Girish Karnad’s demise marks the end of an era in Indian theatre. He was 81 and for the last two years suffering from a respiratory ailment that forced him to carry a portable oxygen cylinder. This however, did not prevent him from attending Gauri Lankesh’s first death anniversary and solidarity meet where the friends and admirers of the courageous journalist had gathered in the name of sanity and humanity.

Karnad’s passing was headline news and even those who did not know that he was one of the creators of modern Indian theatre and its most intellectual contributor were aware of his highly influential presence because of his activities in other fields, namely, as a film actor and director, and on television, where he is remembered as Swami (Nathan)’s father in the hugely popular series Malgudi Days, directed by Shankar Nag, based on R. K. Narayan’s evocative short novel Swami and Friends.

His plays proved consistently popular and their performances were well attended not only in Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka but across the country for over 40 years or more.

Modern Indian theatre has not really been a paying proposition except in small pockets of West Bengal and Maharashtra. Even there, its most successful personalities usually had a second gig to keep their theatre dreams alive. Utpal Dutt financed his highly successful Bengali productions with earnings from commercial Hindi and Bengali films where he was both popular and well paid. On a smaller scale, Ajitesh Bandopadhyay, a charismatic stage actor and producer, used a similar strategy, when for a while he was a sought-after character actor in Bengali films but had not resigned from his lectureship at a Kolkata College.

How the brilliant, irascible Shambhu Mitra, sustained himself and his theatre troupe, Bahurupi, is anyone’s guess. But Mitra did appear in some Bengali films as an actor and as director was considered good enough to be hired by Raj Kapoor to do Jagte Raho in Hindi, and the same in Bengali as Ek Din Ratre. Having said that, one may add that neither Shambhu Mitra nor Ajitesh Bandopadhyay were professional playwrights. Utpal Dutt did write plays but only three: Manusher Adhikare, Tiner Talvar and Jallianwala Bagh.

Karnad’s case was different. He was a playwright whose plays were translated and staged in many Indian languages—Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali. He was paid a small royalty as the groups that staged them were cash-strapped and their efforts were appreciated by audiences who bought tickets at a very moderate price. Capitalism and its implementation in the financing and the sustaining of the arts, namely theatre, had not allowed as yet the sale of high priced tickets that has become a norm in metropolitan India in the last decade.

The first draft did not impress G. B. Joshi, the publisher-owner of Manohar Granthamala in Dharwad. He told the fledgling playwright that he was moved by the monologue of a dasi towards the end of the play. It was a polite way of saying, try again.

Strange as it may sound, Karnad became a playwright by accident. He wanted to be a poet and write poems in English, and win the Nobel Prize for literature, he declared tongue-in-check in a documentary made on him by K.M. Chaitanya for Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) five years ago. He wanted to be in the company of T. S Eliot, W. H. Auden and others. Destiny had others plans for him.

He read mathematics and statistics for his B.A. at Karnataka Arts College, Dharwad and stood first in the University of Karnataka. This enabled him to proceed to Bombay for a Masters in Mathematics and Statistics. There he applied for a Rhodes scholarship and got it. His father, Dr. Raghunath Karnad, was not happy with the idea. Neither was his mother Krishna Bai. His parents were uneasy about their son going off to England. They did not know if he would choose to settle down there or marry a white woman!

The result of their reservations about his sailing to England was the first draft of Yayati, based on an episode from the Mahabharata. The play was written in Kannada, the language of his endeavours in theatre. The story of Yayati was of the protagonist being cursed by his teacher Shukracharya for his infidelity. Yayati then asks one of his sons, Puru, to give him his youth as a sacrifice! Karnad observed in the SNA documentary that the idea for the play may have been triggered by the reactions of his parents. The first draft did not overly impress G. B. Joshi, the publisher—owner of Manohar Granthamala in Dharwad. He told the fledgling playwright that he was moved by the monologue of a dasi (female servant) towards the end of the play. It was a polite way of saying, try again. A re-written draft was read by Joshi and Manoharan, an astute literary man, and the news that Manohar Granthamala would publish Yayati helped Karnad make up his mind to return to India for good.

