Artists Remember Karnad
June 20, 2019
Image Courtesy: Rediff
Theatre often gropes toward the past, looking for meaning, with the tools of the present: video, lighting, shifting audiences. But to have an impact on the heart of society, drama must attempt honesty not merely by using a mythical Indian history, but by engaging actively with possibilities in the present. – Girish Karnad
Padma Bhushan awardee playwright, director, actor and ex-Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) Chairperson Girish Karnad passed away on 10 June. Tributes poured in from various corners on Monday following the news of his demise. No single tribute can do justice to an artist who was a master of a range of skills. Perhaps, the best way, to speak about the veteran artist is to present a mosaic of impressions, ideas, feelings and anecdotes from those who knew him, had the opportunity to work with him, or were influenced by his work.
Prominent theatre personality, MK Raina, recalls his early days as a young student at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, where Karnad would perform plays with Om Shivpuri and Ebrahim Alkazi and others in the 1960-70s:
As a young aspiring playwright, we used to admire him and be in awe of him. I was a witness to his play “Tughlaq” when it was first staged by the National School of Drama. Om Shivpuri and Alkazi had designed the set for it.
Way back in the 70s, I performed an experimental piece on a poem by Sahir Ludhianwi. It was my first exposure to performance and body movements and he was in the audience, watching me. He liked me and enquired about me from others, and came to meet me after the play. He was so normal, very vibrant, very enthusiastic, always up for talking.”
Every year Karnad would visit Delhi and stay at Om Shivpuri’s house. A kind of Delhi Playwrights Club would be host and I was the junior most. There would be lots of talking, brainstorming, even fighting. People would debate and argue. It was a very vibrant environment of dialogue and discussion.
For artist and critic Ranjit Hoskote, who had composed an opera based on Karnad’s classic “Agnivarsha” with musician Vanraj Bhatia, called it “a formative experience of transforming poetry into music, a combination of language and world, which was the very being of Karnad.” For him, Karnad’s death was not just the death of an individual artist, but the also the world he stood for, a world that is perhaps unimaginable in the India we live in today.”
It a deep loss of an imaginative and creative artist, but also the world he came from, and stood for, the world he bore in all of his works. He was a product of the people who taught him and the people who made him who he was; enabling a kind of multi-cultural existence.
Renowned poet and critic, and pioneer of modern Malayalam poetry, K Satchidanandan spoke about the politics of Karnad’s plays.
"Girish Karnad was one of the few Indian writers whose works spoke for them, without their having to make loud statements. Read any of his works, from “Tughlaq” to “Taledanda” which are all deeply political commentaries on the chaotic complexity of the Indian present. Myth and history have never remained the same after he had reread and rewritten them. He never spoke to please anyone and chose reticence over hypocrisy. But when he found silence even more fatal than speech, he preferred to speak as he did in his last years at the risk of his own life. Girish Karnad proved that an intelligent artist can be profoundly political without sacrificing one's art on the altar of the politics of convenience or of day-to-day activism and was the very symbol of an artist's integrity as playwright, director and actor."
In 1989, thirty years ago, Karnad, “the gentle, jovial, academically disciplined playwright-actor” had for the first time in his life “taken a militant political position – in defiance of the State – in defence of the freedom of theatre”. Noted film and theatre critic Samik Bandyopadhyay, narrates an incident from Girish Karnad’s Chairmanship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi when he had initiated the Nehru Shatabdi Smarak Natya Samoroha, something of an authorised panorama of post-Independence Indian theatre:
Since Sambhu Mitra and Badal Sircar, duly invited, had dropped out for personal reasons, Utpal Dutt had been asked to start it off with one of his own major works. He could choose his favourite. The incorrigible provocateur that he was, he selected his play “Kallol” [The Roll of the Waves], documenting the Royal India Navy’s mutiny in 1946, an overpowering large scale spectacle of high drama, songs, sound on the stage turned into the quarter deck of INS Khyber, down to the gun turrets. The play, scheduled to commemorate Nehru’s centenary, castigated both Nehru and Patel by name as traitors to the cause of the naval ratings risking their lives fighting for India’s Independence, and responsible for the brutal suppression of the mutiny.
