Girish Karnad : The Last Chapter

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The well-known writer, playwright, actor and public intellectual Girish Karnad (81) passed away in Bengaluru early morning on June 10.

According to sources, the Jnanpith and Padma awardee succumbed to a multi-organ failure at his residence on the city’s Lavelle Road. He had been ailing for a long time and is now survived by his wife Saraswati Ganapathi and two kids.

The Journey Began

Born in May 1938, he was one of the 60s and 70s’ most prominent theater personalities, a period considered the Indian Theater Renaissance. He has worked with mythology and history and has given them modern resonance in plays like Tughlaq and Hayavadana.

Karnad was one of the most if not the most prominent playwright of India. He was, of course, a prodigy. It’s a truism that Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, and Karnad form the quartet that shaped India’s theatrical canon of post-Independence. Karnad was the youngest of the lot by a decade. The first excellent play by Rakesh, Ashadh Ka Ek Din, appeared in 1958, Ebong Indrajit by Sircar in 1962, and Tendulkar’s Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe in 1967. Karnad’s Yayati dates back to 1961 when he was a mere 22- year old boy and was a Rhodes Scholar in England.

Playwrights generally take a little longer to mature than other authors. Without the experience of working in, or writing for, a real, active theater, good dramatic writing is almost impossible to achieve. Having a director take your text apart and reassemble it, hearing performers speak your lines, watching scenographers imagine the environment, having a live audience respond to your text, all teaching you about playwriting as much, if not more, as watching or reading plays.

It’s noteworthy enough that he wrote Yayati without nearly any prior theater experience, but it’s doubly noteworthy that he wrote it in Kannada. Karnad knew at least five languages — Konkani, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi, and English — but in a sense, re-discovering the language of his adolescence took him some  ‘unlearning’. Clearly, however, the desire to conquer the West never left him — he not only translated his own plays into English but he also wrote his original plays in English and translated them into Kannada. His last play was published last year, called as Rakshasa Tangadi, which is set in the last years of the Vijayanagra empire.

He was also a film director and actor, and made his acting debut in the classic Samskara, directed by Pattabhirama Reddy and based on a U.R. novel, Ananthamurthy. Not just parallel cinema, he made a name for himself in his roles in multi-language mainstream movies. Those films include Minsara Kanavu, Manthan, China Gate, Hey Ram, Tiger Zinda Hai, Kadhalan among others. His directorials include Utsav, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane and Kaadu.

Strong themes and Controversies

Most of his plays are considered as masterpieces. And bearing his playwriting in mind two overarching theme stands out in his plays. One is power — how it opens up opportunities but also corrupts, how it is not used by people for the higher good, how it brutalizes. The other is the desire of women, the aspirations of women, and the incapacity of males to accept it. Both themes are political and still relevant today.

He was highly regarded as a public intellectual, which often made him the target of the Hindutva right, mostly for his views on Mysore King Tipu Sultan, on whom he even authored a play.

Coming in the midst of a raging debate over the choice of the State to celebrate ‘Tipu Jayanti’, his remark that the international airport of the city could have been named after the king created a furor. While apologizing for the misunderstanding it created, in his opinions he remained firm.

Girish Karnad stood up against the Hindu right and spoke out. It would only be appropriate if his plays are now reinterpreted by younger theater makers in order to fight the battle keeping in mind with modern sensitivities.

Holiday Declared

In honor of the writer who brought the 7th Jnanpith to Kannada, the Karnataka government has declared a holiday for colleges and schools and a three-day state mourning.

His last rites will take place at Bengaluru’s Kalpalli crematorium. According to his son Raghu Karnad, people can pay respect at the crematorium. The family has said that it will be a simple and straightforward funeral without any form of ostentation or ritual. Karnad’s last wish, his family said, was that no funeral procession should take place, no VIPs should visit him and no flowers should be put on his body.

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