The back story is worth telling. When the manuscript was vetted with a hawk eye by Prof. Keertinath Kurtukoti, his exceptionally kind and erudite mentor then living and working in Baroda, Karnad was able to do a rewrite that was acceptable to Joshi. It came out in Kannada and caught on quickly. 

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he Rhodes scholarship had enabled Karnad to read for a PPE (Politics, Philosophy, Economics) degree at Magdalen College, Oxford. He also became president of the Oxford Students Union, a singular honour. Oxford opened up his horizons and at the same time taught him to focus on his own cultural inheritance. He knew, perhaps because of his training in mathematics, how to think clearly and logically.

On the return journey to India by ship he wrote Tughlaq, based on his readings of the 14th century Sultan of Delhi Mohammad bin Tughlaq, considered by many to be a mad genius who was prevented by his emotional affliction from achieving the social and political harmony he craved. Tughlaq over time became Karnad’s most successful play. Even today, in some corner of India it is being staged in a local language.

By 1963 he was back in India, with a job at Oxford University Press in Madras (now Chennai). He was in the city till 1970 and also became associated with the Madras Players, a group of serious amateurs that did plays in English. Tughlaq was staged by them, and shortly after, by Alyque Padamsee in Bombay (Mumbai), also in English. But it was a translation in Hindustani that opened the flood-gates. Ebrahim Alkazi, the charismatic director of the National School of Drama in Delhi, staged it at Purana Qila, a dramatic, stark, pre-Mughal fort that gave it both scale and eloquence. The play, for no fault of Karnad’s, became his calling card over the years with the uninitiated.

He became a film actor and gave a resounding performance in Nishant as the school master driven mad by the kidnapping of his beautiful wife by the lustful brothers of the local zamindar. He also gave a fine account of himself in Swami directed by Basu Chatterjee. Acting in films and television not only gave him the chance to test himself in another medium but it also helped to buy the freedom he needed to pursue his activities in theatre, namely writing plays.

Karnad in Vamshavruksha (1971). His film career helped Karnad support his efforts in theatre.
 It has been always difficult for playwrights, theatre directors and actors to support themselves financially and pursue their goals with dedication. One is left wondering how the great Marathi playwright and director Vijay Tendulkar managed financially. Even his most successful plays like Ghasiram Kotwal, Sakharam Binder, Khamosh Adalat Jari Hai and Panchi Aisey Aate Hain, would not have brought substantial royalties as they were mostly produced by serious amateur groups with limited finances. Tendulkar’s forays into parallel cinema as a script writer would have brought in steady but decidedly modest financial rewards. He wrote the scripts for 14 relatively low budget films. Tendulkar managed to support his career post-1970 as a film script writer.

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arnad, because of his activities in cinema, and to an extent television, acquired the financial stability to continue writing for theatre. Badal Sircar, his confrere from Bengal, was the chief town planner of Calcutta. He resigned from this job as it cut into his activities as a playwright and theatre producer. He gave up the proscenium theatre for which he had written highly successful plays like Evam Indrajit, Pagla Ghora, Baki Itihas, Hiroshima, Saari Raat. He became an ardent advocate of street theatre, deriving inspiration from the folk theatre of eastern India.

Karnad observes about his first play: “Oddly enough the play owed its form not to the innumerable mythological plays I had been brought up on, and which had partly kept these myths alive for me, but to western playwrights whom until then I had only read in print. Anouilh (his Antigone particularly) and also Sartre, O’Neill, and the Greeks. That is, at the most intense moment of self-expression, while my past had come to my aid with a ready-made narrative within which I could contain and explore my insecurities, there had been no dramatic structure in my own tradition to which I could relate myself.” (Introduction to Three plays, Naga-Mandala, Hayavadana, Tughlaq, O.U.P. 1994)

Making the theatre his vocation rather than a profession was not easy. Karnad literally bought his freedom by working in films and television, as a film director and making the most of the fellowships and awards that he got. His friend from Manohar Granthamala days, the exceptional translator and poet A. K. Ramanujan, who had become a celebrated scholar at the University of Chicago in the US, saw to it that Karnad got the Fulbright Fellowship and wrote Nagamandala and got it produced by students of the drama faculty of the university.

