A cultural icon, a champion of democracy who earned the wrath of the Right
Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee
He was never RIGHT and yet he was never wrong. He was the last of the four giants after Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar and Mohan Rakesh who shaped Indian theatre since the 1960s. Alekar called him a creator of powerful stories. In an interview for India Today he said: “I see a legacy of my generation … I am happy to belong to a generation that had a Dharmaveer Bharti, Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar and me. Together we can claim that we did create a national theatre for modern India.”
Alekar recounted the plays written by Karnad Yayati which is a retelling of tale from the Mahabharata, the critically acclaimed Tughlaq as an allegory on an eccentric king to comment on the Nehruvian era and Hayavadana. Karnad reinvented myths and interpreted history with the strong belief in democracy of modern India. He was a fearless critic of any ideology that he opposed. He was also a great interpreter and admirer of the other young writers of his time.
Girish Karnad, a recipient of Jnanpith Award, was also conferred the Padma Shri in 1974 and the Padma Bhushan in 1992. He was born on May 19, 1938 in Matheran and attended Karnatak Arts College Dharwad. He was also a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford University, in the 1960s that earned him his Master of Arts degree in philosophy, political science and economics from Magdalen College Oxford.
In 1961 he wrote his first play Yayati while still at Oxford. In 1964 he wrote his most successful play Tughlaq. In 1970 he debuted as actor and screenwriter with Kannada movie Samskara. In 1971 he made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha. In 1986-87 he played the role of Swami’s father in TV series Malgudi Days. In 1974-75 he served as the Director of FTII. In 1999 he lent his voice to former President APJ Abdul Kalam’s audio autobiography Wings of Fire. In 2005 he won critical acclaim for his movie Iqbal. In 2012 he played the key role in Ek Tha Tiger.
He was best known for weaving history, mythology and folklore in his plays. In the last two decades he had taken bold stands on contemporary political issues making him one of the most trolled public figures in the state. It is unfortunate that his house was watched by a police constable constantly as his name was the first on the list of the public intellectuals on the hit-list of rightwing extremists. M.M. Kulburgi and Gauri Lankesh were also on the list and they were assassinated in 2015 and 2017. The fearless Karnad demanded that the killers of Kalburgi be brought to book. One of Kannada’s tallest literary figures, he never shied away from expressing his opinion much to the chagrin of the Right. In the early 2000s he even courted arrest while protesting against the communication of the syncretic sufi shrine Baba Budangiri. Besides supporting beef eating, his views on the 18th century ruler Tipu Sultan became the fuel for protests in late 2015.
A legendary actor and playwright Girish Karnad shaped Indian theatre since 1960. He was the founder member of the Theatre Academy of Pune. His unconventionality is a matter of headache for many. For example he said, “A man must commit a crime at least once in his life time. Only then his virtues be recognised”.
His plays written in Kannada were translated into English and several languages. He was popular on Television too. The movie Samsakara won the President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada Cinema. He also hosted a science magazine ‘Turning Point’ on state -run television in the early 1990s. His greatness as dramatist and actor was well recognised, but more than that he was great for his bold championing of freedom of expression and he could go to any length to condemn violent attacks on journalists and critics of religious superstitions. He was a violent critic of the Hindu nationalist politics. He was one of those 200 writers who appealed to people to ‘vote out hate politics’.
Multi-hyphenate artiste Girish Karnad was cremated quietly on June 10, as per his last wishes. The Karnataka government had offered to conduct last rites with state honours. This so loud a man in his lifetime be cremated so silently. He was an iconic personality in India’s cultural landscape. In spite of the offer of the Karnataka State Government for State Honours, no rituals were conducted or customs observed as he did not believe in all these in his lifetime. He will be remembered for his versatile acting across all mediums. He also spoke passionately on causes dear to him. His works will continue being popular in the years to come. Saddened by his demise PM Modi tweeted: “May his soul rest in peace.” In addition to the Jnanpith Award in 1988, he was also honoured with the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan apart from four National Film Awards and a Sahitya Akademi Honour. He was also a reputed scholar who raised his voice on socio-political issues. In a career spanning six decades, Karnad acted in Kannada, Hindi and Marathi films in both mainstream and parallel cinema. He was also a reputed scholar who raised his voice on socio-political issues. With a career spanning over six decades Karnad also featured in television serials including the famous ‘Malgudi Days’ based on the works of renowned Indian English author R.K Narayan besides the films in Marathi, Hindi and Kannada. He also bagged four filmfare awards including three for best director for Vamsha Vriksha in 1972, Kaadu in 1974 and Ondanondu Kaladalli in 1978 and one for his best screenplay for Gadhuli in 1980 along with another noted Kannada Film Director BV Karanth. Time will not wither his glory. As Enobarbus said about the never-fading beauty of Cleopatra we can also say using his words in a different way, ‘Age cannot wither his drama, nor can custom stale the infinite beauty of his drama.”