Should one feel sad or happy about Girish Karnad being remembered mainly for his work in films and less as a playwright of unique distinction? Sad, because those who remember him only because of the films he featured in be they in Kannada or Telugu or Hindi and even Marathi, live in the ignorance of not knowing about one of the greatest contemporary playwrights in Post-Colonial Indian literature. Happy, for those who are aware of the contribution of this contemporary literary genius who, through his writings and his stand on social and political issues that violate human rights without care, has enriched the fabric of Indian ideology and culture for all time.
Karnad was born on May 19, 1938 in Matheran, Bombay Presidency, now Maharashtra. While his initial schooling was in Marathi, he did his BA at Karnatak University, Dharwad, majoring in in Mathematics and Statistics, and subsequently, completed his MA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. After his return to India, Karnad worked with the Oxford University Press in Chennai for seven years, leaving the job in 1970 to become a full-time writer. The seeds of his love for plays were probably sown when his father shifted to a small town in Karnataka visited often by travelling theatre known as Natya Mandallis, which Karnad, as a boy, became fond of. But all that came much later.
One wonders what drove him to writing as a career when his academic achievements could easily have led to an equally successful career because his academic qualifications certainly leave no room for improvement. The play that started Girish Karnad’s successful career as a playwright was Yayati. It was penned over a few weeks in 1960 when Karnad was planning to leave India for Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar for three years against the wishes of his parents. Hence, the play had its relevance in that older generation demand sacrifices on the part of younger generation. Karnad wrote this play when he was only 22. This marked the beginning of a brilliant career. Karnad’s adaptation holds an important place in these adaptations. He challenges the very authority of parents by inventing the character of Chitralekha who questions the moral authority of Yayati in taking over her husband’s youth on the very first night of their marriage.
Indian history records Mohammed Bin Tughlaq as a crazy king. But Karnad in his play Tughlaq (1964) offers a different interpretation. It begins with Tughlaq ordering his men to return the assets to Bishnuprasad because he did not wish to encourage any schism between the Hindus and the Muslims in his kingdom. This was first staged in London by the National School of Drama under the direction of Ibrahim Alkazi in 1982. The play focuses on the metamorphosis of Mohammed Bin Tughlaq who was in reality a sensitive and intelligent king who history books had both misunderstood and maligned, almost for good. One wonders how many of us who know Tughlaq through our history text books have seen this side of his character.
According to Parvathi Menon (Frontline, Volume 16, No.3, 1999), “Karnad won the Kamaladevi Award of the Bharatiya Natya Sangh in 1972 for his play Hayavadana, the theme of which was drawn from “Transposed Heads”, a story by Thomas Mann. In it Karnad used the folk art form of yakshagana to examine the modern problem of the body/intellect divide. The character Padmini’s search for the complete man who must have the best attributes of mind and body is frustrated in spite of her best efforts, and she realises that it is the intellect that is supreme and always determines what a man is and will become. The play was directed in German by Vijaya Mehta as part of the repertoire of the Deutsches National Theatre, Weimar.”
Karnad’s unique distinction as a playwright lay in his command over the adaptation of mythical narratives and historical chronicles and turns them into performance theatre. He would pick from these sources and deliver these as drama that could be performed without changing the form while changing some of the content to question the original. Thus, these are in their Karnad form, offer new perspectives on life and also on the character of the protagonist to make it contemporary and topical.
His debut in films was marked by the film version of UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara. This was in 1970 by which time he was already a noted playwright. He wrote the screenplay of the film along with the director Pattabhirama Reddy. The film bagged the National Award for the Best Feature Film in 1970. He portrayed the role of Praneshacharya, a devout Brahmin who is pious and follows the rules of Brahmanism to the letter. What happens when he breaks one of the most regimented rules – celibacy – fleshes out the closure of the film. It was not passed by the censors initially but after interference from the powers that be, it was allowed to play in the theatres.
Another important film in Karnad’s career is Cheluvi, which was screened at the 1992 IFFI and is based on his own story worked upon an old folk tale. He also acted in the film in which Sonali Kulkarni played the title role of a beautiful girl, who is blessed to become a tree at night that flowers beautifully. It is a surrealistic tale on love expressed in an unique way.
Shyam Benegal perhaps was the first national director to have picked Karnad for his films like Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976), where he played important roles that were relatively submerged under the significance of the protagonists. Nishant portrays him as a straightforward schoolteacher who is so much of a coward that when his wife is abducted by the village landlord and gang raped everyday, he does not have the guts to confront them. In Manthan, he portrays Dr Rao, a city surgeon who arrives at Kheda in Gujarat and begins a cooperative movement that will stop the very poor peasants who eke out a livelihood of selling milk from being exploited by the rich zamindar. But he is also hounded out of the village on false charges and almost runs away with his ailing wife.