Karnad managed his finances astutely and avoided being called a “rebel without claws”! He was certainly not a rebel against the establishment in his formative years. He came from the educated Kannadiga middle-class, still under the spell of pre-independence idealism. In Chaitanya’s SNA documentary, Karnad says on camera, standing on the steps of an old bungalow in Dharwad that he had lived there as a child with the family when his father was posted in the town and that Gandhi had lived in one of the rooms on the premises. He also adds that he is the present owner of the property.

Dharwad figures prominently in Chaitanya’s documentary for many reasons: first, because of G.B. Joshi and Manohar Granthamala, the publishing house that brought modern literature to the Kannada language; second, because it gave Karnad a start and then made him a writer; third, because he came to meet the major literary figures in the language, including Bendre, the great poet who always had an open house, and would happily grant 45 minutes even to an aspiring writer and sent him on his way after his son gave the traditional pinch of sugar.

Dharwad laid the foundation for the young Karnad’s literary future and also gave him, despite his genuine aptitude for mathematics and statistics, the confidence to study abroad and become a writer. As a youngster he used to do pretty good sketches of his heroes—the moderns of the English language like T. S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Sean O’Casey, who incidentally responded to Karnad’s request for an autographed letter by saying that he (Karnad) ought to become a writer so that others may ask for his autograph!

Dharwad also has the Someshwara temple which, in popular lore, has a connection with antiquity. It was in the tank of this temple that the boy Karnad learnt to swim. It is through this town that the Shalmali river flows. He suggested to his wife Saraswati that they name their first born, a daughter, Shalmali, rather than Ganga or Jamuna, which were too far away for comfort. Thus the daughter of the Karnads is named Shalmali Radha.

Karnad’s literary journey was marked by ups and downs and his quest for the right form for the right material was continuous. His choice of a language for literary expression was curious, not without a touch of humour.

“While preparing for the trip [Oxford], amidst intense emotional turmoil, I found myself writing a play. This took me by surprise, for I had fancied myself as a poet, had written poetry through my teens, and had trained myself to write in English, in preparation for the conquest of West. But here I was writing a play [Yayati] and in Kannada too, the language spoken by a few million people in south India, the language of my childhood. A greater surprise was the theme of the play, for it was taken from ancient Indian mythology from which I had believed myself alienated.” (Author’s Introduction, three plays, Naga-Mandala, Hayavadana, Tughlaq, OUP 1994)

Like Tendulkar and Sircar he, too, was a product of post-independence modern Indian theatre that dealt with the social and political problems of the day, each influencing the other.

The choice of such material would not be surprising in retrospect. He had said in the SNA documentary that his doctor father on retirement from service in 1942-43 was  given a three-year extension and posted to Sirsi, a malaria-ridden settlement in Maharashtra. It was there that he learnt all his “Itihaasa and [tales from the] Puranas” and which stayed with him for life. His exposure to folk theatre was important for his development as a writer.

“In my childhood, in a small town in Karnataka, I was exposed to two theatre forms [that] seemed to represent irreconcilably different worlds. Father took the entire family to see plays staged by troupes of professional actors called natak companies which toured the countryside throughout the year. The plays were staged in semi-permanent structures on proscenium stages, with wings and drop curtains, and were illuminated by petromax lamps.” And then he follows up with the second example: “Once the harvest was over, I went with the servants to sit up nights watching the more traditional Yakshagana performances. The stage, a platform with a back curtain, was erected in the open air and lit by torches.” (Author’s Introduction, three plays, Naga-Mandala, Hayavadana, Tughlaq, OUP 1994)

With Abha Dulia in Manthan (1976).

Like Tendulkar and Sircar he, too, was a product of post-independence modern Indian theatre that dealt with the social and political problems of the day, each influencing the other. Karnad said he considered Bijon Bhattacharya’s Nabanna to be the forerunner of modern Indian theatre for it was written as an immediate reaction to the Bengal Famine of 1943 in which 3.5 million died. The British, responsible for this holocaust, believed the figures of the dead were five million.

