I had met Girish Karnad first when we were protesting against his play Tughlaq which was being staged at a festival in Bangalore. We thought Tughlaq represented bourgeois theatre. Writer P Lankesh, who was the sponsor of the festival, was also on our side of the protest. Lankesh was more radical than we were. He was Girish’s mentor and also mine. Those were different times.
Many critics thought Girish’s Tughlaq was about the decline of the Nehruvian era as it was written around the 60s. Today when I look back, I see so much of Nehruvian ideas in him. Lot of the modernist views and values that Girish carried with him were a part of that legacy. Tughlaq made him extremely famous and he had written it when he was quite young. It was translated into many languages and stalwarts of Indian theatre like Ibrahim Alkazi picked it up. It was such a huge event that it took Girish some time to get out of what I would call the ‘Tughlaq phase’. He was so much identified with this play, its style of speaking and the use of its many metaphors.
Eventually, when he came up with another play Taledanda in Kannada, it was quite interesting. It was about the 11th century Bhakti movement of Karnataka. Here in this play, Girish upturns his image. In Tughlaq, there is a classical kind of king while the king in Taledanda is a rustic kind of king. If you had to equate the Tughlaq king to Nehru or an Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bijala, the king in Taledanda, would be Lalu Prasad Yadav. He comes from an OBC community, speaks in a rustic language, is vibrant and impetuous. Taledanda is also a play about Basavanna, the 12th century saint, and Basavanna happens to be a minister in Bijala’s court. The whole play created a new idiom in playwriting and the other very important aspect of Taledanda was that it tried to understand the Bhakti movement from a socio-economic angle. Till then it was looked at as only a religious movement, as a radical religious movement rather. They are great friends initially and Bijala respects Basavanna. This results in encouragement for the movement. Then comes the backlash from the upper castes and classes. They plan a right-wing coup using Bijala’s son, who is morally weak but greedy for power. He arrests his own father and the whole play ends tragically. The whole movement is crushed and then there is a bloodbath.
Girish’s ‘Fire and Rain’, Agni Mattu Male in Kannada, fascinates me. Here, he places a romantic love story against an unromantic, modernistic love story. Interestingly, there is nothing modern about the theme of the play as it is drawn from mythology and a tribal girl is falling in love with a Brahmin boy.
In fact, I had directed the Hindi translation of the play. I had wanted this love to win, but in the play, Girish doesn’t do it. In the play, gods grant a boon to the protagonist which he can use to save the life of one person. He chooses to save the life of a Brahm Rakshas, which I didn’t agree with at all. I wanted the protagonist to choose the tribal girl, Nittilai, who had also been killed. In my production, the protagonist chooses Nittilai and when she is chosen, there’s rainfall. Girish had, in fact, not liked the ending.
Girish is a very tall thinker and a very important Indian writer. He is one of the four best contemporary playwrights emerging in the second half of the 20th century, the others being Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar and Mohan Rakesh. Among them, Girish’s speciality that he was the best structured playwright. Girish taught Indians to write a play, in the sense of structuring. All the others I mentioned whether it is Badal Sircar or Mohan Rakesh or Vijay Tendulkar, they all had different strengths. Badal was radical in his plays, Mohan Rakesh was extremely strong on his modernity and Tendulkar was a social critic. Girish was all this and a great structuralist.
Take Tughlaq, for example, works both as a popular Parsi theatre play and also as a modernist play. It is this strength that made Girish what he was.
Girish was a man from liberal, middle-class family. His father was a doctor, who at that time had gotten married to a widow. It was an extremely progressive family. He had gone to Oxford to study and when he returned, he got a job. But, there was also this other side to Girish. He came from a beautiful town called Dharwad which had seen several great writers. These writers who became Girish’s mentors were extraordinary people. They were grounded, rooted and yet had stretched their branches towards the whole world. Girish got the mix of these two worlds and he made the best use of these two worlds. He retained his modernity and also imbibed the ‘desipan’ of some of these writers. One of them was a great literary critic called Kirtinath Kurtakoti. The other was also his publisher called GB Joshi who was also a playwright. I think GB Joshi’s play Kadadida Neeru had also inspired him. Girish was a many of many parts, many contrasts, yet he represented a whole.
