Girish Karnad, a man for all seasons

It was only in the 1990s, after we had both moved from what was then Bombay to what was then Bangalore, and our children became school-mates, that I actually got to know the man, writes Ammu Joseph

Girish Karnad at the author’s wedding reading DR Bendre’s poem Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana
Girish Karnad at the author’s wedding reading DR Bendre’s poem Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana

Ammu Joseph

My introduction to Girish Karnad was through theatre but I would not presume to write about his plays.

My first encounter with him was in college in what was then Madras in the early 1970s. I cannot even refer to it as “our first encounter” because I am pretty sure he was not even aware of my existence as the lowly prompter in the wings. But it was very exciting for us in our cloistered women’s college to have the young, handsome, already well-known man helping out with rehearsals for the college play, One Day in Ashada (Mohan Rakesh’s Ashad Ka Ek Din in English). The play was directed by Ammu Mathew, his friend and colleague in the city’s premier theatre group, The Madras Players, who in her day job was professor and head of the Department of Physics.

My second encounter was not even with him but with his celebrated play, Tughlaq, in Mumbai in the mid-1970s. The performance, directed by Alyque Padamsee (in English for the first time), was all the more captivating with the spectacular Kabir Bedi in the title role. The opening scene remains indelible in my mind.

It was only in the early 1990s, after we had both moved from what was then Bombay to what was then Bangalore, and our children became school-mates and friends, that I actually got to know the man behind the awe-inspiring, somewhat intimidating, image. We soon became family friends. When his old friend, artist Vasudev, and I got married in 1992, he read DR Bendre’s poem Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana at our informal wedding ceremony. It was Karnad who had introduced Vasudev to the poet and thereby catalysed the process that led to the Vriksha motif that Vasudev explored over many years.

I continued to read and watch performances of his plays (sometimes along with him and his family), but it took an assignment to write a profile of him for the inaugural edition of the women’s magazine, Verve, in 1995 to expose me to the early life experiences that helped shape him, the astounding breadth of his oeuvre, and his thoughts on various topics, including marriage and family.

He was quite candid about his involvement in cinema and his reasons for acting in commercial movies – Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, et al. During the long interview, he admitted that he was increasingly convinced that film was not his metier. While he found most of his films “too raw,” he said, he was still surprised at some of the techniques he had used in his very first play, Yayati: “It seems extraordinarily precocious – I wrote it when I was 22. There’s a certain pleasure in knowing that even at that early stage, I knew how to write a play. I don’t get the same kind of pleasure from my films. So, I’m slowly beginning to lose interest in cinema. I feel now that one should do what one is good at.” And he knew what that was: writing plays in Kannada.

There is no doubt that he will be revered and remembered by posterity as one of India’s greatest playwrights. But it is clear that his career in popular cinema is what made him a household name. I was astonished to discover, while on a family and friends trip to Dharwad, Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal some years ago, that we could not stop at a rural roadside teashop without an excited crowd gathering because someone recognised him from some evidently popular Sandalwood movie. I must add that he was responsible for getting me to watch my first Salman Khan film (out of a total of two so far).

He also talked during the interview about his growing reputation (some would say notoriety) for speaking out against communal politics. He thought it was quite ironical because, according to him, in the past he had often been the butt of various jokes made by more radical Kannada writers for his tendency to play safe and not get involved in politics. He had apparently not made a single political statement until 1992 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. “Communalism was the one issue which made me feel that if I didn’t actively fight it I would still be making a political statement. I felt I had to take a stand,” he said.

We were part of the Coalition for Secularism in Bangalore, an impromptu, informal coming together of a wide range of citizens shocked by the events of December 1992 and feeling the need to get together with like-minded people to figure out how to respond to the troubling situation. Among the many activities this voluntary collective engaged in was the hosting in Bengaluru in August 1993 of the exhibition, ‘Hum Sab Ayodhya,’ put together by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat). Karnad was among the many cultural and intellectual figures from across the country who gathered on the banks of the Sarayu on August 15 that year for ‘Mukt Naad,’ a cultural event highlighting the syncretism, tolerance and diversity that characterised India at the very place that had emerged as Ground Zero of the aggressive effort to suppress, deny and alter that enriching reality.

He continued to be a prominent and outspoken opponent of communal politics as well as of censorship of dissent from then on. I remember that their house was attacked with stones some time in the mid-1990s, when our children were still in school, decades before his name appeared on a list of targets for assassination that surfaced during the investigation into the murder of Gauri Lankesh in September 2017.

If Karnad’s plays often focussed on women, with some critics suggesting that his female characters were stronger and more convincing than the women created by other Indian playwrights, in real life, too, he appeared entirely comfortable with and in fact appreciative of strong, feisty, outspoken, even contrary, women with minds and lives of their own. By his own admission, his mother, Krishnabai, whose delicate physique belied her forceful personality and boundless energy, played a major role in moulding his perceptions of women. She herself led an unconventional life, refusing to submit to the traditional role of a young widow, working as a trained nurse and eventually marrying Karnad’s father, a government doctor.

Karnad would probably have been pleased that the passages from two of his plays, Hayavadana and Nagamandala, that were read before he commenced his last journey on earth on Monday – in lieu of any pomp and ceremony, in accordance with his wishes – were both words he had written for and about female characters.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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Published: 13 Jun 2019, 8:00 PM