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Girish Karnad: A man of a different order

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on June 21, 2019 Published on June 21, 2019

Doyen of Kannada theatre: “He was a handsome man who could easily have been mistaken for a movie star”   -  The Hindu Archives

Mahesh Dattani remembers the peerless intellect and literary prowess of the man who died on June 10

It was always Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Dickens in school and never Karnad, Kambar or Karanth. That speaks poorly of the schooling I received. I only came to know about Karnad much later when I took my baby steps into the world of theatre in the mid-’70s. I have the Bangalore Little Theatre to thank for that introduction to Girish Karnad’s work. They did an English version of Tughlaq, directed by the late playwright and theatre director CR Simha. Simha also essayed the title role — complete with rhetoric, pomp and splendour, as was his style.

Even at the raw age of 17, I was struck by the magic of the scene on the terrace where the Emperor talks about his dreams and origins to a callow sentry on duty. I could identify with the sentry, being a callow youth myself, and I would be just as nervous were I to have a chance meeting with Karnad in person!

I can’t remember the exact year, but I saw him next in the play Jokumaraswamy written by another Kannada playwright, Chandrasekhar Kambar. Karnad played a formidable landlord with enormous social power. It struck me then that Karnad was just as imposing a personality as Tughlaq may have been in medieval India. This impression I had formed of him as a fearsome man changed dramatically when I met him years later to discover a gentler giant.

He was a handsome man who could easily have been mistaken for a movie star. But it was actor Shankar Nag who was the matinee idol. By the late ’80s, I had begun my journey as a playwright, having written my first full-length play Where There’s A Will (1987). This was not the brilliant start to a fame-filled career the way Karnad’s Yayati launched him as a promising playwright of global stature. But it did open doors for me and I got to meet veterans and stars of Kannada theatre, most notably Arundhati [Nag] and Padmavati Rao. Through them, I was invited to the grand premiere of Karnad’s Nagamandala in 1988. What a magical evening it turned out to be.

In the open-air theatre of Chitrakala Parishath, the packed house succumbed to the charm of this musical folk story. There I was, starting out as a theatre writer and director, with my pseudo-Western sensibilities, smitten by the beauty of storytelling and its tellers. Although the tale of Rani and her lonely existence was simple, the telling of the story was complex. If words such as magical realism have been coined by Western critics, I consider this to be my first introduction to fabulism. Also, my first moment of epiphany on my own aesthetics — that the painful fidelity to verisimilitude in my writing was probably more artificial and removed from the truth than this aesthetically presented truthful story of the lives of many Indian women and their fantasies of sexual expression. When I wrote my play Bravely Fought the Queen (1991) a couple of years later, I didn’t realise then that my drama of two sisters fictionalising the presence of a lover was, in fact, seeded by Nagamandala. A couple of decades later, when this same play of mine was performed at The Leicester Haymarket Theatre, UK, I was doubly thrilled to hear that they had commissioned Karnad to write a play for them. I think the play resulting from that commission was Bali, The Sacrifice.

The first time we met to have a proper conversation was in an interview. In 1998, he was awarded the Jnanpith award — the same year I received the Sahitya Akademi award (I came to know years later, from an academician, that Karnad had made a strong recommendation for me). A popular imprint in Chennai, East-West Publications, was keen to carry a conversation between us for their literary magazine. I prepared all week for this interview and was ready to make a complete ass of myself. Girish (he actually permitted me to call him by his first name!) was most friendly and approachable. The conversation went like a breeze. We discussed English as a language and the importance of writing in a language one is comfortable in. Girish, of course, being a polyglot, had the privilege of being a master of at least two languages.

Our paths did cross on several occasions after that, most notably a literary convention in Canada at the University of Toronto. For the first time, Girish read out excerpts from his autobiography to a packed house. The mix of South Asian academicians and international delegates of writers from all over the world devoured every word of his, riveted to their seats. Listening to him speak of his growing-up years in a traditional but liberal Saraswat Brahmin family, it seemed like the giant was born a regular boy, raised as a regular boy, but, in a flash, he skipped from adolescence to an icon of modern intellectualism in a world that embraced him for who he was. Like a classic protagonist, he was a youth who went on to be the best at what he did.

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

Published on June 21, 2019
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