Remembering Girish Karnad: Looking at the noted playwright's politics of protest through his works Tughlaq, Taledanda

  • Girish Karnad represents an era of liberal imagination synchronous with the twilight of liberal and socialist practices in society politics.

  • His successes were many and multi-faceted in several spheres of cultures: cinema, acting, direction, cultural imagination and, towards the end of his life, politics of protest.

  • Because of Karnad’s timing and placing, Tughlaq became a metaphor for the ambivalences and contradictions of the Nehruvian socialist democratic utopia.

  • By historical accident, Taledanda too became an allegory for the angst of post-Indira Gandhi India.

By HS Shivaprakash

‘A thousand lamps of civilisation die out’ — this is a quote from the Bengali poem On 31st January 1948 by Bishnu Dey, written after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Why do I begin a tribute to Girish Karnad with these lines? When Dey wrote this poem, there was still hope that at least a hundred lamps of civilisation would be reignited in post-Independence India. But we are now living through the painful twilight of modernity and postmodernity governed by market-driven neocolonialism, which is far more unsettling and devastating than the previous avatars of colonialism.

Neocapitalism and Karnad

The historically unprecedented upsurge of neocapitalist market is hounded by its dark and sinister antagonist — religious fundamentalism — across the world. In the past, at such moments of churning, the indomitable force of artistic imagination used to point the way forward. But today, art too has become captive of the market economy. This is the historical context in which the widely celebrated and highly exported Indian playwright Karnad passed away. Amid the deluge of condolences and commiserations, many recounted how in the past decade, the award-winning Kannada writer had been actively campaigning against the re-upsurge of religious chauvinism. He actively protested human rights violations. Sure, Karnad deserves appreciation for speaking out boldly against forces of religious fundamentalism. It must have taken a lot of courage for him to speak and stand up against the impending chaos in explicit postures and statements. However, the artist speaks more through his works than through words and actions.

 Remembering Girish Karnad: Looking at the noted playwrights politics of protest through his works Tughlaq, Taledanda

Girish Karnad. Image via Facebook

Karnad’s statements in the media and posturing apart, how did he, an artist, respond to the process of barbarisation being carried out in the name of civilisation? Let me try to address this question in the light of his two celebrated plays Tughlaq and Taledanda (Death by Beheading, Raktakalyan in Hindi).


It was Karnad’s second play, Tughlaq (1964)which established him nationally and internationally when he was only 26. The Kannada play first produced by professor B Chandrashekar in Kannada was masterfully translated later into Hindustani by BV Karanth. Though the Kannada production made quite an impact locally, it was only when Karanth’s translation was picked up for production by the doyen of modern Indian theatre, Ebrahim Alkazi, that it gained international recognition. Alkazi produced the play for the National School of Drama and it was staged at the Purana Kila, with legendary actor Manohar Singh playing the lead. The play depicted Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, as a great visionary and a great flop. Each time as he tried to push forward his utopian vision, more heads rolled and more blood flowed. Somehow because of Karnad’s timing and placing, Tughlaq became a metaphor for the ambivalences and contradictions of the Nehruvian socialist democratic utopia.


By historical accident, Taledanda/Raktakalyan (1990) too became an allegory for the angst of post-Indira Gandhi India. Unlike Tughlaq, this play was based on a region-specific episode from Karnataka’s history — the legendary 12th-century uprising of Lingayat, a socio-spiritual movement led by Basavanna. There had already been a lot of drama and fiction on this subject, including two widely acclaimed modern plays by P Lankesh (Sankranti) and myself (Mahachaitra). There have been several critical writings in Kannada on the comparative merits and demerits of these two plays in relation to Karnad’s play, which was last in the series. Without going into those complex details, I would like to dwell a little on Karnad’s Taledanda and its portrayal of the reform movement. Lankesh turned the story into an allegory for the conflict between Gandhian idealism and Nehruvian pragmatism. The play was a poignant depiction of how idealism gives a way to the demands of political pragmatism and survival. My own play, Mahachaitra, looked at the movement from the angle of class struggle without losing sight of its spiritual dimensions.

Though Karnad’s plays have a lot more historical information packed into it, the play focuses more on emperor Bijjala, the antagonist of the story. By contrast, Basavanna and his followers seem very docile characters, and Basavanna, in particular, is divested of all reformatory zeal. He even objects to the violative Brahmin – Dalit marriage by invoking, of all the people, Shankaracharya. When, in the play’s climax, the members of the reformatory sects are hounded and butchered by the now triumphant Sovi Deva, two fanatical followers of the new sect murder Bijjala in cold blood.

Girish Karnad. Image via Facebook

Girish Karnad. Image via Facebook

Karnad as a playwright, and his legacy

The successive historical plays by Karnad, Taledanda and Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1997) have protagonists who are somewhat diluted reincarnations of Tughlaq. Though Tughlaq’s idealism is a fiasco, the power of his failed idealism in the play more than compensates for his historical failure. The play, therefore, takes on a kind of tragic dimension, though it acknowledges the failure of the noblest of human imagination to contain cruelty and chaos within and without human beings. Karnad himself notes how he was shocked to see human brutality unfold on the stage between blackouts. In one of his notes on the production, Karnad is quoted to have said:

"the very notion of laying bare the inner recesses of the human psyche like this for public consumption seemed obscene. What impressed me as much as the psychological cannibalism of the play was the way lights faded in and out on stage…we [Karnad and his contemporaries] stepped out of mythological plays lit by torches or petromax lamps straight into [August] Strindberg and dimmers."

However, in his later plays, with the absence of Tughlaq-esque protagonists, this balance is missing. Bijjala, Tippoo and Ramaraya in his last play Rakkasa-Tangadi do not have the poetic vision of Tughlaq. Without an iota of human compassion, they try to manipulate the world to satisfy their whims.

The French-Algerian writer and philosopher Albert Camus pointed out that for a tragedy to work the two opposites — human will and impersonal forces of fate or history — should be present in equal proportions. In Tughlaq, though the two opposites are in almost in equal proportions, what it confronts is neither fate nor history, but the chaos of the absurd. In the later historical plays, the human will of the protagonist is no match to the chaos all around.

As Menon observes in his obituary for the playwright, "Karnad provides no solution, Gandhian or socialist and goes on to praising for the bold reflection of the rise of forces of darkness and tyranny. In the same darkness and tyranny that Karnad in his latest avatar of a spokesperson of human liberty opposed fearlessness."

Making Connections

What I am looking for is the connection between the playwright (in whose plays the triumph of tyranny and darkness is a bygone conclusion) and the bold protestor against cruelty in the world outside the plays — I do not find any link. I am not arguing that the playwright should have given an easy solution as is done in progressive theatre. Neither progressive drama of the superficial kind nor the modernist drama is dialectical. In Karnad’s Tughlaq and in great plays like Muktadhara by Rabindranath Tagore (whom Karnad considered no playwright), the dramatic energy is because of these dialectics.

Karnad represents an era of liberal imagination synchronous with the twilight of liberal and socialist practices in society politics. His successes were many and multi-faceted in several spheres of cultures: cinema, acting, direction, cultural imagination and, towards the end of his life, politics of protest.

HS Shivaprakash is a well-known Kannada poet, translator and columnist in Kannada and English. 

This article is part of Saha Sutra on, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. 

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2019 16:46:47 IST

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