It is a comment on the ahistoric times we live in that a media outlet announced Girish Karnad’s death as “Tiger Zinda Hai actor dies at 81”. Karnad’s contribution to India’s letters, stage, screen and thought far exceeded his role in a popular Hindi film.
And yet, Karnad would have smiled ironically at the description. For he was versatile, and he may have even taken it as a compliment, of being remembered for his virtuosity. Some will remember him for his roles in popular commercial films, others would remember his thought-provoking plays. Some would applaud him for standing up for the values that made India a progressive, liberal nation such as protesting and mourning the slain journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh, but some others would resent him for wanting Bengaluru’s airport to be named after Tipu Sultan.
Karnad was part of India’s post-independence renaissance, as much at ease with exploring classical Sanskrit plays as the finer points of the yakshagana tradition; the primacy of rhythm in Carnatic music or the deft footwork of Kuchipudi; the continued relevance of ancient myths to understand our present condition and his exasperation over the canonization of false idols in an age bereft of heroes.
Renaissance man he certainly was: a Rhodes scholar who was president of the Oxford Union in 1962-63, Karnad was an aesthete, a classicist who delved into tradition to understand and explain modernity. In his play Yayati, he explored the clash between the demands of the family, and by extension society, with an individual’s waywardness, forcing him to live an accursed life. In Tughlaq, he retold the story of the impulsive king in Delhi who was much misunderstood in his time, and whose grandiose ideas became an allegory for the Nehruvian era. It is worth recalling that he wrote those two remarkable plays while in his 20s.
Later, he wrote Hayavadana, based on Thomas Mann’s 1940 novella, The Transposed Heads, which itself echoed a tale from Kathasaritasagara. Hayavadana raised the profound question of what constitutes identity and beauty—supreme intellect or raw physical prowess, or brain or brawn—as if the conflict between Athens and Sparta was being played out within each of us. A pillar of Indian theatre, Karnad also translated what is perhaps the finest existential play of modern India, Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajit, which brought to the fore the pessimism and nihilism that shrouded India within a decade of independence. Karnad was a worthy recipient of the Jnanpith Award in 1998.
The Tipu Sultan controversy says more about the charged, divisive times in which we live. The first film that Karnad directed (with B.V. Karanth) was Vamsha Vriksha (1972), based on the conservative writer S.L. Bhyrappa’s novel. A quarter century later, when Karnad wrote Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu (The Dreams of Tipu Sultan) Bhyrappa criticized the play, as he disagreed with Karnad’s nuanced portrayal of Tipu. Karnad, on the other hand, saw the shades of grey in each of us—his Tipu was a complex, much-misunderstood ruler, deliberately misinterpreted by those embracing a narrower identity.
At the same time, even though Karnad and U.R. Ananthamurthy would broadly agree on many issues, Karnad was uncomfortable with the rise of linguistic chauvinism in Karnataka, a cause Ananthamurthy fervently supported. But it wasn’t as if Karnad was championing another language, nor speaking for the primacy of English. In fact, he wrote in Kannada, and showed a profound understanding of his state and was fluent in several other Indian languages—he acted in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu films.
Karnad was intimately linked with the films of the Indian New Wave. In two Shyam Benegal films that took on the feudal structure, Karnad played a man seeing evil around him and wishing to change it. As the helpless schoolmaster, he sought justice after his wife is abducted in Nishant, and he was an idealist doctor who comes to a village in Gujarat to help organize farmers in Manthan. In Jabbar Patel’s Marathi film, Umbartha, Karnad showed the weakening of a man, a lawyer, who can support his wife’s empowerment only up to a point. In Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s film Samskara, (based on Ananthamurthy’s novel), Karnad’s performance as Praneshacharya was outstanding, as he attempts to tackle the dilemmas caste rules imposed on individuals. Karnad acutely presented the churning in a Brahmin’s mind, whether to do what seems instinctively right to bring a tragedy to its closure, or uphold customs society has imposed arbitrarily? Grapple with his own passions or shun them? And how to cope with the inevitable guilt that follows? His other notable films included Kaadu, which he wrote and directed, about witchcraft and blind faith, and Ondanondu Kaladalli, which drew on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.
The characters Karnad played were progressive, not radical; some of those characters were morally flawed and compromised. Life was not about absolutes; Karnad understood that as human condition. But his commitment to integrity was absolute. He was consistent in his support of justice, equality, civil liberties and inclusive governance. Even as he was ailing, he came to public demonstrations to protest the spate of deaths due to lynching in recent years. And in outlining his life in theatre at the Tata Literary Festival in 2012, he cast aside protocol and criticized V.S. Naipaul, who was being given a lifetime honour at the festival, because in Karnad’s view, the elegance of Naipaul’s prose could not mask his misanthropy and racism.
There could be no compromise over values. And to understand those values, he rediscovered the wisdom from India’s ancient stories to bring clarity to our ambiguous present. And thus Karnad told us the meaning of what it means to be human.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.