A genius of theatre

Print edition : October 11, 2002

B.V. Karanth, 1928-2002.

B.V. Karanth, a giant of contemporary Indian theatre, died in Bangalore on September 1 of complications arising from prostate cancer. Regarded as a one-man institution he was a director of theatre and films, music composer, actor and writer Karanth is credited with having given Kannada and Indian theatre a vibrant new idiom that derived much creative inspiration from vernacular expressions of art, drama and music. Karanth is regarded as a genius of theatre by the legion of friends, co-workers and students he leaves behind in the theatre world, including in remote towns and villages of the country where he took theatre.


As much loved for his qualities of heart (his friends recall the "naivete" and "vulnerability" of his personality) as his mastery over the stage, Karanth leaves a formidable legacy not just for Kannada theatre on which of course he has left an imprint but for Indian theatre in general. "He was one of the first major all-India theatre personalities," said Prasanna, playwright and director and a close friend of Karanth. "And people loved him. A young group of actors from Gorakhpur for whom he may have taken a theatre workshop will remember him for the rest of their lives. That is what sets Karanth apart."

Karanth directed over a hundred plays. Of these a little over half were in Kannada; plays in Hindi followed close behind. He also directed plays in English, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Gujarati. The better known of his Kannada productions include Hayavadana (by Girish Karnad), Kattale Belaku, Huchu Kudure, Evam Indrajit, Oedipus, Sankranti, Jokumbara Swami, Sattavara Neralu, Huttava Bidare and Gokula Nirgamana. He directed over 40 plays in Hindi, including Macbeth (using the traditional Yakshagana dance drama form), King Lear, Chandrahasa, Hayavadana, Ghasiram Kotwal, Mrichha Katika, Mudra Rakshasa, and Malavikagni Mitra. Karanth also had a special gift for working with children on stage. He directed several children's plays including Panchara Shale, Neeli Kudure, Heddayana, Alilu Rama and The Grateful Man.

Karanth's entry into the Kannada theatre scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s turned the world of conventional theatre upside down. "Karanth came on the scene, Kannada theatre had the old, formal proscenium style," said Rameshwari Verma, a long-time friend of the Karanth family, who has also worked with Karanth. Recalling the sense of excitement and exhilaration she and a group of young friends felt when they first saw Jokkumbara Swamy, Sankranti, Huchu Kudurai and Oedipus, a set of plays he directed in the early 1970s, she said: "To Karanth theatre was celebration, infused with joie de vivre. You will never find a dull, prosaic Karanth play. His was the closest you could come to `total' theatre, where language, music, song, stylisation, often through folk forms, were all present."

The innovative use of music, which was a unique contribution of Karanth to theatre was an essential part of the `total' theatre effect. "I would say this is an essential component of the Karanth legacy," said Lakshmi Chandrashekhar, leading stage artist and theatre critic. "His greatest strength was his ability to produce unusual music. He would draw on classical, traditional and folk forms. He could make music depict irony. His music could make you laugh, and it could also portray the bizarre." She recalled the production of Huttava Badidare (If You Tap the Snake Pit), a historical play with a politically radical adaptation produced by Samudaya, and for which Karanth wrote the music. "Karanth's music was wonderful, and any session in theatre music will feature this. For example, a scene where the young king dies and his wives are widowed, Karanth was able to bring out the irony in a supposedly tragic moment through an extraordinary mix of musical elements that involved using varying beats, interspersing recitation with music and song, and juxtaposing the tuneful with the tuneless. His plays were less famous for design as for the brilliance of their musical content, which became part of the prose of theatre."

KARANTH'S passion for theatre started early. Born in Manchi, a village in Bantwal taluk of Dakshina Kannada district, in 1928 Babukodi Venkataramana Karanth made his debut in theatre when he was in Standard III he acted in Nanna Gopala, a play directed by P.K. Narayana. He joined the legendary Gubbi Veeranna drama company while he was in school. Gubbi Veeranna sent Karanth to Banaras to do his Masters in Arts. It was here that Karanth studied Hindustani music under Guru Omkarnath Thakur. He graduated from the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, then headed by Ibrahim Alkazi. He worked as a drama instructor at the Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, New Delhi from 1969 to 1972. He headed and moulded three major theatre institutions: as Director, NSD (1977-1981); Director, Rangamandal, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal (1981-1986); and Director, Rangayana, Mysore (1989-1995).

Prasanna, who later succeeded him both at the NSD and at Rangayana, recalls the "Karanth effect". "Karanth turned the NSD upside down. He did wonderful things that were never done before," he said. "He believed that in a country like India with incredible talent and traditions of theatre, the NSD had to take theatre out to inaccessible areas. So he started an extension programme and we were all sent out. I was camp director of a workshop in Bihar. He did a 40-day workshop in Gandhigram (in Madurai), Tamil Nadu." There was not a single State that Karanth did not visit, according to Prasanna.

Ashok Vajpeyi, the creator of the acclaimed Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal where Karanth spent several years, credits Karanth with having been largely responsible for starting the new theatre movement in Madhya Pradesh. "He organised a training-cum-production camp of theatre at our invitation way back in 1973," recalls Vajpeyi. He returned to set up the Rangmandal repertory in Bharat Bhavan in the 1980s. This was the first-ever repertory in any State at that time. He became, along with the painter J. Swaminathan, the main creative spirit behind the legendary Bharat Bhavan phenomenon. Rangmandal, for the first time, used folk professionals for training contemporary actors, and included folk performers as members of the repertory. They produced plays not only in Hindi but also in its dialects such as Bundelkhandi, Malavi and Chhatisgarhi. "Huge ticket-buying audiences were created for Rangmandal under the inspiring guidance and punishing work schedule of Karanth," Vajpeyi said.

Karanth also ventured into film-making. He made four feature films and four documentaries, apart from composing musical scores for a number of films. Chomana Dudi (Choma's Drum) won him awards including the President's Gold Medal for the Best Film of the Year in 1976. Despite the recognition and awards he won, some of Karanth's admirers believe that his real talents lay in the stage and not in film direction.

Hayavadana, Gokula Nirgamana and Sattavaru Niralu to many of his friends represent the pinnacle of his achievements. "Karanth had a way of turning the political into the apolitical by making it an aesthetic experience," said Chandrashekhar. "He was among the first to introduce the chorus in drama. Later that became a theatrical device that actually had to be fought, as theatre people used it indiscriminately." Karanth, she said, was responsible for bridging the gap between professional and amateur theatre. "Karanth offered `complete' theatre, where colour, music, dance, narrative and strong intellectual content merged. This attracted all sections of people. He brought people back to the theatre."

Prema Karanth, Karanth's wife of 44 years, and a well-known director of children's theatre, shared his total dedication and immersion in theatre. "We were like friends," she said, "and we collaborated on numerous productions." Even after he was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, Karanth led a very active life that took him to places as away as Manipur. It was only in the last three months that his poor health confined him to the home. Prema plans to devote time to Babukodi Pratishta, the trust set up by Karanth a year ago. Karanth's large library and extraordinary collection of musical instruments will form part of a small museum. "We plan to organise theatre festivals, establish awards in his name, and publish his autobiography," she told Frontline.

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