Girish Karnad: The artist, writer and activist we needed more than ever at this time of crisis

We needed him more than ever at this time of crisis. Despite his oxygen support with him, he was stronger than many of us put together when it came to protest vehemently but with dignity

Jnanpith award winner, multi-lingual film actor and noted theatre personality Girish Karnad (IANS)
Jnanpith award winner, multi-lingual film actor and noted theatre personality Girish Karnad (IANS)

Rana Siddiqui Zaman

Just a month and half ago, I was doing a story on how India is shaping up in the run up to the elections under the possible Modi government in its second term. I rang up Girish Karnad. Who could be a better person than him who sat on dharnas carrying a placard of ‘I am an Urban Naxal’’ and his oxygen support at 81?

The theatre doyen was broken, soft but unwilling to speak.

As always, an immensely well behaved, polite but firm Karnad turned down my request saying, “Dear Rana, thank you for remembering me and thinking I am useful enough to say something. I see chaos everywhere, the golden times are gone. I am distressed and unwell and I get tired faster. So my apologies I won’t be able to help you here….I need to sleep now. My best wishes to you and your generation,” and he politely put the phone down.

Who knew the words of this doyen of theatre would come true in just a matter of less than two months! After Aziz Mirza sahab who spoke to me recently on how the poetry of the nation is gone as the Constitution is lynched, there was Karnad, who spoke in the same tone and words. Deeply anguished by the current state of affairs in the country, Karnad had stopped speaking up much especially after he was threatened with murder after Gauri Lankesh (he was allegedly in the hit list of the gang who killed Gauri) and the Karnataka police had given him security. Karnad who would make rare public appearances had come out with his oxygen support on the first anniversary of Gauri Lankesh’s murder in Karnataka, recently.

My earlier meetings with the doyen of theatre were during the staging of his play Hayvadan at Shri Ram Centre, New Delhi. I watched this more than more than two hour-long immensely intense play about the incompleteness and imperfections of a human being in which the heroine Kapila wants both intellect and physique of her choice in one man’s body. The tragedy of incompleteness, the intervention of spirituality, the logic by the God, the crime and punishment, a woman’s empowerment and helplessness --- all were interwoven in a play that used Sanskrit, HIndi, shlokas, in dialogues that reflected philosophies of life, history and allegory. It was a wonderful fusion of the folk and classical, mixed idioms and dialects, symphony of music and sound design that just astonished.

I was overwhelmed by the intricate and intense play. How can one review a play by the stalwart who leaves no stone unturned to make a theatre goer understand what a real Indian play could be? How intense it has to be, how it has to send a message without being preachy, how it has to use all traditional tools of a naatak to bring forth a drama that blows off your mind. As a reviewer, it made me think, “How can I criticise it except may be, by saying that it’s a bit long…” My words failed me.

Girish Karnad wrote his first play Yayati in 1961 when he was a Rhodes’ Scholar, then came out with Hayvadan and Tughlaq that most of our playwrights and directors have staged. After the play, he said to me, “There is nothing wrong in doing lighter plays, humorous ones. But we should never forget the symbols we have, the historical and mythological figures through which a lot of philosophies have been propagated. The tradition of historical-mythological plays must not die, albeit they are twisted to misguide. Look at how the West still swears by Shakesperean plays in its classic and traditional andaaz! Why should we forget our traditional style of staging and watching plays? Why should our Nautanki style die? Our children should be made to see such plays since childhood so that they start thinking constructively from an early age and refuse any trivialities touching their lives as they grow up.”

Needless to mention, we have not exactly followed his words. His legacy has few carriers. Most plays we watch today feel like daily soaps on television channels. Trivial, half-baked, under-researched with actors who are in a hurry to zoom to Bollywood.

My another meeting with the actor of countless Tamil and Hindi films was during an interview with Waheeda Rehman. They were pairing up for a film by Girish Acharya, “Brides Wanted”. I can never forget that day when he changed the atmosphere of the room with his magnetic presence. The coy Waheeda was speaking to me as the gallant and chivalrous Karnad walked in. Looking at her, he just said, “Oh my beautiful, gracious lady, Aap Kab aayin?” The lady stood and the man hugged her slightly giving a peck on her forehead. She said coyly, “Abhi..bus”.

The pair looked fantastic, charming and irresistible with complete opposite personas, heights, demeanor and looks. Shutterbugs had their field day.

Another meeting with the master of words, film director, producer and the man who brought 7th Jnanpith to Karnataka was during the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial annual lecture by IFFCO on “Indian Cinema and Creation of a Nation” in New Delhi. The speakers spoke of visible north-south divide in the film industry, the impact of Emergency and why Indian cinema would have died before the West if Satyajit Ray had not made ‘Pather Panchali’.

“Our north Hindi films avoid politics but South Indian films have it to the hilt. “The use of politics both directly and symbolically, helped the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) come to power with a thumping majority, he had said. “I remember red and black DMK flag fluttering in several films and the hero-heroines would emerge from the front, with no situational relation to the flag in the backdrop.

For people looking for North-South unity in Bollywood, the ideal North-South pair was Punjabi jaat Dharmendra and beautiful South Indian Hema Malini, which represented the romantic aesthetics of India,” he told me in an interview post the lecture, three years back.

His last rites will be held at Kalpalli crematorium in Bengaluru. His family says it will be simple funeral, no VVIPs allowed, no procession, and no showering of flowers on his body…

A man who had to see the dawn with us, didn’t have to go now. We needed him more at this time of crisis. Despite his oxygen support with him, he was stronger than many of us put together when it came to protest vehemently but with dignity.

Adieu Karnad. You will have no substitute ever here.

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.