Girish Karnad: Staging our times

Print edition : July 19, 2019

Girish Karnad's play “Nagamandala”, directed by Neelam Mansingh, staged in Bengaluru on August 16, 2008. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Girish Karnad. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Members of Rangayana repertory of Mysuru staging “Taledanda” in Mangaluru on November 16, 2016. Photo: H.S. Manjunath

A scene from Karnad’s classic play “Tughlaq”, when it was staged in Hyderabad. Photo: A. Roy Chowdhury

Amrish Puri and Satyadev Dubey in “Yayati”. Photo: From Girish Karnad's Autobiography

The actors Amol Palekar, Bapu Karmarkar, Sunila Pradhan and Amrish Puri in “Hayavadana”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Throughout his life Girish Karnad questioned existing social norms and refused to be a conformist. And this is what he incorporated into his craft as a playwright extraordinaire and indeed into every craft he touched.

“You are a learned man…. That’s where you belong, your majesty, in the company of learned men. Not in this market place of corpses.”

I have sometimes wondered if these lines spoken by Barani the historian to Tughlaq in Girish Karnad’s play came back to Karnad with an unexpected nuance when he was hounded, trolled and threatened for paying a tribute to Tipu Sultan as a great figure in Karnataka’s history after whom he thought the international airport in Bengaluru could have been named.

He had faced waves of irrational hatred earlier for his comments on the sharing of the waters of the Cauvery and for being an outspoken critic of the right wing’s attempt at “othering” communities that have been the warp and weft of the Indian cultural fabric. However, in the case of Karnad it was never an opportunistic foray by an international celebrity into media-driven populist politics. Although he remained somewhat of an outsider to the popular movements in Karnataka in the 1970s and 1980s, his plays, supported by his patient scholarship, had always registered a powerful refusal to accept uncritically received opinion, distortions of history and uneducated or wicked prejudices. He was very sensitive to the social processes both during the colonial and post-Independence periods in which the Brahmanical, partly Westernised middle-class cultural elite had appropriated the artistic, musical and performative traditions that truly belonged to the artisan class, the devadasis and the rural artists, who had transformed them into “national” cultural traditions. He had written and spoken about how the “Sadir” dance of the devadasis became Bharatanatyam and how the puritanical middle class had passed laws to put an end to “nautch” and other performative arts which forced thousands of erstwhile devadasis into prostitution. He had realised how colonialism and the colluding middle-class elite had driven a wedge between the urban and the rural, and the professional artist and the unlettered artisan.

This was not a mere tour in history for Karnad. He realised that as an Indian playwright beginning his career in the 1960s he had inherited a dubious legacy. The Sanskrit theatre of the past, now labelled Indian, had no living connections with the present. The subaltern performative traditions had been marginalised, and the educated middle-class audience (which he would be writing for) had very thin memories of them. As he said often, he was repelled by the urban proscenium theatre which used to perform religiously George Bernard Shaw’s wordy, cerebral and lifeless plays.

Between two worlds

His own personal experiences were of a generation coming of age in post-Independence India, lost between two worlds, confused by an ambiguous modernity, rebelling against the puritanical hypocrisy of the middle class and awakened to the anxieties and enchantment of sexuality. But neither in tradition nor in contemporary theatre could the young dramatist find a form which would be the “objective correlative” of those experiences. From his very first play, Yayati, Karnad struggled with this paradox. This was also the driving force behind his unending experimentation with theatrical forms, dramatic structures and artistic traditions. What made him a truly great Indian playwright was the fact that he consciously eschewed the easy options available to a playwright of his times.

Inevitably, he was drawn into the Sangeet Natak Akademi-sponsored movement to decolonise Indian theatre by returning to the “roots”, to its “folk” traditions. The movement was led by Dr Suresh Awasthi and has been brilliantly analysed by Erin B. Mee in her Theatre of Roots. Yes, Karnad wrote Hayavadana, an immensely popular play that brought Kannada theatre nearest to Brechtian Total Theatre, with the Sutradhara, talking dolls, Lord Ganesha, goddess Kali and songs. Many thought that this was the Masterpiece of the Theatre of Roots. In reality, Hayavadana carnivalised and mocked at not only the idea of roots but at all foundational notions of a single self, integration of body and mind and of perfection. It was a postmodernist play deliberately making a pastiche of serious philosophical probing, ironical deconstruction, and so on. Even a great reader such as U.R. Ananthamurthy wondered why we should take the play seriously when the dramatist himself was not serious about the issues he took up! I too believe that Karnad was not a part of the Theatre of Roots, though he went on to write Nagamandala, almost a companion piece to Hayavadana.

