Girish Karnad: How a Boy From Matheran Became A Stalwart in Theatre and Cinema

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Girish Karnad had initially aspired to be an English poet, but when his first play Yayathi received a good response, he decided to pursue theatre instead.

Revathi Rajeevan
  • News18.com
  • Last Updated: June 11, 2019, 4:08 PM IST
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When he was a teenager, Girish Raghunath Karnad used to draw pictures of celebrated writers, playwrights. He sent them the pictures to get it autographed. In his collection, he has the autographed pictures of TS Eliot, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and Albert Einstein, among others. But when he sent a picture of Irish dramatist Sean O'Casey, he received a letter in return where Sean asked him why he wasting his time in collecting autographs than becoming someone who could give autographs. There, he stopped and went on to become one of the most celebrated writers of his time. A veteran actor, director, playwright, intellectual.

Karnad died in Bengaluru on Monday at the age of 81 after prolonged illness. The telling picture of Karnad's personality in everybody's mind was the one where he participated in a protest after the murder of Gauri Lankesh, with a tube across his face signalling poor physical health but a strong mind.

Born in Matheran (erstwhile Bombay presidency), Karnad grew up with his parents - both theater enthusiasts - telling him how glorious theater was. His mother had a great influence on him, he recalls in a documentary made by KM Chaithanya for the Kannada Sahithya Academy.

It was when he was 16 that he learnt that his mother working as a nurse, was a child widow. She married his father, a doctor. It was second marriage for both. But women remarrying in those times was revolutionary. She was liberal due to her own struggles in life and influenced Karnad.

He moved to Sirsi when his father, a government servant, was posted there and learnt all that he could about theater. Karnad watched Yakshagana, took part with them, learnt his puranas all from this place that had no electricity but was a world of stories. Plays and an occasional movie was their entertainment.

Karnad moved to Dharwad in the 1950s where his connection with the literary world got deeper. From here, he had stories to tell about DR Bendre, VK Gokak, Kirtinath Kurtakoti and GB Joshi, whose Manohara Granthamala went on to publish his first work.

He completed his BA in Mathematics from Karnataka University despite having no love for the subject. Karnad dreamt of going abroad but did not have enough money for the same. He had to get a scholarship for which he had to secure a first class and only Mathematics guaranteed him that. Karnad went on to top the university and studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.

But before he left, there was chaos at home. He had to travel by ship for three weeks, could come home only after three years, parents wondered what if he married a white woman and so they began persuading him to stay. All of this he put in Yayathi (a character in mythology). And thus, his first play was born. He was close to mythology more than he knew although he had his connections with myths back in Sirsi. But Karnad, who wanted to be a poet, an English poet who wanted to win a Nobel prize, wrote a play. Using history and mythology to write plays on contemporary issues then became a style he is now well known for.

Karnad gave the play to the publisher Granthamala. After five days, when Karnad asked for feedback, all that the publisher said was the monologue of the maid in the play was good. He left for Oxford and later received a letter from the Kurtakoti that the publisher was willing to publish it. Yayathi got good response.

"I knew that moment that I was coming back. I was not staying in England anymore. I did not want to be an English poet. I wanted to be in Kannada," tells Karnad in the documentary.

Karnad began with Mohenjo-daro, Guptas and Mauryas and reached the 13th century where he came across Tughlaq, a king who banned public prayers from his kingdom. While he was drafting Yayathi on his way to Oxford, he was writing Tughlaq on his way back - a work that got him national recognition. Some of his works - like Hayavadhana - came from casual conversations. Hayavadhana was written after a talk with BV Karanth on making Transposed Heads by Thomas Mann a film when the latter suggested making it a play.

Karnad wrote Thaledanda and Agni Mattu Male during his time in Chicago when the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir issue was burning in India, when he discussed with sociologists there about caste structures, religion and wondered how 12th century philosopher Basavanna talked about the same things back then.

When the audience slowly shifted from theater to movies, Karnad caught up with it. He made his acting debut in 1970 with the Kannada film Samskara for which he also wrote the script based on UR Ananthamurthy's work. He made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha the next year and went on to direct Kaadu, Ondaanondu Kaaladalli, Thabbaliyu Neenaade Magane.

In the Hindi film industry, he made Utsav, Godhuli and Woh Ghar, worked with Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani.

Some of the greatest stars in the Indian film industry debuted in his films including Vishnuvardhan, Shankar Nag, Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Shekhar Suman, Sonali Kulkarni, art director Rajeev Menon and cinematographer Sabu Siran.

He has held administrative positions in Karnataka Natak Academy, Sangeetha Natak Academy, Film and Television Institute of India, Nehru Center in London, won awards including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Jnanpeeth awards.

Karnad also revealed how, when his mother was expecting him, wanted an abortion and persuaded his father to take her to a doctor. The doctor hadn't turned up on the day and his mother changed her mind later. "Five minutes after I heard that, I was thinking, the world could exist without me. That thought was stunning. It was traumatic," he said in the documentary.

The world now exists without his physical presence. He was cremated without religious rituals and state honors, with no flowers or VIPs visiting, like he had wanted. He made a point, made his stand clear even in death.

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Data Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India
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