Girish Karnad's legacy remains relevant for India

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 11, 2019 15:36 hrs
Girish Karnad departs!

Tributes poured in for veteran actor and playwright Girish Karnad who passed away at the age of 81 in Bengaluru after a prolonged illness. He is considered to be one of the country’s most prominent and critically acclaimed playwrights in Kannada literature.

Born in 1938 in Matheran, resent day Maharashtra, to a government worker father, the family moved to Karnataka in 1942. Growing up without electricity in his place of residence in Sirsi, his only form of entertainment were Yakshagana performances and movies that were screened occasionally. In a documentary about his life, he says of this time, “But otherwise the only entertainment was stories. It was a world full of stories.”

Throughout his life, he was conferred with many awards – the Padma Shri in 1974 and the Padma Bhushan in 1992, Jnanpith Award, the nation’s highest literary honour, in 1998. He established the Karnataka Nataka Academy, and the Nehru Center in London. He was also the President of the Film and Television Institute of India between 1999 and 2001.

He resisted the chance to switch to English poetry in the midst of his stint at Oxford University studying philosophy, politics and economics and obtaining a Rhodes scholarship. He stuck to his roots and published his first play, Yayati, while studying at Oxford. He became the President of the Oxford Union in 1962-63. Scholar Rita Kothari reflects on Yayati and its central theme, in a column for the Indian Express –

Karnad provides an allegory of responsibility, his way of grappling with his family whilst in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Yayati demands of Puru what does not belong to Puru alone, for no sacrifice involves only the giver and taker; it has repercussions on others around us.”

Another one of his celebrated works is Tughlaq in 1964, his second play. In an interview years after he had writes it, he stated the parallels of Tughlaq’s reign and Nehru’s leadership after independence. Author Nishtha Gautam, writes on this play and its parallels to the political arena –

Tughlaq has turned out to be a literary work for all times. His ruthlessness found easy parallels with the Emergency-era excesses. Karnad’s Tughlaq problematised the very idea of secular nationhood of India. The most important takeaway from the play, however, is that secularism can only be an outcome of love and nobility of intent, and not noblesse oblige or, vengeance.”

His early influences of seeing street plays and familiarizing himself with western dramas shaped his secular ideology of equality which are a theme in his works. This wasn’t just limited to the stage. He made a name for himself in cinema as well. In 1970, a Kannada film called Samskara had trouble with the censors. The film tackled deep rooted conservatism and age old Brahmin ideology; it was radical for the time and was co-written by Karnad which would also be his acting debut.

This theme of examining social structures and tradition was key to making Karnad a beacon for secular liberalism. He is regarded in a select group of playwrights along with Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar and Vijay Tendulkar, his contemporaries. Mumbai-based playwright Ramu Ramanathan, recalls his memories of Karnad in a column for the Indian Express on how his and the works of the other three contemporaries shaped him –

For me, Karnad was always one of the Big Four. During the golden period of Indian theatre, the Big Four valued each other’s work. Karnad brought his unique sensibility to theatre. He delighted audiences by overturning conventions, and with a freewheeling use of mythology.” 

As with many in the theatre and arts community, Karnad wasn’t one to be apathetic. His plays were a reflection of his thinking and challenged social norms and structures. and protests were something he took part in. Most recently, in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh and the arrests of authors and journalists last year, he joined in to add his voice to the chorus despite a tube around his nose and drawing breath from a small unit placed on his lap.

He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. In November 2012, at the Tata Literature Live! Festival, his comments on VS Naipaul drew criticism. He criticised the author, who at the time was awarded the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He sharply came down on Naipaul for his mischaracterisations of Indian history and borrowing from western philosophers and thinkers for his interpretation of Indian history and culture. He stated in part, “To Naipaul, the Indian Muslim remains an invader forever, forever condemned to be condemned, because some of them had invaders for their ancestors. Of the award itself, one can only call it shameful.

For his stance on secularism and his ideology, he was often criticised by those who stood with Hindutva and right-wing ideology. His legacy will be that his works will be studied and dissected for years to come as society, culture and the country changes, his works take on new light and meaning. Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta writes in the Hindu on the lessons to draw from his work -

But the fundamental lesson of Karnad’s work, and its tragic vision, is that individual histories are not built in this way. Individual histories are directed both by heart and mind, by the desire to leave a legacy — but also, inevitably, by the desire to hold on to power.

More columns by Varun Sukumar