Initially, there were compromise formulas – if the play could be tweaked a bit! – or if it could be replaced by something else by Dutt. As a matter of fact, as Dutt assured me, Girish kept him out of all these on his own accord and braved it all. At one point, I recall, he rang some of us up – those who then happened to be members of the General Council of the Sangeet Natak Akademi – asking us to be prepared to send in our resignations in support and fraternization if he was driven to take that step. We stayed prepared. They were more civilized days no doubt. The clouds rumbled. Girish stood his ground. He won his battle single-handedly.
In a great act of theatre fraternization, Dutt accepted the Sangeet Natak Fellowship the next year, 1990, as an acknowledgement of Girish’s stance the year before. The first time, years ago that Dutt had been given the SNA Award for Direction, he had turned it down – one of the earliest cases of award wapsi – his rejection articulated in a long poem, avowing the artist’s independence from numbing and humiliating authoritarian bonds! On Dutt’s suggestion, Girish was instrumental in having Geoffrey Kendal, Dutt’s own guru, honoured the same year.”
Vivek Shanbhag, one of the finest writers in the history of Kannada Literature, shared with us that he had spoken to Karnad the night before he passed away, at 09 pm. Two days before that he had even interviewed Karnad for over two hours for a publication.
Vivek Shanbhag, one of the finest writers of Kannada Literature, shared with us that he had spoken to Karnad the night before he passed away, at 09 pm. Two days before that he had even interviewed Karnad for over two hours for a publication.
Karnad was one of the leading literary figures of the time who started writing when Navya (Modernist) movement was peaking in Kannada. Navya writers brought in a very modern sensibility. Sriranga was a major playwright, of that time. Karnad came and the kind of sensibility he brought, it was new and pioneering. His first play, “Yayati”, was immediately well received. Then Tughlaq followed and he reinvented himself in “Hayavadana” a play was based on a folktale. "Fire and the Rain" and "Tale Danda" are equally powerful plays. Karnad is undoubtedly one of the most important playwrights of independent India.
Shanbhag had published the first three chapters of Karnad’s autobiography in Kannada when he was editing a journal called Desha Kaala, which also published parts of Karnad’s play "Wedding Album". Shanbhag commended the dedication of the playwright who could live with a work and theme for decades and work relentlessly on it.
On the day of Karnad’s death, the 26-minute documentary, made on his life, family background, education, and the early influences on his life that shaped his later works, made by KM Chaitanya was viewed widely on YouTube. The filmmaker, who got the opportunity to work intimately with Karnad, owing to his father’s friendship with the late playwright, spoke greatly about Karnad’s generosity, kindness and openness. Calling Karnad a mentor, he told us about how as a young student, fresh out of college, he felt deeply encouraged, heard and inspired by Karnad.
He was a master of form, from plays to film, to Tv shows. His craftsmanship was of a very high standard, and he reinvented himself with each one. One of his biggest qualities was that he was an artist who did not underestimate his audience. He delivered to them, in committed ways, and demanded from them the same commitment.
Having been closely associated with the Jnanpith Awardee, even before he made the documentary on him, Chaitanya shared a memory that only solidifies the persona of Karnad as a polymath.
When the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan asked him to speak, he delivered the speech in fluent Marathi. When he would communicate with someone in the room, who spoke Konkani, he would only talk in Konkani.
When he was offered a role in a Hindi film for the first time, he hired a language coach to train him. He said he did not want to look like a “South Indian talking in Hindi”. He wanted to be perfect.
One time we were at Ranga Shankara (one of the most prominent theatres in Bengaluru), and they wanted to record an audio in Kannada that said, “Welcome to Ranga Shankara, please switch off your mobile phones.” He recorded that in Kannada as – “Prayogadalli vyathyaya baradhne.” “Vyathyaya” is a very rarely used word in Kannada, I didn’t understand it so I asked him, “Why are you using that word? People will need to refer to a dictionary to understand it.” He replied, “This is the very reason, we need to use the word. There are many beautiful words in Kannada which will go out of usage if people stopped using them. We need to use these words, so people understand them and start using them.”
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