I was rushing through security check at the airport, when my phone rang. I don’t normally pick up calls from India when I am traveling abroad. But this one I had to take. There was a great urgency in the voice. “How can you allow this to happen! You must not let them shut down the play. Tell me what I can do – who can I speak to? Young people don’t understand that unless we stand up to the bullies they will continue to terrorise us.”
It was Girish Karnad, deeply concerned that one of the plays we at India Foundation for the Arts had supported had just been shut down by protestors claiming that it had hurt their religious sentiments. It was called Shiva, directed by Dayasindhu Sakrepatna, and dealt with the challenges of coming out for the queer community and the stories of their love and loss.
Karnad continued to tell me that I could call him at any time and he would march with us or speak to officials if needed. In that faraway, my eyes welled up with deep gratitude.
There are very few times in life when the news of the demise of a stalwart like Girish Karnad plunges into the heart as a deep personal loss. I read his works, watched his plays and films, listened to him as audience at seminars and talks and clapped vigorously when he rocked those big boats in his own charming way.
There will be many tributes to him written by scholars and practitioners of the performing arts, cinema and literature paying homage to his contributions to theatre and the idea of modernity in India, to writing and imagining possible worlds, to building narratives that are able to connect the heart of our folktales and forms to the visions of the contemporary stage, and to encouraging and inspiring troupes of younger writers, makers and seekers of the performing arts.
But to me, the most significant personal loss, where I will miss him the most, is his deep love and empathy for the ecology of theatre and what he stood for and with politically.
Every time I bumped into him as Bengaluru’s Rangashankara theatre or any other public space, he would always ask about the Foundation, the work we were doing in theatre, and the artists we were supporting. I was often a bit shy in his brilliant presence but he never once let me feel conscious. He came for all the programmes we organised and always bought tickets for a large number of friends. There are stories of his support to all kinds of spaces and practices of theatre that one can find among artists in Karnataka. I will miss his encouragement and support.
Next time I stand at the street corner with a placard in resistance, I am going to miss Girish Karnad. Over the past few years when we have become used to artists showing their true colour, changing sides or going silent, Karnad stood and spoke fearlessly against the politics of hate, discrimination, bigotry, the saffronisation of institutions and communities, and for a modern, equitable, secular India.
I remember how at the Tata Literature Live! in Mumbai in 2012 where he was supposed to speak about his plays, Karnad spent over an hour critiquing in detail VS Naipaul and his misrepresentation of Indian history, particularly with regard to Muslims and Islamic culture. Naipaul was being honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award at the same festival, and Karnad, never known to mince words said, “If the givers of this award are deliberately keeping silent about their opinion of this outsider’s criminalisation of a whole section of the Indian population as rapists and murders, then let me say the silence is more than irresponsible. It is shocking.”
Walking the talk
But unlike many public intellectuals whose participation in debates and discussions remain restricted to panels on television and in seminars, Karnad walked the streets for the values he believed in. The image of him wearing a placard at a demonstration in September 2018 that said “Me Too Urban Naxal” in English and Kannada has become iconic.
Inspite of his dwindling health, Girish Karnad made it a point to be there at the very first “Not In My Name” demonstration in Bengaluru in June 2017 to protest against the lynchings of Muslims and Dalits that were happening across the country. His mere presence lit up faces and hearts at a time we were facing a really dark world out there.
Every time the city came together to stand in resistance, in rage, in seeking justice, he was there standing with us. Whether it was for the queer movement or against the steel flyover that citizens did not want, Karnad would stand for what he valued. Notwithstanding death threats, he clearly made his points sharp and incisive, both in writing and while speaking to the television cameras.
I am sure after the murders of writers MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, he knew the depths of evil he was fighting against. In fact his name was on that same hitlist. Yet, for him, there was no retreating and no apologies for the ideas he represented. That offered courage and inspiration for each one of us who knew him from afar.
We were standing just outside the building of the Kalapalli crematorium paying our last respects on Monday. His family and close friends were coming out. Saras, his wife, said softly, “He was so proud of all of you.” “And we of him,” we wanted to say. Proud he was from our city, proud his voice spoke truth to power, proud we could stand in his shadow and seek justice.
We could not continue performing the play Shiva for several reasons, not the least of which was the fear for the safety and security of the cast and crew. In some ways, I still feel we failed Girish Karnad. Next time, we just have to do better.