Girish Karnad's activism

Committed to secularism

Print edition : July 05, 2019

Hassan, December 2003: Girish Karnad participating in a protest against the detention of members of the Progressive Forum who were demonstrating against Datta Jayanthi celebrations at Datta Peetha at Bababudangiri near Chikmagalur. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Girish Karnad with (from right) K. Marulasiddappa, Gauri Lankesh and Baraguru Ramachandrappa at a condolence meeting, organised for M.M. Kalburgi on the day he was shot dead, in Dharwad on August 30, 2015. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

Girish Karnad believed that it was wrong to view medieval Indian history as a clash between Hinduism and Islam and that often made him the target of the Right.

WHEN Girish Karnad passed away in his sleep in the early hours of June 10 at his home in central Bengaluru’s Lavelle Road, an era came to an end. His contributions to theatre, cinema and literature were immense, and true to the dictum that all art is political, he consciously took spirited public positions in keeping with his expansive world view. This often made him the target of right-wing elements. Investigators revealed that he was on the infamous hit list prepared by Hindu right-wing extremist elements that took the lives of people such as Gauri Lankesh and M.M. Kalburgi.

In keeping with his commitment to the politics of secularism, even as his health deteriorated because of a debilitating lung condition over the past few years, he made the effort to be physically present at two memorable events in Bengaluru against right-wing politics. In June 2017, he participated in the “Not in my Name” protests against the lynching of Muslims, on the steps of the Town Hall holding a placard. On September 5 last year, he was seen at an event to mark the anniversary of Gauri Lankesh’s brutal killing. He spoke briefly at this day-long event at Bengaluru Central University that was a jamboree of public intellectuals in Karnataka. At the same event, he was photographed wearing a placard that read “Me Too Urban Naxal”, appropriating the ridiculous label that the right-wing was anointing intellectuals with.

In the cultural and political landscape of Karnataka, there were two issues in recent memory that he actively took positions on that put him at loggerheads with the followers of Hindutva: the first was the efforts by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allied organisations of the Sangh Parivar such as the Bajrang Dal to change the character of the syncretic shrine of Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah in Chikkamagaluru to that of an exclusive Hindu temple. Karnad was opposed to this. Gauri Lankesh has written about how she travelled to Chikkamagaluru (Chikmagalur then) with Karnad to assess the ground reality at the shrine in 2003. She writes that it was Karnad’s idea to visit the place and that on seeing photographs of a banner by the Bajrang Dal that stated “Committed to friendship, but ready to destroy”, he exploded in anger. Writes Gauri Lankesh: “Karnad was furious when he read this. He thundered, ‘Whom do they want to destroy? Look at the words they use. ‘Muscle power’, ‘streams of blood’, ‘destroying the enemy’....Is this even Kannada?”

Gauri Lankesh writes that Karnad further said: “Datta Jayanti or Datta Mala are not our tradition at all. It is not religion but politics in the name of religion that is behind such practices. It is very easy to understand the conspiracy behind brahminising the Dattatreya of the Natha tradition who had rejected the caste system” (From The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader).

In a photograph of the era, one can see Karnad posing with Gauri Lankesh and other progressive intellectuals from Karnataka such as K. Marulasiddappa and G.K. Govinda Rao during a hurriedly called press conference. In another photograph, Karnad is seen leading a procession calling for communal harmony. Thus, Karnad was not an intellectual who called for reform only through his pen. He took to the streets and mobilised support in his fight against communalism.

A second issue that he took a stand on is more directly linked to his vast creative oeuvre, specifically to his play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan in which he brings out the nuances in the character of Tipu. In 1996, the BBC commissioned Karnad to write a radio play to mark the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. “The plot obviously had to deal with some aspect of Indo-British relations and I immediately thought of Tipu Sultan, one of the most politically perceptive and tragic figures in modern Indian history,” Karnad writes in the preface to The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. In the first act itself, Karnad references one of Tipu’s dreams in which he gets a dilapidated temple repaired. This play did not get the admiring sighs that followed his other plays like Yayati, Hayavadana, Tale Danda, Tughlaq and Odakalu Bimba but, looking at it in retrospect, perhaps the play offered even better insights into the troubled consciousness of our nation as prejudicial opposition to Tipu was in its nascent stage then.

Karnad’s obsession with Tipu Sultan was prescient as a few years later there was a severe kerfuffle in Karnataka, with the State government deciding to mark the birthday of Tipu Sultan as Tipu Jayanti in 2015. Karnad was invited to speak on the occasion and he stated that the Bengaluru International Airport should be named after Tipu Sultan. There was logic to this as the airport was located close to Devanahalli where Tipu Sultan was born. At the event he stated, “It is true that Kempegowda built Bengaluru, but he was not a freedom fighter. I know that my views will be cause for debate and controversy, but am saying it nonetheless. The airport must be named after Tipu.” On an earlier occasion, he had said, “Tipu has always been a part of my life. Tipu was not just a political person, but also a part of Kannada literature and theatre. No Kannadiga equal to Tipu has been born in the last 300 years.” His statements caused so much protest that Karnad was forced to recant this statement.

Rooted in Kannada milieu

Even as Karnad became famous nationally and internationally and soared through the literary firmament, he remained rooted in the Kannada milieu, which was impressive. All his plays were first written in Kannada and were published by the same publisher, Manohara Grantha Mala, in his home town of Dharwad. Karnad translated all his plays into English himself and, in that sense, was a true bilingual thinker, a breed of writers that is hard to find nowadays. Another Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, who passed away in 2014, also inhabited this bilingual space comfortably. Karnad had even acted in the controversial film Samskara (1970) that was based on the novel of the same name by Ananthamurthy and was a strong indictment of caste hierarchy.

The last play that Karnad wrote was Rakshasa Tangadi (2018) on the Battle of Talikota that took place in 1565 between the combined forces of the Deccan Sultanates on one side and the Vijayanagara empire on the other. Karnad attempted to bring in nuances in his reading of this event rather than seeing it as an epic Hindu-Muslim clash as colonial and nationalist historians had done. With the play, he returned to his pet theme of picking up historical characters and using them as metaphors for interpreting current political condition. The play was translated by Karnad into English as Crossing to Hampi, although the English version is yet to be published. Two things become evident, or rather are reiterated, in Karnad’s choice of the theme of this play that is his final literary work.

First, his deep engagement with the history and culture of Karnataka that was his life’s pursuit attained some kind of closure with the writing of this play. In an interview to Frontline, Karnad had said: “When one looks at the history of Karnataka during 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 twelfth 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 even today.

“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 very deep impact. They changed the thinking in Karnataka.”

Second, he continued to think that Hindus and Muslims shared the same legacy in India and that it was wrong to view Indian history, and especially its medieval period, as a clash between adherents of the two religions. He was severely critical of the Hindutva “whitewashing” of history, as he called it.

Karnad never appeared mentally fatigued by this interview even though it was a severe physical strain. Tubes, attached to his nose, had to be plugged into an oxygen breathing machine. The slightest exertion, like taking a few steps to the door of his apartment, would leave him breathless, but when he spoke, his deep baritone was intact. “I wrote my first play when I was 22 and now I’m 80. This is the same age that Aliya Ramaraya (the central character in Rakshasa Tangadi) was when he died. Imagine him leading an army on the battlefield at his age, the kind of problems that he must have had,” Karnad had said pointing to the tubes in his nose. Karnad was also a fighter of a different kind and he led many armies against the forces of Hindutva. And now, when the right-wing ideology has such tremendous social hegemony, the country will miss him.