About 14 years ago, I had phoned Girish Karnad to invite him to be the chief guest at my rural school. He refused, saying that he was busy, and that I should explain his refusal in a polite manner. I asked him to reconsider as he knew and respected the school's founder. Karnad’s reply was something that has stayed with me ever since, and defines the man’s passion for his work. "Do you realise how old I am? I am 67 now — 67! I have so much writing to do. This function will take me three days to go and come. I cannot afford to waste my time on all this. Tell (the founder) exactly this. He will understand. Now I have to go."
That impatience to get back to work had brought him a long way. He had versatility on his side — he was a playwright, an actor, theatre and film director, administrator — and he brought into each one of these roles his great passion to get everything structured. He even planned his scholarship with great care — he was determined to go abroad, and his father could not afford it. He chose to do B A (Mathematics) at the Karnatak Arts College in Dharwad.
In a documentary film made on him by K M Chaitanya, he says with a twinkle in his eye that he needed to get a scholarship, for which a first class was required, and that it would have been impossible to get a first class in the other degree subjects offered there. "It was not out of great love for Mathematics that I chose the subject!" he exclaims. He got a first class, and stood first, enough to get him a Rhodes Scholarship that took him to Magdalen College, Oxford University in England, where he chose Philosophy, Politics and Economics for his Masters.
Although he had wanted to carve a name for himself as an English litterateur, it was the resonance that his Kannada plays found with his audiences, and most importantly with himself, that found him returning to India and writing in Kannada.
The wide range of the films he directed would in themselves be enough to merit him a place in India's cultural history. He made his directorial debut in Kannada in 1971 with Vamsha Vriksha, based on the novel by S L Byrappa, working alongside another theatre legend, B V Karanth. The duo bagged the National Award for Best Direction. His Ondhanondhu Kaaladalli (Kannada, 1978) was a film that probably brought shades of Akira Kurosawa's work to Kannada audiences for the first time. It became a cult classic, and also saw the entry of another Kannada acting icon, the late Shankar Nag, onto the big screen.
The list of the films he directed includes Kaadu (1973), Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (with B V Karanth, 1977), made in Hindi as Godhuli; Utsav (Hindi, 1984), and Kanooru Heggadithi (1999). Utsav was based on Mrichakatika, a second-century Sanskrit play by Shudraka.
He made his debut as a film actor in 1970 in the Kannada film Samskara, based on a novel by U R Ananthamurthy. Interestingly, both Karnad and Ananthamurthy went on to win the Jnanpith Awards for their work in literature. He has acted in a number of Indian films, in several languages including Kannada, Hindi, and Tamil. But Girish Karnad's greatest contribution, perhaps, would be to the world of theatre.
Yayati was the first play he wrote in 1961, when he was just 23 years old. It met with success, but it was his next play, Tughlaq (1964), that created huge waves across India's theatre scene. Ebrahim Alkazi’s direction of the play set amidst the grandeur of the Purana Qila in Delhi set a new benchmark in Indian theatre productions. It revived Kannada theatre in the early 1970s, giving rise to many young theatre groups, and began a new movement in the style of writing plays.
Prof K Marulasiddappa, one of the foremost scholars in Indian drama and literature, says that Tughlaq marked the beginning of a wave in Kannada plays, as more and more playwrights took to using similar structures for their play.
"There was never a play prior to Tughlaq that had such Shakespearean, epic-tragic proportions. Most importantly, it brought to the fore the disciplined structure that would go on to become one of Karnad’s greatest hallmarks," says Marulasiddappa, a close friend and associate of Karnad. "The Bangalore University had organised a seminar in the 1970s on the traditions and experiments with Kannada theatre immediately after Tughlaq.
A theatre festival at Ravindra Kalakshetra was also part of the seminar. Three plays were specially written for this fest: Sankranti by P Lankesh, Jokumaraswamy by Chandrashekhara Kambara, and Oedipus Raja — a Kannada adaptation of Oedipus translated by Lankesh. All three were directed by B V Karanth. Karnad played the lead in two of these. So you see, via Tughlaq, Karnad had been a catalyst for this regrouping of Kannada theatre," he says.
India’s historical, mythological and contemporary issues formed the foundations for Karnad's fascinating exploration of what life would have been had any one of these tales or myths taken a different turn.
For instance, argues Karnad through his plays, perhaps Karnataka's history, and indeed India's, may well have taken a different turn if the 12th-century social revolution by Sri Basavanna (vachana chaluvali) had ended happily.
He explored this in a powerful manner through Taledanda (Rakt Kalyan in Hindi), (Death by Beheading). Similarly, he explores the ending of Tipu’s life by the British in Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu, 'The Dreams of Tipu Sultan'. The titles of many of his 15 plays are in themselves magical.
Odakalu Bimba (A Heap of Broken Images), written in 2005, explores split personalities. But the main leap in theatrical tradition in this play was the use of modern technology — the single character talking to her mirror image on a TV screen — shot separately on camera and played on stage, which had to be perfectly synchronised. It was directed by Karnad, returning to theatre direction after 30 years, and his protégé, Chaitanya.
Karnad also held key positions as an administrator. He was the director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune (1974-75), and the Director of the Nehru Centre in London from 2000 to 2003.
Rakshasa Tangadi (Crossing Over to Talikote) was the last play he wrote in 2018. It is based on the battle of Talikote that led to the end of the once-glorious Vijayanagar Empire, and the play explores the setting in of decadence in public life. The image of the last king of the Vijayanagar Empire setting off for battle comfortably ensconced in a palanquin, rather than riding valiantly on horseback, says it all. That was the power of this man's imagination.
Karnad was working on his autobiography when the curtains came down on his long and eventful life. He had strong opinions, he was very direct in whatever he had to say. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but yet had great patience in explaining his ideas to the actors he was directing, with a mind that was constantly exploring new ways to tell a tale.
The last, simple journey — sans crowds, sans public display of his mortal remains, sans last rites — all as per his wishes and instructions — was also perhaps a stark message he was leaving behind. There was silence at the Kalpally crematorium where he was consigned to the flames. Like that moment after many of his plays ended.