This Life at Play: Girish Karnad | Sunday Observer

This Life at Play: Girish Karnad

22 August, 2021

The 83rd birth anniversary of Girish Raghunath Karnad, one of modern India’s greatest cultural figures, fell on May 19. To mark the occasion, Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins India, published a memoir by Karnad, This Life at Play. It is an important book in every way, especially for playwrights, film makers and art lovers as he was a great playwright, film maker, screen writer and actor in 20th century India. Karnad’s rise as a prominent playwright in 1960s marked the coming of age of modern Indian playwriting in Kannada. For four decades he had been composing plays, often using history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues.

This Life at Play is a translation of his memoir in Kannada titled Aadaadta Aayushya (which translates as ‘life moves on while playing’), published in 2011. Karnad started to translate it, but couldn’t complete it due to weakness of health. He invited an award winning translator Srinath Perur to finish the work which he did. Hence, This Life at Play is a collective translation of Karnad’s memoir.

The book does not cover the whole of Karnad’s life. It describes the first half of his life – from his childhood in Sirsi and his early engagement with local theatre, his education in Dharwad, Bombay and Oxford, to his career in publishing, his successes and travails in the film industry, and his personal life. Karnad’s life is interesting to discuss.

Early life

Girish Karnad was born on May 19, 1938, Matheran, Bombay Presidency, British India (present day Maharashtra). His mother is Krishnabai Mankikar (Kuttabai) who was a child widow belonged to a poor family. As she had a child to feed, she had to work as a nurse and cook (general housekeeper) for a bedridden wife of Dr. Raghunath Karnad, a doctor in the Bombay Medical Services. Dr. Raghunath was from the Konkani speaking Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community. Krishnabai had been residing with him for five years, when she married (remarried) him who was not divorced from his earlier marriage - it was legal until 1956 for a Hindu man to have more than one wife.

When Krishnabai conceived with Girish, she had a son and a daughter – later she gave birth to another child – a daughter. Because of her difficult life, she thought to abort the child. She even visited hospital to take the desired action but by the stroke of Girish’s luck, the doctors seemed to absent on the very day. Finally, she decided to keep the child. Though her marriage was legal, it (widow remarriage) was not approved by the contemporary society. All through the childhood, the jibes directed at Girish and his siblings by curious neighbours fascinated with his mother’s and father’s non-public life.

As Girish Karnad’s father was a doctor, he had to move place to place constantly. First, father was posted to Sirsi, popularly known as a malaria region in Karnataka. Anyway, both of his parents were theatre lovers. As father got free passes to every theatre performances around Sirsi, they went to see dramas, especially Natak (Drama) and Yakshagana (an art form with the amalgamation of dance and theatre majorly seen in the Western coastal region of Karnataka) which they highly admired. These early experiences in traditional theatre inspired Karnad immensely and finally became a reason for him to enter the world of creative arts.

His education

Karnad’s initial schooling was in Marathi. After moving to Sirsi, Kannada-speaking regions of Bombay Presidency, he started to learn in Kannada. Then, once again, when he was fourteen, the family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka where he grew up with his two sisters and a niece. He admitted to Dharwad’s famed Karnatak College. During this time, he was attracted to literature. There was also an ‘atta’ (Kannada for attic), a place in Dharwad home where he spent evenings reading books. As Karnad recounts in the memoir, “The monsoons took barely half a day to flood the town. The gutters were then indistinguishable from the safer mid-street section, and this imprisoned us in our houses. For those three months, stories were our saviours.”

Little Karnad’s main interest was for poetry. Then fiction and philosophy flourished and fructified.

He was exposed to travelling theatre groups and Natak Mandalis (theatre troupes) when the family were at Sirsi. Like his parents, he also became an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theatre in his village – this is similar to Ediriweera Sarachchandra went with his relation to see Christmas carols and traditional folk plays.

