From being the President of the Oxford Union to writing ‘Yayati’, his first play, a look into the life of Girish Karnad, the celebrated playwright who passed away on Monday.

 From Sirsi to Dharwad to Oxford The storied life of Karnatakas jewel Girish Karnad
news Obituary Monday, June 10, 2019 - 17:29

Tributes poured in from various corners on Monday after news of the demise of noted playwright, actor and author Girish Karnad. 

The 81-year-old passed away at his residence in Bengaluru on Monday morning and to honour his last wishes, there was no floral procession or public display of the body held before his cremation. 

Girish is considered one of the most prominent playwrights in Kannada literature. Born in 1938 in Matheran (present day Maharashtra), Girish Karnad and his family shifted to Sirsi in Karnataka in 1942. His father was a government official while his mother was Krishnabai Mankikar. Krishnabai was a widow, when his father married her. Girish has credited his parents for developing his interest in performance arts. Growing up in Sirsi, Girish confesses that without electricity, the only entertainment used to be Yakshagana performances and the occasional films screened in the town. 

"But otherwise the only entertainment was stories. It was a world full of stories. I learnt all the puranas and history. What I learnt about theater was imbibed from the Havyaka commmunity in Sirsi from being with them, acting with them and going to Yakshagana with them," he says in a documentary about his life filmed by  KM Chaitanya for the Sahitya Akademi, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of literature in the languages of India. 

After completing his elementary education in Sirsi, his family moved to Saraswatpur in Dharwad in 1952 where he studied at the Basel Mission Higher Education Center for two years before pursuing a BA degree in Mathematics from Karnatak University. 

Girish has repeatedly stated that he had no love for Mathematics but credits the subject for improving his rigour and logical thinking. He also credits writers like Kirtinath Kurtakoti, Bendre, and GB Joshi, who he met in Dharwad.

In his time in Dharwad, Girish considered the popular library Manohar Granthmala his second home where he would frequently meet Kirtinath, Bendre, Joshi and others. Manohar Granthmala is also credited with popularising Kannada literature as it was one of the earliest publishers of Kannada literary works. 

Even though Girish managed to obtain a Rhodes scholarship and attended Oxford University studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics, he stuck to his Kannada roots and decided not to make the switch to English poetry. In fact, his first play - Yayati - was published when he was still studying in Oxford, something that he later admitted convinced him to return to Kannada literature. He went on to become the President of the Oxford Union in 1962-63.

Upon his return to India, he worked on his second play - Tughlaq - based on the 14th century historical ruler of the Delhi sultanate. In the documentary by Chaitanya, Girish admits that he wanted to write a play on a historical character and after researching, he decided on Tughlaq since he was fascinated by the story. 

His second play gave him national recognition after it was staged in Mumbai and also translated to Bengali and Marathi. Other celebrated works by Girish includes Hayavadana (1972), which was inspired by Thomas Mann's novel Transposed Heads, Nagamandala (1988), in which a myth takes over reality, Taledanda (1990), which is about radical protest and reform.  

He was at the University of Chicago in 1987-88 as a visiting professor and Fulbright scholar. During this time, Nagamandala was premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis based on Girish's English translation of the Kannada original. 

His first foray into films was through the 1970 Kannada film Samskaara, in which he not only acted but also wrote the screenplay. It was based on the novel of the same name by another literary figure from Karnataka -UR Ananthamurthy.  Girish went on to direct several Kannada and Hindi films and he is credited with introducing Kannada film stars like Vishnuvardhan in Vamshavruksha, and Shankar Nag in Ondanondu Kaaladalli. He has also worked with directors like Satyajit Ray and brought in actors like Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Shekhar Suman and Sonali Kulkarni, and cinematographer Rajeev Menon to Hindi cinema. He directed films like Utsav, Cheluvi and Woh Ghar in the Hindi film industry. 

He continued to act in numerous films and is remembered fondly for his portrayal of Swami's father in Malgudi Days, the television series based on RK Narayan's novel of the same name.

He has helped establish the Karnataka Nataka Academy, and the Nehru Center in London. He was the President of the Film and Television Institute of India between 1999 and 2001. He has been conferred Padma Shri in 1974, Padma Bhushan in 1992 and the Jnanpith Award, the highest literary award in India in 1998.

Throughout his life and career, Girish remained a fierce critic of religious fundamentalism and Hindutva. He was recently seen in the 2018 protest against the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh despite having a tube around his nose and drawing air from a small unit kept on his lap. He is survived by his wife Saraswathy Ganapathy, a doctor, and two children - Raghu and Radha. Raghu is an author and journalist working with The Wire while Radha is a doctor.