Noted actor, filmmaker and playwright Girish Karnad passed away on Monday at the age of 81. Karnad succumbed to a prolonged illness at his residence in Vittal Mallya Road, Bengaluru.
Karnad predominantly worked in South-Indian cinema and Bollywood. He rose to prominence with his sharp, critical playwriting in Kannada. He was a recipient of the 1998 Jnanpith Award, the highest literary honor conferred in India. He was also conferred the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, and had won several other accolades for direction in Kannada cinema.
Born on May 19, 1938, to Raghunath Karnad, he lost his mother in childhood. His father got married again, this time to a widow, in a landmark step towards normalizing widow remarriage. Karnad got his primary education in Karnataka’s Sirsi and went to Dharwad for secondary education. Soon after graduating from Karnataka University Dharwad, he got a scholarship to study at Oxford University and went on to be the first person of Asian origin to become president of Oxford Debate Club.
Karnad started writing when he was just 14. TS Elliot, one of the most iconic 20th century poets, had read his early works and expressed great hope in him. Karnad even had Elliot’s autograph. He was a keen observer and a quick learner. Multilingual, he wrote many plays in Kannada language during his stay abroad as a student. He later became a guest professor at Chicago University.
After pursuing Masters from Oxford, Karnad returned to India and joined Oxford University Press as editor. But he soon quit the job and went back to Dharwad to start working full-time in theatre.
The thespian of new India
Karnad’s first play was Maa Nishada (1959), which he followed with Yayati (1961)—a sensational Kannada play that established him among theatre bigwigs at just 23 years old.
Karnad was known for breaking boundaries and his unorthodox approach to theatre and literature. Most of his works are inspired from history and mythological stories. Yayati was one such play. Revolving around the story of a man Yayati, who wants to stay young till his death and his son Puru, who devotes his youthfulness to fulfill his dream, the play got Karnad many awards and was eventually included in curriculum.
His another popular play Taledanda was about King Bijjala and Basavanna. It was performed across the country over a thousand times. One of his other blockbuster plays Nagamandala was picturised by Kannada director-actor Nagabharana and was also a huge success, giving Prakash Raj his big break in acting.
Karnad’s last play was Rakshasa Tangadi. It details the downfall of Vijayanagara Empire. Karnad had also written his autobiography, which he named Adaduta Ayushya.
Journey in films
Thanks to his active participation in theatre, Karnad also worked in several South-Indian and Bollywood films. He played a major role in Kannada movie Samskara, which bagged the Kannada film industry its first Swarna Kamal award. His character Pranesh Acharya is still remembered by the fans of the iconic film, which was based on the novel of the same name written by Karnad’s close friend and Jnanpith awardee late UR Ananthmurthy.
Karnad later moved on to direction and worked with several notable personalities, including Kannada poet Kuppalli Venkatappa Puttappa (Kuvempu), actor–director Shankar Nag and novelist SL Bhyrappa, in films like Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Kadu and Ondanondu Kaladalli.
Karnad also directed two Hindi films–Utsav and Godhuli–and made documentaries on Kanaka Das, Purandara Das, Jnanpith awardee DR Bendre (DaRa Bendre) and Sufism.
Karnad felt passionately about social justice and equality. His contributions to our society through films, theatre and literature make him stand taller among his peers. A fearless critic, he was major campaigner in the fight against intolerance, drawing the ire of many right-wing activists.
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