Girish Karnad, veteran playwright, writer, director, actor and Rhodes Scholar, passed away on 10 June, 2019, aged 81, at his Bengaluru residence after a prolonged illness. Along with a career in cinema, starring in films like Nishant, Manthan and Malgudi Days, he was a landmark figure in Indian theatre, termed a 'colossus' by many.
Among his most widely known plays are Yayati, Tughlaq, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, Odakalu Bimba and The Fire and the Rain; notably, he wrote Yayati when he was all of 23.
Two contemporary thespians, Quasar Thakore-Padamsee and Abhishek Majumdar, recount their memories of the thespian, as well as the influence he has had on their own work.
Quasar Thakore-Padamsee first interacted with Girish Karnad's body of work by reading his plays and listening to his mother recite these plays as folk stories. Director at QTP Productions and son of Alyque Padamsee and Dolly Thakore, Quasar dubs Karnad ‘the Shakespeare of India’. “He wrote histories about Tipu Sultan and Tughlaq, and wrote stories which were set in faraway times and faraway lands (Yagati, Taledanda, Agni Mattu Male). They were epic in scale and presentation.”
Thakore-Padamsee attests to Karnad’s importance in the Indian literary landscape and his unique influence on readers as a playwright. “If you were a young person trying to understand anything about Indian theatre, you had to read Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh and Girish Karnad. A lot of Karnad’s work was much grander than the others.”
In 2006, Karnad was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Thespo. “He was really one of the last theatre rockstars in India," Thakore-Padamsee says.
Thakore-Padamsee was deeply impressed by the honesty and fearless outspokenness with which Karnad lived and spoke: “What was really remarkable about him was that he always spoke what he felt. There was no façade in his persona and writing. He took a stand.”
Karnad was also known to make clear his opinions about social and political issues, being well-rooted in the world where he lived. Thakore-Padamsee adds, “He stood up for the right causes. The incredible act of wearing the placard that said ‘Me too urban naxal’ at a conference showed he literally wore what he felt on his sleeve.”
Thakore-Padamsee also recalls the many times his father Alyque collaborated with Karnad, detailing the process and mutual respect the two theatre giants shared for each other: “They had a great sense of mutual admiration. There was a lot of trust in that relationship. There are liberties my father would take with the text and Girish always said, ‘You’re the director. It’s your play now, you do it’. I think that balance was quite good. There was incredible respect that each had for the other.”
While remembering Karnad as a great thespian and literary giant, he also recognises a deep humanity, sensing a familiarity in him, as a person and a writer. “At his Lit Live! Lecture in 2017, Karnad said something very beautiful. He said that when he was growing up, the society they were in, being a poet was a very prestigious thing. He wanted to be a poet too. So one night, at 11.30 pm, the spirit moved him and he sat down to write. And what came out was a play, not a poem. He said that when he finished the play he was very disappointed, because he realised he was a playwright first, not a poet.”
Bengaluru-based playwright and director Abhishek Majumdar had many wordless interactions with Karnad; Karnad's morning walk route was close to Majumdar’s residence. “One of my uncles, who is a huge Karnad fan, asked me not to interrupt him on his walks as he could be thinking of the next big play and some idiot could spoil it by saying ‘good morning’. So we would walk by and I would not say a word to him.”
Early in his career, Majumdar’s life sometimes overlapped with Karnad’s. “I would be asked to go and have a meal with him. I was very nervous, always. He had sent me a signed copy of Rakt Kalyan. I’ve treasured that book over the years. He also presented me with the Shankar Nag Award.”
About the influence Karnad has had on him as a playwright, Majumdar fondly recalls: “His writings influenced everybody who came after him. Specifically for me, in terms of play structure, the outer structure of my play Muktidham is a very Karnad structure.”
Majumdar speaks about the universal quality of Karnad’s writing, highlighting his immense personality and the reason he is such a key figure in Indian theatre: “His work has influenced everybody, no matter what kind of theatre one did. He essentially made a certain kind of theatre contemporary. He made the mythological modern, which was the need of the hour. It was the equivalent of what MF Hussain did with modern art. Karnad was a pioneer in that sense. He is pretty much unmatched. More than influenced by him, I have been in awe of him.”
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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 16:43:00 IST