The Arts

Acclaimed Playwright-Actor Girish Karnad Passes Away at 81

He was also a public intellectual who fought for democratic rights despite his failing health.

New Delhi: Padma Bhushan and Jnanpith awardee playwright and actor Girish Karnad died in Bangalore on Monday morning at the age of 81.

Known as one of the most famous modern Indian playwrights – Karnad wrote in Kannada and also in English – and his important works include Yayati in 1961, Hayavadana in 1972, Tughlaq in 1964 and Nagamandala in 1988. Born in 1938, he also wrote screenplays for films and acted in plays and movies. He made his acting and screenwriting debut in the 1970 Kannada film Samskara, based on U.R. Ananthamurthy’s famous novel.

Karnad also hosted a weekly science programme on Doordarshan called ‘Turning Point’ with scientist Yash Pal, where the two broke down complex concepts for lay viewers.

Speaking to film maker K.M. Chaitanya, who made a documentary on him two years ago, Karnad spoke of how his earliest passion was to make sketches of famous people.

Girish Karnad’s sketch of the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, made when Karnad was 17. Credit: K.M. Chaitanya/YouTube

One of those he sketched in 1954 was the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey. When he sent a copy to O’Casey seeking an autograph, he received a curt reply asking Karnad not to waste his time. “Do something that will make people seek your autograph one day,” he wrote.

Yayati, Karnad’s first play, was written seven years later. Recognition and acclaim would follow soon after.

Karnad has received a number of awards for his work, including one India’s highest civilian honours, the Padma Bhushan, in 1992 and the Jnanpith Award, arguably the country’s most prestigious literary prize, in 1999.

He was also known for his work as a public intellectual and his open and vocal support for democratic causes, even in recent years when his health was failing. After the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh and the arrest of activists across the country last year, for instance, Karnad appeared at public meeting wearing a placard that said ‘Me Too Urban Naxal’. On his lap lay a small unit from which he drew oxygen for his weakened lungs.

“If speaking up means being a Naxal then I am an urban Naxal,” Girish Karnad (with the ‘Me Too Urban Naxal’ sign in the picture) had said. Credit: The Wire staff

Karnataka police’s special investigation team probing the Lankesh murder found her name on a ‘hit list’ that included 33 other people, including Karnad.

In April this year, before voting for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections began, Karnad was one of 200 writers who appealed to people to “vote out hate politics”.

Girish Karnad is survived by his wife Saraswathi, son and chief of bureau at The Wire Raghu Karnad and daughter, Kenya-based doctor Radha Karnad.