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Versatile career of a veteran playwright: Girish Karnad

  • Published at 05:02 pm June 18th, 2019
Girish Karnad


Despite the growing popularity of the term “Death of the Author”, sometimes it becomes virtually impossible to separate the artist from the art. Take, for instance, Yayati (1961), the first play by young playwright Girish Karnad (then barely 23 years old) that eerily parallels his life.  The play was written when Karnad was having a conflict with his parents, as they strove to keep him home while he wanted to go overseas with a Rhodes scholarship to study at the University of Oxford. Yayati seems like a protest that indicates how it is imprudent, at times, to give in to parents’ demands. The play was an instant hit that immediately made Karnad a force to be reckoned with in the literary scene of India.   

Not only that, Yayati is one of the exemplary works by the celebrated playwright who had a way with relating contemporary issues to history, myths and folk tales in his narratives. His social and political allegories are often polemics against the establishment. Coming out in 1964, Tughlaq—his magnum opus—compared the authoritarian regime of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq with that of “Nehruvian idealism”, as UR Ananthamurthy puts it in the introduction to his English translation of Tughlaq. Taledanda (1990), another historical play by Karnad, was built around a reformation movement occurred in Karnataka during the 12th century—an event that rightly mirrored the ongoing communal dispute around the Ayodhya temple. 

More or less all literature enthusiasts are familiar with Freud’s “Oedipus Complex”. The complex has been used, and over-used, in many modernist western novels like Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence. What Girish Karnad’s Yayati did was popularize the “Yayati Complex”—a “reverse Oedipus Complex” to the Indian audience. In “From Oedipus To Yayati”, Devdutt Pattanaik has comprehensively  discussed the latter. Driven by Oedipus complex, a son may rival his father or end up committing patricide, while the Yayati complex prompts a father to become a force of destruction for his son to fulfill his selfish pursuits.  

Karnad was an artist of unparalleled versatility. From writing stage plays to acting and directing films, the renowned thespian explored almost the entire range of performing art. As suggested by an article published in Scroll.in, Karnad had handled theater and cinema with a kind of dexterity, having spent for about five decades as a playwright and 40 years as a script writer and an actor. In 1970, he had made his first appearance as an actor and scriptwriter in Samskara, a Kannada film based on the eponymous novel by UR Ananthamurthy. Later, he directed a number of Kannada and Hindi films, such as Vamsha Vriksha (1972), Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977), Godhuli (1977) and many more. 

As the 1960s marked the onset of a golden period for theater in India, Karnad with his contemporaries: Badal Sarkar and Vijay Tendulkar, had continued to shape and develop modern drama. After the 1970s, he became a part of the parallel cinema movement, and acted in movies like Nishaant (1975), Manthan (1976), Swami (1977), among many others. 

During his lifetime, Karnad took inspiration from various notable directors and playwrights. In an interview with The Telegraph, he expressed his admiration for Satyajit Ray, saying, “Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor were really artistic filmmakers in our generation. Now everyone says they are great, but when we were young we used to sneer at them. Satyajit Ray brought respectability… I came into films entirely because of him.” In addition to that, his action drama Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978) is known to be inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai

His versatility expanded from producing parallel cinema to directing action films to even acting in commercial cinema like Ek Tha Tiger(2012) or Kadhalan (1994). For his monumental contribution in Indian film and theater, he had been awarded a Padma Shri in 1974, a Padma Bhushan in 1992, the Sahitya Academy award in 1994 and the Jnanpith award in 1998. 

Karnad was an artist who had made no scruple about standing against injustice until his last days, even with an oxygen tube attached to his nose. He has passed away on June 10, 2019 in Bengaluru, inviting mournful homages from across the globe. Tributes poured in on social media from prominent filmmakers, politicians, actors and scholars. Revered actor Shabana Azmi has offered her sincere condolences on her Twitter account: 

Besides, in an article published by Scroll.in, historian Ramachandra Guha has paid his respect to the deceased artist, saying, “In his plays, Girish Karnad beautifully and seamlessly blended North and South, the folk and the classical, the demotic and the scholarly. In his life, he embodied the richness and depth of Indian civilisation more nobly and less self-consciously than anyone else I knew.”