In 1958, Karnad entered the Karnataka University or the Karnatak Arts College in Dharwad. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and statistics from it. After graduation, he went to England and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen in University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (1960–63), earning his Master of Arts degree in philosophy, political science and economics. He was elected the President of the Oxford Union in 1962–63.

His career

Karnad’s first job was as an editor at Oxford University Press in Chennai. After working there for seven years (1963–70), he resigned to take to writing full-time. While in Madras (now known as Chennai), he got involved with local amateur theatre group, The Madras Players. It was there he met his future wife, Saraswathi Ganapathy (later Dr. Saraswathi Ganapathy), though he couldn’t marry her until he was 42.

In 1974, he was appointed Director of the Film and Television Institute of India (1974–1975). Then, he became the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the national academy of the performing arts (1988–93). During 1987–88, he was at the University of Chicago as visiting professor and Fulbright playwright-in-residence. He served as director of the Nehru Centre and as Minister of Culture, in the Indian High Commission, London (2000–2003).

Artistic embarkation

Girish Karnad’s first love was not for plays, but for poetry. He wanted to become a poet in English, especially next to T.S., and at the same time, wanted to get settled down in England. It was one of the reasons why he moved to England for his studies too. However, he wrote a play titled Yayati as his first literary work, when he was 22. Before it was published, he had to go to England for his higher studies. Still he had no idea to come back India. But when he was in the first term in the university, he received a letter from Kirthinath Kthokoti, an acclaimed Kannada critic, writer and a close friend of Karnad, saying his play was getting published. Once it was published, it saw enormous success. Girsh decided to return home and produce dramas.

When Karnad was seeing the success of his first play Yayati (1961), it was Kirthinath Kurthakoti claimed that Kannada literature does not have any plays based on historical events. This impacted him much. In his memoir, he cites Kurthakoi’s statement: “But no one has attempted to use historical material to try and reveal new layers of the truth. Along with resurrecting the past, we need to develop a vision that looks at the past in a new light. We need new works that use the raw material of history. Shaw and Ibsen must be emulated in this respect too, as they have been in other ways. It is a matter of regret that we don’t have a single work like Caesar and Cleopatra or Saint Joan.”

This was why Karnad started to read Indian history from the Mohenjo Daro and travelled till Tughlag. Thus, Tuglaq play was written by him. This was Karnad’s landmark play (1965), comprising 13 scenes based on the reign of folly of the 14th-century Delhi Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq. It established Karnad as a promising playwright in the country. It was staged by the National School of Drama Repertory under the direction of Ebrahim Alkazi, with the actor Manohar Singh playing the visionary king who later becomes disillusioned and turns bitter, amid the historic Purana Qila in Delhi. The Oxford University Press published the English translation of Tughlaq in 1975. It was staged in London by the National School of Drama for the Festival of India in 1982.

Karnad’s third play was Hayavadana (1971) which was based on a theme drawn from The Transposed Heads, a 1940 novella by Thomas Mann. It was originally found in the 11th-century Sanskrit text Kathasaritsagara. Herein, he employed the folk theatre form of Yakshagana. This play is widely recognised as among the most important plays of post-independence India.

His first play, Yayati, also has a historical context which centres on the story of a mythological king. But he hadn’t any idea to present historical or mythical events, as it was, to nowadays audience. Instead, he wanted to shed light on to present dilemmas by means of historical events or mythology. That’s why novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy wrote in his preface to the Oxford University Press publication of Tughlaq: “(Perhaps no other play reflects) the political mood of disillusionment which followed the Nehru era of idealism (in India in the 1960s)…. But the play is more than a political allegory.” He said, “It has an irreducible, puzzling quality which comes from the ambiguities of Tughlaq’s character… no critical examination of the play can easily exhaust its total meaning to the reader, because the play has, finally, an elusive and haunting quality which it gets from the character of Tughlaq which has been realised in great psychological depth.”

His plays were inspired by folk and oral traditions, or local cultures. For instance, the play Nagamandala (1988), frames the unhappy contemporary marriage in imagery drawn from Kannada folk tales.

Karnad and Sarachchandra

There are many similarities between Girish Karnaad and Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra though, possibly, both of them didn’t know about that. Both Sarachchandra and Karnad admired the traditional theatre. Karnad highly respected the Yakshagana, a traditional Karnatak folk theatre. He said that though Yakshagana was considered crude, unsophisticated and suitable only for illiterate villagers, we could take many elements from it to clarify the current issues. It was perhaps an early trigger for his interest in the Indian mythology, folk art forms and pre-modern performance repertoire that influenced his work. It also awakened him to the myriad possibilities of storytelling and various narrative epistemologies.

Karnad was among the earliest Indian playwrights whose works were translated and published in English. Yet all of those plays were translated into English by Karnad himself. This is also a similarity between Sarachchandra and Karnad because both were multi-lingual intellectuals. Karnad was fluent in five languages: Konkani, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi and English.

His plays have been translated into several Indian languages and directed by eminent directors such as Ebrahim Alkazi, B. V. Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Prasanna, Arvind Gaur, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta, Shyamanand Jalan and Amal Allana.

Other artistic fields

When Girish Karnad’s plays were translated into different Indian languages and were directed by famous Indian directors, he rose to fame as a playwright and started to regard as one of the greatest personalities among modern Indian play writing. Next, he entered film making, his first movie in which he played the lead role, was Samskara launched in 1970. It was also written by Karnad. The movie was an adaptation of an anti-caste novel of the same name by U.R. Ananthamurthy. Karnad followed with Vamsha Vriksha (1971) which was his debut direction, rather a co-direction with B.V. Karanth.

Some of his famous Kannada movies as a director include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977; Godhuli), Ondanondu Kaaladalli (1978), Cheluvi and Kaadu, Kanooru Heggaditi, all of which helped to make the New-Wave in Kannada cinema. He also worked in Hindi, directing the critically acclaimed Utsav (1984), an adaptation of Shudraka’s 4th-century Sanskrit play Mrichchakatika.

His collaboration with great director Shyam Benegal gave Indian cinema films like Nishanth (1975), Manthan (1976). As a director himself, he collaborated with Shankar nag for a film Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978) for which Shankar nag won national award for the best actor. This duo went on to create a cult television series called Malgudi Days as well.

He engaged in the film industry until his death: his last film was 24 launched in 2016. Kanooru Heggadithi (1999) and acting in Iqbal (2005) and Life Goes On (2009) are among others.

There is another aspect of his creativity. He was a good sketch artist too. His favourite past time while growing up was to make sketches of the famous personalities and get autographed on them. Some of the noted names of his sketches were T.S Eliot, Sean O Casey, Sarvepalli Radhakrishna. It was the Irish playwright Sean O Casey who insisted Girsh to stop wasting his time and do something that people should take his autograph.

Life with Indian modernity

He was a proponent of multiculturalism and freedom of expression while being a critic of religious fundamentalism. He had publicly condemned the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. Because of this, he views were attacked by religious fundamentalists, especially his views on Tipu Sultan, his defence of the shrine of Baba Budan Giri, his opposition to the assassinations of intellectuals. He even received death threats and his house was attacked.

He had opposed RSS, BJP and other political organisations on several occasions. He was one of the 200 writers who put out an open letter against hate politics and for “diverse and equal India” during the 2019 general elections. With a tube in his nose, he wore a placard saying “Me Too Urban Naxal” at the first death anniversary of slain journalist Gauri Lankesh. Karnad said that Tipu Sultan was the greatest king Karnataka had in 500 years, on a religious controversy about the king. He was a supporter of the Forum for Communal Harmony.

The story of his life cannot be separated from the story of India’s search for a modern vocabulary in playwriting that could best express the aspirations of a fledging nation and the challenges before it.

