A couple of years ago, Girish Karnad walked up to my wife at a dinner and said, “I’ve been telling Captain to give the film rights to his book Simply Fly as it captures a vast canvas of life, full of colour and adventure from village life to his agricultural exploits, army and the war, helicopters and aviation. It lends itself to vivid cinematic expression. Please urge him. I’m ready to don the robes and war paint even now and play his role, and am ready to direct it!”
What touched me was his sheer exuberance, even at 79.
Girish was many things to many people because he was a man of many parts and facets – playwright, writer, theatre actor, film actor in multiple languages, director, screenwriter, humanist, activist, folklorist, scholar, institution builder and so on. But I was drawn to his sincerity, stoic courage and dignity in matters of public interest and on civic issues, religion, culture, the arts and freedom of expression.
Above all, he was free of cant and humbug. He had no airs about himself, and all shades of affected piety and sanctimonious nationalism were anathema to him. He lived as he preached, a modern-day Socrates.
When you know someone who is famous and admire them from a distance for their stellar qualities, impressed through their writings and by what they stand for, made familiar through the press, television and other mediums, and finally meet them face to face and find them true to the image you have of them, it doesn’t feel like you’re meeting them the first time. That’s how it was when I met Karnad around 15 years ago.
The Karnad I was seeing for the first time was the palimpsest of Karnads whom I had read, seen on screen and visualised in my mind’s eye. Hence I can’t recall the first time I met him. We were not intimate friends, but we met often in functions. He came home without ado for dinners or classical concerts I hosted occasionally. He loved a good drink and enjoyed his meals. He had an arresting presence and people were easily drawn to him. Yet he was reticent, and would leave quietly if the gathering prolonged.
A man of his talents and multiple creative pursuits had to guard his privacy. Time was his jealous mistress. But he did not live in an ivory tower, like many creative writers do. He didn’t feel privileged. He spoke his mind fearlessly, without raising his voice or haranguing others, free of any self-righteous pomposity, on issues that impinged on our civil liberties and the public good.
He participated in protests to make his views known, but did not hanker after publicity, nor was he given to vulgar rhetoric. He maintained that delicate balance of being able to create, which demanded solitude, but was also immersed in contemporary issues; he was, as was said of Albert Camus, at once solitary and solidary. Not one without the other. His life affirmed that his art was meaningless and unworthy without solidarity.
Girish drew his sustenance from his rural town in Sirsi, deep in the Western Ghats where he spent his childhood, and from Dharwad, the crucible of culture, the fount of his muse was Hindustani music and Kannada literature, Hindu mythology, folklore, folk dance and drama. He was as much in love with Marathi theatre as Kannada.
He was the last of the great literary figures and writers in Kannada, along with Anantha Murthy, who were scholars in English literature, and many of whom taught English in universities but wrote in Kannada like T.N. Srikantaiah, B.M. Srikantaiah, A.N. Murthy Rao, K.V. Puttappa and Bendre. Girish was an Oxford and Rhodes scholar, but returned to write in Kannada. He was a true ‘native and to the manner born’. Like many bilingual and multilingual giants of that era, Karnad straddled the local, the regional, the national and the universal at the same time.
As Ramachandra Guha said, “There is no one alive in India who so well understood and embodied the richness and the diversity of Indian culture in his life and in his work and in his writings than Karnad.” And in Karnad’s own famous words, in his inimitable Kannada, “You must be rooted deeply in land to be able to spread your wings in the sky.”
So, it was ironic he was dubbed an ‘urban Naxal’, because none was more rooted in the soil than Girish. He was pained, and probably bemused, at the charges by shallow social media using. If anything he was urbane, whether he spoke in his chaste Dharward Kannada and quoted Bendre with ease, whom he held in high esteem, or in Konkani his mother tongue, or cited Marathi writers and playwrights, or in English and quoted lines from Shakespeare or Egene O’Neil with equal aplomb. He was gentle, cultured and suave, but never elitist in tone or condescending in manner.
On the urban Naxal tag, he said, “Polarisation efforts are part of democracy; we must face it. Because of social media’s emergence, it becomes controversial or sensational. I don’t want to control it. That’s how democracy works.” Even under attack and after receiving deaths threats, he swore by free speech. That was the true measure of the man; he had no rancour or bitterness.
Karnad embraced and celebrated life because there was no resentment. He had magnanimity and a generosity of spirit to admire what was good in people and among fellow artists. He had reverence for writers and poets who celebrated the beauty of this world and the grandeur of the human spirit. But he did not hero worship.
A couple of years ago, when he criticised Tagore’s plays, there was an uproar. It was sacrilege. Even I was upset. The media screamed, “Karnad calls Tagore a second-rate poet.” When I heard Karnad himself in an interview, he said, “I was speaking to students of Premji University on the critical evaluation of Tagore’s plays, in a particular context. I rate Tagore’s poetry very highly. His Gitanjali is an extraordinary poem. He’s a great thinker and humanist. I admire his views on nationalism. But I think his plays are second rate.”
He went on and added, “There is no need to blindly hero worship any one. An artist’s work should be critically seen.” A single line was taken out of context and he was vilified. Karnad faced both criticism and praise with poise and restrained dignity.
He did not worship any icons, nor did he vilify anyone. He was totally apolitical, but he fiercely opposed all political parties with equal force if they trampled on human dignity and the universal brotherhood which poets and writers like Bendre, Kuvempu and Shivram Karanth, the Jnanpith awardees who preceded him, celebrated in their works. He sought no honours or publicity for himself either in life or death. He died as he lived, with simplicity and grace.
“Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.”
Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.