There was a bumper harvest that year but the Second World War was on and the Japanese were marching through Burma towards India. All the boats meant for transporting rice were burnt to impede the possibility of a Japanese invasion. What could be transported to the army was done, and the rest was left to rot or dumped into the sea or seized by Marwari black marketeers in Calcutta. Nabanna was an epoch-making play. Karnad also criticised Rabindranath Tagore’s plays for being “too poetic” and short on action though he readily admitted that Tagore was a great poet and had influenced important poets across languages in India in his time and a generation later.

The crypto-communist (at least in his youth) Vijay Tendulkar took the Nabanna lesson to heart and further developed it to his advantage. His important plays are set in contemporary times and even Ghasiram  Kotwal, a period piece about evil doings in public life during the Peshwa period, seems like it is talking about India today.

Sircar, the civil engineer from Bengal Engineering College, Shibpur, who also got a masters in comparative literature from Jadavpur University in 1992 at 64, began writing about the problems of individuals from an urban middle-class standpoint, the classic example being Evam Indrajit. But he gradually lost faith in the existing system, including its pseudo-Marxist avatar the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) that ran West Bengal and employed him as chief town planner, a position he surrendered in 1975. He took to street theatre, mainly in small-town and rural Bengal. A new string of plays based on folk theatre forms emerged: to mention a few, Baghala Charit Manas, Dwirath, Ore Bihanga, Manushe Manushe, Janma-Vumi Aaj.

Karnad’s choice of subject to reflect the psychological and socio-political realities of our times is unusual. If Yayati, Hayavadana (based on Thomas Mann’s Transposed Heads via Katha Saritsagara) and Nagmandala are set in ancient times, and Tughlaq and The Dream of Tipu Sultan, respectively from early to late medieval times, they do reflect the structure of existing societies and the classes within patriarchy and its values and have a modern ring to them.

In each of these plays, that number just under a dozen, including the last experimental one, Broken Images, that had an actress interacting with her image on a television screen, he was trying to juxtapose what are considered to be eternal verities with the ethical and moral demands of the contemporary world.

He writes in the introduction to Tale-Danda, set in mediaeval times, that it has enormous relevance for our times. “During the two decades ending in AD 1168, in the city of Kalyan, a man called Basavanna assembled a congregation of poets, mystics, social revolutionaries and philosophers. Together they created an age unmatched in the history of Karnataka for its creativity, courageous questioning and social commitment. Spurning Sanskrit, they talked of God and man in the mother-tongue of the common people. They condemned idolatry and temple worship. Indeed, they rejected anything ‘static’ in favour of the principle of movement and progress in human enterprise. They believed in the equality of sexes and celebrated hard, dedicated work. They opposed the caste system, not just in theory but in practice. This last act brought down upon them the wrath of the orthodox. The movement ended in terror and bloodshed.

Tale-Danda literally means death by beheading (Tale: Head, Danda: Punishment).”

It is difficult to ignore the reverberations these words carry for our times.  The last hundred years or more have been particularly troubled, with total war, poison gas, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the holocaust in which over six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, along with half a million Romany and other “inferior” people. Karnad’s play-writing must be appreciated in this perspective both for its artistry and courage.

He was, after all, an enlightened believer in rationality, the efficacy of civil behaviour in civil society and a conscientious citizen and artiste. Towards the end when he was barely able to get about, be it to express outrage along with many concerned fellow citizens after the murder of Gauri Lankesh, and other equally heinous happenings, he proudly carried small placards around his neck that said, “Not in My Name!” and on another occasion, “I am an Urban Naxal!” He knew how to protest in a forceful, civilised and peaceful manner.

Girish Karnad was singularly lucky in finding a soulmate like Saraswati Ganapathy, a doctor trained in New York who married him when he was 42 and became his anchor. Together they had two children; the first Shalmali Radha, a daughter, and the second a son, Raghu. The family served on many an occasion as his emotional and moral compass.

His genuine versatility taken into account, he will still be remembered as a playwright who used history and (Hindu) mythology to make telling connections with the contemporary world and how they reflected the socio-political mood of the times.