Girish Karnad, without doubt, was one of the greatest literary figures of Indian literature. Uniquely, he also had a versatility which made him a true Renaissance man.
A quick look at his CV confirms this: Playwright, translator, film director and actor, screenplay writer, Director of FTII in Pune, Director of the Nehru Centre in London and Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. He won multiple awards in both theatre and cinema, and although an outspoken critic of the country`s social system and inefficient governments, he not only was given the Padma Bhushan but the Karnataka government even declared state mourning on his death and was to accord him a state funeral (which his family refused because, characteristically, he wanted a no-fuss, no-rituals, family-only funeral).
What always astonished me was the fact that he wrote all his plays in Kannada and not in English. After all, he had won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University where he achieved the rare distinction of becoming President of the Oxford University Union. He had become a national and even an international figure in his early 20s, and his spoken language was English. Puzzled by this seeming contradiction, I asked him once, ‘What language do you think in?’ His answer was cryptic, but defining: ‘Depends’, he said, short form for it depended on context and circumstance.
Perhaps his early education had something to do with it. His initial schooling – he was born in Matheran in Maharashtra – was in Marathi, and when the family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka, he was 14, so the Kannada language was an important part of his education. The fact that he wrote in Kannada and not in English is important: being rooted in the soil as it were, it gave him the unique sensibility which produced his best plays, Yayati, Hayavadana, and Naga Mandala, all based on our mythology and with strong influences of folk theatre and Yakshagana. Although the central idea of Hayavadana came from Thomas Mann`s Transposed Heads, Karnad`s play used our folk traditions brilliantly. The only one of his great quartet of plays that could have been written in English was Tughlaq because it was based on history rather than mythology.
Girish Karnad was just 23 when he wrote Yayati, the play that brought him centre-stage in the national consciousness. In an interview he said, ‘I was just the scribe – I could actually hear dialogues being spoken into my ears’ – words spoken by characters from the epic Mahabharata (King Yayati was an ancestor of the Pandavas). Three years later in 1964, he wrote Tughlaq which may have been based on an historical character, but drew a clear parallel with the Nehru era, of a beginning full of idealism and hope, ending sadly in disillusionment and despair. All his plays did that – they may have been based on mythology, history or folk tales, but they spoke with a modern sensibility and spoke of modern philosophical concerns.
I first came in personal contact with him through cinema when I was with FFC/NFDC. If memory serves me right, two of his earliest films (both in Kannada) were done with FFC backing – Samskara, in which he acted and wrote the screenplay, and Vamsha Vriksha which he directed. As an actor, his best roles were in two powerful Shyam Benegal films, Nishant and Manthan. All these films could broadly be grouped under the then-prevalent label of Parallel Cinema (or New Cinema), but Karnad was not averse to being part of mainstream cinema either. And what could be more Bollywood than two Yash Raj films he was part of, Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017)?
If you look up Girish Karnad`s Wikipedia page, you will find my name cropping up under ‘Controversies’. This happened during the Mumbai International Literary Festival which I founded and run. During Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest of 2012, we decided to give the Lifetime Achievement award to V S Naipaul. The great writer, then quite unwell and confined to a wheel-chair, had arrived and was to receive the award on the last day. A day prior to that, we had invited Girish Karnad to give a talk in one of the day time sessions on ‘My Journey in Theatre’.
NCPA`s Experimental auditorium was absolutely packed with people eager to hear Karnad`s talk. I was equally keen, and occupied my usual front row seat. Girish began his speech with a reference to Naipaul. ‘That`s original’, I thought to myself for I knew Naipaul`s fiction and his more provocative non-fiction, but I had never heard of him being connected in any way with theatre. However, I soon realised that Girish had veered completely off his subject and had launched a blistering attack on Naipaul for his ‘bigoted views on Islam’, starting with something Naipaul was supposed to have said about the demolition of Babri Masjid. The auditorium was in uproar, half of the audience applauding Karnad, the other half booing him. After finishing with Naipaul, Girish trained his guns on the organisers (i.e. me!) for giving the award to Naipaul.
News of the Girish Karnad broadside against Naipaul spread rapidly, and soon the NCPA grounds were packed with TV channels’ OB vans. Our festival had become national news, and the place was swarming with reporters. From then on, we had full houses for each and every session. The post-script for this story is this: a couple of years ago, I rang Girish to tell him that we were giving him the Lifetime Achievement award. He was surprised, and pleased. He came and gave a wonderful talk on his journey in theatre. It may have taken a few more years than originally planned, but the wait was worth it.