In Basu Chatterjee’s Swami, based on a Sarat Chandra novel, he plays the title role with his usual subtlety and complete absence of drama and this perhaps remains one of his most memorable performances in Hindi cinema. He portrayed another classic role in Sur Sangam (1985) directed by K Viswanath, where he had to acquire some command over the intricacies of classical music because he plays the protagonist Pandit Shivashankar Shastri who finally gets an ideal pupil to dedicate his learning in music. He also wrote the script for Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) and directed Utsav (1984), produced by Shashi Kapoor.
Karnad sometimes essayed negative roles such as in Nagesh Kukkunoor’s Iqbal (2005), where he plays a cricket coach with ulterior motives and in the same director’s film Dor (2006), where he plays the extremely exploitative father-in-law to his young daughter-in-law. Sometimes, you could feel that is heart was not in his role and this lack of interest came across in his performance. But he said many times that he worked in films for money alone and no other reason. Thankfully, it was not so in Jabbar Patel’s Subah (Umbartha in Marathi, 1982), he portrayed the quiet husband of the character played by Smita Patil, a husband who remains patient till a point and then openly admits to his wife that in her absence, he had had an affair and would not be able to break it now. In Ashaayein (2010), a Nagesh Kukkunoor film on a young gambler whose life takes an about turn when he realises he has cancer, Karnad played a cancer survivor who speaks with the help of a elecrtolarynx because of his cancer. It was a small role but significant.
He was better placed, positioned and presented as an actor and sometimes, even director in Kannada films. After making his directorial debut (actually co-diretorial as the film was directed by him and BV Karanth) with the National Award-winning Vamsha Vriksha (1971), in 1973, Karnad directed Kaadu in Kannada and its screenplay was based on a novel of the same name by Srikirshna Alanhalli The film bagged both National Awards and at the 21stFilmfare State Awards in the South. The central character is a small boy of eight called Kitti, who comes to live with his uncle and aunt and the entire story is presented from his perspective. Interestingly, Govind Nihalani did the cinematography for the film while the music was by BV Karanth. The film was Karnad’s first venture as an independent director.
In 1978, he co-wrote, directed and acted in arguably his finest and most cinematic film, Ondanondu Kaladalli. The film has some fascinating stunt scenes, involving Kalaripayattu. Ondanondu Kaladalli is an epic masterpiece. The film won the 1978 National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Kannada, the Jury citation saying, “For delineating the code of warrior’s ethics in a medieval setting with a modern vision. The film has excellent outdoor photography, high standards of acting and an eye-catching decor”. Lead actor, Shankar Nag, received the “Best Actor : Silver Peacock Award” at the 7th International Film Festival of India for his work in the film.
Delving into non-fiction as well, Karnad made his first documentary on the Kannada poet, DR Bendre, who he considered one of his mentors. Two more documentaries, namely, Kanakapurandara (1988) and The Lamp in the Niche (1989), both in English, received global acclaim.
His most popular television appearance was in Swami and Friends, part of the wonderful series, Malgudi Days (1987) in which he portrayed the very strict father of Swami who pulled him up for his antics. The serial had excellent repeat value and retained its popularity for a long time. Ever the dedicated actor, he learnt the Kuchipudi dance form to slip into the role of a Kuchipudi dance guru who was fighting to break the taboo on girls learning Kuchipudi in the Kannada-Telugu film Ananda Bhairavi.
Karnad has been bestowed with the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, the Sahitya Academy Award and also the Jnanpeeth Award for his rich contribution to literature which, he concentrated on writing plays in Kannada and then translated them himself into English. He also won a Honorary Doctorate from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. There are many more accolades and achievements that are so many that it is amazing to discover one man having achieved so much in so many fields during a lifetime of academics, culture, literature, dramatics and cinema. He was appointed Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago and also was a Fulbright Playwright-in-residence during 1987-88. He served as Director of the FTII, Pune which he quit as his protest against the Emergency in the mid 1970s. He was Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1988-1993) and was appointed Minister of Culture in the Indian High Commission, London (2000-2003). His autobiography in Kannada entitled Aadhaadtha Aayushyawas published in Kannada in 2011.
Girish Karnad passed away in his Bengaluru residence on the morning of June 10, 2019 of multiple organ failure. He had been ailing for the past two years but that did not stop him from taking part in pubic protests against the brutal murders of Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. He later learnt that his name was at the top of the hit list prepared by the Hindu Rightist fundamentalists who had allegedly killed Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh and Narayan Dhabolkar. He would still attend the protest meetings and the annual meeting to commemorate the first anniversary of the Gauri Lankesh killing with a mobile oxygen cylinder attached to his body and its tubes running through his nose. Such was the indomitable spirit of Karnad.