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Karnad’s tryst with Kannada theatre, and growing into a mammoth force in English and Hindi theatre is an enviable one.
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In his Kannada autobiography Aadaadtha Ayushya (Life moves on while playing) that runs into 350 pages, Girish Karnad documents the first time he wondered about life per se. One day while having a meal, his mother Krishna Bai Mankikar nee Karnad says “We went to the clinic to abort him. But since the doctor was preoccupied, we came back. That’s how he is with us now.” Young, accomplished Girish is somewhat startled by this revelation. “Was I alive as a matter of chance? What would have happened if the doctor had aided my mother in an abortion? I wouldn’t exist!”

He doesn’t get philosophical there. It’s just a point of pondering and then Girish Raghunath Karnad, the fourth of five children of Krishna Bai, goes on to win accolades with his sheer grit, determination and focus. He was born on May 19, 1938 in Matheran, Maharashtra but the family of Dr Raghunath Karnad moved to Sirsi where Karnad was exposed to varied cultures and art forms, which filled his childhood. Later Karnad was to use every imagery from his early days and transform them into magical theatre characters.

Honestly, to understand Karnad is like feeling parts of an elephant and claiming it to be the only truth. Hardly a handful of people from the younger generation who have seen him as an actor, playwright, writer and director have the ability to completely perceive the expanse of his contributions. In recent years, he had also turned into a vocal activist for the values he stood for. He knew he would be hated for his stance, and yet even during the days when his health wasn’t the best, you could see him fighting for the right to eat or the right to dissent, with a cardboard ‘Me Too Urban Naxal’ placard hanging around his neck in front of the busy Townhall in Bengaluru.

His steadfast support to Rangashankara was deeply moving. He did not hesitate to put his weight behind things that should be valued and wanted them to grow into formidable forces.

His tryst with Kannada theatre, and growing into a mammoth force in English and Hindi theatre (apart from many other languages) is an enviable one. Hardly anybody from Kannada or any theatre down south claim to have achieved what he did. Each of his plays take one on such a tempestuous journey.

Be it Anjumallige in which he explores the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister, Hittina Hunja which is about the celebration of the ‘concept’ of violence, Hayavadana where he sets female sexuality free from the moral shackles laid down by society, or the character of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq which saw tremendous success as a play in the 1970s. Would another writer from the invisible south have created enough waves with his play that it resonated as a telling narrative or allegory of the Nehruvian rule for many even in the north?

Tughlaq, like many of his plays is timeless, where he explores the ambition and helplessness of a ruler, a Sultan. His soft-peddling of Muslim rulers including Tipu Sultan won him many detractors in recent times, thanks to the changing tide of politics and mainstreaming of “nationalism” as a popular narrative. But he couldn’t care less. That ‘giving a damn’ is something he had earned over years of working his way through cinema, literature and theatre.

Karnad’s first play Yayati catapulted him to success while he remained unaware of his soaring popularity in faraway Oxford University where he had gone as a Rhodes Scholar. Even when he won this rare scholarship and contested elections at the university, becoming the first Asian to do so successfully, Karnad writes that he mastered mathematics to be able to score marks because maths is among those rare subjects where marks are a certainty against a right answer!

Personally, I have been in awe of Karnad for his commitment to Kannada and sometimes even a little uncomfortable when he courted English a bit too much. Because for us Kannadigas, Karnad was among the rare personalities who could be relied upon to hold up the pride of the native language in a state that was getting a cosmopolitan makeover with the IT industry booming.

Karnad remained committed to his lone publisher Manohara Grantha Mala, the eight-decade old third-generation run company that first published his Yayati. Every Kannada book of his has been published by them over the years. This was his gesture towards the publishing house that gave him his share of space in Kannada theatre. Though Karnad’s popularity soared and he sometimes became inaccessible when engaged in work, he never moved to another publisher for whatever reasons. Known as ‘Atta’ (attic) Grantha Mala, the publishing house, started by GB Joshi and now run by his grandson Sameer Joshi, has seen legends being made from its tiny space, changing the course of Kannada literature for the better.

Karnad’s multilingual ability and versatile talents made him a hot favourite in cinema across genres. He was also a director who created timeless classics, including Utsav. For every Utsav he directed or every Bhumika he wrote for, that made him more famous in the national arena, he also came back to Kannada to act in Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane or make a Samskara. His bond with the land of Kannada was unquestionable.

While writers like UR Ananthamurthy courted politics and political ideologies, they however never held Karnad’s fancy. Often, the two would jocularly chide each other about their own preferences. Karnad was a stickler for time and had poor tolerance for anything that would force him to socialise against his wishes.

Karnad’s choice of final rites shows a telling difference too. One can almost imagine him saying: “Just send me off, I don’t want all this paraphernalia”.

A life well lived sir, have a good journey into the oblivion.

Preethi Nagaraj is a political analyst, journalist and theatre person. A bilingual writer, she writes in both English and Kannada, and has written extensively about Kannada theatre, culture and politics. 

Views expresed are the author’s own.