Challenging the popular narrative

Print edition : January 18, 2019

Girish Karnad, at his residence in Bengaluru. Photo: K. MURAL KUMAR

Interview with Girish Karnad. By Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Girish Karnad, the Jnanpith award-winning playwright, writer and actor, talks about his new Kannada play, Rakshasa Tangadi (Crossing to Hampi), the Battle of Talikota that took place in 1565 between the forces of the Vijayanagara empire and an alliance of the Deccan Sultanates. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you feel the need to write a play on the Battle of Talikota at this point?

When one looks at the history of Karnataka in the last millennium, three events stand out not only for their importance for the region, but for the impact they have had on the political and cultural map of the whole of India: the revolution created by the Lingayat poet-philosophers under Basavanna and the Vacanakaras in the 12th century, the spectacular achievements of the Vijayanagara Empire, and the reign of Tipu Sultan, which was the last assertion of national pride against colonial onslaught. All three ended catastrophically but left legacies that continue to shape national life and thought. I have already dealt with Basava’s movement in Tale-Danda (1990) and Tipu Sultan in The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1997). Here is my attempt to understand the third one, Vijayanagara, which despite being one of the most powerful military edifices of its age, collapsed overnight after a single battle. These three events changed the cultural ethos of Karnataka. All three were political and cultural confrontations but they had a deep impact. They changed the thinking in Karnataka.

The central character, “Aliya” Ramaraya, the regent of the Vijayanagara Empire, is fascinating. Can you discuss what drew you to him?

When I read [Richard M.] Eaton’s essay on Ramaraya, I realised what a terrific Shakespearean character he was. He was ruling the largest empire in India at the time and he thinks that he is being hated by that empire. At the same time, he is obsessed with something that is not part of his empire, which is Kalyana. And this is where the writings of Eaton are interesting because he argues that Ramaraya finds another lineage for himself, which is the Chalukyas. Kalyana was outside his kingdom in Bijapur [Vijayapura] district, but he claimed that his family was from Kalyana and he was from the line of the Chalukyas. He had to have some show of lineage. There are severe contradictions in his character.

The critical point is that the Vijayanagara army was led by him. He was old when the battle took place. He was known as “Aliya” because Krishnadevaraya made him his son-in-law. He gave him his daughter because he was a brave and capable leader. He and his brothers dominated the army, but he was not allowed to become the ruler. The simhasana went to Sadashiva, a complete nincompoop.

Think of his wife Satyabhama, Krishnadevaraya’s daughter. She was a princess and married to this brave general yet she does not become the queen. In the same palace where her father was once king, she was only Aliya Ramaraya’s wife. Ramaraya remains a perpetual servant and she has no rights and remains only a princess. This is the kind of thing that playwriting helps you to analyse, which historians don’t talk about.

Is your engagement with the history of Karnataka complete with the publication of this play?

Yes, I think so. Ultimately, I’m not writing history, I’m writing plays. I write about subjects that are interesting. I wrote on Basavanna at the time because of the agitation around the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report. I was commissioned by the BBC to write a play on India’s Independence and I wrote the Tipu [Sultan] play.

What was the motivation for this play?

For a long time, the popular narrative around the Battle of Talikota worried me. For, if it had been a fight between Muslims and Hindus and the Sultans invaded Vijayanagara, then the battle should have taken place south of the river [Krishna], but neither Tangadagi nor Talikota are south of the river. They are north of the river, which means that the Vijaynagara army went north. Eaton answers this question; he says Aliya Ramaraya crossed [the river] because he was obsessed with Kalyana. It was a fantasy. That is what makes it marvellous.

The religious dimension is being perpetuated in popular discourse and I’ll tell you why. Because most of the historians are prejudiced. It is as simple as that. The great historian [K.A. Nilakanta] Sastri also takes the same line. A tourist who came to Hampi two years after the battle met some people and he said that Vijayanagara lost because there was betrayal by Muslims. Now, that is quoted by everyone. Imagine a person who comes two years after [the battle] in those days and talks to some person on the street and that is quoted as evidence. What is written by eye-witnesses is ignored. What does this show? It shows prejudice.

V.S. Naipaul says in “India: A Wounded Civilisation” that Muslims destroyed Vijayanagara.

You see, Naipaul is a great writer. But as a thinker, he is an ass. He had only read The Forgotten Empire by Robert Sewell. On the basis of it, he came up with his idea. He read that one book and decided it fitted with his theory of Muslims destroying India.

When you write on historical themes what is the challenge you face?

I love history, I read history, it excites me. No one looked at Satyabhama until I wrote this play. All the women critics in Karnataka are thrilled with me. They think it is a feminist play because the entire solution is brought out by one person: Begum [wife of Husain Nizam Shah I of Ahmednagar]. The Begum tells Nizam Shah that they marry off their daughters to the Sultans of Bijapur and Golconda and make peace with them. Vijayanagara is brought down by this suggestion of hers. History doesn’t say that she said this, but if you’re marrying off your daughters she must have come into it. After Nizam Shah died, she ruled Ahmednagar for many years—a very bright woman. On the one hand, you have Satyabhama; what a humiliating life she must have lived. On the other, you have the Begum; she should actually get the credit for destroying the Vijayanagara Empire. This kind of thing in a play makes people come alive. A playwright thinks like that. That’s what excites me.

What do you think of the study of history now and its impact in popular discourse?

History writing is not only polarised now but the right wing is white-washing [history]. A lot of it is propaganda, and is being done deliberately.

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