Girish Karnad’s last play Crossing to Talikota engrosses, but stops short of being politically audacious
A scrutiny of Girish Karnad's plays hardly shows him taking an adventurous path as a writer and he can broadly be taken to be ‘Nehruvian’ in his outlook, essentially showing faith in the post-independence ideology of the government, roughly describable as ‘anti-colonial nationalism'
Crossing to Talikota is engrossing and upon reading it one gets a sense of why Karnad is popular as a playwright
His version of the Battle of Talikota is consistent with the ideological line followed by Nehruvian scholarship
The late Girish Karnad was perhaps India’s most widely performed modern playwright. Some of the country’s most renowned theatre directors, like Ebrahim Alkazi, Alyque Padamsee, BV Karanth, Prasanna, Vijaya Mehta and Satyadev Dubey, have staged his plays to popular acclaim. His last play translated into English as Crossing to Talikota was published mere days before his death.
Girish Karnad was very prolific and wrote, roughly, three kinds of plays – historical plays such as Tughlaq (1964), Taledanda (1990) and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1997), those based on Indian myths including Yayati (1961), Hayavadana (1972) and Nagamandala (1988), and explorations of contemporary society, plays like Odalalu Bimba (2006), Maduve Album (2006) and Bendakalu on Toast (2012). Of the three categories, the last seems to group together the work least likely to survive, while the historical plays are probably those where he is working at the height of his capabilities.
A historical play, Crossing to Talikota was published in Kannada in 2018 as Rakshasa Tangadi. In the preface Karnad singles out three events as being of utmost importance in the Deccan in the last millennium — the revolution initiated by religious reformer-poet Basava in the 12th century, the Vijayanagar Empire in the 16th century and the reign of Tipu Sultan in the late 18th century. He dealt with the first and the last in Taledanda and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan respectively; Crossing to Talikota is about the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire, the Battle of Talikota of 1565 when the four Deccan sultanates combined to defeat Aliya Rama Raya, son-in-law of Krishnadeva Raya and the regent who had ruled on behalf of the puppet ruler Sadashiva Raya. Since it is about the destruction of a Hindu empire by Muslim rulers, Crossing to Talikota treads on ‘sensitive ground’, and what Karnad makes of it is hence significant.
The Battle of Talikota has been studied by historians, and (contested) wisdom has it that the tide turned against Rama Raya when two Muslim generals (‘the Gilani brothers’) defected with their troops. An aspect noted has been the looting of Vijayanagar by the armies of the Sultanates — and lawless elements — reducing it to rubble. Although there were subsequent Vijayanagar rulers who shifted the capital elsewhere, they were unsuccessful and the empire virtually ended in 1565. Another factor of importance is that when Rama Raya was captured, he was beheaded on the spot, since Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur had earlier declared himself Rama Raya’s son, and his arrival might have affected the outcome. It was the sight of Rama Raya’s head on a spear that sent the Vijayanagar army fleeing helter-skelter. Rama Raya was arrogant, overconfident and hardly an exemplar, and Karnad relies on that to make his points.
Crossing to Talikota begins with a prologue set hours after the battle when soldiers from the enemy armies come to Vijayanagar and meet ‘civilians’ hiding among the rocks in the vicinity of Hampi. From the conversation we learn that the city was looted by the citizens of Vijayanagar even before the armies of the Sultanates could reach it. In the play there are indications that the people of Vijayanagar hated Rama Raya, and Karnad is offering an argument similar to that of liberal historians on Mahmud of Ghazni’s doings at Somnath: looting is a ‘secular’ pastime indulged in by people of all persuasions and singling out Muslim invaders for what they did to Hindu temples is incorrect. But even if we suppose that Hampi was looted by its own citizens, we should still want to know where they hid the ‘loot’. Were they allowed to retain it by sober enemy troops? Looting was known to be the standard conduct of all invading armies – from the Afghans to the Marathas – so why begin the play by absolving the Sultanate armies of destroying Vijayanagar, if one did not have a set political agenda?
Crossing to Talikota is engrossing and, reading it, one gets a sense of why Karnad is popular as a playwright. He writes each play complete with setting and stage directions and there is small need for the director to ‘interpret’ it, since it is self-contained. He understands what occurrences should take place off-stage and what should be on-stage, and this is no small help to a director. More importantly, there is dramatic action in each play that can provide visual spectacle, even allowing the play to be filmed.
