Girish Karnad

Irrepressible storyteller

Print edition : July 05, 2019

Girish Karnad (1938-2019). Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

In Samskara (1970).

With Shabana Azmi in Nishant (1975). Photo: The Hindu Archives

In Manthan (1976). Photo: The Hindu Archives

Exploring mythology and legend, Girish Karnad (1938-2019) confronted contemporary issues by asking uneasy questions about institutions.

The first time I missed Girish Karnad was in Utsav (1984), an adaptation of Mrichhakatika, a 10-act Sanskrit drama penned by Sudraka, an ancient playwright. The film had arrived at the box office riding on the inexorable charms of Rekha. People came in droves. Some raved about Rekha and Anuradha Patel; others of Shashi Kapoor who played Samsthanak in the film. Some could even recall the parts played by Neena Gupta, Amjad Khan and Shekhar Suman. None could recall Karnad.

Therein lay his success. Like Oscar Wilde would have it, Karnad’s aim was to reveal the art and conceal the artist. As the director of Utsav, he chiselled each of his characters with meticulous care. Each character had a story to tell. Each character added to the value of the film. The success of Karnad lay in making the audience talk of his work rather than the man.

The next time I almost missed Girish Karnad was just a year or so later. This time, it was K. Viswanath’s Sur Sangam where he played an ageing classical artist, Pandit Shivshankar Shastri, who wants to pass on his vast knowledge to the next generation. As he waits for the last leaf of the autumn of his life to drop, there steps in the little son of Tulsi (Jayaprada). Shastri’s music is in safe hands. Fine, but why did one almost miss Karnad? Well, this time, he immersed himself completely in the character of the seasoned musician. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could take the viewers’ attention away from his nuanced performance, not even Jayaprada’s beauty and dignified performance. When he performed to Rajan-Sajan Mishra’s playback, one forgot Karnad was merely doing a lip-sync to Mishra’s voice. Incidentally, Karnad, as Jayaprada recalls today, “was very particular about how a scene should shape up. We would rehearse for long. Even in songs where I had a small role, he would ensure I was present at each rehearsal. We practised together. For instance, the first part of the song ‘Sadh re man sur ko sadh re.’” She started singing the song, more than 30 years after it was picturised on Karnad and her. Such was the power of Karnad’s performance.

It is the same ability to slip into the skin of the character that stood Karnad in good stead when he worked with Shyam Benegal in the 1970s. Both Manthan (1976), where he a played a veterinarian who comes to a village to start a milk cooperative scheme, and Nishant (1975), where he played a helpless schoolmaster whose wife (Shabana Azmi) is kidnapped, conveyed a couple of things. First, he could carry a film on his shoulders, as in Manthan. Then, in Nishant, he could hold his own in front of the bigwigs of arthouse cinema, including the likes of Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Mohan Agashe, Anant Nag, Smita Patil and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Either way, here was an actor who was a director’s dream. He understood that cinema was a director’s medium. In fact, because of his ability to give flesh and soul to his characters, many of his directors and producers became recipients of viewers’ love and attention. 

Once at Delhi’s Jagat cinema, Karnad’s lesser known film Shama (1981) was playing. He essayed the role of Yusuf Ali Khan, a wealthy landlord of British India. So credible was his performance that when the film’s producer, Kader Khan, went to the cinema for the film’s release show, a woman walked up to him to kiss his hand, thanking him for making such a beautiful movie.

Something similar happened in the late 1970s when Swami, with Karnad co-starring with Shabana Azmi again, played at a hall near the railway station in Delhi. This time, a young man from eastern Uttar Pradesh, walked up to the film’s director, Basu Chatterjee, hugged him tight and requested Chatterjee to pass on his compliments to Ghanshyam, Karnad’s character, a man who is used and abused by his stepfamily until his wife stands up for him. Yet again, so nuanced was Karnad’s performance that the viewers could only recall the name of his character rather than the actor.

Evolving craft

This chisel-like finish to his craft took many years to evolve. After all, Karnad had made his cinema debut as a director with B.V. Karanth in Vamsha Vriksha in 1972. The film, like many of his movies in a career spanning more than four decades, was based on a literary work of indisputable merit, this time writer S.L. Bhyrappa’s novel. 

He went on to act or direct films in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi too, but he was quintessentially wedded to the soul of Karnataka, not in a chauvinistic way, but in the way a little boy loves his mother. His love for Kannada did not mean hatred for English or any other language, or even a feeling of superiority.

It was a love affair that had taken root when he left home and heart to travel all the way to England where he was to study in Oxford, and rise to be its student union president in 1962-63. It was on this long journey that he missed his parents, the sound of his own language and the scent of the soil. He decided to devote himself to Kannada, though he could have expressed himself in English too. Soon, he was to immerse himself in mythology and folklore, diving deep into ancient times to restore forgotten gems of the age that was. As he explored classical Sanskrit plays, his first play, Yayati, was published in 1961. In the play, he questions the concept of family and its demands on the individual.

Three years later, he came up with a one-act radio play, Ma Nishada, where he questioned the role of Ram in the epic. Then came Hayavadana, and the world of theatre sat up and took notice. Karnad asked uneasy questions and refused to kowtow to stereotypes. If in Ma Nishada he asked questions about Ram, in Hayavadana, based on Kathasaritsagara (an 11thcentury retelling of legends and fairy tales), he raised the question of the concepts of beauty and identity. 

Many summers later, he gave us Tughlaq, based on the life of the maverick sultan of Delhi. Yet again, he asked questions about the king: was he a man ahead of his times, a genius, or just a man married to his whims? It required a rare dare to ask such questions in a nation where only historians are allowed to dissect kings and their times. 

'Tughlaq', an exception

Incidentally, Tughlaq was a rare occasion in Karnad’s life when one of his works aroused hype for the scale, its grandeur, its vision. Otherwise, be it cinema or theatre, his work was all about understatements, niceties and nuances. Even in out-and-out potboilers like Pukar, China Gate and Ek Tha Tiger, he managed to carve out a little, cordial space for himself. And when he got a better role, as in Iqbal, Dor or Akarshan, he made a good fist of it. 

Not that everything he did was accepted with open arms. When Karnad wrote The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, many criticised him for giving a nuanced character, waiting as they were for a hyper, larger-than-life king. Tipu had his flaws just as he had his strengths. Karnad refused to paint him in the colours of people’s political predilection.

This independent streak took a back seat in his translation of Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajit. Like in Sur Sangam, he let the director’s vision to be conveyed to the viewer. Evam Indrajit, replete with nihilism, lives on to relate the story of Sircar. Just as Karnad’s work will forever speak for him. Whatever the medium he chose, arthouse cinema, commercial cinema, theatre, acting or direction, Karnad’s work did all the talking. Even Malgudi Days, his best-known television foray, made quite a cute statement.

Unsurprisingly, his plays have been translated into other Indian languages by stalwarts such as B.V Karanth—the two co-directed Godhuli, a Hindi film based on a Kannada novel—Ebrahim Alkazi, Alyque Padamsee, Vijaya Mehta, Satyadev Dubey, Amal Allana and Arvind Gaur. Need one say more about art outliving the man! Incidentally, four of his Kannada films are due for release later this year, not to forget a Telugu film.

Blessed with a rare humility and gentleness of manners, his work spoke the loudest. To many, he was a theatre doyen. To others, he was a cinema giant. To the larger nation, he was a fearless activist who brooked no infringement on the common man’s rights. To all, he was an irrepressible genius. He goes away when the nation needs him the most.