In his historical plays Tughlaq and Taledanda, instead of carnivalising contradictions of men and history, Karnad presents to us very powerfully what could have been the “real” contradictions of history. The contradictions of Tughlaq are not solely his own. He was the ruler of a vast territory, with Hindus in majority, and his own ruling elite and bureaucracy (I mean the Muslim side of it) was a minority. Daulatabad may have been a bad choice, but for many it was the case that “Dilli door ast” (Delhi is too far). Karnad says that he was attracted by Tughlaq when he learnt that he had banned prayer for five years. However, he discovered that Tughlaq was not an atheist but one who struggled with God.

In Taledanda it is Bijjala who explains why Basava’s community of Sharanas (devotees) made Kalyana a favourite with the merchant class. As most of them were from artisan communities and the working class, and as Basava’s philosophy considered Kayaka (honest work, labour or profession) sacred, Kalyana becomes a trustworthy place for businessmen and merchants. When the proposed inter-caste marriage seems to threaten peace, Bijjala is still hopeful that the merchant class will not allow Kalyana to destroy itself.

Basava’s own reaction to the proposed wedding is ambivalent. His eyes well with tears of contentment but he holds back his benediction to the couple. He warns the Sharanas that such a wedding is happening for the first time in 2,500 years and that he wished they had prepared themselves better for it. But his followers who already see him as a miracle-maker are angry and rebellious at his hesitation. Was Basava aware that a politically correct action, but taken up too soon, could destroy the movement itself? But then how should he answer the impatient questions of his followers, “For how many more generations should we wait?”

These are the real contradictions of history, unlike some of Tughlaq’s personal contradictions. In the original Kannada, Basava speaks the earthy north Karnataka dialect of Kannada which brings alive on the stage the portrayal of Basava as a man of the people. One tends to agree with Ananthamurthy’s comment that he and his contemporaries like Karnad could understand Bhakti as an egalitarian anti-caste protest but could not “experience” giving themselves unto God. Karnad’s Basava is neither an otherworldly mystic nor a leader alienated from his own people by his power. The limits of translatability prevent Karnad’s own translation of Taledanda from communicating this wholly. In Bijjala we have a mighty ruler who speaks a sociolect of Kannada, one rung below that spoken by Basava.

The meaning and impact of Karnad’s last play on the fall of Vijayanagara is yet to sink in. In one stroke it demolishes the myth of Muslim invaders destroying a Hindu empire. Instead, it is the megalomania and the delusions of Aliya Ramaraya, the de facto ruler of the empire, that are mainly responsible for its collapse. The play also has a strong ethical perspective, though it remains submerged most of the time. The senseless beheading of Jehangir Khan and the humiliation of Nizamshah of Bidar set off a chain of events leading to the horrendous beheading of Ramaraya himself.

There are instances in Karnad’s plays wherein his aesthetics merge with his political understanding as a public intellectual in Kannada society. His struggle against the communal polarisation of history itself (Hindu kingdom and Muslim invaders) by the right wing finds aesthetic expression in his last play, which has no place for a communal rendering of history. (See Interview with Girish Karnad, “Challenging the popular narrative”, Frontline, January 18, 2019.) On the other hand, most discerning critics in Kannada felt that The Dreams of Tipu Sultan was a weak play because Karnad made Tipu a flawless, forward-looking anti-imperialist. Unfortunately, this portrayal also appeared to be monochromatic. Karnad’s Tipu is probably the only protagonist who he tried to cast as unambiguously heroic. This must have been a lesson for Karnad the playwright. The hero-villain Tughlaq and his contradictions did not prevent every major performance of the play from making the audience discover a contemporary political meaning in the play. The play seemed to resonate with the politics of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and, as some would say, even Rajiv Gandhi.

