Girish Karnad: The crown jewel of Indian theatre 

The veteran multilingual actor, writer, playwright and anti-Fascist thinker Girish Karnad will be missed in the world of cinema, theatre and literature

Girish Karnad
Girish Karnad

Girish Shrivastava

With the demise of the ‘Crown Jewel’ of Indian art, the veteran polymath and iconic Girish Karnad, India has lost one of the sanest voices today. The veteran multilingual actor, writer, playwright & anti-Fascist thinker Karnad who wrote some masterpieces like Yayati, Tughlaq, Hayavadan, Naga Mandala, Rakta Kalyan, Agni aur Barkha and made some critically acclaimed films like Samskara, Vamsha Vriksha. He also directed the Shashi Kapoor classic Utsav.

He was also a leading face of the Parallel or Art Cinema movement of the 70s. His portrayal of a mute, subdued and suppressed teacher in Nishant and a flamboyant accomplice of the evergreen Dev Anand in Des Pardes are still cherished. Manthan, Swami, Iqbal, Dor happened to be just another milestones in his oeuvre of art cinema. Then equally outstanding was his TV foray with Malgudi Days, Turning Point and others. He also acted in some blockbuster commercial movies including Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai, etc.

A recipient of the highest literary award, the Jnanpith and the highest civilian awards like the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, Girish Karnad always remained one of the most vocal voices of the resistance and against the divisive manoeuvres of the present regime and the prevailing ‘Intolerance’, cow-vigilantism and mob lynching frenzy in the country. Even at 81, he was more ebullient, energetic, refreshing and modern than today’s young turks.

Girish Raghunath Karnad (19 May 1938- 10 June, 2019) born in Matheran in present day Maharashtra. His mother Krishnabai nee Mankikar was a young widow with a son, and while training to be a nurse, met Dr Raghunath Karnad who was a doctor in the Bombay Medical Services. For five years they could not get married because of the prevailing prejudice against widow remarriage. Finally their marriage was sanctified under the dispensation of the Arya Samaj. Girish was the third of the four children born thereafter.

His initial schooling was in Marathi. In Sirsi, Karnataka, he was exposed to travelling theatre groups, Natak Mandalis, as his parents were deeply interested in their plays. As a youngster, he was an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theatre in his village. His family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka when he was fourteen, where he grew up with his two sisters and a niece.

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

Girish Karnad predominantly worked in the South Indian cinema and the Bombay Hindi cinema. He began his career as a playwright in the 1960s. His coming to the world of plays marked the coming of age of modern Indian play writing in Kannada, just as Badal Sircar did in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi. For four decades Karnad composed plays, often using history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues. He translated his plays into English and received acclaim. His plays have been translated into some Indian languages and directed by directors like Ebrahim Alkazi, B V Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Prasanna, Arvind Gaur, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta, Shyamanand Jalan, Amal Allana and Zafer Mohiuddin. He was active in the world of Indian cinema working as an actor, director and screenwriter, in Hindi and Kannada and earned innumerable awards. He also successfully worked as the director of FTII Pune.

For years, Karnad kept on working in close association with history and ancient myths, examining the fault lines of Indian society, its tradition and its present times. His was a pertinent voice of dissent against the dark age in the contemporary times and all kinds of oppressive and Machiavellian’s schemes of the administrations.

Karnad wrote Tughlaq (1964) when he was 26 years old, creating a metaphor for authoritarianism that becomes relevant with each new bend in modern Indian history. When it was first published, the play’s depiction of Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s idealism, his efforts at creating a more secular state, his far-sighted ideas about the economy and his eventual disintegration into a mad tyrant seemed to provide a striking parallel to the disenchantment with Nehruvian ideals that had swiftly set in after Independence.

Sadly, we lost him now when the darkness is thicker and denser and the intolerance more rabid, and when he was badly needed. The vacuum created by his death is irreparable.

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