Girish Karnad cut across linguistic and regional boundaries to become a nationally revered figure

“I want to climb up to the tallest tree in the world and call out to my people, ‘Come, my people, I’m waiting for you. Confide in me your worries. Let me share your joys. Let’s laugh and cry together and then, let’s pray. Let’s pray till our bodies melt and flow and our blood turns into air. History is ours to play with—ours now! Let’s be the light and cover the earth with greenery. Let’s be the darkness and cover up the boundaries of nations. Come! I’m waiting to embrace you all!”

These lines are from Girish Karnad’s play Tughlaq (1964), a fictionalised version of the life of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the so-called ‘wise fool’ — in Karnad’s retelling, Tughlaq comes across as a deeply complex figure, a tyrant who also happened to be thoughtful and sensitive, someone whose supposedly hare-brained decisions had a grain of logic, however misplaced or out-of-context it might be. And yet, this was no apologia — Karnad’s language was so subtle (even in translation) and so precise that it negotiated these narrative stumbling blocks rather easily, and in style. Earlier today, news started coming in that at 81, Karnad was no more, and it made me think about my introduction to his plays, back when theatre was a big part of my life.

Also read:  Girish Karnad, veteran actor, director and playwright, passes away aged 81 at Bengaluru residence

I came across these lines for the first time when I was 18 and had just joined a theatre troupe in college — funnily enough for a technical institution (IIT Kharagpur), Tughlaq was part of the curriculum on a compulsory English course in our first semester. One of the oldest members of the troupe, blessed with a famously ominous-sounding baritone, acted out Tughlaq’s lines with gusto, and I was hooked. About an year after that evening, I started assisting on a production of Yayati, another Karnad masterpiece. For a youngster, Yayati was particularly compelling. Among many other things, the play asked us to investigate our dysfunctional collective attitude towards youthfulnes. In the play, King Yayati’s youngest son Pooru sacrifices his youth in order to fulfil his father’s wish — immortality. As a result, Yayati becomes young again while the newlywed Pooru becomes a shrivelled old man.

 Girish Karnad cut across linguistic and regional boundaries to become a nationally revered figure

Girish Karnad. Image from Twitter.

Is immortality a mixed blessing or a straight-up curse, a la the curse of the Wandering Jew? Does everyone really put such a high premium on youthfulness (as opposed to kindness, wisdom, temperance or caution; things far more crucial to one’s survival/well-being) or is this only a manifestation of how we’re all afraid of dying? Do the sins of the father always visit the son? Karnad asks us these questions and more, in this splendid morality fable. Much like Euegene O’Neill adapted (for a 1930s American context, that is) Aeschylus’s Greek tragedies into one dense, thrilling play, packed to the gills with difficult questions — Mourning Becomes Electra — Karnad spins the Yayati-Pooru-Sharmistha-Devayani myth into a compelling, intense, wholly contemporary story.

The fact that Karnad was just 23 (and therefore, just a few years older than I was at the time) when Yayati was published added to its aura, in my mind. By any standards, that is a staggering achievement, as remarkable as Ruskin Bond writing Room on the Roof when he was 17 (and winning the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for it) or Francoise Sagan writing the novel Bonjour Tristresse as a teenager. Plays like Hayavadana, Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain) and Naga Mandala, which I read years later, further reinforced his genius and his peculiar expertise at psychoanalysing historical and mythological figures.

Karnad, of course, later cut across linguistic and regional boundaries to become a nationally revered figure. His film work, in Kannada cinema as well as Bollywood, as actor as well as director/occasional screenwriter, has a lot to do with this, of course.

In the 70s and 80s, he acted in films by parallel cinema mainstays like Shyam Benegal and Basu Chatterjee — films like Manthan, Nishant and Swami (where he acted alongside Shabana Azmi and Utpal Dutt). In 1984, he directed the Shashi Kapoor/Rekha production Utsav. Post 2000, he appeared in a string of high-profile Bollywood productions. His role as a devious, corrupt cricketing coach in the feel-good bildungsroman Iqbal was widely lauded. He acted in marquee star vehicles with the likes of Anil Kapoor (Pukar), Akshay Kumar (Tasveer), Ajay Devgn (Shivaay) and Salman Khan (Ek Tha Tiger and its sequel, Tiger Zinda Hai). But he also added his prowess and his assured screen presence to more thoughtful, niche products like Iqbal and Dor (both directed by Nagesh Kukunoor).

As much as one enjoyed watching Karnad on the big screen and on TV (people still remember him fondly as Swami’s strict, forbidding, father in Malgudi Days), for this writer, he will be missed mostly as the author of Yayati, Tughlaq and several other remarkable plays.

Stories have a way of echoing generations later — as Mark Twain said, history never repeats itself, but it rhymes. And theatre has always realised this more acutely than others. One of the most famous two-man plays in history, Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, has been adapted twice into cinema. In the 1972 version, Sir Laurence Olivier plays the old, fading writer who invites his wife’s younger lover, Michael Caine, home to discuss the situation they’re in. In the 2007 version, Caine returns, but this time he plays the old, fading writer, with Jude Law as his wife’s lover — circularity and rhyme, just the way history likes it.

Versatile, malleable stories seem to acquire fresh contexts, sometimes decades after they were written. The writer is almost besides the point here — it's readers and audiences who find fresh interpretations, ensuring the story's future relevance. Karnad’s plays will continue to enthral audiences decades from now, almost certainly more, because they understand this phenomenon — before a recent revival of Tughlaq, for instance, Karnad wondered whether some of the subtext would apply to Narendra Modi (whereas UR Ananthamurthy, in the introduction to the English-language version of Tughlaq, reads it as a critique of Nehruvian socialism). Fare thee well, sir, and thank you for the stories.

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Updated Date: Jun 10, 2019 16:21:05 IST