Legendary man of Indian theatre, film-maker Girish Karnad passes away

Kashmir Times. Dated: 6/11/2019 12:28:24 PM

BENGALURU, Jun 10 (Agencies): Playwright, filmmaker and actor Girish Karnad passed away at his residence in Bengaluru on Monday morning. He was 81.
His death brings to an end a glorious chapter in modernist Indian theatre, which he helped shape through his work, from the early 1960s.
Though Karnad wanted to become a poet in English, he found himself writing a play in Kannada while on the way to Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar.
That play was Yayati, a reworking of a myth from the Mahabharata. He was 26 when he wrote the path-breaking Tughlaq (1964), a play that successive generations of theatre personalities have used to examine the promise and disillusionments of Indian society. Writing in Kannada, his plays used history, ancient myths and folklore to explore the fault lines of Indian society—and to shape post-Independence modernity influenced by ideas of secularism and constitutional morality. Together with Badal Sircar in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi, he created a new theatrical language. Some of his most popular and influential plays include Hayavadana (1972), Nagamandala (1988), Agni Matte Male (1995) and Taledanda (1990).
Girish Karnad once revealed, “When my mother was expecting me, she decided she did not want to have any more children...So, she persuaded my father to take her to a doctor for an abortion. But, I will forever be grateful to that doctor, because that day she did not come to her clinic. My mother waited half a day, got bored and returned.”
Eventually, his mother gave up on the idea of abortion, and Karnad was born. When Karnad's mother told him this story for the first time his reaction was that of utter shock. "It was so shocking for me to think that there will be this world without me in it," he said. Unfortunately, today such a day has come, that Karnad is no more in this world. However, the actor has left behind an oeuvre of work that will be valued for years to come, as modern literary treasures.
What set Karnad apart was not only his literary talents (which he had in abundance) but also, the social consciousness that reflected in each of his works, along with his love for Indian languages such as Marathi and Kannada, and the messy 'absurdities of life', which he beautifully portrayed in his plays.
Many years ago, when he was a young Rhodes scholar, he had harboured the secret dream of being a great English poet -- like TS Eliot, and WH Auden. But when he sat down to write, what poured out of him was a Kannada play -- not an English poem -- shaped from Indian myths and lores, called Yayati. After that, Karnad returned to India from Oxford and began his career as a playwright and eventually went on to act and direct movies.
Karnad's plays are often wonderfully woven and aim at either bringing social reform or pointed out the hypocrisy of our society -- be it caste, or gender-based discrimination, or religious intolerance. In Yayati, for example, it was Puru's wife, who is victimised, and yet, like in reality, little thought was spared for her because she was a woman. Likewise, in Hayavadana, the status of a woman in her family as well as in the society was explored. In Tale-Danda, Karnad tried to depict the need for an equal society, be it in terms of class or caste.
Karnad also went on to play many memorable film characters onscreen. He was the affectionate but slightly strict father of Swami in iconic TV series Malgudi Days, Verghese Kurien in Manthan, and the fierce cricket coach in Iqbal. But, in real life, Karnad played a far more difficult role of being that man who always stood up when freedom of expression was under threat, or when secular voices were being drowned. Needless to say that it didn't make him very popular among Hindutva fundamentalists, and the actor, who had otherwise had a blemish-less career, found himself among many controversies and even death threats. But, Karnad never shied away from taking a stance.
Last year, during the police investigation of journalist Gauri Lankesh's death, it was reportedly revealed that Karnad was also on the hit list. The report stated that Girish Karnad's security was "beefed up following the killing of Ms Lankesh." However, that did not scare Karnad. In fact, on the first death anniversary of Lankesh, Karnad sat in the audience, with a placard that read, "Me Too Urban Naxal." Although the actor was in poor health and had a tube wrapped around his nose, he made an appearance in the event to speak his mind.
Several years ago, during a literary festival in Mumbai, in which British Writer VS Naipaul was being given a lifetime achievement award, and Karnad only had a masterclass in theatre to teach, the actor took on the stage, and instead of talking about theatre called out Naipaul for his 'anti-muslim' views. It didn't go down well with most, as Naipaul was, and still remains, a celebrated writer in his own right, but Karnad did not kowtow to pressures and criticised Naipaul vehemently for his misrepresentation of Indian history.
Indian history, myths and folklores often added fiber to his stories, and while his characters were centuries old, and his stories spoke of a different time, they always managed to hold up a mirror to our present day society, and showed us what needs to be weeded out, and what needs to be nurtured.
As the literature world mourned the demise of veteran playwright and actor Girish Karnad, some of his old friends and colleagues from Maharashtra revealed little known aspects of his life, saying he never boasted about his intellect despite his towering stature.
Ashok Kulkarni, Karnad's Pune-based friend since their college days, said though the actor was well read and was known for his love for books, his colleagues "never felt that pressure". "We used to discuss cinema, theatre and other forms of literature but I don't remember any time when Karnad tried to dominate the conversation with his intellect," he told agencies.
Karnad's command over several languages and his deep understanding of the literary and creative worlds made him the first non-civil servant director of Pune's prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). He was also the only director of FTII who went on to serve as its chairman, an official from the government-run institute said. He was FTII's director from January 1, 1974 to December 31, 1975 and later served as its chairman from February 1999 to October 2001, the official said. Karnad was also the youngest director of FTII when he took charge of the post at the age of 35 years and, incidentally, some his students were older than him, he said.
"He introduced an 'Integrated Course' in the institute's syllabus that required students of one specialisation course to learn about other specialisations as well. It is still in the syllabus in the form of a 'Common Course'," FTII Director Bhupendra Kainthola said.
Noted translator Uma Virupaksh Kulkarni recalled how her meetings with Karnad used to be "warm and pleasant". She translated four of Karnad's dramas as well as his autobiography into Marathi, titled 'Khelata Khelata Ayushya'. "He used to understand Marathi as his early education was in that language and never lost the grip. He was the only Kannada author who could understand Marathi, and he used to put me at ease during our discussions," she said.
"His drama 'Nagamandala' was one of the first plays that I translated into Marathi and it gave me confidence. I was already translating other forms of literature and never tried my hands at drama, but, with Karnad's support, I was able to do so," she said.
Girish Karnad's colleague and actress Shabana Azmi tweeted an image, saying, "Deeply saddened to learn about #Girish Karnad. Haven’t yet been able to speak with his family. Its been a friendship of 43 years and I need the privacy to mourn him. I request the media to kindly excuse me from giving quotes."

 

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