A Tribute to Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad, A Tribute
by Uma Magal
(Photographs kind courtesy of Chaitanya Karihalli M.)


With the passing of Girish Karnad this year, India, and indeed the world, has lost one of its most inquiring and creative minds. Often cited as an example of a Renaissance man, Karnad straddled the worlds of Math and Literature, Cinema and Theatre, Poetry and Prose, Kannada and English, Local and Global with ease. His work in the field of Cinema and Theatre is renowned, his plays studied in universities, and, produced by theatre groups not only in his own Dharwad and Bengaluru but all over India and the world.


Karnad served as director of the Indian Film and Television Institute of India (1974-75), and chair of Sangeet Natak Akademi, the national academy of performing arts (1988-93). From 2000 to 2003, he was director of the Nehru Centre of the high commission of India in London, during which tenure his play Bali (The Sacrifice) was staged at the Leicester Haymarket theatre.


After his undergraduate work in maths and statistics at Karnataka University, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar to study for an MA in philosophy, politics and economics. Why he chose math for his undergraduate program is now the stuff of lore! As a young student, restless to escape the confines of small-town Dharwad and take his place amongst the poets of the world abroad, he strategized his studies: choosing math over his love of literature since it was possible to score full marks in Mathematics and consequently be more assured of the scholarship he needed to study abroad. More of his shrewd pragmatism manifested itself, once he was at Oxford: he contested and won the election to the post of the university’s prestigious debating society, because the post of its secretary brought along the comfort of a room with a separate bath!


But, the young lad, who dreamt of a life and a position for himself among the great poets of the West, underwent a transformation here. In his own words: “After having experienced alienation of various sorts in English society, the innocence about talent getting a huge reception, and success being assured in England, had somewhat dissolved in my head. I asked myself if I would ever get the near maternal affection with which the Kannada intellectual world had celebrated my first play, Yayati. I concluded that my decision to settle down abroad was not only vacuous, but also self-defeating…. So, I landed up in India where a cultural resurgence had begun. Although the country’s economy was struggling, a grand new spirit was being forged in the world of films, literature and theatre. It was opening up doors to a new era and it beckoned me. It is into this infinite opportunity that I had walked in.”


Indeed, Girish Karnad lived up to this opportunity. He was part of the renaissance in Indian theatre and cinema that started in the 1960’s, writing, directing and acting in many productions that are now benchmarks of the era: Samskara, Vamshavrikhsha, Tabbaliyu Neenade Maggane…The last is a film in Kannada directed by Karnad written by Bhyrappa. The title translates to “You are orphaned now, my son”. It seems a rather insightful indicator of his own reality, of how he broke from the rigid orthodoxy of caste and other social hierarchies to which he belonged – a voluntary orphaning of himself, so to speak – from his own origins. He went on to become one of the most muscular voices against caste rigidities/tyrannies, communal hatreds and other social pathologies.


He will be remembered for all this, but it is for his plays, which creatively deploy myths, folklore and historical events to shine a light upon the multiverse of transformations, divisions and celebrations in modern India, that he will be most remembered. His writing is remarkable for its exquisite use of language. Equally remarkable is its tight control over structure. In his own words: “I realized the impact that mathematics had on me when I started writing Tughlaq at Oxford. I solved the structural issues like I would while working on theorems. I first figured out what internal network and relationship different aspects and characters of the play had, what its balance at various points were, and what happens to that balance if the play progresses in a certain direction, just like it happens in a theorem. The technical training, I needed to write plays came from mathematics.”


The story goes that when the legendary A K Ramanujan told a folktale to Karnad and Chandrashekhar Kambar, both went on to write plays based on it: Kambar’s was the lovely lush musical Siri Sampige and Karnad wrote the stunning Nagamandala.


The title of his autobiography is Aaadaadtha Aayusha. It translates to ‘’A Life in Play’’, another title that speaks to the reality of how he lived his life. It could be said that he scripted his passing with the same principled vision that held his dramaturgy together. There was no ritual, no priests, no state funeral was allowed, no television coverage nor any crush of the public. It was private as he wished it to.


No tribute to Girish Karnad would be complete without referring to Sirsi and Dharwad in Karnataka. It is in his formative years here, that the cornerstones of his sensibility were set. There was no electricity in the Sirsi of his childhood, but the dark hours were filled with the telling of stories, myth, legend and folklore, his delighted distilling of which was to find its way into being a highlight of his vision and work. It was in Dharwad at the Manohara Grantamala, a small publishing house, that he met the wise mentors who nurtured his talent. They published all his works and despite the global acclaim and opportunity that came his way, Karnad stayed loyal to them throughout his life and career. His upbringing, his clear love and celebration of all that he imbibed here, is what makes his work uniquely Indian while also speaking to the issues of the world.


He was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s top civilian honours, in 1974, and the Padma Bhushan in 1992. In 1998 he was the recipient of the Jnanpith award, India’s highest literary prize for his contribution to modern Indian drama.


Karnad was unafraid to take unpopular positions on the matters of the day. His was a strident voice for the rights of women, for the LGBT community, for respect for all castes and creeds. When the name for Bengaluru’s airport was being discussed, he voted for Tipu Sultan as against as against Kempegowda, and his choice didn’t go down too well with the powers that be. He wrote a play on Tipu as well. His play on the eccentric king Tughlaq is considered one of his best. His Taledanda is a play about Basava, the 12th century poet and reformer.


Karnad’s commitment to communal harmony, cultural diversity and reform of social ills also could be traced to his upbringing in Sirsi. The story goes that in a church near his home, the service happened in Konkani, Karnad’s mother tongue. It was entirely natural for him to attend the church every Sunday and participate and listen to Bible stories, along with his siblings and other friends, despite his family belonging to the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community. On another occasion, when a raised chair was required for an important Chitrapur Saraswat personage visiting the Karnad residence in Sirsi, it was entirely natural for the church to lend the chair it reserved for the Bishop. “The church had no problem that the chair was being borrowed to seat a Hindu religious head,” says Karnad.


That time, of this sort of simple and innocent accommodation of difference, of a multiverse of fellowship, where if one strand divided you another came forth to tie you together, is no more, and, along with the passing of Girish Karnad a resonant voice of this sensibility and for peace and coexistence is also no more.