Jnanpith awardee Girish Karnad passes away

Shriya Mohan P Anima | Updated on June 10, 2019 Published on June 10, 2019

Girish Karnad (File photo)

Notable playwright, director, activist leaves behind an enduring legacy

At a memorial for slain journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru last September, Girish Karnad appeared weary. A nose tube supplying oxygen from a portable cylinder was glued to his face. But while his body was frail, his will, clearly, was not. A placard slung around his neck carried four potent words: Me Too Urban Naxal.

Karnad, 81, died in Bengaluru on Monday – and left behind an enduring legacy. The playwright, actor, director, teacher, administrator, activist and intellectual was not just a Renaissance Man who spanned cultural genres. He was also never afraid of speaking up.

His family told the media he succumbed to a degenerative pulmonary disorder. He is survived by his wife Saraswathy Ganapathy, daughter Radha and son Raghu Karnad.

Despite his severe breathing problems, there was no stopping Karnad. Last year, he came out with what was his final work — Rakshasa Tangadi — a Kannada play on the Battle of Talikota. In the summer of 2017, he stood in the rain with fellow Bangaloreans out on the streets, protesting against the lynching of Muslims in parts of the country.

“He was always someone who could fearlessly speak up for a cause,” said his publisher Ramakanth Joshi.

The Yakshagana tradition and India myths and stories profoundly influenced Karnad’s works that earned him critical acclaim in India and abroad. Yayati (1961) marked his arrival as a young writer; Tughlaq, Hayavadana and Nagamandala cemented his place as a playwright with whom every director wanted to work with. Ebrahim Alkazi, in a production that broke conventional performance norms, staged Tughlaq amidst the ruins of the Old Fort in Delhi. A Rhodes scholar, Karnad chose Kannada as his literary medium, but translated many of his own works into English. His plays were staged in multiple languages. Director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, for instance, directed three productions of Nagamandala — all in Punjabi.

She had approached Karnad for permission to stage the play almost 30 years ago. “Within 48 hours, I received the text along with the right,” said Chowdhry on the phone from Chandigarh. Karnad used to joke with her about wanting to translate the Punjabi version into Kannada.

“Though he took stories from the myths, the tools he used were not those of a traditionalist. They were those of a 21st-century man,” she added.

For many years, Karnad allowed his work to do the talking. It was through his writings that he spoke up about pluralism and religious tolerance. Tughlaq, one of his most acclaimed plays (1964) about the 14th-century Delhi Sultan, Muhammad bin Tughlaq, is interpreted by many as an allusion to the Nehruvian era.

“Karnad saw rulers as fragile uneasy heroes with dilemmas. He showed them his sympathy,” said Preethi Nagaraj, an independent writer and theatre enthusiast.

He was also a champion for women’s rights. His 1976 play Hayavadana, based on Thomas Mann’s “transposed heads”, looked at how sexuality and morality couldn’t be tied with the same thread. “He put morality at an ordinary level and shred it threadbare — that too in a small town in India,” recalls Nagaraj.

While his work was inseparable from politics, it was in his later years that people saw him out in the streets. “If speaking up means being a Naxal, then I am an Urban Naxal,” he told the media.

In the literary world, Karnad was looked upon as a giant.

In Dharwad, where he grew up, he stretched the horizons of the little town known for its pedas and classical music. Dharwar’s Manohara Granth Mala published all his works – from Yayati to his 2011 autobiography Aadaadta Aayushya (Life moves on while playing).

Nodnodta dimana (Towards the unseen sea) was the upcoming second part of autobiography,” said Joshi.

Karnad crossed regional borders with the Turning Point, a science show on Doordarshan in the ’90s, and as Swami’s father in the television adaptation of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days. The Jnanpith winner, who directed around 12 films and documentaries in Kannada and Hindi, famously appeared in the Salman Khan starrer Tiger Zinda Hai  in 2017.

Karnad, who also headed FTII in Pune, the Nehru Centre in London and several other cultural bodies, was awarded the Padma Shri in 1974 and the Padma Bhushan in 1992.

In a recent documentary, he recalls that when his mother was carrying him, she went to the doctor for an abortion because she didn’t want a fourth child.

The doctor was not there, and his mother ended up changing her mind, Karnad said in the film directed by KM Chaitanya.

“The notion that the world could be there and I could not be there, completely stunned me,” said Karnad.

A world without Karnad is a poorer one, indeed.

Published on June 10, 2019

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