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How Girish Karnad embraced many Indias in his life and work

Girish Karnad's bare and sparkling memoir, recently translated into English, shook up the Kannada literary world, when it was first published in 2011

In Girish Karnad, one sees the existence of many Indias, the East and the West.
In Girish Karnad, one sees the existence of many Indias, the East and the West. (Getty Images)

In 2011, when Girish Karnad released his autobiography, Adaadata Ayushya (recently translated into English as This Life At Play), the Kannada literary world’s response was mixed—surprise, disbelief and disagreement.

Those who had met, known, read or heard of Karnad in the “here and now” found his early life a surprise—it was as normal, simple and modest as that of any other middle-class family. A life that had its fair share of struggles, disappointments and small joys. When the autobiography was published, Karnad clearly belonged to the cultural elite of modern India, and most believed that he came from there.

The disbelief was related perhaps to the way the tale was told. Bare and sparkling with the bluntness of truth, Karnad’s work is a stoic narration of him as a person of the past, locating his self in relation to others, and displaying the rare courage to face himself. Abstaining from self-glorification, the narrative glows in the candour of imperfections. “That’s not true,” many argued about episodes from his public life, “there are other sides to the story.” Disagreements, counter-stories, and retelling of incidents with altered focalisation could be attributed to the inevitable subjectivity of narration, taking us back to basic questions around autobiography as a literary genre. Could it be the blurring lines of real and creative forms of recollection? Some felt so. It certainly stirred the Kannada world.

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Karnad had undertaken the English translation of this work but could not finish it—he died in 2019. Completed by Srinath Perur, it flows smoothly in tone and language. To imagine that you have come to “know” the teller after you read an autobiography, however, doesn’t work in Karnad’s case. You may, at best, get a glimpse of his life and literature, the people who inhabited it, his pursuits, achievements—the external details. You can perceive the making of the individual in the throes of historical, political and cultural forces. The reflective moments do offer insights into the persona but an individual is invariably more than the sum of many parts.

The narrative, rich in languages, places, people, emotions, episodes and letters that altered the direction of his thinking, makes it a compelling story. In Karnad, one sees the existence of many Indias, the East and the West, and a passage from one kind of cosmopolitanism—which is palpable in his growing years in Sirsi—to another, as he moves to Dharwad, Bombay (now Mumbai), and beyond. He was a hybrid of the global and local, something he often discovered with surprise. As he used to say: “I was 10 years old when India attained freedom. In the 50s it was Satyajit Ray, followed by the parallel cinema movement. When New India was emerging in the 60s, I returned from a very momentous period in Oxford. I was lucky to return when I had no clue what the future had for me. But doors kept opening, one after the other. The Academies came into existence and the National School of Drama was established, television came in the 80s.... there were many firsts and I was at the forefront of that experience. It was an exciting period in the life of the nation as well as mine.”

This Life At Play By Girish Karnad, translated by the author and Srinath Perur, HarperCollins India, 320 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
This Life At Play By Girish Karnad, translated by the author and Srinath Perur, HarperCollins India, 320 pages, 799.

It may not be easy to unpack the complexities of Karnad as a playwright and thinker but it is difficult to miss the central figure in his life: aayi (mother). A strong woman who thought ahead of her times, and spoke her mind, she dreamt of higher things, which her son aspired to in his own life. His book is also full of stories of intense friendships, some abrupt, some generous, some tense, some tumultuous, reading, at times, like a handbook of human behaviour.

Karnad held several positions of national eminence but the writer in him was always at the forefront. He was able to perceive with humility and grace the major turning points of life—for instance, the moment that made him a playwright, that too in Kannada, or the moment that inspired him to return from Oxford to India.

The first half of the book traces the story of his making, while the second captures an exciting phase in theatre, literature and films in India. Karnad had strong connections in the Kannada world—be it his literary and theatre associations with Manohara Grantha Mala’s G.B. Joshi, Da. Ra. Bendre, Kirthinath Kurthukoti or, later, with U.R. Ananthamurthy, B.V. Karanth, K.V. Subbanna, P. Lankesh, T.N. Seetharam, S.G. Vasudev, and so on. Karnad also worked closely with personalities such as Satyadev Dubey, Ebrahim Alkazi, Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Mrinal Sen, Tom Cowan and A.K. Ramanujan, becoming a pan-Indian figure.

In conversations, Karnad often spoke of a second part of his autobiography, taking it beyond the 1980s, where this one stops. That didn’t happen, so This Life At Play remains an incomplete record of his life. Any commentary on his autobiography will also remain incomplete—the dignity he gave to the women in his life and work could be a study in itself. In his last years, Karnad became an activist of exceptional courage, one of the strongest voices against injustice and the establishment. It would have been interesting to hear this story from his mouth, his struggle to preserve the intellectual and cultural diversity of India from which he richly gained and contributed to.

Karnad rightly picked up poet Bendre’s lines for the title of his book. The latter uses the more colloquial word adaadata for the leela of Indian philosophy. The world is seen as an active principle of “play” (creative activity of the cosmic power), where everything is dynamically connected with everything else. In his case, Karnad led us to a unity of idea, even as we see him playing out many roles.

Deepa Ganesh, a Bengaluru-based journalist, is executive director, Centre for Visual and Performing Arts, RV University.

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