The voice that thought aloud

Girish Karnad remained absent in most discussions about him, instead he chose to immerse himself in work

On the morning of June 10, one of India’s greatest playwrights, Girish Karnad passed away. In less than an hour of this sad news reaching public domain, tributes to the renowned writer, playwright, activist, filmmaker, and a person who held key positions in top cultural institutions of the country started flowing in. Newspapers and web magazines put out quick articles in a bid to appear on top of the heap; writers tweeted and re-tweeted their pieces, FB accounts got hyper with photos, videos, articles, opinions, homage, milestones of the writer’s life etc. On June 11, the newspapers were inundated – his multi-dimensional personality was captured, friends and contemporaries recalled their years with him, extolled his achievements etc. There were also jibes, tongue-in-cheek remarks, sarcasm, facetious comments, gossip, trolling, ungracious mentions…. more. But as always, Girish Karnad decided to be absent when he was being discussed. “You can discuss me freely. You are at liberty to be scathing about my works and me,” he had said at the inaugural of Samprati, Ranga Shankara’s Girish Karnad Theatre Festival, 2013. He welcomed the gathering with utmost grace, exited the venue soon after.

Karnad was clearly one of those few writers who could let go of his writing and allow it to take a life of its own in his readers. During an event on his last play, Rakshasa Tangadi, theatre groups queued up to ask him for permission. With his characteristic wave of hand, “I have finished writing the play, my job’s over. Do what you want with it, you don’t have to ask me for permission,” he told them all. It was not just with his writings, Karnad was not the one to linger on on any achievement – he abhorred people drawing attention to his awards and successes. For him, there was no time to waste, he had to move on to the next most important thing. “Can we screen Samskara?” a film society asked him last year. “But why? I feel ashamed of it now. If you really are compelled to screen it, do so after I leave the venue,” he categorically stated.

Karnad was extremely self-critical just as he was famously politically incorrect. He wanted to please none, nor did he curry favours. He bluntly stated truth, but he was often constructed as someone who was blunt. Adaadata Ayushya, his autobiography, is a facing up to one’s own self: no person of his stature would dare to be as truthful or transparent. By his own acknowledgement, it is something that he learnt from his mother Krishnabai, the most enduring influence of his life. She never indulged in any gossip but had the rare courage to discuss everything loudly, even those that were considered taboo in her times. This was true of Karnad as well, whether it was Tagore, Naipaul. U.R. Ananthamurthy or Tipu, he expressed himself to a full house. The implications did not matter to him. If his theatre offended some, his activism offended others, his thoughts and manners offended several more. Karnad neither chose to explain nor justify. His Utopia was clearly that place where one struggled to be the sum of many parts. This was the struggle of his protagonists too, one can see it in Yayati, Hayavadana, Tughlaq… trying to integrate the fragments. In fact, B.V. Karanth captured Karnad’s attempt so aptly in the song “Gajavadana He Rambha” which ends with “Ganesha, Nesha, Sha, Sha, Sha….”. But if you used his confessions about human imperfections for gossip, it was entirely your problem.

Karnad’s moorings were deep: he was attached to his language, his culture and people. Karnad spoke Konkani at home, he studied at Oxford and his English was exemplary, but he chose to write in Kannada, the language of the State. In the All India Konkani Sahitya Sammelan held in 2013, addressing the audience in his mother tongue Konkani, he expresses his deep gratitude to this language which bestowed upon him a cultural vision and perspective. “I am so grateful that I grew up between these two cultures in Sirsi – the catholic and the goud saraswat. It was not a written culture, but an oral tradition which left me with very strong cultural impressions.” Quite contrary to what people thought of him – westernized and global – Karnad was strongly rooted. “If you do not teach your children their mother tongue, they may become great scientists, but they will be poor thinkers,” he argued. The Someshwara temple in Dharwad was his favourite haunt, “it fills me with an inner peace”, he used to say.

There was never an occasion when Karnad forgot moments and memories that shaped his life. In an essay on G.B. Joshi from his collection “Agomme Eegomme Lekhanagalu”, he says: “When we ask ourselves who are the people who gave a new turn to our lives, answers do not come easily. In fact, it is not difficult to identify the person who can bear the responsibility of every new direction life takes. Let’s forget about childhood. In our adult life, one remembers quite a few friends who have appeared along the way, preparing us for new challenges. Will there be really people who impact your life so deeply that you can say, ‘had I not met this person, my life, my self, my consciousness – all this world would never have been the same? I can count atleast five to six such people in my life. The foremost among them is G.B. Joshi.” Though brief and quick, stories, people and memories were an integral part of a conversation with Karnad. Bendre and Keertinath Kurthukoti figured usually. Bendre’s poem “Sanna Somavara” was among his favourite, and he even named his daughter after the river that appears in the poem, Shalmali.

The Navodaya period in Kannada literature produced great stalwarts – from D.V. Gundappa, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Alur Venkata Rao, Panje Mangesha Rao, Kuvempu, Shivarama Karanth, Bendre, to Pu. Ti. Narasimhachar and K.S. Narasimha Swamy. The period that followed this also saw remarkable litterateurs like V.K. Gokak, Gopalakrishna Adiga, G.S. Shivarudrappa, K.V. Subbanna, P. Lankesh, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Poornachandra Tejaswi, including Girish Karnad. Karnad was among the last few links, and with him gone, Kannada language, literature and culture seems woefully empty and barren.

These storytellers, their stories, the communities they carried within themselves and the communities they built — everything seems bereft. Here was a whole army of writers who dreamt bigger than themselves and gave Kannada its pluralism. In the death of Karnad, our world now shrink fits into a cubbyhole. This must be one of the absurdities of life that Karnad often spoke off.

Karnad would surely refuse to read all that’s been written about him. He would perhaps say, there’s lot else to do.

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