Vivek Shanbhag remembers Girish Karnad

Writer Vivek Shanbhag remembers how though Konkani was both his and Girish Karnad’s mother tongue, they came to make every dialect of Kannada their own

The curtain is raised and history will soon unfold.

The scenes behind the fall of Vijayanagara empire can be witnessed on stage starting October 2 with the final show taking place on October 20.

Playwright Girish Karnad’s last play ‘Crossing to Talikota’ had its world premiere at Chowdaiah Hall in Bengaluru. Directed by Arjun Sajnani, it is being supported by the philanthropies of Rohini and Nandan Nilekeni and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

The play explores the last days of the Vijayanagara empire, which is described as one of the dynasties in the history of Deccan as well as the whole of the subcontinent. The de-facto ruler ‘Aliya’ Ramaraya is ageing and the four Sultanates across the river Krishna are joining forces to defeat Ramaraya, whose arrogance has not been marred by age.
It was a period of turmoil and uncertainties.

“Historical plays have an uncanny way of pointing at current realities”, says Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag, “In Karnad’s Rakshasa-Tangadi, what kills or destroys Vijayanagara empire is Ramaraya’s hubris.”

Shanbagh published the first three scenes of the Kannada version of ‘Wedding Album’ in his now-defunct literary journal, Desha Kaala.

Indoor politics

Comparing ‘Tughlaq’ — often regarded as Karnad’s best play — and ‘Rakshasa-Tangadi’, Shanbhag says the former was about the impact of Tughlaq’s decisions on common people; the latter is all about politics inside the palace.

For Shanbhag, the absence of any character outside the aristocratic circle makes ‘Rakshasa-Tangadi’ a weaker play, but not a less important one.

While he is unsure about the reason behind the change in Karnad’s approach (“maybe his outlook towards politics has changed”), he points out real-world parallels.

“There is a parallel between how indoor politics happens in the country and the way it works in the country,” Shanbhag says.

“Just that in the play, it is happening more in the minds of the people rather than out on the streets.”

This, Shanbagh feels, gives the play a lot of potential.

“Unlike a novel or a short story, a play has its own life. Since there is a director to mediate our experience as an audience, he has a lot of control to modify the play before it reaches us.”

History is not black and white

Karnad was fascinated by particular periods in the history of Karnataka: the Vachana period of the 12th century, Tipu Sultan’s reign in the 18th Century and the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 16th century. While the first two found their expression in his plays ‘Taledanda’ and ‘Tippuvina Kansugalu’, respectively, the latter was explored in ‘Rakshasa-Tangadi’.

‘Rakshasa-Tangadi’ poses many questions with respect to the limitations of history as a tool for retrospective truth-seeking.

“It is not black and white, like saying the Muslim kings came and conquered,” says Shanbhag.

“The tensions between the Sultanates and Ramaraya were always present. Ramaraya was always the powerful one, who lost because of certain political developments. Secondly, the loot and plunder was led by the Vijayanagara soldiers themselves, since it would take at least 2-3 days for the enemy soldiers to reach Hampi from the battlefield.”

Kannada Bidabeda

As the literary history of Karnataka has proved time and again, the greatest contributors to Kannada literature often spoke different languages at home; be it D R Bendre (Marathi), Jayant Kaikini (Konkani) or Yeshwanth Chittala (Konkani). Both Shanbhag’s and Karnad’s mother tongues is Konkani.

“[Kannada] is a learned language for us. It also means we are not confined to the Kannada of any one region,” says Shanbhag.

For both Shanbhag and Karnad, this is an advantage, as they can seamlessly switch between dialects of different regions without appearing artificial.

“Kannada writers coming from different parts find it difficult to use the language of the other region. For me, every kind is mine and every kind is the other,” Shanbhag says.
Karnad, too, seems to have understood this, as he switched not only between different Kannadas in his writings, but also included Marathi words. Yet, Kannada was dearest to him, writing most of his plays in Kannada.

Yet, it is unfortunate, says Shanbhag, that most of his readers have read him in other languages, since the experience of reading his plays in their original Kannada is an unparalleled experience.

Shanbhag recalls an experience which Karnad mentions in his autobiography.

“On the last day, before Karnad was leaving Sirsi for college in Dharwad, he meets his Kannada teacher. The teacher knows that Girish is leaving the next morning. And he only tells him two words and walks away without saying anything else. The words were: Kannada bidabeda.”

Karnad seems to have taken this advice to heart, writing most of his plays in Kannada.

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