Voice of reason and dissent goes silent

Karnad's strong political and social messaging in his plays and movies also spilled over in public discourse, often stoking controversies. Whether it was calling out VS Naipaul as a religious bigot at a literary event or labeling Rabindranath Tagore as an overrated playwright, Karnad often found himself ruffling feathers.

Bindu Menon
Senior journalist

OF the many images that Girish Karnad evokes, in his real and reel lives, one stands out. It is of him at a public meeting in Bengaluru in September last year to protest the arrest of rights activists across the nation. Karnad was wearing a placard that prominently read 'Me Too Urban Naxal'. Less prominent, but equally telling, of the man was the tube running from his nose to the small oxygen cylinder unit on his lap. This was Karnad, playwright, scholar, filmmaker, actor and  man who didn't let anything, not even failing health, stifle his voice of reason and dissent. 

Karnad, who died aged 81 on Monday following a prolonged respiratory illness, was a man who bridged many worlds, art forms, genres and cultures. 

He blazed the Kannada literary world with his first play Yayati. Karnad was only 22 then and the work was published before he headed to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and went on to become president of the Oxford Union, where his oratory skills are still remembered by many. His oeuvre as a playwright grew with Tughlaq, a critique of the Nehruvian India and relevant still as a torchlight to the perils of authoritarianism. Then came Hayavadana, adapted from Thomas Mann's novella Transposed Heads which in turn was inspired by a story in Kathasaritsagara, where he used the Kannada dance form Yakshagana as a theatrical device. Nagamandala was an inspired piece of work written after listening to a folk tale by his mentor, the late poet AK Ramanujam. And more recently, Rakshasa Tangadi, based on the life of Aliya Rama Raya, the unproclaimed last ruler of the Vijayanagar empire.

After working with Oxford University Press in Chennai for a few years, he quit to engage with theatre and writing full time. 

In the world of Kannada theatre, his contribution parallels that of Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, Mohan Rakesh in Hindi and Badal Sircar in Bengali. 

In the retelling of myths, folklore and history, he imbued his works with a contemporary idiom. It helped that his formative years in Sirsi and Dharwad and his exposure to the travelling nataka mandalis and the art form of Yakshagana grounded his artistic vision.  

In his tribute to Karnad, friend and historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted, "Girish Karnad beautifully and seamlessly blended North and South, the folk and the classical, the demotic and the scholarly."

In later years, Karnad's literary prowess was perhaps overshadowed by his accomplishments in the world of Indian cinema. 

The highly acclaimed 1970 film Samskara heralded Karnad's foray into the film world. An adaptation of writer UR Ananthamurthy's novel of the same name, it marked Karnad's debut as actor and screenwriter. The film won the President's Gold Medal. He donned the director's hat in Vamsha Vriksha, based on a Kannada novel by SL Bhyrappa (who would later criticise Karnad for his defence of Tipu Sultan).

His acting career, spanning over five decades, saw him essay roles in over 100 films, including Kannada, Hindi, Marathi and other regional cinema, besides helming movies. He seamlessly straddled both arthouse and mainstream cinema. He was at ease playing the helpless village schoolteacher whose wife is raped by zamindars in Shyam Benegal's Nishant, as the fictionalised Verghese Kurien in Manthan, or as the understanding husband in Basu Chatterji's Swami. Or, quite incredulously, playing the villainous governor in the Tamil potboiler, Kadhalan, or as RAW head in Salman Khan’s Tiger franchises, Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai. He directed the 1984 film Utsav, starring Rekha and Shekhar Suman, which wasn't a commercial success. 

He had successful stints in television though, hosting the popular science show Turning Point and playing father to the young Swami in Malgudi Days. 

The Jnanpith Award winner and Fulbright Scholar was also an institution builder, having served as director of the Film and Television Institute of India, chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and director of the Nehru Centre, London.

Karnad's strong political and social messaging in his plays and movies also spilled over in public discourse, often stoking controversies. Whether it was calling out VS Naipaul as a religious bigot at a literary event or labeling Rabindranath Tagore as an overrated playwright, Karnad often found himself ruffling feathers.

His utterances, however, were often accompanied by a strong rational defence of his beliefs. When he praised Tipu Sultan and even suggested that the Bengaluru airport be named after the Mysore warlord, Karnad received death threats. But Karnad firmly believed that viewing Tipu through the prism of religion or ideology was doing disservice to his memory, a view showcased in his 1997 play Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu (Dreams of Tipu Sultan). 

It was no surprise then that during the investigation by the Karnataka police into the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, the authorities learnt that Karnad was the first name on the hit list of a right wing group. That didn't prevent him from attending protest meets against the lynching incidents and beef ban or voicing concerns over rising nationalism and majoritarianism. 

In one of his plays, Agni Matthu Male (The Fire and The Rain), one of the characters says, 'The past isn't gone. It lies within me.' Karnad too carried the past within him, not in a constricted sense but as a conveyor of liberal human values. 

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