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Issue:June' 2019


Creative world of Girish Karnad

Mamtha Sharma, Bengaluru

Girish Karnad In the death of noted Jnanpeeth award winner, Girish Karnad, the country has lost one of its tallest playwrights, someone who was equally at home as a film director and actor ,both in Kannada and Hindi. In addition , he headed several national institutes like the Film and Television Institute of India, Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Nehru Centre in London,for example.
For one who was passionate about India and its culture and tradition , Karnad also took the lead in protesting against violence affecting writers and journalists, especially when it came to the murder of M M Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. In fact, while investigating Gauri’s murder, the Karnataka police found that Karnad's name was first on the hit list of groups that were targeting several litterateurs and rationalists.

This apart, when the state government was scouting to name the newly constructed Bengaluru airport, Karnad had no hesitation in voting for Tipu Sultan ,much to the dislike of many. He had even written a play on Tipu Sultan, a king he admired a lot. The airport was ultimately called the K e m p e g o w d a International Airport.

Noted for his progressive views, Karnad made a mark first with his play, Tughlaq, in 1964 , which was based on Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq . Before Tughlaq, he wrote Yayati in 1961 and that too while still studying at Oxford ,at the age of 22.

Yayati, which was translated in English and some vernacular languages, was based on the Mahabharata and centred around the story of Yayati, the king, while establishing Karnad’s increasing use of history and mythology. Tughlaq, his next play in 1964 , significantly, told the story of the 14th-century Sultan Muḥammad bin Tughluq and remains among perhaps his best known works.
Incidentally, in his autobiography, Karnad said that enroute to England to study at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, he had read Chakravarti Rajagopalachari or Rajaji’s version of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to understand “our Itihasa and Puranas.” He was particularly fascinated by the character of Yayati in the Mahabharata ,especially the concept where the son “ is older than the father , seemed to fascinate me.”
The predicament of Yayati, Pandavas ancestor apart, what affected him more was the character of Puru, his son. Incidentally,in the epic Puru gave up his youth for his father so that the latter could enjoy a sensual life. As Karnad says in his autobiography Aadadata Ayusha,” a question began to haunt me. What if Puru had a wife.? Would she have approved of this unnatural arrangement and allowed her husband to sacrifice his youth for his father.

No wonder, as he puts it subsequently ,he began to actually hear the dialogues being spoken in “my ears and my job was to pen them on paper.” Predictably, his approach did not go down well with many conservatives though the play did evoke huge all round appreciation . Mythology and folktales remained his favourites, as he wove them into contemporary stories.

Karnad remained unaffected by the criticism against him by the traditionalists as in his one –act radio play, Ma Nishada in 1964 ,which was based on the Ramayana,he did not hesitate to question Rama’s role,to go by one chronicler. Post this came his equally famous works, Tughlaq and Hayvadana, which earned him international fame, establishing Karnad also as a Kannada playwright of eminence. In fact, plays like Yayati, Tughlaq, Hayavadana, Taedanda, Agni Mattu Male and Nagamandala are known as classics in Kannada.

He also made his debut as an actor and screenwriter in the Kannada film Sanskara in 1970 ,which incidentally won the President’s Golden Lotus Award . Subsequently, Vamsa VrIksha followed.

Incidentally, to go by one newspaper, Girish Karnad was associated with some of the best things to happen to Kannada culture in living memory, even though his critics believed that he was too elitist and Westernised while being blind to the virtues of Hinduism. Karnad was conferred Padma Shri in 1974 before going on to get the Padma Bhushan and the Jyanpeeth award, in recognition of his contributions to the arts, literature and theatre.

Importantly, he did not limit himself to writing as he began delving in acting ; even screenwriting in 1970 in the Kannada film Samskara, based on UR Ananthamurthy’s novel. The film won the first President's Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. He followed this up with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), co-directed by BV Karanth. His well-known films in Kannada, include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane and Ondanondu Kaaladalli.

The multifaceted personality that he was, it did not take long for him to act in Hindi movies as well even as he directed the much acclaimed movie, Utsav. Besides acting in other Hindi movies like Nishant, Karnad played the role of Swami’s father in the well known TV adaptation of R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days.
Not many know, that he also hosted a weekly science programme on the Doordarshan titled Turning Point. Featuring Indian scientist Yash Pal, the award-winning show explained complex, modern scientific discoveries in simple language.
Shabana Azmi, the well known actress, while paying tribute to Karnad said he was a true intellect whose life could not be described in a single byte. Few people know that when Shyam Benegal first made Ankur, it was a very lengthy film ,so he roped in Girish to edit the narrative.

Girish Karnad’s plays provoked many in the last six decades, it did not stop him from getting known and recognised at home and across the globe. For, he was a great artist, scholar and a brilliant playwright.

She also narrated that as the director of the FTII , Karnad had showed immense maturity in handling a students’ strike that was led by none other than Naseeruddin Shah. The exchanges between them were not always memorable. “But to Girish’s remarkable credit that didn’t deter him from recommending Naseer to Shyam Benegal for a very important role in Nishant — his first break in films that launched Shah’s career and established him as a fine actor. A lesser person than Girish could have been revengeful.”

As one critic noted, while Girish Karnad’s plays provoked many in the last six decades, it did not stop him from getting known and recognised at home and across the globe. For, he was a great artist, scholar and a brilliant playwright.

Not surprising ,therefore, to see that the country,as a whole, and the creative world in particular, is finding it difficult to come to terms with the huge loss.