Girish Raghunath Karnad was a writer, screenwriter, actor, movie director, polyglot, but a playwright above all. He used the language of myths and history in a way modern India had never seen, bringing to fore issues about women, children, and power. His craft deftly subverted meanings of stories that had got fixed and appropriated it for a voice that we can comprehend and respond to. Here’s a look at the enormous legacy he left behind
“The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” — Shakespeare
In the 60’s, while the flower children of the West were smoking up their private infinities and seeking out a new world, and while popular culture was poised to consume the sanctum preserved for classics, Roland Barthe declared the ‘author’ dead. And George Steiner pointed to the death of tragedy. But since history is not a single stream and each nation is living its own time, theatre in India was being shaped by individual genius and the defining consciousness of three giants: In Hindi, Mohan Rakesh; in Marathi, Vijay Tendulkar; and in Kannada, Girish Karnad.
While Karnad went on to excel also as an actor, director, translator, and scholar, it is as a playwright — as one of these three giants that define modern Indian plays — that one will remember him most.
“You know, how I have been an actor, a publisher, a filmmaker. But in none of these fields have I felt quite as much at home as play writing,” the 1998 Jnanpith Award winner once said (The Post-Colonial Space: Writing the Self and the Nation).
For his language, he chose Kannada, the language of his childhood memories, and for his themes, he invoked those chimeral tales and characters that come from and inform our myths, our history, and our dreams — plays like Yayati, Hayavadana, Naga-Mandala, Tughlak, Agni Mattu Male, and Taledanda.
In his use of mythology and history, he was unique and stands apart from his contemporaries, who employed other strategies to inform their plays. There are a million factors that shape the aesthetics of an artist, but in case of Karnad, one can safely trace it back to his early years in the quaint town of Sirsi, Karnataka, where he got to watch and enjoy the itinerant Natak Mandalis that were common to the region in early 20th century before the movies relegated them to the margins. Karnad’s parents, Krishnabai nee Makikar and Dr Raghunath Karnad, a doctor in the Bombay Medical Services, were both ardent admirers of theatre and took him along for regular performances, which fired the imagination of young Karnad. He grew to love the Yakshagana theatre, and the performances he watched in his village. One sees the power and the spectacle of these folk forms many years later, still strong, in the dramatic rhythms of his plays.
The rich women-centric themes, the awareness and consciousness of the woman’s experience from Yayati to Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala, may have as much to do with his life, as with his exposure to the Western canon.
Born in Matheran, Maharashtra, his family was by no means a conventional one: His mother was a widow with a son and had to wait for five years to marry the young Doctor Karnad due to social pressures. Karnad’s teenage years were spent in Dharwar with two sisters and a niece, a household with a strong presence of women figures.
Many years later, when Karnad was 42, he married Saraswathi Ganapathy, a marriage formalised after 10 years of being together. Evidently, modernity was not just an intellectual import, for him, it was an experiential legacy.
While Kannada was Karnad’s childhood language, his language at school was Marathi, and after graduating in Maths and Statistics in 1958, he studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Magdalene in Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar in 1960-63 (he was also the President of the Oxford Union during this time!).
Back in India, he had a longish stint with the Oxford University Press until 1970, after which he devoted himself to full-time writing and a Chennai-based theatre group The Madras Players. But again in the late 80’s, Karnad looked West, and was a visiting Professor at the University of Chicago, and a Fulbright playwright-in-residence.
These influences readied the grounds for the playwright: A rooted, earthy early life, seeped with the beauty and the grime of post-Independence India, and a youthful 20’s in the midst of Oxford’s vortex, wherein the best of Western thought and art came to be studied and discussed. It is, therefore, not surprising that though Karnad’s plays tell Indian tales, like the characters of Hayavadana, they bear a mixed incompleteness and posit conflicts, uncertain identities and philosophical questions with overlapping moral frameworks.
Karnad’s use of Indian myths and history gave his plays the power of context — he did not have to tell the story before telling the story. But he did it in such a way so as to draw fresh interpretations. This was not a new technique to
India, where the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have been mined by the genius of playwrights many a time to tell a story relevant to the age.
The newness lay in his Aristotelian elegance of form, and the ability of his plays to address complex political and social questions contemporary to the time the plays were written. The psychological and philosophical conflicts of the play dance in a symbolic telling in the more mythic plays (like Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala) and in the conflict internal to characters in his historic plays (like Tughlak and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan).
