Girish Karnad – 1938-2019: Probing the present while 'nailed to the past'.
Girish Karnad certainly probed the present, while ‘nailed to the past'.
‘Let my doctors worry about that,’ he exclaimed, raising his booming voice and giving me a sharp look. For the first time, in the four decades or so I had known him, Girish Karnad was angry with me.
He had agreed to be the chief guest and preside over the inauguration of his artist friend S.G. Vasudev’s retrospective exhibition – which I had curated – at NGMA, Bengaluru. We met a few days before the opening on September 1, 2018. Girish was in a wheelchair and was carrying the, by now, eponymous oxygen-pack attached to a nose tube that went around his head.
In fact, the past few years, it had been both heartening and uplifting to see him carrying this life-support system to protest meeting after public protest meeting in Bengaluru and speaking out against the squeeze on democratic space under the BJP dispensation. Whether it was against hate-speech or communal majoritarianism or the murderous assaults on M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh or the arrest and incarceration of activists on invented charges of being ‘Urban Naxals’, Girish Karnad stood steadfastly on the side of an open, tolerant, humane society.
Now here he was, shouting at me. He had asked me how long he should speak at the NGMA opening. With hindsight, I was probably a trifle patronising when I said, ‘Look, please don’t strain yourself; anything that doesn’t tire you out’. He must have caught the inflection and bristled. ‘I asked you a simple question; how long should I speak? You don’t worry about it being a strain. Let my doctors worry about that’! Chastised, I mumbled, ‘Ten minutes’? His face cleared and he grinned. Two days later, at the grand event, one could see the struggle, but he held forth for a very personalised 15-minute narrative on his friendship with the artist.
This is an instance that quite comprehensively characterizes the core of Girish Karnad’s personality. Energy. Sheer energy. One can’t think of anything he did which did not demonstrate this enormous creative energy. Almost twenty major plays in Kannada which he himself would later translate into English. Along with Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar and Mohan Rakesh, he was part of the movement, lasting a few decades, of strong play-scripts for theatre in Indian languages. In the process, his name is linked with most of the important theatre personalities, like Ebrahim Alkazi, B.V. Karath, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta and such.
He wrote screenplays/dialogues or acted in or directed almost a hundred films in Kannada, Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam and was a steady player in the New Cinema movement of the 1970s/’80s. From Pattabhirama Reddy to Shyam Benegal to Kumar Shahani to M.S. Satyu to Nagesh Kukunoor, he worked with many auteurs, even as he put his own stamp on distinct films in Kannada (Vamsha Vriksha, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Kaadu, Ondanondu KaladalIi) and Hindi (Utsav). He also had a stint as Director, Film and TV Institute of India, Pune, in the mid-‘70s, when he pushed the early gains of New Cinema in India and helped consolidate it.
As editor, Oxford University Press, in the 1960s, he nudged it towards poetry and plays. As Chairman, Sangeet Natak Akademi (1988-’93), he got into hot waters for critiquing the Brahminization of the classical performing arts, even as he pioneered a new SNA award for ‘contemporary dance’. As director, Nehru Centre, London in the mid-‘90s, he opened up a significant space for Indian arts and literature in the UK.
There’s nothing Girish Karnad touched that he did not imbue with that special energy and insight which emanated from being comfortable and fluent in at least five Indian languages, besides English. Along with a childhood spent in rural environs and youth spent in a small town, it provided him access to a vast repertoire of stories and narratives drawn from myths, folk tales and medieval histories. Combined with his own linguistic ambitions to be like T.S. Eliot or W.B. Yeats, even as his imagination was populated with the pomp and colour of traditional Yakshagana performances from Mahabharata, and the complexities of Sanskrit imbibed from his own background, a highly textured expression was already forming by the time he crossed his teens. It was when he reached Bombay (now Mumbai) for his post-graduation, that he encountered modern theatre for the first time. Ironically, it was an encounter with Alkazi’s production of Auguste Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ that proved the epiphanic moment for Karnad. Ironic because, a few years later, it was Alkazi’s staging of Karnad’s ‘Tughlak’, using the repertory company of the National School of Drama, at the ruins of the Old Fort in Delhi, that brought national fame as a playwright to Girish Karnad.
Karnad has written about that experience in Bombay: “I had read some Western playwrights in college. But nothing had prepared me for the power and violence I experienced that day. By the norms I had been brought up on, the very notion of laying bare the inner recesses of the human psyche like this for public consumption seemed obscene. What impressed me as much as the psychological cannibalism of the play was the way lights faded in and out on stage… Most of my contemporaries went through some similar experience at some point in their lives. We stepped out of mythological plays lit by torches or petromax lamps straight into Strindberg and dimmers”.
