there was a furore. He paused, and said, “Send it to me.”

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I told him I would but my inner voice was saying, “You idiot! Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright with plays such as 3, Sakina Manzil and Cotton 56, Polyester 84 to his credit

Comment(s) He tore the cheque. He delighted audiences by overturning conventions, and with a freewheeling use of mythology. During the golden period of Indian theatre, the Big Four valued each other’s work. And then very nonchalantly said, “I am very hungry. There’s no other place. (No reply)
Not much has changed on this planet since Hampi 1565. He wanted to know why. Karnad has translated all his plays (with the exception of Yayati) into English. A little. That’s silly, he said. Our nation was supposed to be a better place, back then. He spoke about his mother tongue (Konkani), the language he studied (Marathi), the one he fell in love with (English) and his language as a playwright (Kannada). I mumbled I’ve written a play about World War, set in Mumbai. It was a penny drop moment for me because I realised he was doing a simultaneous translation from one language to the other, from the podium. Festival at the NCPA in Mumbai, he spoke about languages: “Playing on Twenty Tongues”. I informed him that everyone is erring on the side of caution. You are not sending anything to him. Besides this, there were theatre directors like Satyadev Dubey (Hindi), Shombhu Mitra (Bengali) and Arvind Deshpande (Marathi), who mounted productions of these plays. I recall a theatre masterclass in Pune (his favourite theatre city) where he talked to theatrewallahs about the structure of a play. Some accused him of being PR hungry. Fear, I told him. The committee offered Karnad a cheque to cover his travel and other expenses. Writing contemporaneously with Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar and Vijay Tendulkar, Karnad brought his unique sensibility to theatre. For me, Karnad was always one of the Big Four. What it meant was a pool of 25-30 splendid playscripts were ready to be performed by theatre groups in different corners of India. Can you understand me? On November 19, 2017, when he was invited at the Tata Literature Live! Advertising

Soldier: Where are you going? S: Where’s your family? He regaled me with stories about mathematics in Dharwad, the early days at Oxford University Press, FTII, Bollywood superstars, Kannada indie films, and Raghu Karnad’s book The Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. At this time? “A great playwright is a semi-decent philosopher.”


The talk was in English, but he digressed, here and there into Marathi and Kannada and Konkani. C: Here. Till we meet again. In our country, with its 108 official languages, theatre, above all, is language. S: Where are you going? It helped me understand his role in translation of plays. And so, Karnad translated Sircar’s Evam Inderjit to English; while Tendulkar translated Karnad’s Tughlaq and Sircar’s Evam Inderjit to Marathi. Can I get a vada pav?”
This was the era before May 16, 2014. He deployed the Yayati myth in the Mahabharata to explain three things: the distinction between dialogue and conversation; the ability of Character One to “persuade” Character Two on stage and how good playwriting is about persuasion; and finally philosophy. He is India’s biggest playwright. C: To meet …
S: Where do you live? Plus your wife has a massive crush on him.”
Rest in peace, sir. Every time we met since, Karnad would always enquire about the arrests across Maharashtra, about the future of groups like KKM in Pune and Deshbhakti Yuva Manch in Nagpur. Yes, I can speak your tongue. Where have you come from? It was a meal for a maharaja. What most of his critics do not know is how he criss-crossed across the country to defend the rights of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) artistes, who were charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) of the Indian Penal Code. What are Sambhaji Bhagat and Sheetal Sathe doing, he once asked? Civilian: Let me explain. This is Girish Karnad! When Karnad spoke up at a press conference in Mumbai, the KKM defence committee was grateful, since almost every single theatrewallah in Mumbai or Pune had declined to attend the press conference. “I agree, but we need someone in our corner of the boxing ring to drum up support and cheer us.” His reply, “I can be there.”
Then he tinkered with his oxygen pack (“my third lung,” he joked) and organised lunch.