The first time I came across Girish Karnad was in Shankar Nag’s ‘Malgudi Days’, when I was a kid. Karnad played the father of Swami, and for me it was a pleasure to know he had reached people across the nation through the series.
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I was later introduced to his writings when I got the opportunity to act in Tughlak, a play written by him. It took me a few shows to understand the brilliance of the dialogues and the play overall. I soon became a fan. Karnad had written Tughlak around 50 years ago, but we would pick lines from it while discussing current politics. That’s how relevant his works are.
When I developed an interest in Hindi parallel cinema, I watched Karnad’s films too. His performances in Nishant (1975) as a helpless husband who later organises villagers to combat upper caste goons who raped women, and in Manthan (1976) as the disciplined government officer who runs a milk cooperative movement, were so neat that I became a fan all over again.
Karnad’s plays such as Yayati, Tughlak, Hayavadana, Agni Mattu Male and Tale Danda are extremely popular, and loved by audience across the country. There are houseful shows for Hayavadana and Tughlak even today. Tughlak has been translated to various languages and has reached a much wider audience.
Karnad was always outspoken and firm about his thoughts and ideology. His contributions as an activist cannot be ignored. At a condolence meet in Bengaluru on Monday, senior theatre practitioner and activist Gundanna C K recollected how Karnad had supported artists of the cultural organisation Bengaluru Samudaya when they were attacked for staging a street play ‘Kesari Bili Mattu Hasiru’. Karnad went to the spot the next day to condemn the act, and made sure the team could perform without fear, Gundappa said.
At the meet, another senior Kannada theatre practitioner Dr Shripad Bhat said that Karnad was jealous on reading Dr U R Ananthamurthy’s Samskara, but that he later recreated Samskara as a film and proudly called it his asset too.
The only time I saw Dr Karnad in person was at the gathering to commemorate Gauri Lankesh after her assassination in 2017. Oxygen pipe was stuck to his nostrils, he looked weak, and yet he was determined to speak his mind.
Karnad had won the Jnanapith, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, and several national awards, but he was more than all these. His intellect and wisdom was beyond any award. He wrote plays in his early 20s that went on to be among the best classics across the globe, which inspires young playwrights and theatre practitioners.
“Namaskara, welcome to Ranga Shankara” – this voice note of Karnad is always played at the start of every show in Ranga Shankara. Now, heart feels heavy every time we hear that voice note.
Bengaluru Samudaya is just a few shows away from performing Tughlak for the 81st time. Since Dr Karnad was 81 too, some of us in Samudaya were planning to organise a grand festival in his presence on Tughlak’s 81st show. But unfortunately that’s not possible anymore, and this thought has been haunting us. Nevertheless, we shall keep him alive through his works.
He will always remain relevant through his works, and celebrating his works will be the respect and gratitude that we can show to this genius. Dear Dr Karnad, you have inspired young theatre practitioners like me, and I am sure you will inspire the generations to come as well. Rest in peace. You will be missed but will never be forgotten. Thank you for everything.