Lasting legacy of theatre’s Renaissance man

When most intellectuals preferred to be silent, Girish Karnad  courted controversy and was unafraid to speak his mind against the toxic tide of communalism that was engulfing the country. 

Published: 18th May 2022 07:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th May 2022 07:51 AM   |  A+A-

Veteran actor, writer Girish Karnad passed away at 81.

Girish Karnad (File Photo | EPS)

The last enduring image of Girish Karnad I have is from 5 September 2018. With a tube near his nose, the sprightly polymath was wearing a placard around his neck reading ‘Me Too Urban Naxal’, to commemorate the first death anniversary of Gauri Lankesh—she was a journalist who was brutally murdered for her sharp criticism of the rising tide of right-wing Hindu fundamentalism. 

When most intellectuals preferred to be silent, Karnad  courted controversy and was unafraid to speak his mind against the toxic tide of communalism that was engulfing the country.  He wore several hats; of an actor, peerless director and an activist. But the genre that took him to a cultural crescendo was his scriptwriting.  His rise as a playwright in the 1960s marked the coming of age in modern Indian playwriting in Kannada, just as Badal Sarkar did in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi. While these scriptwriters were influenced by masters like Ibsen, Brecht, Beckett and O’Neill,  they were strongly rooted in indigenous culture and used history  and mythology to showcase their contemporary relevance. Kannada literature was heavily influenced by the renaissance in Western literature. And Girish was one of the prime beneficiaries, having straddled both Oxford and Dharwad in his prime. 

Girish Karnad cut his academic and artistic teeth in the cultural capital of Karnataka, Dharwad. He had the genes of a father who had married a widow with a child. Karnad took Maths and Statistics in B.A., so that he could get a first division to win a Rhodes scholarship. He not only went to Oxford with the scholarship, but became the President of The Oxford Union from 1962 to 1963. During this time, he sketched a portrait of T S Eliot and got his autograph. Initially, he wanted to write in English and become the Eliot of India. However, the Kannadiga in him prompted him to go back to his roots and  study the works of Bendre, U R Ananthamurthy, Ramakant Joshi and Kuvempu. He wrote remarkable plays like Yayati, Naga-Mandala and Tughlaq. He was also closely involved with India’s parallel cinema in Hindi when he acted in Shyam Benegal’s movies like Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976). In Manthan, he captured the idealism of ‘White Revolution’ triggered by Verghese Kurien. He also acted in several other movies like Swami and Dor. He is also remembered for the role of a father, which he played in TV serials like Malgudi Days—this captured the elfin charm of R K Narayan’s stories in a fictional town.  

However,  the play that catapulted him to  cult status was Tughlaq (1968), where he brought out how Muhammad bin Tughlaq—a rashly idealistic 14th Century Sultan of Delhi—was ahead of his time, but impractical, with his experiments failing because of impetuosity. Tughlaq was an allegory of the Nehruvian era, which started with the ambitious idealism of socialism, socio-economic justice but dissipated  because of poor GDP growth, rampant public sector inefficiency and the Chinese debacle. At the height of the Emergency in 1977, Mrs Indira Gandhi watched this play on the ramparts of Purana Qila. Manohar Singh was the protagonist and Karnad was the director—this was a unique fusion of artistic freedom sitting cosily with a dictator. 

As a child in the 1940s, he was raised without electricity, but culture electrified him. He always had nostalgia for many shades of darkness and the stories that they could spawn. These two elements of his childhood—darkness and storytelling—found a resonance in the theatre hall, and he loved this the most in his life. He was a strong proponent of multiculturalism and freedom of expression. He was a sharp critic of religious fundamentalism. He publicly condemned the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, and wrote an open letter against hate politics, and advocated for a “diverse and equal India.” On 15 June 1993, he went to Ayodhya and anchored a programme of 100 artists, including Sitara Devi and Kelucharan Mohapatra. As they joined in the night-long performance of music and dance on the Ram Ki Paidi Ghats, they reclaimed the city from the vandals. In 2004,  he also protested against communalisation of Baba Budangiri shrine in Chikmagalur along with U R Ananthamurthy. He also suggested that the airport at Bengaluru be named after Tipu Sultan, who was truly a visionary and patriot. His personal conviction was to stop the poisoning of the well of secular coexistence. Dharwad-Hubli is the only place in India that has produced the maximum number of musical maestros and there is a confluence of Carnatic musicians performing with Hindustani classical music exponents once a year. Karnad imbibed this rare synthesis of both South and North. He was profoundly influenced by the masters of world cinema like Akira Kurosawa and Ernst Ingmar Bergman. In fact, his film Ondanondu Kaladalli (Once Upon a Time), was based on Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai

Karnad was a polyglot who did not parade his patriotism. No one has his breadth of knowledge and understanding of all our arts, music, literature and dance of the North as well as of the South. He was the quintessential Renaissance man, who carried the great tradition of liberalism, planted by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, father of Bengal Renaissance. In 1828, Roy pushed for the abolition of the pernicious practice of Sati and child marriage. The spirit of  Renaissance was carried subsequently by Tagore and Satyajit Ray with rare elan and aesthetics. In Malgudi Days, he plays the role of Srinivasan, who wears a dhoti and  plays tennis with firangs at the Malgudi club. He represented an entire generation who had been exposed to English education but stuck to their roots when it mattered the most.

Karnad would have been 84 this month. He loved theatre the most—in his autobiography Life at Play, he writes: “As light goes down and darkness descends in an auditorium, stories roll out.” 

(Prof. Misra is a theatre buff)

Satya Narayan Misra
Professor and Dean, KIIT School of Management, KIIT University, Bhubaneswar


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