Girish Karnad, a revered figure in Indian theatre and cinema, died at the age of 81 in his home in Bengaluru on Monday. Karnad’s work as a playwright spans five decades, while his contributions to cinema as a writer and actor came over more than 40 years.
Karnad’s Kannada plays, such as Yayati written in 1961 when he was 23, were extremely influential and successful. His other notable plays include Tughlaq (1964), Hayavadana (1971), Naga-Mandala (1988), and Taledanda (1990). Karnad’s plays mined narratives from Indian history and mythology to comment on contemporary social and political issues.
For instance, Tughlaq, about the 14th-century Delhi ruler Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, was an allegory about Nehruvian politics, while Taledanda, set during a reform movement in 12th-century Karnataka was written against the backdrop of the Ayodhya temple dispute and the Mandal Commission report on caste reservations.
Early success in theatre paved the way for films. In 1970, Karnad made his screenwriting and acting debut in the Kannada film Samskara, based on the UR Ananthamurthy novel of the same name. Karnad starred in the lead role of a devout Brahmin Praneshacharya, driven to inner conflict regarding his religious beliefs.
Karnad’s journey into cinema progressed with him becoming a director, in addition to acting in several Hindi films. In Kannada, key films directed or co-directed by Karnad include Vamsha Vriksha (1972), about the gradual deterioration of the affairs of an extended family, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977), about the conflicts of a progressive couple with the strict religious norms of the society around him, and the action drama Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978), inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.
The Hindi films he directed include Godhuli (1977), a version of Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, and the period drama Utsav (1984), based on the ancient Sanskrit play Mrcchakatika.
Karnad appeared in several Hindi films in the 1970s and ’80s as an actor and became an important face of the parallel cinema movement. Karnad had major roles in Shyam Benegal’s Nishaant (1975) and Manthan (1976), and Basu Chatterjee’s Swami (1977), among others. Karnad also starred in the hit television series, Malgudi Days.
In recent years, Karnad frequently appeared in mainstream Hindi films, including Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal (2005) and Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012). Karnad’s last film appearance was as Research and Analysis Wing chief Shenoy in the sequel to Ek Tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai, in 2017.
Karnad’s contributions to theatre and cinema fetched him several accolades. He was awarded a Padma Shri in 1974, followed by a Padma Bhushan in 1992. For his plays, Karnad won the Sahitya Academy award in 1994 and the Jnanpith award in 1998. He won 10 National Film Awards, including Best Direction for his directorial debut, Vamsa Vriksha.
News of Karnad’s death was met with fond tributes on Twitter. Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy mourned the loss of a cultural ambassador and declared a three-day state mourning, followed by a public holiday.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal expressed sorrow as well.
Historian Ramachandra Guha wrote, “In his plays, Girish Karnad beautifully and seamlessly blended North and South, the folk and the classical, the demotic and the scholarly. In his life, he embodied the richness and depth of Indian civilisation more nobly and less self-consciously than anyone else I knew.”
Journalist Vir Sanghvi had this to say:
Actor-filmmaker-politican Kamal Haasan acknowledged Karnad’s influence over screenwriters such as him. Several filmmakers expressed condolences as well.
Many Twitter users noted the influence of Karnad’s play, Tughlaq.
Here are some other tributes from Twitter.
One of Karnad’s final appearances, at a meeting for protest against the murder of Gauri Lankesh in 2018, found mention as well.