Girish Karnad lived to ignite thought and provoke anger on bleak future of governance and theatre :
In his autobiographical work, Aadadta Aayushya (Years in Play), Girish Karnad makes an extraordinary dedication at the very outset to a doctor who did not get an opportunity to serve his pregnant mother. He begins with a conversation at the Dharwad home of his parents, in 1973. Then 35, but already a celebrated playwright, filmmaker and actor, appointed director of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, for young Girish, life was good. But then, suddenly, his father turns to his mother and says: “And we thought we wanted to abort this one!” Girish’s mother had turned red and mumbled: “Uh…yes… but it was your idea, not mine! Why bring up all that now?” Curious, the young Girish probed and learnt that his mother had indeed gone to a clinic in Pune to get the abortion done, had waited for close to an hour for the doctor to attend to her, in vain. She got bored and went home. The young Girish had been bewildered: “The thought that the Universe would exist, whether I existed or not depressed me,” he writes. The character Kunal Padubidri, in Girish’s play on Bengaluru, ‘Boiled Beans on Toast’, says something similar at the close of play, but adds: “But then, if I didn’t exist, would it matter?” It does. It would be seriously understating to say Girish Karnad was talented. He won a Rhodes scholarship with Mathematics. He won fame and awards in literature, drama and cinema. He was given coveted appointments by government in many academies and institutions. But Girish always seemed to struggle to make sense of it all. His character, Puru, who exchanges his youth with his ambitious father Yayati, and with tragic consequences, cries at the end of the play: “What does it all mean, God, what does it mean?” It was young Girish, wondering, in passionate agony. Girish wrote ‘Yayati’ before he went to Oxford, much before he came under the influence of the Existentialists. Even the rational and material world he imagined was originally rooted in philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s ‘Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism’. He writes in his autobiography: “Before travelling to England, I read Rajaji’s condensed versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata so that I would have a grasp of our Itihaasa-Puranas. Even in the condensed 300-page books, Rajaji manages beautifully in capturing the sub-plots and stories… The idea that the son was older than the father seemed dramatic to me.” The year was 1960. He was only 22. What did it all mean to young Girish? His grounds of inspiration, largely, have been the great Indian epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata, folk tales and histories of Indian rulers. But Girish quarrels with the traditional interpretations of the stories. In his 2002 World Theatre Day message, an honour given by the International Theatre Institute to outstanding achievers, Girish cites from the Natyashastra, but in disagreement with traditional understanding of the events surrounding the opening performance: “The myth, it seems to me, is pointing to an essential characteristic of theatre which Brahma’s placatory remarks could not possibly acknowledge, that every performance – however carefully devised – carries within itself the risk of failure, of disruption and therefore of violence. The minimum that a live performance requires is a human being performing (that is, pretending to be someone else) and another one watching him or her, and that is a situation already fraught with uncertainty… The Myth of the First Performance points out that in theatre, the playwright, the performers and the audience form a continuum, but one which will always be unstable and therefore potentially explosive… That is why theatre is signing its own death warrant when it tries to play too safe. On the other hand, that is also the reason why, although its future often seems bleak, theatre will continue to live and to provoke.” The plays of Girish Karnad, over these 60 years, have certainly provoked many to anger. But it would be irrational to deny that he won more praise and international renown than rebuke in his playwriting and, later, as an actor and director in cinema and television. But where Girish did find, and often, a “potentially explosive” and fraught situation, is in the realm of real politics. In the years of domination of the Indian National Congress, which often adopted the rhetoric and slogans of the leftist protest itself, Girish and many of his contemporaries like the late UR Ananthamurthy were admired and rewarded by the intellectual establishment as well as powerful figures in governance for the positions they took in conflicts rooted in identity issues of religion, caste or language – Urdu news on DD, Kaveri dispute, the proposals to ban beef and so on. The continuing rise of the BJP and Hindutva over the past 30 years troubled him, and Girish has openly and politically sided with the Congress. As an admirer and a friend who has been fortunate to know him and work with him, as someone who has disagreed with his positions when it comes to identity politics, I can only say that he was India’s greatest living playwright. That he was generous to a fault – with monetary compensation for work, hospitality, fulsome praise for work done with other directors and projects. That he had the sensibility to identify himself as a Kannada writer, who wrote first in Kannada and allowed the translations later, even though he had more admirers who could offer bigger rewards in Marathi, Hindi or English, all of which he was competent in. That he was the essential Indian who knew Bharat, but quarrelled with it. That he was far more complex and nuanced in the political and human conflicts he saw in his creative work than in seminars and street protests. That I will miss him.