Yet, several months later, away at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, when Karnad began reworking ‘Yayati’, the play he had begun while in India, he was surprised to find the plot and script working itself around the internal contradictions already inherent in the Mahabharata source and consolidating in Kannada language. But he found in it the resonance of his own contemporary predicament, resenting his family demanding sacrifices from him – just like King Yayati demands the sacrifice of youth from his son Pooru. The denouement, at the end of the play, is far removed from Strindberg’s surgical catharsis, which had impressed Karnad. Here, it is the cry of post-colonial bewilderment. Pooru’s final line is, ‘What does all this mean, O God? What does it mean?’ The parable of freedom, liberation, eternal youth and a new hedonism has a hit a dead end.
The sutradhar or narrator concludes the narrative here by asking: ‘Was it really a meaningful question or was it a cry of despair…?’ As in most Karnad plays, ‘the answer is blowing in the wind’. It is that unsure period in history. But, for Karnad, the playwright, this was a talisman. As he reported, “The myth had enabled me to articulate for myself a set of values that I had been unable to articulate rationally… The myth had nailed me to my past”.
This, then, was the key. For Karnad, the past was prescient in the way it heralded the immediate present. Karnad’s approach was not analytical or historical or ideological. It was more intuitive. The conclusions were tentative. One might even say, politically weak. The sutradhar, for example, was hardly a ‘critical’ figure in his plays, lacing the politics of the day into the narrative. But Karnad was adept at catching the aroma of the present in a story of the past or in a fable. The egotism, ambition and genius of a Muhammed bin Tughlak, which led to such massive misery, suited Karnad to hint at the post-Nehruvian dystopia of a nation floundering in deprivation, disillusionment and cynicism. Unlike an Arthur Miller or Harold Pinter, he did not provide any framework for inferring a way out. He did not point to alternatives along a Gandhian or Socialist path. He merely saw, with great empathy, the collapse of an established order with its inherent idealisms. It proved to be prophetic.
Almost 17 years later, Karnad wrote ‘Tale-Danda’ (Capital Punishment) which, again, comes at the cusp of the ‘Mandir-Mandal’ binary inserted into the Indian polity. Here he challenges the idea of a monolithic Hinduism and proposes the idea of hierarchic disunity of the religion. He takes recourse to the pre-modern, 12th century ‘Virasaiva’ movement of Basavaiah in the Kannada region, to shed light on the contemporary conflict of caste and religion in India. It is almost fatalistic in the manner in which it presages the consolidation of Hindu nationalism in the subcontinent, with alarming consequences for the idea of caste equality, social justice and democracy. In the narrative of the play, caste becomes something that cannot be transcended. In the play, Damodara Bhatta, the ruthless Brahmin schemer responsible for the ultimate route of the sharana movement says, ‘A hierarchy that accommodates difference is more humane than an equality which enforces conformity’.
‘Tale-Danda’, ultimately, is also a homage to Karnad’s long-time friend and mentor, poet-translator A.K. Ramanujan. It was Ramanujan’s cornucopia of myths, folktales and stories that triggered Karnad’s imagination. Plays like ‘Hayavadana’ and ‘Nagamandala’ too came from that source. The two shared a unique bond when Karnad spent time, as a Fulbright scholar, in Chicago, where Ramanujan lived and taught. ‘Tale-Danda’ includes several translations of Basavanna’s ‘vachana’ poems addressed to ‘koodala-sangama-deva’ – the lord of the meeting rivers – which mock the idea of institution-building, fanaticism and power as well as of idolatry and religious violence.
In a conclusion that reeks of the present, Sovideva who dethrones his father Bijjala and persecutes those who dare defy the caste order, orders his army: ‘Pursue them. Don’t let them escape. Men, women, children – cut them all down. Set the hounds after them… Burn their books. Yes, the books! Tear them into shreds… From this moment, all sharanas, foreigners and free thinkers are expelled from this land on pain of death. Women and the lower orders shall live within the norms prescribed by our ancient tradition or else they’ll suffer like dogs. Each citizen shall consider himself a soldier, ready to lay down his life for the king’.
Girish Karnad certainly probed the present, while ‘nailed to the past.
The next time you are at Arundhati Nag’s Ranga Shankara theatre in Bengaluru and the third bell rings, hold your breath as you hear Karnad’s recorded baritone welcome you and request you, firmly, to switch off your mobile phones. Till recently, he would have been seated in the audience. Now, it is we who will hear the voice and be ‘nailed to the past.’