His use of folktales, theatrical spectacle, song and fantastic plots allowed him to pull off that impossible balancing act of commenting on contemporary issues without sounding propagandist or agenda-driven, of provoking thought without instructing, and of creating masterpieces that belong to a different age, speak to a different age, and yet remain relevant to all ages.
Yayati, Karnad’s first play came out in 1961. He was 23, in the flush of youth, Sartre and Oxford. “I was excited by the story of Yayati. This exchange of ages between the father and the son, which seemed to be terribly powerful and terribly modern. At the same time, I was reading a lot of Sartre and the Existentialist. This consistent harping on responsibility, which the Existentialist indulge in, suddenly seemed to link up with the story of Yayati,” said Karnad in The Post-Colonial Space: Writing the Self and the Nation.
The play is based on a story from the Mahabharata, of King Yayati, who because of his infidelity, is cursed with perpetual old age by Shukracharya. Keen to enjoy the pleasures of youth, Yayati asks one of his sons to give him his youth in exchange for the kingdom. The tale is seen through the eyes of that son’s (Puru’s) wife. The play was in Kannada (one that Karnad did not translate into English himself), an astonishing achievement, and put him firmly on the road to being the playwright that he became. How the Existentialist’s emphasis on ‘responsibility’ morphed into ‘dharma’ seen through the gaze of a woman is what myths are made of!
However, it was Tughlak in 1964, which really put Karnad on the national stage. Staged in the ancient Purana Qila in Delhi, directed by the legendary Ebrahim Alkazi, and a young fiery Manohar Singh playing the 14th-century King Muhammad bin Tughlaq, this play tells at once the story of a man before his time, impulsive, visionary, and tragic, and magically becomes a metaphor for the Nehruvian era of development and governance. The figureheads may have change in the real world today, but the archetypal tale, built out of stuff that makes us human, still yields meaning contemporary to us. Like any truly great play, it transcends its time, and has the ability to remain compelling and relevant.
In 1971 came Karnad’s Hayavadana, probably his most complex play. Based on a tale from the Vetalpanchvimishika, and Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads, which deals with the question of identity, incompleteness of man, and the age-old dichotomy of mind and matter, body and soul. The philosophical questions it addresses are: What defines a man most — his body or his mind? If the heads of two people were interchanged, who would retain the identity, the one with the head or the one with the body?
In this play, Karnad employed the form he had learned so many years back, as a child, watching Yakshagana folk theatre. This story of the ‘horse-man’ with the human voice and a laugh that ends with a neigh, reminds one of the search for what is whole and human in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. While some believe Hayavadana to be the archetypal conflict between mind and body, it is a far more complex work — seeking the ‘completeness’ and ‘belongingness’ of man itself, and an inquiry into what creates identity. A German version of Hayavadana directed by Vijaya Mehta was also staged as part of Deutsches Nationaltheater, Weimar.
His play Naga-Mandala or Play with Cobra, 1988, drew not on Karnad’s familiar classical sources, but upon an old story narrated to him by another great, AK Ramanujan. The play weaves together two oral tales, one meta-textual, about the nature of oral tales itself, while the other is a story of a queen who fills the emptiness of her life by making up tales. The Kannada version won him the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award, while his English translation of the same was staged as a part of the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis.
He then went on to write Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain), commissioned by the same theatre.
Karnad’s Taledanda (Death by Beheading, 1990) was an important play, especially in retrospect, dealing with Veerashaivism, a 12th century reform movement, which was radical and of contemporary relevance. It may well be a coincidence that Karnad and his long-time friend, Lankesh, dwelled deep into this Lingayat reform movement, which grew deeply contentious, and fatal to Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.
Karnad, as a playwright, used the language of myths and history in a way modern India had never seen, bringing to fore issues about women, children, and power; his craft deftly subverted meanings of stories that had got fixed and appropriated it for a voice that we can comprehend and respond to. The architecture of his plays draws strongly from Western structures, but the metaphors are Indian, and the archetypes, firmly universal. They will last. Girish Karnad will not be forgotten.
Arvind Joshi is a Delhi-based poet and writer, and holds a day job as COO, Imarti Media
Swami Ke Papa
Girish Karnad is often called the Renaissance man, a man of many parts, an intellectual who defined the taste of an entire generation. But when the dust settles, and time plays its part, he will be fondly remembered in the little beautifully etched roles he essayed, both on television (those were Doordarshan days) and on the bigger screen.