I am waiting with bated breath for the next major performance of Tughlaq (if it is permitted) to see if it would resonate with our current experience of fascist politics and of authoritarian leadership. However, Karnad’s play on Tipu Sultan fails in being open-ended enough for such multiple interpretations. The aesthetics of theatre in our times has to be supple enough to respond to the theatre of power which is complex and ambiguous.

There is another kind of politics that Karnad probed in all his plays. This is about power pervading the most intimate of human relationships. Karnad sees the institution of marriage, love and sexuality as systems with complex power structures. The theme song of Hayavadana, “Why should love stick to the sap of a single body?”, announces the play’s intention to explore feminine sexuality within the matrix of patriarchy. Padmini’s desire for Devadatta’s intellect and Kapila’s body is subversive and cannot be fulfilled in a society ridden with sadistic puritanism.

As critics have suggested, the two talking dolls represent what a patriarchal society would have tried to do to Padmini. The most caustic remarks on the faithless male world come from the goddess Kali, who admires Padmini’s act of transposing the heads as “the limit of honesty”. But in the real hierarchical world the head is superior to the body and the male to the female. This is true of Nagamandala too. Rani, left frustrated and unrequited by her husband Appanna, finds sexual fulfilment with the serpent. The play subverts the chastity test in order to protect Rani from a horrible punishment. But ironically, the play also tries in its denouement to provide justice to her husband. The lesser-known play Anju Mallige (Driven Snow in English translation) is a dark study on the entangled web of incest, obsession, possessiveness and self-destruction.

Bali (The Sacrifice), a short play that Karnad wrote and rewrote over a span of several years, is also, among other things, about woman’s sexuality. Though the play’s central concern is the nature of violence, it also explores the violence in sexual relationships within the institution of marriage. As in the original poem by the Kannada Jaina poet Janna, the non-violent Jaina religion has to negotiate with the inherent violence of sexual and other human relationships. In Karnad’s play it is difficult to differentiate between violence and non-violence. Is not the queen mother’s authoritarian personality a means of violence too? The king who is overly scrupulous about the violence of animal sacrifice perpetrates a different kind of violence on his wife Amritamati.

Contemporary relevance

A question often raised about these plays of Karnad which delve into the dark nooks and corners of the human psyche is about the contemporary relevance of these universal aspects. One is reminded of the comment P. Lankesh made to Suresh Awasthi on Hayavadana, “What is its relevance?”

I believe the question of relevance comes up when a writer consciously turns away from contemporary issues to dwell on metaphysical problems not directly related to the social experience of the times. Karnad’s career exemplifies the opposite. As discussed earlier, his historical plays in the latter part of his career take a definite stand on power, caste system and violence.

This was the phase when he gradually transformed himself into a public individual and participated in the struggles against communalism and perverted nationalism. He earned the wrath of right-wing organisations to such an extent that when he passed away some of them celebrated his death and posted messages on the social media saying that the second coming of Modi had taken another wicket. (The first wicket was U.R. Ananthamurthy, which happened with the first coming!) Such is the unethical morass into which Karnataka has sunk now. Karnad would certainly be an outsider, if not an alien, in this scenario.

Karnad’s relationship with the Kannada dramatic/theatrical and cultural traditions was complex and went through several transformations. In several interviews and autobiographical writings, Karnad has said that he wrote Tughlaq provoked by the critic Keerthinath Kurtakoti’s statement that there was not a single Kannada historical play which explored historical material in depth. Kurtakoti’s statement should be understood in the context of the pseudo-historical romances and revivalist narratives that were immensely popular from the early modern period of Kannada fiction (1898-1930).

There were also plays written for the professional theatre which introduced a stylised and highly rhetorical dialogue, accompanied by melodramatic posturing and an odd mixture of sentimental nationalism/subnationalism and a vacuous glorification of the past. Interestingly, in writing Tughlaq, Karnad used the stage techniques and dramatic structures of the same professional theatre which had taken Parsi theatre as its model. As Aparna Dharwadker says, some of the major directors of the play used the settings, scenery and the stage of professional theatre. Karnad’s explanation was that his childhood experience of theatre had ingrained in him the notion that professional theatre is real theatre.

