Girish Karnad (1938-2019): Playwright who engaged with history to articulate India’s modernity


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Till the end, through six decades of public life, Karnad continued to pitch himself — his frail body, his breathless self — into the battles of the present. That did not deter him, of course. “People listen to me,” he said matter-of-factly, when this writer met him last year at his home. For those who pilloried him as an “anti-national” and part of a creaking, corrupt ancien regime in his last years, it is important to remember that Karnad’s pathbreaking Tughlaq (1964) — written at the astonishing age of 26 — captured the disenchantment with Nehruvian ideals that had set in after Independence. From trying to douse the communal conflagration over the Babu Budangiri shrine in Chikmagalur to standing up against state excesses against Kabir Kala Manch, from speaking out without fear against majoritarianism and hate, Karnad’s voice rang loud and clear. Together with Badal Sircar in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi — and several other artistes in post-Independence India — Karnad asked the question: what is it to be Indian? For a generation of artists that came after him, Karnad’s plays offer a way of thinking about Indian society, its caste hierarchies, and its disillusionments with politics, all at once. It was where he met the two men who shaped his imagination, poet AK Ramanujan and critic Keertinath Kurtakoti. The city was also home to Manohar Granthamala, the publishing house which bet on him when he was an unknown writer in his 20s. He
debuted as a film actor with Samskara, based on a novel by fellow Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy, for which he wrote the screenplay. Advertising

Girish Karnad with Gauri Lankesh and others at a condolence meet for MM Kalburgi in 2015. The terror is in the words. That outspokenness incurred costs. It was a project he carried into his last play Rakhsasa Tangadi, about the hubris of an old king and the destruction of the Vijayanagara empire, which he wrote last year. What they are implicitly saying is that we can say what we like, which means we can do what we like,” he said that day to a packed audience, ending his short speech with, “I won’t say more, I have run out of breath.”
But the power of his ideas and his plays never will. It became a metaphor for authoritarianism during the Emergency and the Indira Gandhi years and remains a powerful depiction of the impulse to overweening, unchecked power in Indian democracy. Also Read | Filmmaker Kabir Khan remembers Girish Karnad as a man who never held back
If the abiding image from the last few years has been of a frail Karnad, a breathing device stuck to his nose, turning up to protest the murders of first MM Kalburgi, and then Gauri Lankesh, both alleged targets of militant Hindutva groups, it must also be remembered that the playwright’s name was on top of that hit-list. Express archive photo
After the declaration of the Emergency, Karnad resigned from his post as the head of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in protest against impossible demands from the government. (Express Archive)
A cosmopolitan erudite liberal rooted in a thriving tradition of Kannada modernism, Karnad was a true Renaissance man, ranging from theatre to cinema and television. “The terror is not in what police are saying. The answer, articulated robustly in various Indian languages, affirmed a belief in equality, secularism and constitutional morality. (The fantastic allegations) show that the police don’t care, they don’t have to be rational. To Kannada cinema, he brought a fresh perspective through award-winning films such as Vamsa Vriksha. Popular Photos

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Girish Karnad funeral: Theatre personalities and politicians pay last respects

For a generation of artists that came after him, Karnad’s plays offer a way of thinking about Indian society, its caste hierarchies, and its disillusionments with politics, all at once. (Two of his most-loved roles were in Turning Point, a Doordarshan show on science education, and in Malgudi Days.) To him goes the distinction also of co-writing a film (Aa Dinagalu) with a reformed underground gangster Agni Sreedhar. On Monday, in accordance with his wishes, his last rites were held at the Kalpally crematorium in a low-key ceremony attended by a few friends and well-wishers. “He was an international figure, but he never lost his connection with Indian life,” says Kannada writer-playwright Vivek Shanbag. Also Read | Giving voice to Girish Karnad
Karnad grew up in a Saraswat Brahman home in Dharwad, an important centre of scholarship and classical music. Advertising

Karnad is survived by his wife Saraswathi Ganapathy and children Raghu Amay and Radha Shalmali. Advertising

He found himself writing about the legends that he had soaked up as a child in Sirsi, a small town in Karnataka that was the heart of yakshagana country. His death on Monday at 81 — he passed away in his sleep at his home in Bengaluru — brings to a close a glorious chapter in modernist Indian theatre which he helped shape through his work, from the early 1960s onward. 0
Comment(s) Karnad had asked his family to refuse any offer of state honours, or official pomp. Through parables mined from history, ancient myth and folklore, he found a way to articulate the anxieties of the here and now, and the muddled-ness of being an Indian. Some of his most popular and influential plays include Hayavadana (1972), Nagamandala (1988) and Agni Matte Male (1995), which staged the clash between desire and tradition, hierarchy and freedom. “It was a metaphor for the fiercely private person he was,” said Shanbag. His ambition, till then, was to become an English poet in the mould of TS Eliot, but Yayati (1960), about a king who cannibalised his son’s youth, “nailed him to his past.”
For one of India’s greatest modern playwrights, modernity was not a repudiation of the past but a conversation with it. Till the end, he called himself “a Dharwad man”. In 1990, at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Karnad wrote Tale Danda, a play inspired by the 12th century anti-caste revolution led by poet-statesman Basavanna and his followers, the sharanas, in Basavakalyan. As an actor, he was part of the influential parallel cinema movement with stellar roles in Shyam Benegal’s Nishaant and Manthan. Last year, Karnad turned up at a memorial function for Lankesh, wearing the placard #MeTooUrbanNaxal — as a protest against the arrest of human rights activists and lawyers Sudha Bhardwaj, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Sudhir Dhawale, and others.