His role as father of little Swami in Malgudi Days, in particular, is unforgettable. A perfect foil to Swami’s antics and adventures, Karnad played the part with such ease and effortlessness that it is etched forever in the minds of people who grew up in the 80’s. He was at once stern yet sensitive, proud yet vulnerable, and though Mico Chandru also essayed the part later, it wasn’t quite the same.
Karnad also anchored for the science programme, Turning Point, and played dad in Indradhanush (India’s answer to Time Machine), yet this “Doordarshan fan” will always remember him as Swami ke Papa. His involvement with cinema was deep, a natural extension to his life in theatre. Here he acted, directed, wrote and collaborated on every aspect of filmmaking, both in Kannada and Hindi. He won four Filmfare Awards, and was conferred the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan by the Government of India.
However, for non-Kannada speakers, his greatest contribution to Hindi cinema arguably would be the movie Utsav released in 1984. Adapted from Sudraka’s Sanskrit play Mrichhkatikam, it starred Rekha, Anuradha Patel, Shashi Kapoor, Anant Nag, Amjad Khan, and introduced Shekhar Suman. Karnad’s direction was impeccable: It was probably the first time that period drama based on a Sanskrit play was made into a movie so truthfully, with all the rich trappings of classical drama — the humour, the sensuality, and the sheer beauty of the plot.
Rekha never looked better. The art direction was fabulous, but the movie fizzled at the box office and left Shashi Kapoor a much poorer man. Both Shashi Kapoor and Karnad were 20 years too early. If one hasn’t seen it yet, one ought to; it’s a master class in filmmaking.
Another powerful movie Karnad directed and comes highly recommended is Godhuli (1977). Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, it is a movie that carries the dramatic impact of a Theban play. Naseer is compelling, and the movie has one of the finest last scenes in Indian cinema.
Karnad’s directorial debut in Kannada films was with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), which he co-directed with BV Karant, and for which they were awarded the National Film Award for Best Direction. Some of his other famous Kannada movies include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Cheluvi, and Kaadu, though you may want to look up the Kannada gangster movie Aa Dinagalutoo.
His notable Hindi movies include Manthan (1976) and Swami (1977), though he is better known to the millennial generation for his roles in Nagesh Kukunoor films like Iqbal (2005), Dor (2006), and Aashayein (2010), besides playing roles in Yash Raj Films’ Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017).
“Tragedy springs from outrage; it protests at the conditions of life.
It carries in it the possibilities of disorder, for all tragic poets have something of the rebelliousness of Antigone.” — George Steiner
Had Karnad never decided to speak up as a public intellectual, standing up for what he deemed right, speaking up — sometimes, even out of turn — taking up cudgels for values like pluralism, had he just written what he did, that stupendous body of work, it would have been enough, his writing alone carries the strength of his convictions, and the power to question, to challenge and to mobilise. But good enough was not enough for Karnad. He needed to stand even where his plays would not go at great personal risk and speak up, every time. He spoke up for a pluralistic culture, for freedom of expression, never mincing his words when taking on what he saw as fundamentalism; in recent times, becoming one of the staunchest critics of Hindutva. He spoke up against the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, and he spoke up against the RSS and other organisations allied to the idea of Hindutva. He spoke up against the Idgah Maidan controversy in Hubli. He spoke up, taking on the daunting Modi wave.
He was a name in the list that included Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh. And at Gauri Lankesh’s memorial, silent, he still spoke up. It raised a storm, when he took on VS Naipaul’s personal simplistic view of history, calling out his “antipathy towards Indian Muslims”, notwithstanding Sir Vidiadhar’s daunting literary status, way back in 2012 at the Tata Literary Festival.
He spoke up when SL Bhyrappa criticised The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, drawing attention to the complexity of the character. Attempting to explain the difference between history and history retold as myth, he said referring to his earlier play Tughlak, “I don’t have an iota of interest in the historical Muhammad Tughlaq. I have no interest as to whether he was good or evil, whether he was pro or anti-Hindu. I wished to write an entertaining play, and in the endeavour, wanted to choose a fairly complex character.” (in Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore by Sandeep Balakrishna)
And he spoke up against narrow linguistic chauvinism, even that of Kannada. Above those who appear to have succeeded in changing the meaning of critical terms of public discourse, wherein cultures turn civil, terms like liberalism, urbanity, secular, his name towers high, and his plays shall answer even as he goes silent, the picture of a genius, breathing in through an oxygen mask many languages, many cultures, with a placard that simply says, “Urban Naxal”.