Girish Karnad's theatre of compassion

“Karnad is arguably the greatest playwright produced by India since Independence"

girish-karnad-pti Girish Karnad | PTI

Noted theatre and literary icon Girish Karnad died on Monday at his Bengaluru residence at the age of 81. He was a scholar, theatre personality, an actor and director in a career spanning over five decades. A brilliant student who graduated in mathematics but chose arts as his playing field, Karnad wrote his first play Yayati at 23 in 1961.

He was a known critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was among the 600 theatre personalities who had signed a letter ahead of the Lok Sabha polls asking people to "vote BJP and its allies" out of power, arguing that the idea of India and its Constitution were under threat. He also led protests after the murder of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh.

Karnad was known to be a reserved person. However, meetings with him were always heart-warming, recalls Kavitha Lankesh, sister of Gauri. ‘’He would give me a hug whenever we met.’’ Like his contemporaries, Lankesh, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Poornachandra Tejaswi, Karnad strived for the betterment of society through his writings. “They would look forward to each other’s writings and critique and discuss them in detail,” says Kavitha, who is also a film director, screenwriter and lyricist. “The society was much more democratic and secular then,” she says. Karnad acted in Tananam Tananam, a film directed by Kavitha.

“Karnad is arguably the greatest playwright produced by India since Independence. His work will live long after him,” says Ramachandra Guha, renowned Indian historian and writer. “He was interested in myths and popular culture. That is what made his works truly special,” he says.

Karnad was also interested in the fine arts. Veteran artist S.G. Vasudev still has vivid memories of Karnad’s works that were on display at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru. “His paintings looked promising. However he didn’t pursue that,” says Vasudev, who knew Karnad for 56 years. Karnad would often frequent Cholamandala, an artists’ village in Chennai. It was Karnad who introduced Vasudev to poet D.R. Bendre. Vasudev’s much celebrated work in copper Kalpavriksha Vrindavana was inspired by one of Bendre’s poems. Karnad loved music and tabla and would accompany Vasudev to Carnatic music concerts in Chennai. Grief overpowers Vasudev as he recalls memories of the young man who came all the way to Bengaluru to attend his marriage with his late wife Arnavaz. ‘’During the ceremony, the girl’s brother had to come forward and perform some rituals. Arnavaz didn’t have a brother and so Karnad volunteered to do it,’’ says Vasudev.

He and theatre great Ebrahim Alkazi influenced each other to a great extent. It was at Alkazi's home that Karnad was first introduced to mythology through a Hindi adaptation of Greek tragedy Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Tughlaq, his play about the impatient but idealist Muhammad bin Tughluq, the 14th century Sultan of Delhi, is considered his most famous stage work. It is considered relevant even today for its portrayal about the dangers of authoritarianism.

Karnad's other famous plays include Hayavadana, Angumalige, Hittina Hunja, Naga-Mandala, Tale-Danda, Agni Mattu Male and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. He was given Jnanpith Award, the highest literary recognition in India, in 1998. In his works, Karnad deciphered the tortured soul of India like nobody before him. His Hayavadana was a case in point. The story around Devadatta, a weak-bodied but highly learned Brahmin scholar, and Kapila, a physically imperious warrior. Both are close friends and they fall for the same woman Padmini, who grows torn in her affections for the two. As events progress, Devadatta and Kapila kill themselves. Goddess Kali grants Padmini a boon to bring them back to life, but the latter accidentally switches the heads of the duo while reattaching them to the body. In a way, the story peripherally reflects that oldest of human conditions—the ultimate quest for perfection and completion. An element of the 'Ship of Theseus' paradox (When different parts of an object are replaced, does the object change or remain the same?) becomes a recurring theme many of his works—both original and adapted. In Hayavadana, the question is posed: Where does a man's essence lie? In his soul or his body? And, for a newly liberated country, does its essence—the past, present and future—lie in the framework of its existence (the Constitution) or the volatile mandate that rises from within the constraints of those pillars.

In the film Samskara, a U.R. Ananthamurthy adaptation, the life of once-devout Praneshacharya unravels in the aftermath of the death of the iconoclastic Narayanappa. The question comes: Can a Brahmin remain a Brahmin if he eats meat, consorts with a lower class woman and catches fish from a temple pond? In Tughlaq, he asks: how far can idealism be stretched within the boundaries of idealism if each step it takes is awash with the blood of millions. Sadly, the play is often reduced to a mere critique of Nehruvianism.

Karnad leaves his audience with no answers, no relief, and no comforting prophecies of a virtuous future. In Hayavadana, after their bodies are switched, Padmini enjoys a brief moment of bliss with the soul and body respectively of the men whom she loved. But, just as the eponymous half-man, half-horse desperately wishing to transform into a human, before finding ultimate peace in existence as a horse, perhaps completion ultimately is where the pendulum finds its centre of rest. 

(With PTI inputs)