Girish Karnad's plays exemplified his generation's transformative practices, but also bore his distinctive mark

The following post, written by Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker, appears as the introduction to Girish Karnad's 'Collected Plays Volume One', published by Oxford University Press. It has been republished here with due permission from OUP.  

On 10 June 2019, veteran actor, director and playwright Girish Karnad passed away aged 81 at his Lavelle Road residence in Bengaluru after a prolonged illness.


Girish Karnad (1938-2019) belonged to the formative generation of Indian playwrights who came to maturity in the two decades following independence, and collectively reshaped Indian theatre as a major national institution in the later 20th century. The work of these playwrights has a historical connection with the modern theatre forms that emerged under the influence of Western models in metropolises such as Calcutta and Bombay during the colonial period. Their modernity, however, is shaped by the unprecedented experience of political autonomy and new nationhood, and entails a rejection rather than continuation of colonial theatre practices.

In modern Indian theatre, the years leading up to and following independence in 1947 marked a period of disjunction during which both the commercialism of the Parsi stage (dominant until the 1930s) and the radical populism of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (dominant during the 1940s) became unsatisfactory models for the future development of urban drama. This sense of disconnection from the immediate past led the more ambitious post-independence playwrights to rethink the issues of dramatic form and presentational style, to forge radical connections with an older past as well as the postcolonial present in India, and to put the resources of world theatre (especially modern Euro-American theatre) to novel use. Along with such contemporaries as Dharamvir Bharati, Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, Utpal Dutt, Habib Tanvir, GP Deshpande, and Mahesh Elkunchwar, Karnad is a playwright whose work reveals a determined and self-conscious effort towards a new Indian drama.

 Girish Karnads plays exemplified his generations transformative practices, but also bore his distinctive mark

Girish Karnad. Image via Facebook/@KarnadHandle

The members of Karnad’s theatrical generation therefore share a number of important qualities that separate them as a group from their precursors. In varying degrees, these authors approach playwriting as a serious literary activity and drama as a complex verbal art, potentially connected to, but also independent of, theatrical practice: the play-as-meaningful-text is thus detached equally from the genres of commercialized entertainment and topical political performance. At the same time, they constitute the first group of modern playwrights in India who belong simultaneously to the economies of print and performance. All of them have had notable success on the stage, while their work has also circulated in print and become available for analysis, commentary, and interpretation outside the boundaries of performance. Each playwright is committed to an indigenous language (rather than English) as his medium of original composition, and hence to the literary and performative traditions of the region where that language is dominant. But each has also participated actively in the process of interlingual translation that gives his plays national (and often international) visibility, and establishes them as contemporary classics. In yet another perspective, Karnad and his contemporaries have rendered the role of ‘dramatic author’ largely synonymous with that of ‘theorist’ and ‘critic’. By advancing theoretical and polemical arguments about form, language, style, purpose, and influence in a range of rhetorical genres, they have offered the first fully developed, often antithetical theories of dramatic representation and reception in the modern period in India, and formulated competing conceptions of the role of theatre in cultural and national life.

Also read — Girish Karnad remembered by Indian art and culture fraternity: 'His strong, unwavering voice will be missed'

With drama as his chosen literary form and Kannada as his principal language of original composition, Karnad certainly exemplifies the transformative practices of his generation, but he has also carved out a distinctive niche for himself with respect to subject matter, dramatic style, and authorial identity. The majority of his plays employ the narratives of myth, history, and folklore to evoke an ancient or premodern world that resonates in contemporary contexts because of his uncanny ability to remake the past in the image of the present. Karnad’s engagement with myth (especially certain episodes in the Mahabharata) begins with Yayati in 1961, continues in Hittina Hunja (The Dough Rooster, 1980; rewritten in English as Bali: The Sacrifice, 2002), and culminates in Agni Mattu Malé (The Fire and the Rain) in 1994. The line of history plays moves from Tughlaq (1964) to Talé-Danda (Death by Decapitation, 1990) and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1997). Folktales from different periods and sources provide the basis of Hayavadana (Horse-Head, 1971), N"aga-Mandala (Play with a Cobra, 1988), and Flowers: A Monologue (2004). Anjumallige (literally, ‘Frightened Jasmine,’ 1977) is the only early play by Karnad with a contemporary setting — Britain during the early 1960s — and his most recent work, Broken Images (2004) is the only one to be set in present-day India. During the 1961-77 period, therefore, each successive play by Karnad marks a departure in a major new direction and the invention of a new form appropriate to his content — ancient myth in Yayati, 14th-century north Indian history in Tughlaq, a 12th-century folktale interlineated with Thomas Mann’s retelling of it in Hayavadana, and early-postcolonial Britain in Anjumallige. In the later plays, this quadrangulated pattern repeats itself in a different order, creating a cycle of myth-folklore-history in Hittina Hunja, N"aga-Mandala, and Talé-Danda (1980–90), and a second cycle of myth-history-myth- contemporary lifefolklore in Agni Mattu Malé, Tipu Sultan, Bali, Broken Images, and Flowers (1994–2004).

From our archives: Girish Karnad on Agnivarsha and writing mythological drama

The dominant presence of the ancient and medieval past in Karnad’s drama is a result of both personal and cultural compulsions. He has argued from the beginning that the deep-rooted narratives of myth, oral history, and legend constitute a vital connection between an author and his or her audience, and theatre is a particularly powerful medium for the communication of such culturally resonant fictions. Karnad belongs perhaps to the last generation of urban Indian writers who encountered the ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions of myth, poetry, history, legend, and folklore at first hand in their earliest childhood, and internalised them deeply enough to have their adult authorial selves shaped by them. Such a vibrant culture of orality is no longer available to the Western playwright, and Karnad is fully aware that it is being rapidly eroded in India by the processes of urbanisation, Westernised education, and economic development. Orality and print, however, are also carefully balanced in his oeuvre. All his major plays, from Yayati to Agni Mattu Malé and Bali, originate in remembered stories but depend extensively on printed sources for their textual complexity and weight. Karnad comes uncannily close, therefore, to the kind of modern writer TS Eliot imagined in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, one of the founding critical texts of 20th-century modernism:

[Tradition] involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; . . . This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes the writer acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

Karnad’s ability to contend with ‘the timeless and the temporal together’ is clearest in his juxtaposition of myth and history, in the simultaneous embrace of the ahistorical and the historical.

Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker is Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 09:24:19 IST