Girish Karnad (1938-2019), was a writer, director, actor and public intellectual who, in a career spanning over 50 years, has left behind a pathbreaking and enormously influential body of plays, scripts and performances.
In the documentary (above and below) from the Sahitya Akademi, directed by Kannada documentary-maker KM Chaitanya, Karnad talks about the early influences on his life: His family, education, studying mathematics, winning a Rhodes scholarship, going to Oxford, and returning to India to join legendary playwrights like the Bengali dramatist Badal Sarkar and Marathi thespian Vijay Tendulkar, creating what is often referred to as the golden-era for theatre in modern India.
Karnad, wrote his first play, Yayati, at 23. Originally written in Kannada in 1962, the play tells the story of Yayati, an ancestor of the Pandavas who is cursed with premature old age by his father-in-law as punishment for infidelity.
The play established Karnad as a master of language, ideas and action, and launched his long career as a playwright, during which he wrote politically charged, often polemical, plays, frequently using mythology to tell contemporary stories. Among the acclaimed works that followed were Tughlak (1964), Hyayavandana (1972), and Taledanda (1990), which outlines the rise of the radical reform movement, Lingaytism, in 12th century Karnataka.
Karnad received the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award in 1993 and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1994, followed by the Jnanpith Award in 1998. An authority on language and culture, Karnad often lectured on the structure of the play, the evolution of the form, and India’s cultures (video below).
An actor of unique skill, the Padma Bhushan winner’s foray into cinema was through the 1970 Kannada film Samskara, based on UR Ananathamoorthy’s novel, for which he also wrote the screenplay. Samskara explores the rigid traditions of Brahminism and was initially banned by the Madras Censor Board. Eventually, the ban was revoked by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and the film, directed by Pattabhirama Reddy, went on to win the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema.
Fondly remembered for the portrayal of RK Narayan’s memorable WT Srinivasan, the affable Swami’s father in Malgudi days, Karnad also acted in several Hindi films – from Shyam Benegal’s 1976 Manthan, where he played the urbane Dr Rao, based on the character of Verghese Kurien the man who set up the Anand milk cooperative in India, to to Kabir Khan’s 2012 film Ek Tha Tiger, where he played Shenoy sir, Salman Khan’s stern Research and Analysis Wing boss, slipping into dreamy recollections of past love over daal-chawal when not issuing instructions on how to deal with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
Some of Karnad’s best-known films were in Kannada – including Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977) and Ondanondu Kaaladalli (1978).
He also directed several Hindi films, including the 1984 Hindi erotic drama Utsav something of a revelation for its times, on the romance between courtesan Vasantasena (Rekha) and a married Brahmin man (Shekhar Suman) in the ancient city of Ujjayini.
A vocal critic and activist, Karnad always spoke up against repression of expression, communal hatred and authoritarian governance. He was arrested for wearing a placard reading #MeTooUrbanNaxal following the arrest of five poets writers and activists for being “Maoist sympathisers” in 2018.
He led protests in February 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University alongside late activist-writer Gauri Lankesh against the arrest of then-student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, for an “anti-national” speech on campus. He even received death threats in 2015, for saying that 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan would have enjoyed the same status as Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji if he were a Hindu and not a Muslim.
Karnad also had often controversial literary opinions, including one on poet Rabindranath Tagore whom he said he considered a great poe, but a second rate playwright. In 2012, he took on late author VS Naipaul for “repeatedly mischaracterising Indian history and the contributions of Indian Muslims” in a public lecture at the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai.