Karnad used myth to understand the present

Karnad was, indeed, a master craftsman who re-examined and investigated existing and entrenched canons of playwriting. He forged a fresh vocabulary for performance, definitively changing the course, not only of playwriting, but also of playmaking.

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhury
Theatre person

My first memory of Girish Karnad is linked to my years as a student in the National School of Drama (NSD) in the mid-seventies. The news of Karnad's arrival in the school would lead to mass hysteria, as if a pop star was visiting. We students would rush to the corridors outside NSD Director Ebrahim Alkazi's office and peer through the small porthole window, hoping to get a glimpse of the tall and handsome playwright. For, by then, his reputation as a playwright had been mythologised in our minds and hearts through his celebrated plays Yayati (1960) and Tughlaq (1964).

I met Girish for the first time during the premiere of his film Godhuli in Mumbai —then Bombay — in 1977. BV Karanth, who was my teacher at the NSD was his collaborator in the film, and both accepted my dinner invite home.

Needless to say, I was overwhelmed.

As I had recently got married, everything for my husband Pushi and I was limited: limited space, limited liquor and limited food. Hence, inviting a famous writer and his film crew and Karanth, my guru, to my limited surroundings was a daunting proposition. But Karnad proved to be a charming and gracious guest, making Pushi and me feel at ease. The memory of having hosted the great man to a meal was special and almost four decades later I still nurture that occasion.

I recall him commenting on the graffiti on the wall by quoting from his favourite poet Walt Whitman scrawled in different fonts: 'Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contradict myself'. 

Who knew that many years later I would work on his play Naga Mandala at three different stages of my life and how this quote would prove prophetic! 

I moved to Chandigarh in 1984 and set up my own theatre company. Soon after, I read about his new play Naga Mandala and was fascinated by its unusual mix of the natural with the supernatural; the abstract with the real. And, to me, the interplay between fiction and reality, between contrary forces both singular and multitudinous as a concept, suggested endless possibilities as a director.

I slipped a postcard to Karnad, requesting to direct his yet unpublished, play and was pleasantly surprised to receive the manuscript in return. Eminent Punjabi poet Surjit Patar translated the text into Punjabi and we performed the play across the country and in several international festivals.   

Karnad believed that retrieving and archiving the past, not only reclaims the past, but also forges fresh relationships between modernity, tradition, history and contemporary norms. 

Naga Mandala is a complex play and boldly challenged the  existing dramatic  structure. It questioned and reaffirmed issues of what is 'real' and what is 'imagined'. As Karnad eloquently stated: 'Moments of love, moments of happiness — do they really happen or do we imagine them?'

After seeing our rendition of his play in Delhi's Kamani Auditorium in 1989, Karnad invited us to tour Karnataka and we ended up performing not only in Bangalore and Mysore but also in small towns like Udipi, Heggodu and Dharwad to receptive audiences.

In 2005, I revisited the play and once again in 2014. And each time it spoke to me afresh. It helped me recognise how Karnad used myth to understand the present, how the past and the present coalesced and came together, with or without contradiction, with or without subterfuge.

Karnad's capacity to change the course of his work was a source of constant amazement as it underwent continuous transformation and reinvention. From Naga Mandala to Marriage Album, Fire and Rain and to The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, history, myth, desire, sexuality, anger, hunger, greed and middle class realities were all topics and subjects that formed part of his creative oeuvre. His plays seamlessly dovetailed tradition and modernity and folklore with the classical, using devices that challenged all conventional notions of structure, mise en scene and characterisation.

He was, indeed, a master craftsman who re-examined and investigated existing and entrenched canons of playwriting. He forged a fresh vocabulary for performance, definitively changing the course, not only of playwriting, but also of playmaking. 

From the banning of a play to the felling of trees, all were issues to which he lent support. But his health was fragile and demanded rest. But, undaunted, he typically responded: 'For me the health of a city and its social values are more significant'.

Karnad's strong moral spine and an unshakable belief in a pluralistic and secular India, in which he was born, and one he wished to nurture and perpetuate were the core of his creative and personal journey. The haunting image of an ailing Girish Karnad, with tubes and a portable oxygen cylinder placed on his lap, his neck draped with a placard that read "Me Too Urban Naxal' at an event to mark the death anniversary of Gauri Lankesh, will remain an abiding image in popular memory.

But his capacity to inhabit many worlds and have the liquid fluidity to traverse from acting in a film Tiger Zinda Hai to a Samskara, indeed, revealed that he was comfortable traveling between the esoteric and the mundane; from the commercial and the popular to the philosophical and conceptual, with practised ease. 

As a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, he studied mathematics and, perhaps, this could possibly be the reason behind the precision in his plays, without the slightest hint of flabbiness.

How does one mourn a friend, a mentor and a supporter? What are the words that one rummages through to articulate one's sadness? Departures are, after all, painful and mortality is, well, tenuous.

My mind is flooded with memories of my theatre company paying him Rs100 as royalty per show, and the high value he placed on such a paltry sum.

Karnad insisted that I drop the ji while addressing him, much to my embarrassment. On my visits to Bangalore for a show at Rangshankara, a theatre complex that he was associated with, I would find him always warm and friendly, ready to buy me a cup of coffee or soothe my nerves prior to a show. 

My life has been truly enriched by knowing Karnad and his work. His intellectual heft and capacity to gather the varied skeins of Indian culture and weave them in a cohesive tapestry, free from prejudices, may soon seem like a rarity. 

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