The other day I saw a photograph of Girish Karnad, with oxygen tubes in his nostrils, sitting in a protest meeting, holding a placard on his chest, announcing, 'Me Too, an Urban Naxal'. This was the picture of a man who could stand up to any adversity and fight for what was his right, be it his own health, or his country’s.
The last time we met and hugged each other was in Bombay, at the Tata Literary Festival, 2017. He had just finished his fabulous speech, with oxygen tubes in his nose. It was an emotional moment, as we were meeting after a long time.
Ever since the early seventies, we had been meeting each other at different cities, in different continents, at different times, on different occasions for nearly fifty years, but the warmth had remained unchanged.
Girish Karnad’s famous plays came out in Kannada, and were later translated into other languages. All his plays deal with conflicts in different sociopolitical situations, expressed through myths.
Girish had started writing very early, in his teens, and Indian myths showed him a way to tackle situations in life. Yayati was written in 1960, “The myth had enabled me to articulate to myself a set of values that I had been unable to arrive at rationally. Whether to return home finally seemed the most minor of issues: the myth had nailed me to the past.”
The play was finalized on the ship on his way to Oxford, when he was 22.It was an intensely critical moment in his life when Girish wanted to go to Oxford, but his parents did not want him to go.
He used the Yayati myth to express the conflict between two generations. Here was a man who never moved away from his basic principles, and continued to express his sociopolitical views through his plays. We remember his Tughlaq as an unforgettable drama of failed idealism, applicable at different times in history.
He had the choice and the ability to write creatively in the English language, but Girish chose to write in Kannada, his mother tongue, and thus immensely enriched Kannada literature. Ananthamurthy, a professor of English literature, did the same. We were born in British India, (Girish and I were born in the same year) and had an unsurpassable love and respect for our mother tongues.
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Girish also acted in Kannada films, even directed some. The very first film Girish had acted in was Samskara, his friend Ananthamurthy’s internationally famous novel. He had acted in several Hindi films too, like Nishant, Manthan, Iqbal, Ek tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai. Girish’s was a many-sided talent, whatever he touched he turned to gold.
He had made films too, Vamshavriksha, Godhuli, and the famous Utsav. Girish had also made several award-winning documentary films, the most famous one on Bhakti movement and Sufism ‘The Lamp on the Niche’.
I remember a fabulous week of adda in Chicago University in the eighties, with Girish Karnad, Ananthamurthy, AK Ramanujan, Ayappa Panikkar, Nirmal Verma, Nissim Ezekiel, etc. Or the evening addas at Girish and Saras’s flat in London’s Nehru Centre over dinner.
Unlike many other writers of our times, Girish had no personal political ambitions. His political views were expressed through his literary works. “Playwright, actor, institution-builder and patriot, Girish Karnad was a colossus. It was a privilege to have known him, a far greater privilege to have seen his plays and read his work.”
Ramchandra Guha has given words to my thoughts. We are standing at a crossroads, Indian culture as we have known it, is changing its face. Thinkers and writers like Girish Karnad who grew up in a plural, tolerant India, will be missed, and now is the moment we need them the most.
(Nabaneeta Dev Sen is an award-winning poet, novelist and academic)