Theatre director Sunil Shanbag was only 17 when he first watched a play written by Girish Karnad — Hayevadana — come alive on stage. By the end of the performance, he knew where he wanted to belong. “It was 1972. I was still in my last year of school, and that particular production of Hayevadana convinced me that this is what I would like to do for the rest of my life,” the Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee recalls, on learning about the legendary playwright-actor's passing away on Monday at his Bengaluru residence. Karnad was 81 and long suffering from an ailment.
Surprisingly for Shanbag, it was only as late as March this year that he directed a Girish Karnad play for the first time. "Through all these years, I have seen his plays and I've read what he has written. It's such an irony. I always wanted to direct Hayevadana myself, as a tribute to him, but never got around to doing it. I directed Taledanda — which is the original in Kannada — in Hindi, Rakta Kalyan, as a students’ production for the Drama School Mumbai," the thespian says.
Written in 1989 and set in the 12th century, Taledanda tells the story of poet-saint Basavanna, who unites people in his community to denounce the caste system with the support of the king of Kalyan. Soon after, killings are ordered in the community when a Brahmin girl is engaged to be married to a boy from a lower caste. The story is almost typical of Karnad’s temperament as an artistic genius, rebellious and sensitive at his core. “It really resonates with what is happening today...I have always felt very deeply connected to his plays right from the early days. He had the ability to use historical and cultural material to say very important things. He employed this skill in Tughlaq and even Rakt Kalyan — to contemporise history and look at your world at present. His plays are so powerful because they epitomise this very thought,” Shanbag says. He last met Karnad only two months ago in Bengaluru, while staging Rakt Kalyan in the city. Sunil believes that the writer was strongly rooted in society, and “felt extremely responsible as an artist”. He continues to draw inspiration from this aspect of Karnad, in an age when “art has become more personal and subjective”.
While many of his contemporaries — who, along with Karnad, had shouldered the parallel or ‘art film’ wave in Indian cinema — often shied away from acting in commercial potboilers, the seminal artiste expectedly traversed the more surprising route. His filmography boasts of unapologetic mass entertainers like Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), Shivaay (2016) in Hindi, and 24 (2016) in Tamil, among several others. Shanbag reveals Karnad’s motivation behind partaking in such projects. “There’s an auditorium in Dharward, his hometown in Karnataka, which he was keen on making accessible to everyone there. It was a formal auditorium so there were some expenses involved in using it. He told me that a fair percentage of what he made by acting in such Hindi films and mainstream cinema went in to subsidising that stage for young people,” he says, shedding light on how the Padma Shri awardee upheld his belief in creating art for society.
“He was incredibly fearless and always took a very principal position in important matters despite meeting with hostility, even death threats, which is common knowledge now. So it definitely is a big loss,” Shanbag rues. Indeed, the actor-writer was no stranger to such ultimatums, which came his way in 2015 as he spoke in favour of celebrating Tipu Sultan’s birth anniversary in Karnataka, eliciting fierce backlash from various right-wing and Hindutva outfits.
Girish Karnad sought to challenge and question oppressive state machinery so as to mobilise critical thinking, even in his final months. In September last year, he held a placard reading “Me Too Urban Naxal” at an event organised in Bengaluru, to mark journalist Gauri Lankesh’s first death anniversary. Soon, an FIR was lodged against him, but Karnad was completely unperturbed. “He was that kind of a guy. He would just do it, just challenge authority, and thank god for it. He came from a generation of people who were that profound. Any work at any time, which raises questions, will elicit such responses, like what happened with Galileo. Dissent is a part of history, of human civilisation and experience. And if you’re cursed with a questioning mind then…” Shanbag trails off.
The theatre director’s Akademi award fell in the eye of a political storm last year. RSS and BJP leaders wished for his name to be struck off the prestigious list owing to his participation in the 2015 ‘award wapsi’ campaign launched by intellectuals and artists in India, protesting the alleged growth in intolerance towards dissent under the BJP regime. Karnad later wrote to the SNA chairman, urging him to not act upon such “ludicrous” demands, and refrain from withdrawing Shanbag’s name. “The responsibility of the Akademi is to recognise and honour artistic merit. The artist’s political beliefs are his right. Shanbag has been working for over 40 years on the Indian stage and the quality of his work has been consistently innovative and outstanding. That’s all that should matter,” Karnad wrote. For this gesture, Shanbag can only express unbridled gratitude. “Of course it was fearless, but I thought it was extremely generous and gracious of him to make that public statement. And to remind people that at the end of the day, it’s not your personal like or dislike that can determine the value of anyone’s work. This is going to be a constant battle that we will face — just because you don’t agree, doesn’t mean it has no value.”
Shanbag believes Karnad had sensed the clock ticking, following which he had set himself some final goals to pursue. “When I last met him, he said his proudest moment was when he was able to write another play, his last, on the Vijaynagar kingdom. He said that this is what satisfied him the most: being able to finish writing the play in Kannada, and then transcribing it for people who didn’t know Kannada. He knew what was coming and he did achieve his goals,” he says.
Shanbag was endlessly fascinated by the artiste’s ability to hold a conversation on any subject, while keeping his audience hooked. “His breadth of knowledge was astounding. He was always happy to share his understanding of things. He was able to draw connections between things you didn’t think were connected. He was equally comfortable talking about art, history, and anything else. One aspires to have that kind of breadth of knowledge and depth in life,” the veteran thespian says.
While the issue of caste persistently chases Indian society, artists continue to provoke the ire of various sections on broaching it from time to time. Shanbag believes the effort and questions need to be relentless, as was demonstrated by Girish Karnad through his legacy. “One of the questions I was asked when I directed Rakta Kalyan with a group of students was if I was picking a project that was too intellectually ambitious. Here are a group of youngsters in their twenties, and here’s a play loaded with discussions and questions on caste, its relation to religion and state,” he says. “I did think about it and it was indeed a bit risky. But then I said, no, if you’re in your mid-twenties and are not exposed to some of the best intellectual traditions, you’re never going to do it. And I must say, once the students understood what the writer was trying to say through this play, they responded beautifully to it.”
Shanbag admits to feeling “daunted in the current ‘anti-intellectual’ atmosphere, cutting across all kinds of ideologies”. Perhaps it is now, more than ever, that a “Renaissance spirit” like Girish Karnad demands widespread commemoration, beyond mourning. The artiste reminds us of “our responsibility to celebrate this kind of intellectual legacy more and more”, leaving us to mull over the haunting question: “What else do we have left?”
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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 10:23:25 IST