Girish Karnad: A wordsmith who championed the idea of India
His contribution to Kannada playwriting parallels that of Mohan Rakesh’s in Hindi, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, and Badal Sarkar in Bengali.
Bengaluru: His plays were a mix of myth and history but they always spoke of the contemporary reality and there lay the importance of Girish Karnad, a multi-hyphenate cultural icon who championed the freedom of expression and inclusive idea of India through his life and work.
Karnad, who died on Monday at his Bengaluru residence at the age of 81, lived several lives not only on the stage but also as a scholar, theatre personality, an actor and director in a career spanning over five decades. But it was the identity as a playwright that he most associated with, often drawing from the rich mythological and historical legacy of the country to weave stories about current socio-political issues.
A brilliant student, who graduated in mathematics but chose arts as his playing field, Karnad wrote his first play Yayati at the age of 23 in 1961. He and theatre great Ebrahim Alkazi influenced each other to a great extent. It was at Alkazi's home that Karnad was first introduced to mythology through a Hindi adaptation of Greek tragedy Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Tughlaq, his play about the impatient but idealist Muhammad bin Tughluq, the 14th century Sultan of Delhi, is considered his most famous stage work. An allegorical story about a Sultan, who spirals into disillusionment after failing to implement his visionary ideas, Tughlaq also reflected the disenchantment with Nehruvian ideals. It is considered relevant even today for its portrayal about the dangers of authoritarianism.
The play was staged by the National School of Drama Repertory, first by Om Shivpuri and later by Alkazi. It is considered one of the most stunning productions in Indian theatre history as Alkazi chose Delhi's majestic Purana Qila as its setting.
Karnad's other famous plays include Hayavadana, Angumalige, Hittina Hunja, Naga-Mandala, Tale-Danda, Agni Mattu Male and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. He was given Jnanpith Award, the highest literary recognition in India, in 1998.
His contribution to Kannada playwriting parallels that of Mohan Rakesh's in Hindi, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, and Badal Sarkar in Bengali.
Literature remained an important foundation of his work in cinema.
He ventured into the parallel cinema movement of the '70s with the Shyam Benegal-directed Nishant and Manthan. He played the lead role in Basu Chatterjee's Swami opposite Shabana Azmi.
Karnad played Swami's father in the TV adaptation of R.K. Narayan's Malgudi Days and hosted Turning Point, a science programme.
As a director, he helmed Kannada films such as Vamsha Vriksha, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Ondanondu Kaladalli, Kanooru Heggadithi and Hindi films Godhuli and Utsav.
Karnad was born in Maharashtra in 1938 as the third child to Dr Raghunath Karnad and Krishnabai. His family later shifted to Sirsi and Dharwad in Karnataka where he spent his formative years.