A multifaceted genius (1938-2019)

Girish Raghunath Karnad, who passed away in Bengaluru on 10 June2019, at the age of 81, was ailing for quite some time from a condition identified as degenerative pulmonary disorder. He was an acclaimed playwright, actor, auteur, author, administrator, scholar, orator, and an ardent crusader for human rights and social justice.

Karnad who had his early education in Sirsi, and later Dharwad in Karnataka, eventually went to London as a Rhodes scholar, and secured his Master of Arts degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the Oxford University. He was also elected as Chairman of the Oxford Union. His first job after he returned to India was with the Oxford University Press in Chennai, where he served for seven years. Here he was associated with an English theatre group, the ‘Madras Players’.

Girish Karnad’s passion for theatre found him don the mantle of a playwright when he was still in his early twenties. In all, he wrote 15 plays, significant among them being his maiden effort Yayati, followed by others like Tughlaq, Hayavadana, Nagamandala, down to his last effort Rakshasi Tangadi. He was hailed as the renaissance man in Kannada theatre, for he tackled themes that were hitherto considered taboo, and used the epics and other mythological texts to draw allegorical references to contemporary issues and times.

One of his most acclaimed plays was Tughlaq which attracted nationwide attention, and was translated into various languages like Hindi, Marathi and so on by renowned playwrights like Ebrahim Elkazi, Alyque Padamsee, and others.
The playwright soon found a niche on the large screen as well, and debuted as an actor with the Kannada film Samskara based on a novel of the same name by U.R. Ananthamurthy. The national award winning film was directed by Pattabhirama Reddy.

His first foray into direction was with Vamsa Vriksha, again based on a novel by the acclaimed novelist S.L. Byrappa. This film too won a National Award. Karnad also directed Hindi films like Utsav and Godhuli. His adaptation of the legendary director Akiro Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as Ondanandu Kaladhali had a wide canvas and attained the status of a cult classic. The film also introduced the young actor Shankar Nag to Kannada cinema. Karnad also acted in and directed Kanooru Heggaditi which too was well received by audiences.

Karnad also took giant strides as an actor, and was a firm favourite of avant garde directors like Shyam Benegal who cast him in pivotal roles in two films, Nishaant and Manthan, and Nagesh Kukunoor, with whom he worked in Iqbal and Dor.

One of his latter day films was the Salman Khan starrer Tiger Zinda Hai directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. Apart from hosting TV shows, Karnad also acted in serials like Malgudi Days directed by his protégé Shankar Nag, where he played the father of the young hero, Swami. The serial incidentally was based on a bestselling novel by R.K. Narayan, one of India’s most celebrated writers.

Karnad was a strident critic of right wing politics, religious fundamentalism, and right wing organisations like the RSS. He minced no words in condemning the ghastly killings of rationalists like Prof. Kalburgi, and journalists like Gauri Lankesh.

In a career that spanned well over five decades, Girish Karnad won several laurels like the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, the Sangeeta Natak Akademi Award, the Kalidas Samman and the most prestigious honour coveted by literateurs, the Bharatiya Jnanpith, in 1998. His autobiography Aadadtha Aayushya sketches in vivid detail his long and illustrious career in diverse fields. He was one of the youngest Directors of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at the age of 35, and later took over as its Chairman as well. He also served as the President of the Sangeet Nataka Akademi, and as Director of the Nehru Centre in London. In consonance with his wishes his family turned down a state funeral that had been planned for him, and his last rites were performed without any religious overtones.

C.V. Aravind

The writer is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.