Distasteful attack

Noted playwright Girish Karnad’s outburst questioning a Lifetime Achievement Award conferred on V S Naipaul has stirred up a hornets’ nest. Karnad was invited to speak about his life in theatre at one of the sessions at a literary festival in Mumbai.

Instead, he tore into Naipaul, drawing attention to the Nobel Laureate’s description of Muslims as ‘invaders and marauders’ and accusing him of anti-Muslim bias. Karnad described Naipaul as ‘tone-deaf’ for failing to refer to India’s rich tradition in music in any of his books on India.

Karnad has been criticised for embarrassing the organisers of the literary festival, for misusing a platform provided to him to share his rich experiences in theatre for lecturing the audience on what he thought of Naipaul. He has been accused of “clever opportunism,” of using a public literary forum as a platform to air his personal political views, perhaps to further his own political ambitions. Karnad has the right to disagree with Naipaul’s views, even articulate his opinion that he was undeserving of the award. However, his choice of occasion for airing these views was wrong.

Naipaul, a Trinidad-born British citizen of Indian origin is notorious for his arrogant ways and his boorish behaviour. Indeed, his views on Muslims are too sweeping. His contempt for post-colonial cultures is disturbing. He has often been described as foul-tempered and mean. He is known to be nasty to anyone who disagrees with him. However, the Lifetime Achievement Award is recognition of Naipaul’s immense literary talents and his unmistakable contribution to literature, not an evaluation of his personality or a statement on his understanding of history. It was recognition of his literary genius.

Karnad therefore erred in raising issues unconnected with the award given to Naipaul.
The debate that Karnad’s criticism has evoked raises several pertinent questions. How important are the political views/ frailties of the artiste to evaluate his/ her work? Should the work of an artiste be determined by his personal life?

Will it be seen to be less important because of his serial philandering or his moody behaviour, for instance? Don’t provocative writings – even offensive ones that make us uncomfortable and angry – merit being regarded as fine literature? And in this connection, Karnad’s criticism will make us reflect whether Naipaul’s literary talents should be ignored because he is an unpleasant man with obnoxious views.

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