This Life at Play

Girish Karnad’s life is too large to include in a memoir. According to critics, the main lacuna of the book is insufficient details of his creative life. Writing to Hindustan Times, Kunal Ray, a critic and lecturer at FLAME University, Pune, said, “While this is a significant moment of recognition in the creative life of an artist, the memoir doesn’t offer any further insight about assimilating these influences into the creative process that made him a distinctive modern Indian literary figure.”

Kunal Ray said, “There are two big chapters in the book dedicated to Karnad’s film work, Samskara and Vamsa Vriksha. Both were adapted from literary works and in both cases, the novels were far better than their cinematic rendition. While there is a detailed discussion about what went into the making of these films and the associated stories, gossip and slander, very little of this detailed discussion is extended towards his plays and their productions – Yayati and especially, Tughlaq.”

However, Girish Karnad is exceptional. For instance, the memoir begins with his mother Krishnabai Mankikar’s own autobiography and the story of her life. It goes on to recall his childhood in Sirsi and Dharwad, his time at Karnatak College, his work in the theatre and anecdotes about his early performances, including one of The Ugly Duckling.

The book is written with intimacy as well. A critic writing as PTI (a nickname) to The New Indian Express, describes its intimate quality: “I almost had the feeling that I was sitting under a starlit night, under the shadowy trees of the Sirsi forest, with Karnad sharing his story in a manner that is personalised and direct. He tells his story as it is, warts and all, no hagiography in evidence.”

The Afterword of the book was presented by his accomplished son Raghu and daughter Radha. It is also a befitting tribute to their father’s compelling memoirs. They say, “Our father lived through every decade of independent India - his writing and thinking were a mirror of the life of the country, and especially its arts.”

They notes, “He was a child of the 1940s, raised in a world without electricity, yet full of cultural transmissions. He liked to talk about power cuts at home in the Nineties, and shares it again in his memoirs; his nostalgia for the many shades of darkness after every sundown, and for the abundance of stories that emerged in those true nights. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that these two elements of his childhood, the darkness and the storytelling, evoke a theatre hall — the place he loved most through his life.”

When reading the book, we meet various real characters who shaped the modern India. They make their entries in the narrative are so delightfully vivid and full-blooded that their foibles, ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ jump out, as if from a proscenium arch. The chapter on Karnad’s role of director at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) attests to this fact. Some of the decisions he took when he was at that position in FTII, are described in the book in detail. It reveals the hidden picture of some of Indian cinema icons such as Raj Kapoor.

The book records some of Karnad’s inspirations too. For instance, he mentions how the subject of Mathematics helped him to learn playwriting:

“It is mathematics that taught me that, while working out an individual part, I always had to be vigilant about the effect it had on the other parts, and how it changed the overall structure as well as the interrelationship between various parts. This is essential technical training for a playwright.”

Anyway, the volume ends rather unexpectedly at a point when Karnad had arguably entered his absolute prime — coming off an eventful directorship of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune.

His awards

Girish Karnad won almost all the prestigious awards and prizes in India. The first prestigious award conferred on him was Padma Shri, a top civilian honour in India in 1974. He was just 36-years-old when he got the award. Another highly respected award that he received was the Jnanpith award in 1998, the highest literary honour conferred in India. Raj Rajyotsava award (1970), Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Varthur Navya award (1972), Padma Bhushan (1992), Sahitya Academy award (1994) and seven Filmfare awards are among others.

There are two honorary Doctorates too that he received, first is ‘Doctor of Letters’ by Karnataka University, Dharwad in 1994. The second is honorary Doctorate from the University of Sothern California, Los Angeles in 2011.

After so much artistic, intellectual and public life, Girish Raghunath Karnad departs the life on June 10, 2019 at the age of 81 in Bengaluru, India. Looking back into his life, it is remarkable how a small-town boy escaped provincialism and the narrow bounds of his caste to become a sophisticated aesthete, a thoroughly cosmopolitan public intellectual and artist. In retrospective, we have a lot of things to learn from his life.