The public intellectual India will miss
Acclaimed actor and playwright Girish Karnad breathed his last on June 10. From being an integral part of the parallel cinema movement during the late 1970s to being an active public intellectual, Karnad’s contribution to the Indian society has been immense
In 1966, the National School of Drama (NSD) performed an Urdu translation of a never-heard-of Kannada play Tughlaq, written by Girish Karnad. It was the first ever production of the play, in a language it wasn’t even written in, and was performed on the ramparts of the Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi. Directed by Om Shivpuri, who also played the titular role of Tughlaq, and designed by the then NSD director, Ebrahim Alkazi, it became a path-breaking theatrical production in contemporary Indian theatre. News of its success reached far and wide. Everyone wanted to know more about Girish.Girish was not even 30 years old when he wrote this play. He had just returned from the UK where he was a Rhodes scholar. He was hardly known even in the literary circles of his own mother tongue Kannada, but Tughlaq changed everything. He was now celebrated through several regional languages theatre productions of the play – Marathi, Bengali, Hindi and in English. Following this success, NSD produced another play of Girish’s, called Bali. It was a diploma production by Prerna Karanth. Girish soon became a well-known name in the Indian playwriting scene. The late 1960s and 1970s were the most fervent years of India’s creative community. All over, there was an ambience of free thinking and questioning. After centuries of colonial rule, Indian theatre was raising questions about our own cultural identity, and how it was different from western theatre. To examine this polarity, many experiments were carried out. There were innovative local theatrical productions being done like tamasha in Maharashtra and nautanki in North India.
With these performances in the indigenous folk theatre, new possibilities opened up. It encouraged theatre directors to use complex ideas and themes in their plays. It seemed possible to convey contemporary ideas through these traditional theatre forms. This realisation gave the Indian theatre community a sense of liberation and confidence to pursue modern ideas. It was during this period that four outstanding playwrights – Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar and Girish Karnad – appeared on the Indian national theatre scene. It was a pan-Indian celebration of their works, removing the language barriers. All these writers were exploring their own understanding of the world, which connected them with the Indian reality in a post-Independent India. From his first play, Bali, Girish examined the present through epics, myth and history. Like Sanskrit playwrights, he sourced material for his plays from epics and scriptures and then, like a master craftsman, structured the narrative of his plays through poetic metaphors and symbols.
Being an actor and director himself, Girish was always in command of chiselling out his characters, which are complex, subtle and even self-contradicting. This quality of characterisation made actors employ all their physical and intellectual energies to achieve the impossible. From Tughluq and Hayavadana to Rakta Kalyan and Bikre Bimb, the interplay between form and content is always changing in Girish’s plays. In the 1960s and 1970s, filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were making films in Bengali, which got them international recognition. Later, in the late 1970s, with the support of National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), several avant garde films were made and recognised at prestigious international film festivals. This triggered the release of a new creative energy in Indian cinema. It was now possible to make a cinematic work with limited budget. Some of the filmmakers who dominated the parallel cinema scene included Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Awtar Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, BV Karanth, Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad. Girish acted in and directed several movies which were, and still are, considered milestones in India’s parallel cinema movement. Some of them include Samskara, Manthan, Kadu, Ankur, Nishant, Swami and Godhuli among others. Girish’s cinematic climax came with Utsav (1984) based on Shudrakha’s classic Sanskrit play Mrichchhakatika. There were times when actors and directors from regional theatre crossed over to Hindi cinema and yet retained their involvement with their respective regional theatres. Girish, who contributed majorly in this enterprise on a multi-disciplinary level, was always at the forefront with his creative ideas. He believed in contributing by leading from the front – whether it was direction, acting or writing.
What was fascinating was that while he churned out one masterpiece after another, he stayed in touch with the mundane world. His participation in democratic and secular movements, continued till the end of his life. He worked with the elite, the intellectual world and the struggling masses. His passing away is an irreplaceable loss not only for Indian theatre and cinema, but also for the society. He was the one public intellectual that India will always miss. In his death, India has lost a cultural ambassador.