As he was preparing to leave for Oxford to take up the Rhodes Scholarship, in 1960, Girish Karnad read through C. Rajagopalachari’s renderings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He had wanted to brush up on the epics before going abroad. The story of Yayati from the Mahabharata, Karnad recalls in his autobiography, Aadadata Ayushya (2011), gripped him. If a father asked his son to swap his youth with him, what might the latter’s wife do in such a situation? Would she accept that unnatural situation? These questions haunted Karnad.
The conversation between Yayati and his daughter-in-law, Chitralekha, Karnad writes, took form in his mind first with the rest of the play shaping itself around it. He writes: “I didn’t think I was writing a play at all. When the characters started running around me, I put their conversations to paper like a stenotypist. It was as if a ghost had possessed me. I have never again felt such an experience of surrender while writing a play.” Karnad was twenty-two when he published Yayati in 1960. An older playwright and the proprietor of Manohar Granthamala in Dharwar, G.B. Joshi, published it. That was the beginning of a long and affectionate publishing relationship between Joshi, his son, Ramakant Joshi, and Karnad.
Yayati found a warm reception in Kannada literary circles. At Joshi’s insistence, Karnad chose to write another play. This time, his play evolved around the figure of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, the ambitious Sultan of Delhi in the fourteenth century. Karnad was already at Oxford then. In contrast with the writing experience of the first play, Tughlaq took nearly two years of research and writing. Published in 1964, Tughlaq, a powerful portrayal of the king’s complex personality and idealism and an allegory of state power in independent India, confirmed Karnad’s status as a major Indian playwright.
The unfolding phase of literary modernism (Navya) in Kannada had seen figures like Gopalakrishna Adiga and B.C. Ramachandra Sharma in poetry, and U.R. Ananthamurthy, P. Lankesh and Purnachandra Tejasvi in fiction, but not writers of their stature in theatre. Karnad and then Chandrashekar Kambar filled that space.
On returning from Oxford, Karnad worked as assistant manager in the Chennai office of Oxford University Press. During his seven-year tenure there, he found intellectual sustenance through his association with Cholamandalam, a collective of artists, and Madras Players, the English theatre group, in Chennai.
Karnad chose to translate his plays into English himself. When his close friend and well-known poet and translator, A.K. Ramanujan, had showed interest in translating his plays, he hadn’t taken up the offer. A knowledge of theatre was fundamental, Karnad had recalled to me once, for translating a play. The translations and the adaptations of his plays in various Indian languages took Karnad’s work to audiences outside Karnataka.
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An opportunity to act the role of Praneshacharya, the lead protagonist in the eponymous film adaptation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novel, Samskara, in 1970, launched an acting career for Karnad. Seen in numerous films in south Indian languages and Hindi, his roles in Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976), and in Shankar Nag’s television adaptation of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, are among the most memorable roles of his career. Younger film goers might remember him more from his roles in commercial Hindi and Kannada blockbusters like Ek Tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai and AK-47.
A chance opportunity for co-directing a Kannada film, Vamsa Vriksha (1971), with noted theatre director B.V. Karanth, saw Karnad go on to direct several films in Kannada and Hindi, including Kaadu (Forest, 1973), Ondanandu Kaladalli (Once Upon a Time, 1978), Utsav (Festival, 1985) and Kanooru Heggadati (The Matriarch of Kanooru, 1999).
While Ondanandu Kaladalli, a film about two warring tribal clans, will count among the best of Kannada cinema and his role as Praneshacharya will let us see fine acting talent in him, the creative activity that Karnad most closely identified with was writing plays. His plays, which revisit mythological and historical episodes, like Tughlaq, Hayavadana and Taledanda, are more powerful as drama and philosophical engagements than those that work with contemporary settings, like Marriage Album (2006) or Boiled Beans on Toast (2012). Published last year to high acclaim, his last play, Rakshasa Tangadi (Crossing over to Talikote), is set against the battle of Talikote that brought about the end of the Vijayanagar empire in the mid-16th century.
Over the last couple of years, Karnad was at work on writing his autobiography in English. He didn’t want to translate the Kannada original as the details taken-for-granted with the home audience wouldn’t travel straightforwardly to an English audience.
Karnad had been at the helm of several cultural institutions, including the positions of director of the Film and Television Institute of India (1974-75), the president of Karnataka Nataka Academy (1976-78), Sangeet Natak Akademi (1988-1993) and the director of Nehru Centre, London (2000-2003). A study of his contributions in these roles will be good to see.
Secularism and other democratic ideals mattered deeply for Karnad. His passionate concerns about the future of these ideals surfaced eloquently and powerfully in public fora, especially so over the last two decades, which have seen the rise of the Hindu Right in India. His presence lent strength to local protest meetings organised to express care for the well-being of Indian democracy.
A great playwright, actor, film director, institution builder and a charming speaker, Girish Karnad was a rare figure among us.
The author is a Professor of Sociology at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. Views are personal.
The excerpt from Girish Karnad’s autobiography is translated by the author.
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