Girish had also acknowledged this strange mix of tradition and modernity in him. He talked of the Parsi Theatre Company which used to come to the sleepy little town called Sirsi, where his father was a medical practitioner.
Girish was many things, including an actor, though I was not particularly fond of him as an actor. But, I’m not sure he agreed with it. In fact, I had written about it and he had gotten upset about it. I had written that Girish should concentrate on theatre, as it was the life spring in him. He was the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and also helmed the FTII and held many other such positions. But, I’m sure he could have done so much more. I’ve always felt he was more of a writer than an organiser.
We knew each other very well but there was a world of difference. I came from a lower-middle class background and was sort of an upstart. I was from the science background and was politically radical. One of the radical things I had done was to attack the early productions that Girish and BV Karanth had done. Now, I feel it was an overreaction. We had accused their plays of being representative of bourgeois theatre.
But, after that, we had appreciated each other too. I had written a critical piece about Girish’s works and another 20-page critical piece on his mentor GB Joshi, both of which he had liked. He used to write letters and we used to meet occasionally.
His real friend was BV Karanth. They were collaborators in the real sense; their ideas matched both aesthetically and ideologically. Girish and I respected each other but both ideologically and aesthetically, we were extremely different. That tension always existed.
It was most evident when my production of Tughlaq was unfairly removed from the Festival of India at London, under the pretext that I was a red rag Communist which created a huge national controversy. The festival organisers sought the intervention of Girish Karnad as the playwright and I was upset that he had intervened on behalf of the State and not on behalf of freedom of expression. Finally, Ibrahim Alkazi came forward to finish the production.
Girish was an outsider in some sense as he was an English-speaking Kannadiga. He was not accepted by several ‘desi’ Kannada writers. I think it pinched him somewhere creatively. He suddenly started to write plays such as Hayavadana and Nagamandala which uses folk forms extensively. I’m not fond of these plays as these are not doggedly literary as his other plays are. He was hard on himself with Tughlaq and a few other plays. But, those two plays became popular and maybe those plays went with the times as in those years, we were suddenly trying to imbibe folk traditions in theatre. In fact, many people like him for these plays.
What is extremely tragic about his life is that the last two-and-a-half- years of his life, he had to walk around with an oxygen cylinder wherever he went. What I like about him is that he accepted his fate and knew that he didn’t have much time but went on doing what he wanted. He went on expressing his views, he wrote more plays. His last play, a play on the Rakshi-Tangidi War that happened between Vijayanagara and Bahamani kingdoms, was completed only this year. He finished it earlier this year.
Girish got into controversies occasionally but I would say that he was misunderstood. For example, Girish had, at a seminar in Kolkata, said something to the effect of “Tagore is not a very good playwright”, but what Girish meant, I believe, was that Tagore was not a strongly structured playwright. And that is true.
His writings on Tipu Sultan suddenly became controversial because he wrote good things about the king. I find a strange similarity between what is happening to Nehru and what is happening to Girish. I am sure a time will come when true assessment of both these personalities will come to light.
The last 10 years have been unkind to Girish but I stand by what he did. The entire right wing pounced on him for the Tipu Sultan (The Dreams of Tipu Sultan) play. What Girish was doing was to tell all the good things that Tipu did, he was acknowledging it. I think that is the best way to promote another culture. That is the only way to co-exist. Unfortunately, today’s times are so angry, so torn that he was being denounced for no reason. Finally, he will come out of it because Girish was truthful. We have to co-exist, we have to be tolerant and we have to acknowledge the best of the other person. That is the only way we will survive.
(As told to Ashlin Mathew; Prasanna is a well-known theatre director and playwright)