Remembering Girish Karnad: From senior to peer, lessons the thespian taught me in theatre — and life
Girish Karnad's word, his voice always meant something. Even if it rakes up a controversy — like the Tagore one — he couldn’t for a minute, despite being unwell, not call a spade a bloody shovel.
Even with growing familiarity, I could never treat Girish Karnad like a peer. I was always so in awe of him; he was so much higher in stature.
He was the bridge between tradition and modernity; his ideas were contemporary and liberal, while his aesthetics drew from classical and folk sources.
Girish’s theatrical form was pure magic; his mastery over the language meant the dialogue was always so engaging.
I first met Girish Karnad at the premier show of Nagamandala at the Chitra Kala Parishad (Bengaluru), produced by the great Shankar Nag. It was an open-air production and it was absolutely magical. The music, the performances, everything. I was in so awe of the production, and the genius of both Girish Karnad and Shankar. I was just a rookie at the time, whereas Shankar was already a major artist.
I can still recall Girish’s voice and his presence. My first thought was “Why was he on stage?” And then I learnt that he was a prolific writer in Kannada. That was my introduction to the works of Girish Karnad.
He was a generation or so older than me, and it wasn’t until I got the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998 that our interactions began. He sent me a personal letter of congratulations and in it, invited me to his residence. I lived in JP Nagar at the time, two streets parallel to where he lived. I went over and a lifetime of friendship began with his wife Saras. He was friendly but wasn’t so sociable during this interaction, though Saras was warmer and more conversational.
Over time, I realised our morning walk timings coincided; we both enjoyed walking early in the morning at the Mini Forest in JP Nagar. Girish always had this Do Not Disturb vibe, and I (given how in awe of him I was), didn’t want to interrupt him or walk with him. On several instances, he’d stop and chat with me. It would range from friendly banter to political concerns sometimes, and then we’d go our separate ways. They were always fleeting interactions for a very long time, fleeting yet meaningful.
Even with growing familiarity, I could never treat him like a peer. I was always so in awe of him; he was so much higher in stature. So, our interactions were not like friends, at least in my mind. I had this huge psychological barrier that he was a generation before me, and that I wasn’t as accomplished as he was… Still, I treasure those interactions.
Over the years we would interact, some of our projects got us together. BBC Radio had asked both Girish and I to write plays to commemorate India’s 50th year of independence. He wrote the play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan and I wrote Do the Needful. Years went by when we would meet and then go our way, much like those walks at Mini Forest.
It wasn’t until Lilette Dubey invited me for a post-premiere party for Boiled Beans on Toast in 2014, that I actually found myself talking to Girish as a peer. Lilette had directed the English production of Girish’s new play and I realised during that interaction that despite his brilliance and experience, he was just like any playwright — nervous about a new play being staged! We spoke about what works on stage, the challenges of English theatre in India, being writers of the theatre… we spoke like two playwrights, sharing an artistic bond and incredible, mutual respect. It was then that I finally allowed that entire barrier to drop.
I knew he had a lot of respect for me and the work I was doing. In my eyes, he was just too towering a personality. It didn’t matter because he was also so respectful of me. We inhabited different worlds: He was an Oxford-educated, English-speaking Rhodes scholar who wrote a lot in Kannada. I was a Kannada-speaking playwright who wrote in English.
He was the bridge between tradition and modernity. His ideas were contemporary and liberal, while his aesthetics drew from classical and folk sources. He brought about change in the way plays were written. There’s continuity in his works… from the old to the new. In contrast, I see myself as a breakaway with no roots in the traditional.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt from him is that you don’t need to be Westernised to be modern. He was very liberal and modern, yet despite his Oxford education, the last word you’d use in context to him was “modernised”. He said something so interesting that drew my attention to how we often perpetuate certain stereotypes.
In the play Boiled Beans on Toast, there were some actors playing servants and some others playing more privileged people. He said, “There’s no need to make the servants speak bad English just because they’re servants. Had this play been in Kannada, the servants would certainly not be speaking broken Kannada.” That observation just stayed with me.
His attention to detail and his command over the subject and the language made reading Karnad even more exciting than watching his works on stage. Nagamandala, one of his most romantic works, is among my favourites. He was truly ahead of his time while dealing with certain themes. Hayavadana (1972) dealt with what it is that a woman wants in a man: his intellect or his body? He wrote it in the late 60s, at a time when such thoughts weren’t really entertained in India, let alone on stage. Everyone knows him for Tughlaq, a masterpiece, undoubtedly. But he’s also written fascinating works like Raktakalyan or Anjumallige, a story that dealt with incest. Needless to say, it was not really a subject one saw a lot of on stage.
His multi-lingual expertise and his ability to write such beautiful prose, steeped in tradition yet years ahead of its time, is only among the many prolific contributions he’s made to Indian theatre. Girish gave us such fantastic form. He gave us plays with such range like Raktakalyan and The Fire and the Rain, he drew so much from folk theatre, and it was all there for us to imbibe or enact in our own way. Girish’s theatrical form was pure magic. His mastery over the language meant the dialogue was always so engaging.
That was a lot like Girish himself. His word, his voice always meant something. Even if it rakes up a controversy — like the Tagore one — he couldn’t for a minute, despite being unwell, not call a spade a bloody shovel! The greatest disservice one can do to a writer, is to put them on a pedestal and then gag them. Girish wouldn’t ever hold back from voicing his opinion and standing by causes he believed in.
He’s not here anymore but he’s left us so much richer with his ideas and his astonishing body of work.
— As told to Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri