An artist is a rare being. He observes and receives that which is within and around and then allows his craft to give it life. This given life is new and within its nooks and corners lie the most complex existential experiences. For this to happen, the artist has to dissolve solely in experience. Time, age, period and location are transient in front of the larger reality - the human condition.
Girish Karnad was a master of this transcendence. He lived in the present but travelled the seven seas of existence. Belief, freedom, responsibility, hate, love, care, passion, morality or trust were all movable and questionable. Absolutism had no place in his stories. And hence in all his tellings, there was an intentional ambiguity. It is in this state of ambiguity that we question, reflect and learn. And that was his role as an artist: to nudge every one of us to pause and wonder.
He allowed his characters to ask the questions, to struggle with the inconclusive, and hence his stories truly never ended. We live in times when the real-ness of mythological characters or their supernatural powers have unfortunately become central. But, as Girish Karnad showed us repeatedly in plays like Yayati, Hayavadana and Nagamandala, it really does not matter; it should not matter. These characters live amongst us and within us and externalising them into a narrative allows us to touch and feel without self-awareness.
He was a master of using his craft to abstract life and allowing the image to mirror our own material. Hence his politics was within his artistry and it could not have been another way. He questioned every societal notion with panache and sharpness, making clear to those who wished to see, his own point of view. He searched for the unheard, chastised and stifled voices, gave them presence in his storytelling and narrated stories that kept his inquiring mind real.
I was born in the late 1970s and so my own realisation of Girish Karnad came much later in life. But when I think of him, there is one image that rushes into my consciousness: that of Swami’s father in Shankar Nag's Malgudi Days. We waited every week to watch the tales of Swami on Doordarshan. In Girish, I saw the typical traditional Indian middle-class father. It was not R.K. Narayan’s characterisation or Shankar Nag’s direction; it was Girish himself. He became that father who struggled with this inquisitive, naughty and learning child. A non-showy yet caring father who wanted his son to study well and make it in life! His smile, anger, fears were tangible. Mr. Srinivasan (Swami’s father) was not a picturisation; he was a real person, and we all knew him. I was just a bit older than Swami and always took his side and often felt Srinivasan did not really understand his son. Most sons feel that way about our fathers, don’t we?
It is true that the rest of India, except for specific literary and theatrical pockets, did not realise the pre-eminence of Girish Karnad. I remember a friend who moved from Delhi to Bengaluru telling me how she never realised that he was so ‘big’. For us in the south, he was that special actor, playwright, superstar who was able to cut across mediums but never got sucked into stardom. He was inherently an intellectual who treasured the need for questioning and one of those few people who allowed himself to be challenged, debunked, a rare quality indeed.
The fact that Girish Karnad was a complex thinker with creases, doubts and imperfections made him who he was, a true artist. He spoke his mind and controversies at times surrounded him, but he stood his ground, argued with precision and was often blunt. But, being a true intellectual, he always allowed his stories to move in directions that were different from his own, as long as they stayed true to the story of humanity.
T.M. Krishna is a carnatic vocalist, author, public speaker and writer on human choices, dilemmas and concerns.