RIP Girish Karnad: The man who brought art, literature to the man on the street
Girish Ragunath Karnad, who died in Bengaluru on Monday morning aged 81, was better known as a playwright than for his work as an actor in films.
A brilliant Rhodes Scholar, who was born at Matheran in Maharashtra, Karnad started writing plays in Kannada during the 1960s – a period marked by renaissance of sorts in the Indian language theatre. It saw the rise of legends like Bengal’s Badal Sarkar, Maharashtra’s Vijay Tendulkar and Mohan Rakesh writing in Hindi. Karnad’s strength, like these authors, was how he used his native Kannada to turn out masterly plays, which bridged the wide gap between literature and the common man.
The plays worked because of their affinity to Kannada culture and way of life, and Karnad tasted success and fame that ran parallel to some of India’s greatest movie auteurs – Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Girish Kasaravalli, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan, among others – who relied on their mother tongue to give us unforgettable cinema.
Apart from the fact that Karnad was well versed in Kannada (he was also brilliant in English and Hindi), he had another important reason for writing in that language. Kannada literature during Karnad’s early years was highly influenced by Western literature and its own renaissance. Kannada writers were inspired by these, and their works looked terribly alien to the local culture and did not gel with the local milieu.
A chance reading of C Rajagopalachari’s (who became the first Governor-General of Independent India) Mahabharata in 1951 left a deep impact on the young Karnad. Sometime in the mid-1950s, he later said, he “experienced a rush of dialogues by characters from the epic, and they were speaking in Kannada.” This must have pushed him towards writing in Kannada.
Yayati was published in 1961 when Karnad was just 23; the play narrated the story of King Yayati, one of the ancestors of the Pandavas.
What was even more fascinating was Karnad’s ability to use history and mythology in a way that they became relevant to the modern man and his maladies. Much, much later, director-writer Vishal Bharadwaj (among others, of course) would draw on Shakespeare to talk about current issues. His Omkara was a superb take on Othello, but was set in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, and some of his other films inspired by the Bard of Avon turned out to be hits because of their contextual approach and feel. A lot of Karnad’s glory also emerged from the way he turned age-old mythological stories into something fascinatingly contemporary. He locked his characters into a web of today’s conflicts.
Nothing could be truer to this than his 1964 Tughlaq. Karnad used the 14-century Sultan’s idealism (which so many thought was utterly foolish) to say in an allegorical way how the Nehruvian brand of governance started with ambitious idealism and ended in disappointment. The play was staged under the direction of Ebrahim Alkazi.
In 1971, Karnad came up with Hayavadana, where he used the local folk theatre form of Yakshagana. Here the theme was culled out of a 1940 novella, The Transposed Heads (by Thomas Mann), which in turn was originally found in the 11thcentury Sanskrit text, Kathasaritasagara.
Naga-Mandala (1988), based on a folk tale, fetched Karnad the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the Most Creative Work on 1989.
Yes, Karnad was also an actor and a screenplay writer. His first foray into motion pictures – a completely different medium from theatre – happened in 1970, and the movie was no less than Samskara. Based on a novel by U R Ananthamurthy and helmed by Pattabhirama Reddy, Samskara (which got Kannada cinema its first President’s Gold Medal) had a strong anti-caste message, and the film was initially banned by the Madras Censor Board, but was later revoked by the Union Ministry for Information and Broadcasting. Karnad himself played a key role as a devout Brahmin, who is left in quandary after a rebel villager dies.
However, most of us would remember Karnad’s life as an actor in the television series, Malgudi Days (1986-87), in which he essays Swami’s father. RK Narayan’s books on which Malgudi Days was based were a rave in those days and Karnad had an important part to play in this popularity.
His role as a ruthless cricket coach in Nagesh Kukunoor’s 2005 Iqbal garnered huge appreciation. He also acted in Ek Tha Tiger and its sequel Tiger Zinda Hai in 2017.
It was only in 1971 that Karnad took up the megaphone to direct Vamsha Vriksha, based on a Kannada novel by SL Bhyrappa. Karnad shared the National Award for Best Direction with BV Karanth.
Of course, Karnad went on to helm several movies in Kannada and Hindi that included Godhuli and Utsav. Some his endearing works are Nishant, Manthan. These were in Hindi, and his hit Kannada works were Ondanodu Kaladalli ,Cheluvi and Kaadu. Hismost recent one, Kanooru Heggaditi, (1999), was based on a novel by Kannada writer Kuvempu.
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