Rama Raya is Karnad’s protagonist — a manipulative, arrogant, vain and cruel individual who gets his due. After the prologue, the rest of the play is in ‘flashback’, detailing the events leading up to the battle. The first act shows Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur visiting Vijayanagar and being welcomed. The visitor expresses his eagerness to hear Rama Raya playing the veena and shortly thereafter we hear its strains issuing forth; the playwright has made his observation about Rama Raya’s incurable vanity. Elsewhere, a sparsely attended public function is reported as teeming with people, duly telling us that Rama Raya was unpopular but lived in denial, creating the grounds for the looting of his capital by his subjects. Then there is also the equivalent of cinematic ‘montage’: the sultans contracting marriage alliances even as Rama Raya and his followers underestimate their likely consequences. Rama Raya’s beheading is not tragic since he has himself coldly executed courageous Bidar general Jahangir Khan.
Historical plays echo as much the concerns of the present as the happenings of the past, though some faithfulness to actual events is demanded. Much of the history Karnad acknowledges is incontrovertible, but there are nonetheless studied absences like the Gilani brothers; there is mention of two Muslim generals strengthening the fortifications of the city, but nothing is made of it except to indicate Rama Raya’s contempt, perhaps an inside joke juxtaposing a ruler’s arrogance with the fate that might await him. Jahangir Khan also seems a fictional creation to make Rama Raya more hateful, and justifying his beheading. But an aspect to be noted here is that neither the Vijayanagar army nor that of the Sultanates were constituted by soldiers of one religion, and we cannot justly see Talikota as a ‘Hindu army versus Muslim army’ battle. But Karnad makes the Sultanate leaders constantly refer to the Vijayanagar army as ‘Hindus’ and the Vijayanagar side refer to them as Turukas (Turks). There is, in Crossing to Talikota, ideological discourse blaming ‘Hindus’ for what befell Vijayanagar.
In his last few years, Girish Karnad emerged in the media as politically bold, but this was only in relation to Hindutva, which he was against like many other artists and intellectuals. A scrutiny of his plays hardly shows him taking an adventurous path as a writer and he can broadly be taken to be ‘Nehruvian’ in his outlook, essentially showing faith in the post-independence ideology of the government, roughly describable as ‘anti-colonial nationalism'. If one considers only his historical plays, one senses a palpable desire to stay out of controversy by echoing accepted sentiments of the period. Apart from Tughlaq, usually read as an allegory of Nehruvian idealism and its end in disappointment, Taledanda takes no chances with Basava and his followers. Basava’s followers are a dominant group today, wielding enormous political power, and Karnad makes the 12th-century reformer spout serene wisdom, reminiscent of a Zen master in a Hong Kong martial arts film. Tipu Sultan is also treated cautiously; to give the reader an idea of where Karnad stands, he describes (in the preface to Crossing to Talikota) Tipu’s reign as ‘the last assertion of national pride against the colonial onslaught'. Tipu cannot be equated with nationalism since the ‘nation’ was too distant; if Tipu represents ‘national pride’, the Marathas and the Nizam who helped the British destroy him would be ‘traitors’.
Girish Karnad’s version of the Battle of Talikota is consistent with the ideological line followed by Nehruvian scholarship/education. Even political essayists like KS Komireddy (who is avowedly anti-Hindutva) have noted the efforts of secular historiographers to downplay communal conflict in India before the British, presenting medieval India as an idyll of religious harmony in school textbooks. Komireddy cites historian Romila Thapar who “follows up the admission that the Ghaznavaid ruler Mahmud was ‘destructive in India’ – a phrase that omits so much – with the mitigation that ‘in his own country he was responsible for building a beautiful mosque and a large library.’” The fact that the scholarship favoured today is of the opposite kind does not make the historical falsifications of the Congress era acceptable; rather, they suggest that what we have today owes to their doings of yesterday.
If Girish Karnad’s creative efforts are to be aptly described, the most suitable epithet would be ‘statist’ — in the sense that a court-poet might be. He belonged to a generation that enjoyed the immediate benefits of independence but rather than take an individual path, his work nodded to authority by echoing its rhetoric, though the socio-political rhetoric of the Congress era was more benign. Still, ‘statist’ exercises in the arts and literature are not the most valued, since it is demanded by posterity that the artist or writer offer a unique vision flowing against the tide of the dominant discourse.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)
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