Aesthete, intellectual, restless storyteller. Looking back at Girish Karnad in the light of his newly released memoirs
He was our own Forrest Gump. Always at the right place at the right time. His was one of the hands that cut modern Indian theatre’s umbilical cord with traditional forms such as company nataka in Karnataka or Parsi theatre in north India.
When Kannada cinema staked its claim on neorealism with the film version of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s searing portrayal of Brahminism in his novel Samskara, Girish Karnad not only played the lead, he was also a key mover in the making of the film. When Hindi cinema had its ‘art’ moment in the early 70s, Karnad was in the midst of it as actor and writer. When television took off and became a regular feature of urban middle class life, there was Karnad as Swami’s father in Malgudi Days, and as the sophisticated host of the science show Turning Point.
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But he was not a bystander witnessing — or accidentally influencing — history. He was very much a participant, who shaped that history actively.
He wanted to be a poet, and was disappointed when he found he was actually a playwright. But having made that discovery, he took the form by the horns, and made it do his bidding. Along with Dharamvir Bharati (Andha Yug, written in 1952 but produced only a decade later), Vijay Tendulkar (Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe, 1967), Mohan Rakesh (Ashadh Ka Ek Din, 1958), and Badal Sircar (Ebong Indrajit, 1963), Karnad’s Yayati (1961) and Tughlaq (1964) reset the field of modern Indian theatre.
In passing, one might mention the other Forrest Gump who connected all these dots, Satyadev Dubey. In one way or another, Dubey was a key figure in the career of all these playwrights. It was Dubey who first recognised that Karnad’s Yayati was not just a piece of literature, it was eminently stageworthy; Andha Yug came to Ebrahim Alkazi courtesy Dubey; Hayavadana was first directed by Dubey with Amrish Puri and Amol Palekar in the lead.
Karnad was at heart a storyteller whether on stage or on film — who was, however, dissatisfied with how stories had been told up to then. He was impatient, restless, passionate, seeking his voice. He retained his creative restlessness till the end — his last three plays have hardly anything in common with his first three.
There is much in his memoirs, This Life at Play, about his life as an artistic pioneer. There is also the stuff that people look for when they read the memoirs of famous artists — his association, interaction, and collaboration with fellow artists and other notables. There is that smoky whiff of a derisive remark here; the rich aroma of a full-blown argument there. There is even the cherry on the cake of an overture from the mother of the most famous female cinestar of the 70s to marry her daughter.
But what makes the memoirs stand out are the other narrative arcs embedded in them. One is that of his mother, who was widowed, was passionate about reading and writing, and lived for five years with a man before marrying him. Karnad, the consummate storyteller, is only too aware of the power and drama of his mother’s life, and rightly opens his memoirs with it.
Then there’s the question of language. When Karnad began writing, Kannada was a sort of rustic cousin of the more cosmopolitan Marathi, which had a flourishing literary scene. By the time of his death, Kannada had undergone a renaissance, and had more Jnanpith awardees than any other, the last being Karnad himself. Ironically though, as he admits, he struggled with the language even as he chose it as the primary vehicle for his creativity.
Karnad’s first job was as an editor at Oxford University Press. He was a bit of a Forrest Gump here too. He was there when OUP began publishing Indian authors. One of the finest, A.K. Ramanujan, was his close friend and intellectual mentor. Karnad was also among the earliest Indian playwrights whose works were translated and published in English. Contrary to his own expectation, the books sold extremely well.
Another arc in Karnad’s memoirs is how a small-town boy escaped provincialism and the narrow bounds of his caste to become a sophisticated aesthete, a thoroughly cosmopolitan public intellectual, and artist. Karnad’s descriptions of his Konkan-North Karnataka Gaud Saraswat Brahmin upbringing — where his father’s preference for safety over adventure reflected his caste’s dominant view — and his struggle to break out of the straitjacket are fascinating.
He won a Rhodes Scholarship and arrived in Oxford at an interesting, transitory moment. The empire was more or less gone, and Oxbridge was no longer the waiting lounge for future colonial administrators. Now, boys and girls from the middle and working classes were coming in too, and, without secure futures guaranteed by their lineage, they had to work to make something of their lives.
Karnad returned to India in 1963. What if he had gone there half a decade later, when May 1968 shook Paris and radicalised an entire generation of students on either side of the Atlantic? Would he have become an Indian Tariq Ali, a lifelong firebrand and revolutionary? But he didn’t. He was the provincial Indian boy who became a man about town, who chose to bring his sherwani to Oxford Union debates, not a volume of Trotsky.
Karnad’s radical turn had to wait a quarter century. He recognised the demolition of the Babri Masjid as a watershed moment, and from then on, he was outspoken in his opposition to fascists. They attacked his views on Tipu Sultan, his defence of the shrine of Baba Budan Giri, his opposition to the assassinations of intellectuals. He received death threats, his house was attacked. But Karnad was not to be cowed down. He knew he was a giant, and he was determined to use his privilege and stature to fight back.
The image of him with a placard around his neck proclaiming ‘Me Too Urban Naxal’ at a public function while breathing through an oxygen cylinder still gives goosebumps. Karnad’s life journeyed with the life of our newly independent, secular, democratic nation, through all its trials and tribulations. He played a stellar part in shaping its public culture. Hindutva’s bigotry stepped on the tube that supplied the country oxygen. It threatened the very foundation of his liberal, syncretic, pluralistic, and rational worldview.
As theatreperson, filmmaker, actor, rationalist, public intellectual, Karnad had conducted a dialogue with India for 50 years. Now, dialogue itself was under attack. And that was intolerable for one of India’s most eminent playwrights.
The publisher and theatreperson is the author of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi.