Girish Karnad: Colossus of Indian theatre dies at 81

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Girish Karnad was one of India’s best known playwrights

‘Girish Karnad has passed away at the age of 81’, read a message on my phone from an old acquaintance on Monday morning.

His death had been announced to the world like a palace guard who would casually inform the arrival or departure of a character in one of his many historical plays.

Karnad’s death signals the departure of a colossus who straddled many creative spheres and left a deep impression across generations.

Prominent voice

He was foremost a playwright, but he was also an actor, a filmmaker, a translator, an administrator, and a daring public intellectual.

This multi-tasking made him one of the most prominent voices among those who built a robust liberal tradition for India, since its Independence in 1947.

When India’s plural history, diverse traditions are being severely challenged now, mourning his demise acquires a different meaning. A pillar to lean on appears to have collapsed. Yet his works and his life promise to inspire and instruct how we need to stand steadfastly, and do what we need to do, that is, fight a good fight.

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Karnad won the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to study mathematics at Oxford

Karnad was born into a middle class, upper caste family in the quaint town of Dharwad in colonial India’s Mumbai presidency, in modern-day Karnataka. His father was a doctor and his mother worked as a nurse. She had remarried as a widow which was a revolutionary act then.

He won the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to study mathematics at Oxford. He thrived there and also became the president of the Oxford Students’ Union.

Karnad could have settled down in any part of the world, but made a “mad choice” – as he told me once – to get into the arts. A native speaker of the Konkani language, he chose to write in Kannada, a language which was only his acquired mother tongue.

Voyages in the past

This conflict between expressing in Konkani, Kannada and English, remained in him till the very end. It also found expression in a play that he wrote in his 1970s, titlted Odakalu Bimba (Heap of Broken Images). The play was not just about choice of language for writers, but also about the worldview they nourish: local or global.

This play was also significant for the reason that for the first time in his writing career, Karnad had addressed another charge that the literary critics had made against him.

Until then, he had only made drawn on the past, or mythological worlds, to conceive characters, scenes, and dialogues for his eponymous plays like Tuglaq, Dreams of Sultan Tipu, or Hayavadana, inspired by Thomas Mann’s Transposed Heads.

But, with Heap of Broken Images he had finally arrived on the shores of the present.

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In this play, set in a television studio, he also looks at the impact of technology on modern living and thinking, and gets the television image of the protagonist to have a dialogue with her. After this he wrote more plays like Marriage Album and Boiled Beans on Toast, which were situated in the present.

However, Karnad perhaps will be known for his historical plays, and if one is pushed to pick one among the many he has written, it would be Tuglaq.

Powerful play

This play, published in 1964, based on the life of 14th Century Sultan of Delhi, was translated and produced in all major Indian languages, and it permanently changed the Indian amateur theatre scene.

This play was so powerful that a person who played the lead role in over a hundred Kannada language productions, CR Simha, not only built a flourishing career for himself, but spoke and walked all his life like he was asked to in the play, with a certain self-consuming imperiousness. He struggled to escape the mould, perhaps the way Ben Kingsley struggled to outplay the Gandhi he had become for Richard Attenborough.

In Rakshasa Tangadi, the 2018 play that was the last one he wrote, Karnad returned to history. This poignant play holds lessons for today’s India, when centuries of Hindu-Muslim relationship have been conveniently typecast for political gains.

Karnad’s film career will make for a separate appraisal.

Likewise, in his public interventions he never ceased to speak for religious harmony and India’s rich diversity. The way he had taken on Nobel laureate V S Naipaul at a literary festival, in Mumbai, in 2012, on his mischaracterisations of Indian history, politics and Muslims, were deeply felt.

The image of Karnad with his oxygen tubes holding a placard in the middle of Bangalore’s streets, when prominent Indian journalust Gauri Lankesh was assassinated, can never escape one’s mind. There are several such images and words.

The curtain has come down, but the rehearsals will go on. Karnad’s words and images will stay.

Sugata Srinivasaraju is a bilingual journalist and author