Girish Karnad, the artiste as a brave intellectual
The pre-monsoon clouds lined Mumbai’s skies with a gloomy grey this Monday. When news trickled in of Girish Karnad’s demise, the grey deepened. His funeral, reports said, was in an understated way, without the State’s formalities and frills. Karnad had lived as a non-Establishment man, after all.
Reams have been written about the genius and luminescence of his awe-inspiring oeuvre in theatre, cinema, television, and institution building. A legacy as rich, varied and enduring would be hard to find. Karnad wrote plays that are now legendary in India’s theatre arc, for their range and depth; he directed and translated them; acted in art-house and commercial cinema; directed films. He presented on Doordarshan with élan; those in their 40s and above will remember him as little Swami’s father in “Malgudi Days” and as anchor of the science show “Turning Point”.
He shaped words and people at the Oxford University Press and Film & Television Institute of India; steered the Nehru Centre in London; supported countless artistes. At 81, Karnad had all the awards he could ever want and more, including the Jnanpith and Padma Bhushan. His work explored the nuances of power and delusion it brings; asked questions about the place of woman, customs and orthodoxy; dug deep into India’s traditions and mythology to merge it with the modern. His persona did more. And, this, in new India, was as important as his work with words and visuals.
Karnad’s legacy encompasses his public role as a libertarian, an uncompromising public intellectual, willing to defend the values enshrined in the Constitution and speak up for causes and people who could do with the weight of his voice. Historian and Karnad’s friend Ramachandra Guha said on television that night that Karnad was among India’s foremost public intellectuals but he would rather focus on Karnad’s remarkable creative legacy because there are other intellectuals around. But there was no one quite like Karnad. A colossus in his chosen fields, decorated and revered, he decided to bring the entire weight of it to bear upon issues facing us at this socio-political juncture. How many legends were or are willing to do this knowing it could throw them in harm’s way? Karnad was on the hit list of those who pumped bullets into other intellectuals, writers and thinkers. But it did not deter him. He could have taken refuge in his debilitating pulmonary condition. But he did not.
In the marches after scholar MM Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh were gunned down, in the “Not In My Name” and anti “Urban Naxal” protests – two important pushbacks to the majoritarianism now rampant – he was at the front; a quiet, dignified but forceful presence. Who else called out VS Naipaul for having “no idea of how Muslims contributed to Indian history” at a prestigious literature festival? Who had the temerity? He had quit FTII to protest the Emergency, he had criticised the Defamation Bill in 1988, he had taken a stand against the Babri Masjid demolition.
Indeed, a gallery of public personalities joined anti-majoritarian movements and continue to do so. Karnad’s participation, his willingness to stand firm despite the odds, his secular and rational voice against injustice and intolerance meant he was channelling the full gravitas of his work and awards behind the issues. When living legends do that, it makes a difference; all the more because not many living legends walk the talk in dark times.
Karnad was part-Mumbaiite, he told me on the sidelines of the literature festival, not only because he lived in Bandra for a few years, but also because he was of the Bombay Presidency. But there was no doubt he was rooted in Dharwad and Bengaluru. Kannada claims him as her own. So do Hindi, Marathi, English and every other language into which his work has been translated. He was a Chitrapur Saraswat, among the smallest communities of India, and joked at the community programme to felicitate him on his 75th birthday, that he would soon have to start writing in his mother tongue Konkani.
Konkani is poorer for not having enough of Karnad’s work. India is poorer without Karnad.