Who is Girish Karnad?

Life and works of Girish Karnad

A Versatile Genius
Girish Karnad is one of the greatest of living dramatists in India today. He is a versatile genius. He is a very good actor and has acted not only on the stage of the theatre, but also in a number of first-rate movies. He also makes frequent appearances on the small screen i.e. the TV. He also has about six plays to his credit which include Yayati, Hayavadana and Tughlaq, the last one being a masterpiece. It is a classic of its kind. It was written in Kannada and then was translated into English and it once parachuted him to the first rank of Indo-Anglian dramatists.

His Education
This man of versatile genius, now fifty-three years old, was born at Matheran near Bombay in 1938. He had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford from 1960 to 1963 and a Bhabha Fellow from 1970 to 1972. He was also a visiting Professor and resident scholar at the Chicago University for some time.

Travel Abroad
Girish Karnad originally wanted to be a poet, but circumstances made him a dramatist. As he himself tells us, “I wanted to be a poet, the greatest ambition in my life. At the age of 22, I realized I would not be a poet, but only a playwright. Then I almost wept. When I was about twenty I got a scholarship to go abroad. I was the first member of the family to go abroad and although the present generation won’t understand it and I am sure many of you who have been through it will also not understand how difficult it was to come from a traditional family and to go abroad because although everyone was thrilled that I was going to England, it involved lots of decisions. Will one come back? Will one stay abroad? Will one get married to a foreign woman and other problems like that”.

Takes to Writing Plays
Girish Karnad“I was very tense and I found ultimately and suddenly on the eve of my leaving for England, that I had started writing and writing a play rather than a poem and it surprised me for three reasons. One thing that it was a play, because I just said I wanted to be a poet. The second thing that surprised me was that I wrote in Kannada because I spent all my teenage years preparing to be an English poet. I wanted to go abroad and be in England, the country where Auden and Eliot lived and shine there etc. and it seemed to me there was nothing to do in India and, therefore, I trained myself to be an English writer. But when it really came to expressing one’s tensions it came off in Kannada and I suddenly realized that I wasted some years of my life practising writing. The third thing that surprised me was that it was a play about a myth, Yayati, from the Mahabharata. All these three things came as a surprise because I had just said, “one thought one was modern alienated from one’s background from one’s language.” Another reason for his choosing to be playwright was that there were no good plays in India. The influence of Shakespeare and the naturalistic drama of Ibsen and Shaw also turned the scale.

Influences on him

Writing about himself and the influences on himself, Girish Karnad tells us, “My childhood was spent in a small town called Sirsi which had a population of nine to ten thousand in the forties and I grew up there. Those were the last days of forties, the last days of the touring natak (drama) companies in the South. Many of them were flourishing in Maharashtra in the thirties, but by forties most of the touring natak companies, the offshoots of the Parsi theatre, were coming to an end and I was lucky enough to be young enough, to see them with my father.

There were two kinds of theatre that were going on in Sirsi. One was this finer dying shape of the Parsi theatre and the other was of course Yakshagana which was in those days considered a very low form of art. It hadn’t become purified or acknowledged or accepted as an art form yet and I remember that these two theatres occupied two different kinds of universe. I went with my parents to see the company natak plays, there were chairs and you sat in chairs. We were invited by the owner. Father, always got a pass because he was a doctor and we sat in the front row and watched these plays. I always went to the Yakshagana with the servants because my parents would rather be dead, than be seen watching Yakshagana in those days. It was just considered too low-brow and one had to sit with the servants. The natak company plays were lit by gas lamps, while the Yakshagana were lit by lanterns and very often by torch lights because Sirsi didn’t have any kind of electricity then. In fact the whole aesthetics of the two forms was so different and one grew up without trying to relate both of them and feeling that both of them were dying. I survived in this kind of theatrical atmosphere until I came to Bombay. Practically I just saw the last of the company nataks dying and I though at that time the last of the Yakshagana group was also dying because in the forties and fifties, until Shivarama Karanth and others came to its aid, it really was in a very bad shape.”

Karnad’s first play is Yayati and it came out in 1961, when Karnad was only 23 years old. It was written on the way to England, and it is very much like Antigone. “Yayati is a king, who in the prime of his life, is cursed to old age and he goes around asking people will you take my old age? Will you take my old age? No one accepts, except his own son, Puru. Ultimately the son becomes old and the father becomes young and I think, looking back at that point, perhaps it seemed to me very significant that this was what was happening to me, my parents demanding that I should be in a particular way, even when my future seemed to be opening up in another. So you see it was the play, where the myth in some ways gave exact expression to what I was trying to say but the form is entirely borrowed from the west.”

Yayati is a play about personal responsibility. It was an immediate success on the stage when it was produced in Kannada. His interpretation of the old myth on the exchange of ages between father and son puzzled and angered conventional critics but the enlightened readers and critics appreciated it for its contemporaneity. To them “Karnad’s unheroic hero was a great experience.” As a reinterpretation of an ancient myth, Yayati is a great achievement.

