Girish Karnad – A Man Without Façades

Shwetha Chawadi
Published: August 2019

You can walk a path without light. How can I walk one without dreams?” (Yayaati, 1961). And that’s how Girish Karnad was recognised as a contemporary writer in whatever subject he chose. He was just 22 when he wrote Yayati and every line in this play reflects his understanding of mythology and the wisdom he carried at a very young age. Since then, Karnad has written several plays that have established him as one of the foremost playwrights in India and the world.

Amongst the flock of diplomatically nervous and self-declared intellectuals, Girish Karnad stood apart due to his incredible honesty of attitude and the power of his ideologies. Though he was antagonised by the world for his nuances of political differences, he was more than a Colossus Renaissance and a clichéd personality. Karnad was not only an internationally known playwright which is his defining identity, but also a highly talented filmmaker, a versatile actor, an able cultural administrator, a noted communicator and a person of wide accomplishments and interests and above all, a profoundly civilised and cultured human being.

Karnad used myth in arguably the richest and the most complex ways possible. He explored the resources of myth, folklore, legend and history to construct his dramatic universe in his plays. Surprisingly, he was often criticised for exactly that.

Girish Ragunath Karnad (1938) spent his early years in the rural parts of Maharashtra, watching, enjoying and internalising Yakshagana and the Natak Mandali performances in his village. The journey from a small village of rural Maharashtra to international institutes of repute shaped him as a proponent of secularism, multi-culturalism and freedom of expression. This journey from being born and raised as a liberal Saraswat Brahmin family boy to becoming an icon of contemporary intellectualism was filled with determination and belief in oneself.

As captured in a documentary, his exposure to street plays in his hometown and his acquaintance with films that carried western thoughts influenced him to pen stories of secularism and impartiality that represented contemporary India. The most notable, crucial feature of Karnad’s plays was the creation of female protagonists, who were forced to adhere to their societal roles. The patriarchal formations of marriage and relationships and the stigma carried by women who dared to explore their sensuality were reconnoitered in his works.

Karnad, in a few of his tales like Yayati, Hayavadana, Nagamandala, Broken Images, and The Fire and the Rain he explores women in society and the demand on them to be selfless and helpless. Some of his other notable plays include Taledanda, Tughalak, Angulimaal and Tippuvina Kanasugalu.

He made his acting as well as screenwriting debut in a Kannada movie Samskara (1970), which was also the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema, based on a novel by U R Ananthamurthy and directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. Over the years he performed in a number of Hindi and Kannada feature films, and worked with directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal. While Girish Karnad worked in Kannada, Marathi and Hindi films in the diverse capacity of an actor, writer and filmmaker, one of his most memorable roles was that of Swami’s father in the television adaptation of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days.

In his last Bollywood film Tiger Zinda Hai, he appeared with cylinder and tubes, which he often referred to as his third lung. Post Tiger… during a press conference for a play, Karnad with utmost seriousness, said, “This is not my film’s costume. I am living with this (cylinder and tubes) now. Please don’t mistake it to my film’s costume,” following which the journalists had a big laugh.

Being an eminent author and a multi-linguist, he could read, write and fluently speak 6 languages and is also a recipient of several national awards such as the Padma Shri (1974), Padma Bhushan (1992) and the Jnanpith literary award (1998). According to his close sources, Girish Karnad was a ‘quiet patriot’ who did not parade his politics or patriotism. He could quote freely from the Upanishads, the Gita and classical Sanskrit literature just as he would quote Shakespeare and Eliot. Karnad has admirers and detractors in equal numbers, indicating that there is no way he could have been ignored. But his admirers contend this and declare that this is precisely what makes his plays always contemporary and his art and craft noteworthy.

Karnad, who stood as an epitome of simplicity and humbleness, commanded a private affair for his last journey. The person who lived with a pragmatic approach towards life and with an impassive public identity was often quoted saying: “Your birth happens quietly, so is your death. It is what you do in between that has to make noise.”