Through his plays and their performances, Girish Karnad’s work interrogated our deepest beliefs about the idea of India, writes Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta
‘I WAS twenty-one when I came to Daulatabad first, and built this fort,’ says Muhammad Tughlaq to a young guard in Girish Karnad’s play of the same name. ‘I supervised the placing of every brick in it and I said to myself, one day I shall build my own history like this, brick by brick.’
But the fundamental lesson of Karnad’s work, and its tragic vision, is that individual histories are not built in this way. Individual histories are directed both by heart and mind, by the desire to leave a legacy — but also, inevitably, by the desire to hold on to power.
Set in a vibrant age
KARNAD’S first play, Yayati (1961), written when he was in Oxford, was about the theme of responsibility. ‘Those of us writing in the Kannada Navya movement of the time can still remember the excitement when we first read it in 1961,’ remarked UR Ananthamurthy famously. In 1971, he wrote the introduction to the Oxford University Press translation of Karnad’s second play, Tughlaq (1964).
Those were the exciting years of a new and modern Indian theatre, with Badal Sircar writing in Bangla, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi.
Both through the pages of his plays, and through their powerful, unforgettable performances staged by legendary directors such as Alkazi, BV Karanth, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta and Prasanna, Karnad’s work interrogated our deepest beliefs about the idea of India.
Karnad’s death, at the age of 81, is a loss to the world of modern Indian theatre and literature. It is also the loss of a towering public intellectual who was not afraid to speak his mind, whether about the prejudices of fellow writer VS Naipaul, or to attend a public protest, carrying his oxygen cylinder, after the killing of Gauri Lankesh.
Karnad was born in Matheran, near Bombay, in 1938. His mother, Krishnabai, was a pathbreaker herself: a young widow with a child who trained as a nurse and eventually married Raghunath, a doctor. As a child, Girish grew up watching Yakshagana performances in the hill town of Sirsi, in Karnataka’s wet and forested Malnad region. Perhaps it was here that his theatrical sensibility was born; perhaps it was this early experience that made him choose playwriting, rather than poetry, fiction or art.
After obtaining his degree from Karnatak University, Dharwad in 1958, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar between 1960 and 1963, where he became president of the Oxford Union. Unlike others of the period who chose to go westward, he chose to return to India, working in Chennai for the Oxford University Press, where he met his future wife, the paediatrician, Saraswathy Ganapathy (Saras).
Much has been written about Karnad’s creative collaborations with BV Karanth, AK Ramanujan, UR Ananthamurthy and others. But in my opinion his marriage to Saras was his greatest creative collaboration. A paediatrician with a deep commitment to working in public health, it was she who encouraged him to follow his calling and write.
Layers and threads
AND write he did. In 1970, Karnad left his publishing job to write full time. Intricately plotted, and with razor-sharp dialogue, Karnad’s greatest plays have drawn from mythology and history, while some of his later plays have dwelt on more contemporary issues. His themes have ranged from the 12th century reform movement in northern Karnataka, to stories drawn from the Mahabharata. But across all his work, from Yayati to Taledanda, from Nagamandala to Agni Mattu Male, is the deep, relentless concern with power imbalances: between the central and the marginal, the rich and the poor, man and woman, king and priest, man and god.
How can power be handled without going to an individual’s head? How is a better world possible? How to be good in a world full of disillusionment and despair, a world where nothing is as it seems? These are the central concerns of Karnad’s work.
In a long career spanning over six decades, Karnad also directed several award-winning feature films and documentaries, worked as a culture administrator, and went to Chicago as an academic. His acting debut was in the film Samskara (1970), directed by Pattabhirama Reddy, based on UR Ananthamurthy’s novel. The film won the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. A later generation will remember him as the strict and distant father of Swami, the little boy, in the television adaptation of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days. Intermittently, through it all, he had stints in commercial cinema, which he regarded as a way to achieve financial security.
Above all, what Karnad will be remembered for is his commitment to liberalism, and to the idea of India. When Saraswathy Ganapathy set up a trust that worked among poor women in Kanakapura, outside Bangalore, it was Karnad who gave it the name ‘Belaku’, meaning light. Deepest condolences to Saras, as well as to their children, Raghu and Radha.
TheHindu.com, June 11. Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS.
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