Karnad: Portrait of the artist as a blunt man

The man who wrote sensitive, pathbreaking plays was also a daring champion of unpopular causes, and he was famously rude
Last Updated 10 June 2019, 20:31 IST

With the exit of Girish Karnad, India has lost one of its tallest and most controversial writers.

Known widely as a playwright and actor, Karnad was much more: he directed films and TV serials, helmed national institutions, and often became the celebrity face of unpopular causes. He was 81 when he died on Monday.

Throughout his chequered life, Karnad projected himself as impatient, mean and calculative. In his Kannada autobiography, Aadaadataa Ayushya, he describes how he gave up philosophy and took up mathematics because he could score high and get into Oxford — he wanted no scope for subjective evaluation.

Once his superlative score got him into Oxford, he contested the election to the post of the university’s prestigious debating society, and only because its secretary was entitled to the comfort of a room with a separate bath. Other scholars had to make do with a dormitory and common amenities.

His book is full of other self-deprecating details. In the Bombay of his youth, he lived with his brother at a flat near the sea. He describes how he just put up with the scorching heat, hoping his brother would pay for a fan. His stay passed without a whiff of cool air.


Karnad was famously rude, so much so that journalists dreaded calling him for quotes. But that persona was perhaps something he deployed strategically, mostly to keep his private time private.

He was particularly scathing about journalists in English-language newspapers, most of whom he considered duffers. Despite all his talk about being tight-fisted, his cast and crew often sang his praises: he got the best out of them, and paid them better than other producers, and in time.

To be fair, his contempt was not reserved only for poorly read journalists. He famously described Hema Malini as a daddi (Kannada for dimwit) when she contested a Rajya Sabha election against Dr K Marulasiddappa, writer and one of his closest friends. Incidentally, at one time, Hema Malini’s mother was trying to get Karnad married to her, but that was not to be — she eventually married actor Dharmendra. In a TV interview, minutes after the legendary singer Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s passing, Karnad described him as an alcoholic.

Most people consider such talk brutal, but then, Karnad never set store by politeness.

That is one reason he will be missed sorely in an era of PR and social media promotion.

Karnad straddled the Kannada world and the cultural world outside. His plays were produced by the biggest theatre groups in India and abroad. He served as director of the Film and Television Institute of India, chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and as head of the Nehru Centre in London, and it was but natural that he enjoyed worldwide connections. Early in his career, he served Oxford University Press for seven years, and many of his books are available in English translation from that publisher. His plays are prescribed reading at universities across the world.

Thus, his equations with fellow Kannada writers tended to veer from admiration and pride to envy and ribbing.

His writing, when it drew from myth and folklore, was pitted against the writing of another brilliant Jnanpith awardee, Chandrashekar Kambar. In fact, there were times they were competing openly, as when A K Ramanujan told them a folk story, and they embarked on individual writing expeditions. Kambar produced a lovely, lush musical, Siri Sampige, while Karnad wrote a lean, mean Nagamandala.

Nationally, not many have heard of Siri Sampige. It should come as no surprise that Kambar is sometimes sceptical of Karnad’s accomplishments: he once described the latter’s language as ‘padre Kannada,’ meaning it was stilted and bookish like the language of the missionaries.

Karnad wrote his first play Yayati in 1960, when he was just 22. His last play, Rakshasathangadi, came out in 2018. In a career spanning six decades, he traversed many realms, with his themes spanning Indian history, the Mahabharata, religious bigotry, sexual angst, identity, and migration. In cinema, he worked both with arthouse and mainstream. ]

In fact, the literary critic D R Nagaraj used to tease Karnad, saying he spoke about lofty ideas when he was with Kannada writers, but was always willing, the moment he was offered the right fee, to run away to Chennai to do ‘postman Pichamuttu’-style bit roles in Tamil films.

Karnad’s bluntness was well-known across literary and non-literary communities. He cut off his connections with his Konkani-speaking Saraswat community because, he says, they wrote anonymous letters and wouldn’t confront him directly. When the name for Bengaluru’s airport was being discussed, he voted for Tipu Sultan as against Kempegowda. Karnad, by the way, has written a play on Tipu, a military hero viewed from multiple perspectives today, and his choice of name for the airport didn’t go down too well. Karnad’s play on the eccentric king Tughlaq is considered one of his best. His Taledanda is a play about Basava, the 12th century poet and reformer who defines and represents the best of Kannada culture.

In fact, Karnad is associated with some of the best things to happen to Kannada culture in living memory, although many believe he was Westernised, elitist and blind to the virtues of Hinduism. He was part of the 1970s renaissance in theatre and cinema, writing for and acting in landmark productions such as Samskara, Vamshavriksha and Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane.

He grappled creatively with the most influential literary minds of our times — Bendre, U R Ananthamurthy, Kambar, P Lankesh, D R Nagaraj, B V Karanth, and Shyam Bengal, just to name a few.

Here is a story never told in print before. Karnad was to record something for RangaShankara, the theatre on whose board he was a member. The audio engineer, a young Gokul Abhishek, sported long hair, and routinely wore t-shirt and jeans to work. When he got to know about Karnad’s visit, he got a haircut and switched to formal clothes. Known for his punctuality, Karnad knocked on the studio doors exactly at 10 am. Gokul opened the doors, only to find to his shock a Karnad dressed ultra-casually in t-shirt and shorts.

Karnad could be sharp and unpleasant, but never stuffy! Behind the unfriendly front was an epochal writer, and a daring man who could stand up and espouse unpopular causes. In death as in life, he has proved to be uncompromising: no ceremony, no state honours, nothing. It couldn’t have been more private.

(Published 10 June 2019, 08:19 IST)

Follow us on