Against communalised interpretations

Karnad’s struggle was not with the professional theatrical tradition which had many obvious flaws; instead, it was with populist historiography itself. This historiography had created communalised interpretations of Indian history and stereotypes of despotic and immoral Muslim rulers. Though he relied on the historian Barani’s writings on Tughlaq, he steers clear of the religious ideology that coloured Barani’s portrayal of Tughlaq. In The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, he brings on stage two historians, Mackenzie and Kirmani, to represent the imperialist and native constructions of Tipu Sultan. In Taledanda, Basava has no resemblance to the figure of Basavanna wearing a crown and riding a horse, a part of the popular iconography accepted by the dominant Lingayat community today.

Karnad’s writings are consistent in deconstructing popular discourses of history. Karnad’s historical plays made a powerful impact on Kannada theatre and probably inspired a dispassionate exploration of history that was free of communal and revivalist interpretations. Indeed, he remains the only major dramatist who pursued the subject of history even in his last published play, Rakshasa Tangadi.

Sriranga, who was the major Kannada playwright before Karnad, experimented with puranas and myths with a modernist perspective. His numerous plays constructed around myths have not been as popular as his social plays. One of his plays employs the Yayati myth which Karnad used in his eponymous play. Interestingly, Navya (modernist) writing in Kannada inaugurated by Gopalakrishna Adiga in the late 1950s was deeply involved in the exploration of myth. The post-Navya (from the 1980s onwards) writing continued to use myths although to critique and deconstruct them from feminist and subaltern perspectives.

Karnad’s long preoccupation with myths also brought upon him the charge that he was not passionately involved in the contemporary social world as Lankesh, Ananthamurthy and Tejaswi were. Interestingly, this criticism is silent about Karnad’s plays such as Anju Mallige, Wedding Album and Broken Images. These plays are somehow not yet seen as part of the Karnad canon.

That a multifaceted genius such as Karnad should have maintained a nearly “monogamous” relationship with drama and theatre for six decades and enlivened them with his immense talent is a remarkable phenomenon of our times.

Ideological debates

Karnad’s entry into the ideological debates in Kannada civil society took many by surprise. Though his modern, secular credentials were well known, he had not been a visible, active participant in debates and movements throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Karnataka. Interestingly, it was Kuvempu, who never took to the streets to protest, who became the most powerful public intellectual from whom several movements of the period took inspiration. Early in his career (from 1920-30), he consistently spoke and wrote powerfully against the Brahmanical priesthood, the caste system and blind beliefs. In his later phase, he also spoke against the domination of English.

Although many other writers of his times such as Masti, Devanahalli Venkataramanaiah Gundappa (popularly known as D.V.G—1887-1975) and Shamba Joshi had frequently intervened in public debates, it was Kuvempu whose universal humanism illuminated a radical dimension. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ananthamurthy, Lankesh and Tejaswi were influential as public intellectuals for decades. There were sceptical voices about Karnad’s remaining an outsider to contemporary Kannada culture.

The rise of the right wing, the communalisation of Karnataka society, and the assault on history made it inevitable for Kannada writers to join movements to resist these tendencies. Karnad, too, did so. He began to speak out, make statements and participate in rallies. He had realised that in the age of unreason the duty of the writer was to represent sanity and defend democratic values. He began to do all this when civil society had already been polarised, especially by the Kannada media. The newly emergent constituencies were now the most articulate sections of civil society. These sections had imbibed the fascist techniques of verbal assaults, issuing physical threats and denigrating writers and intellectuals. For the first time in Karnataka’s history, the words “intellectual” and “rationalist” were demonised and desecrated. There was no longer a public sphere based on a belief in the rational exchange of ideas.

Karnad had to bear the brunt of demeaning public debates in which caste, emotional subnationalism and linguistic fanaticism held sway. Karnad was vilified and abused again and again. In the last days of his life, even after doctors had given him only six months, he was always there at protest meets, conferences and sit-ins, carrying a little oxygen cylinder and speaking out his mind, loud and clear. The international celebrity had transformed himself as the icon of cultural resistance. And then he made a quiet and dignified exit.

Rajendra Chenni, formerly professor of English at Kuvempu University, is a bilingual writer who writes on literature, culture and politics in Kannada and English. He is currently Director, Manasa Centre for Cultural Studies, Shivamogga.

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