My obituary on Girish Karnad, published in Mail Today:
Don’t let them escape. Men, women, children – cut them all down. Set the hounds after them. Search each wood, each bush. Burn the houses that give them shelter. Burn their books. Yes, the books! Tear them into shreds and consign them to the wells. Their voices shall be stilled for ever – From this moment all sharanas, foreigners, and free thinkers are expelled from this land on pain of death. Women and the lower orders shall live within the norms prescribed by our ancient tradition, or else they’ll suffer like dogs. Each citizen shall consider himself a soldier ready to lay down his life for the King. For the King is God incarnate!
Thus spake the 12th-century king at the end of Girish Karnad’s Tale-Danda, which he wrote in 1989 at the height of the Mandir and Mandal agitations. Thirty years on, Girish (always warm, he insisted I address him by first name) has left for the great gig in the sky, no doubt distraught that things have not changed much in his beloved country. He had become more of an activist over the last two decades, calling out the violence, intolerance and attempts to gag freedom of speech that he witnessed not just nationally but in his dear home state and city.
For the aware layperson, he was among the most visible and distinctive faces of new-wave or parallel cinema in the 1970s. Debuting with the film of Ananthamurty’s Samskara (1970), he partnered B.V. Karanth on Vamsha Vriksha (1971), then directed his own Kaadu (1973), all in Kannada. He made his Hindi acting breakthrough under Shyam Benegal in Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976), and Basu Chatterjee’s Swami (1977), later starring also in other languages from Marathi (Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha, 1981) to Assamese (Jahnu Barua’s Aparupa, 1982) – all acknowledged classics that require no introduction to readers. He specialized in portraying idealistic but realistic, progressive, educated men, not unlike himself.
His rapid fame won him leading public positions: Director of Film and Television Institute of India (1974-75), Chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi (1988-93) and Director of Nehru Centre, London (2000-3). In each, he proved a dynamic head generating many creative cultural ideas – a job description in short supply these days.
But theatre always remained his true love. Many don’t know that his stage activities started in English, with The Madras Players, as early as the 1960s. He was in the vanguard of postcolonial Indian theatre’s departure from Western dramatic models and rediscovery of indigenous traditions instead, updated to speak to contemporary concerns. Thus, his plays appear now on university syllabi across India in his own English translations – he was fluently trilingual – and as a teacher I can vouch for the electricity they invariably generate in class when young minds grapple with their provocative themes.
I classify them into three groups, not mutually exclusive: the historical, the folkloric or mythic, and those that play games with dramatic form (what we call metatheatre). Among the historical drama, Tughlaq (1964) and Tale-Danda rate highest, asking us to examine our own politics through the lens of distant times. Folktales underlie the stories of the horse-faced man, Hayavadana (1971), and the snake who transforms into a lover, Naga-Mandala (1988), both actually exploring sexual psychology. These two plays-within-plays, along with Broken Images (2005), where the heroine suddenly finds herself interrogated by her own TV image, have excited spectators and directors everywhere by their technical challenges, whether masks or animals or simultaneous video. We look forward to Girish’s last play, the historical Crossing to Talikota, scheduled for publication next month.
Strong in his opinions, Girish took some highly controversial stands, like repeatedly declaring that Tagore wrote bad plays. But that reflects less on him than on Indians’ blindness to the trailblazing contributions of several pioneering pre-Independence dramatists who created a non-European Indian modernism. Tagore would have certainly appreciated Girish’s imagination in composing the Kannada mystic-poet Basava’s last words in Tale-Danda before he “merged with the elements”:
Lord of the Meeting Rivers, absorb this inner shrine into the fine tip of your flame. Until all becomes light. … The great dawn of light.
To which we add in absolutely secular homage to Girish, “Shantih shantih shantih.”