Karnad’s second play is Tughlaq (1962). It was originally written in Kannada but was later translated into English by Karnad himself. It was an immediate success, and at once catapulted him to fame, to the first rank of Indo-Anglian dramatists. Girish Karnad was told by some one that there are no good history plays in India and so he decided to write one. For this purpose he delved deep into history beginning with Ishwari Prasad. He himself tells us, “………and when I came to Tughlaq I said Oh! Marvelous! That is what I wanted. In those days existentialism was very much in the air. To be considered mad was very much fashionable. Everything about Tughlaq seemed to fit into what I had read was the correct thing to do, which was to be mad and do impossible things and so on. So I started reading about Tughlaq. But as I started reading about Tughlaq I suddenly realised what a fantastic character I had hit upon. I started with Ishwari Prasad and then went on to all the contemporary material and suddenly felt possessed, felt this character was growing up in front of me. Certainly Tughlaq was the most extraordinary character to come on the throne of Delhi, in religion, in philosophy, even in calligraphy, in battle, in the field of war. In anything we talk about he seems to have outshone any one who came before him or after him. After that, writing the play was not difficult at all. What was difficult was how to leave out what one liked. I really feel that, the play has been very successful and had tremendous success on stage and so on, particularly because actors have liked doing the role.”

Serious and Comic Scenes
The play was deliberately written in the convention of the company natak. At least the attempt was there. In a company natak what used to happen, at least in the company nataks that I had seen, all the scenes were divided and alternated between deep scenes and shallow scenes. The shallow scene was usually a street scene and was kept for comedy. While the shallow scene was on, the deep scene was prepared, for a garden, a palace, a dance, whenever, the acts were being changed. While the set change was going on, in the shallow scene you had comical characters. This is what I attempted here, because in a shallow scene you have comical characters, and crowds; it is actually degeneration from Shakesperean kind of play-writing really. And then the curtain opens and you are in a palace. The characters of the play were clearly divided into those which came into shallow scenes and those which came into deep scenes. At least, the first half of the play was written like that, but as I went on writing the play, the form, developed on its own and in the end Aziz, one of the characters meant to be comical, ended up in the palace, which seemed to be right, given the political chaos that one was writing about.

Its contemporary significance
“I did not consciously write about the Nehru era. I am always flattered when people tell me that it was about the Nehru era and equally applied to development of politics since then. But, I think well, that is a compliment that any playwright would be thrilled to get but it was not intended to be a contemporary play about a contemporary situation. I think if one gets involved with one’s characters or one’s play, then it should develop into some kind of a true statement about oneself. I think a play can be only as contemporary as the playwright is. If the writer does not have contemporary convictions or is not committed or fashionably involved, the issues don’t emerge.

Karnad’s third play, Hayavadana, was written in 1970, and later translated into English; its popularity has been wide and continuing. “At the time folk theatre was very much in the air and one day I was telling the story of transposed heads to my friend B.V. Karanth. I said here was a beautiful story, and why don’t we make a film and he said why a film; it would make marvelous theatre. The moment he said it, I knew that it would make a very good play, It was actually theatrical. It would probably make a bad film but good theatre probably he was not interested in folk theatre, but the form of his Evam Indrajit has a lot of fluidity. He had just translated and produced Evam Indrajit. But I must confess that the fluidity of Evam Indrajit had a lot to do with my writing Hayavadana. So, while one confesses that one went consciously to some of the folk theatre. Yakshagana and others, one cannot deny that Brecht as well as Badal Sarkar were haunting ones and that went some way in the shaping of Hayavadana.”

The plot is based on the Kathasarilesagara tale which Thomas Mann used for his short novel, The Transposed Heads. It is play on the search of identity in a world of tangled relationships. Devadatta, the intellectual, and Kapila, the man of body, are very intimate friends. Devedatta marries Padmini. Kapila and Padmini fall in love with each other. The two friends kill themselves. In a highly comic scene which is of great dramatic significance Padmini transposes their heads, giving Devadatta Kapila’s body and Kapila Devadatta’s. It results in a confusion of identities which reveals the ambiguous nature of human personality. The situation gets complicated. They fight a duel and kill themselves again. Padmini performs sati (self-immolation).

The sub-plot of Hayavadana has a great comic and ironical significance. The horseman’s search for completeness ends comically. He becomes a complete horse. Karnad deftly employs all the conventions and motifs of folk tales and folk theatre-masks, dolls and the story within the story. Commenting on the technique of Hayvadana, M.K. Naik says: “Karnad does not succeed fully in investing the basic conflict in the play with the required intensity, but his technical experiment with an indigenous dramatic form here is a triumph which has opened up fresh lines of fruitful exploration for the Indian English playwright.”

Such are the three greatest plays of Karnad. Had he not been over busy with directing movies and TV programmes, and acting, he would have been more perfect, and also more popular and better known.

Category: People

2 Comments on “Who is Girish Karnad?”

arun u tavargeri wrote:

Sir, It is really great thing and God has Blessed Karnad by awarding the highest award of literature when he was in Kuvempu’s place. First time I read that Karnad has born in Matrharen which is beautiful palce and got education at Sirisi which another wonderful place. Over and above he has gone to U..K which rarest of rare opportunity at that time We are really proud of having such personified personality and has come today in Ectv kannada. Regards to Girish Karnad.

Mahanand charati wrote:

He should come out and fight for social causes.

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