The Paradigmatic Karnad

A year after his death, the playwright now appears to be a colossus straddling the entire second half of the 20th century in India, giving us an understanding of nation and culture, religion and language, masculinity and femininity, and much more.

The Wire is partnering with OUP for a month-long celebration of Girish Karnad’s works. The following is scholar Aparna Dharwadker’s tribute to the playwright. Professor Dharwadker has published extensively on Girish Karnad’s work in the theatre.

On June 10 last year I was in Mangalore visiting my father and my brother’s family when we received the news that Girish Karnad had passed away that morning. Having known him for thirty-five years and written about his work for twenty-five, I was struck by the poignant coincidence that I happened to be in his state, and would be able to travel to Bangalore to pay my respects.

The Wire contacted me that afternoon, and I sent in a tribute in the evening, still fully expecting to attend a memorial meeting in the next few days. That did not happen, however.

Despite urgent messages to mutual theatre friends in Bangalore, I did not hear about the daylong commemoration organised at Rangashankara Theatre on Saturday, June 15, until it was too late.

I left back for my home in Madison, Wisconsin, on the 17th, filled with deep regret at not being able to join in a collective, cathartic celebration of Girish’s life and work. So the process of remembrance and memorialisation continues at a distance. 

Also read: Why Girish Karnad’s ‘Tughlaq’ Is a Classic in Kannada Literature

One of the statements that surfaced often in the tributes published in June last year was that Girish had left us at a time in the life of the nation when we needed him more than ever. The world has become considerably more sinister and precarious since then.

Had he lived to see the pandemic, the sociopaths leading the world’s two largest democracies during this crisis, and global protests against the state-sanctioned murder of black men, Girish’s capacious intelligence would have found a way to understand the downward spiral and interpret it for us, as he had interpreted so many other topical sociopolitical phenomena in his lifetime.

But in another, much broader perspective, he now appears to be a colossus straddling the entire second half of the twentieth century in India, giving us an understanding of nation and culture, religion and language, masculinity and femininity, individuality and collectivity, and past and present through the media of theatre, film, and television on a scale unmatched by any other author or artist of the post-independence generations. 

In a short video I have contributed to the series of tributes assembled in the past month by Oxford University Press, I have referred to the valuable paradigms Girish established in his work across multiple mediums. His major plays show us how fictions derived from myth, history, and folklore, oscillating between time and timelessness, use the matter of culture to create an inclusive anatomy of the nation as it takes shape after 1947.

Also read: From Neighbour to Mentor to Colleague: Chaitanya K.M. Remembers Girish Karnad

The late plays set in contemporary cities capture with acuity the emergence of that amoral, self-interested urban Indian middle/upper class that has become synonymous with the rot generated by neoliberalism and fundamentalism. Much more extensively than Vijay Tendulkar, Girish connected theatre to film and television as author, actor, and screenwriter, theorising the media together as cultural forms of “drama” in human life.

He also spoke at least five languages, and managed two of them—Kannada and English—in a way that made him the first fully bilingual playwright in modern Indian theatre after Michael Madhusudan Dutt, whose career had spanned the mid-late nineteenth century. It was almost a natural offshoot of the bilingualism that Girish should also be the exclusive translator of his plays from Kannada into English, and vice versa.

These are already paradigmatic achievements unlikely to be surpassed by any one Indian artist in the coming decades. But Girish adds to them the role of major literary author as iconic public intellectual, always ready to defend the public interest, his own beliefs, and the rights of other human beings. 

The experience of writing the introductions to his Collected Plays (2005-2017) gave me an immersive understanding of these constitutive elements of his career that will remain one of the touchstones of my scholarly life, especially because he made it so clear that he was happy with the product.

But the two lasting images in my mind will be of Girish the public figure in two very different places, at two very different times in his life.

Also read: Girish Karnad Was Both Solitary and Solidary

The first is an image of him in my Madison home in October 2009, at a lunch celebrating the end of his visit as a Brittingham Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, which included what he described as a “memorably costumed” performance of his recently published English translation of Yayati. In the sunlit backyard, he is surrounded by colleagues and students from the Department of Theatre and Drama, but bends with a grin towards my 23-year old daughter Aneesha (an architect), and asks her if she would like him to find her a groom in Bangalore! (this was our last meeting with him in person).

Girish Karnad at the memorial for Gauri Lankesh. Photo: The Wire staff

The second image is of a visibly frail Girish at the memorial for Gauri Lankesh, the breathing tube in his nostrils, and the words “Me Too Urban Naxal” scrawled on a placard across his chest. When I saw that photograph I knew that we would not meet again—but somehow it did not matter then, and does not matter now, because with his larger than life presence Girish Karnad is not going anywhere.  

Aparna Dharwadker is Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.