I remember Girish Karnad as a colossus of the theatre and film worlds, a doyen of parallel cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s and a true intellectual.
Doordarshan would, in those days, broadcast ‘art movies’ on Sunday afternoons. They were mostly black and white. Or was it our TV that was black and white… I’m not too sure. But that’s how I got hooked into watching some of the best movies of our times.
My father said I should watch Kannada movies like Samskara and Vamsha Vriksha. Mum and he had read the books on which these movies were based, and often discussed them. I looked out for the movies to be re-released or broadcast and watched them. Vamsha Vriksha, which Girish Karnad co-directed and acted in, really impressed me.
At 16 or 17, I was asked if I wanted to be part of an experimental play. Of course, I said yes. It is that age at which you want to savour every new experience, right?!
Today I can’t even remember the name of the play but what I do remember is that a newcomer had written it and was the main actor. Directing it, was none other than Girish Karnad. Karnad was probably the writer’s mentor as the play was based on the Ramayana but had a different take on it. Very Karnad-esque!
I remember the vibrancy and energy during rehearsals, the exchange of ideas, and experimenting with different ways of doing things on stage. And Karnad’s impressive personality.
Since I had a miniscule part, I had plenty of time to sit around at rehearsals and observe Karnad giving direction and suggestions. He had supreme confidence and very definite ideas, but would still listen to others. In fact, his theatre friends would come to rehearsals and they would freely offer their suggestions. It was wonderful to see and hear the opinions of people like Girish Kasaravalli and B Jayashree, even B.V. Karanth came once.
These were huge names in the Kannada theatre world and little me just sat there agog watching them at work, critiquing everything from stage décor to lighting to the direction. I, who had no connection to theatre until then, was suddenly revolving in the same firmament that they were in!
Around the same time, Dad took me to watch Hayavadana, one of Karnad’s plays. Again I don’t remember much of the play and I don’t think I understood much of it, but just the glamour of having gone to a Karnad play was enough to keep me on a cloud for days!!
Writer Vir Sanghvi said in his Twitter tribute, “Can you think of anyone else who could become President of the Oxford Union, could then come back & write brilliant plays in Kannada, could direct art films and also act in Salman Khan movies?”
Can you?!! Karnad went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He studied mathematics and economics, but chose arts and literature as his career. He wrote in Kannada, which he called his “acquired mother tongue”. Still at Oxford, he wrote the play Yayati (in 1961) at the age of 23. It was being staged in Bangalore in 2012-13, and probably still is. Karnad himself translated it into English in 2007, I believe.
His plays are mostly based on mythology or history but he would relate it to contemporary issues and ideas. However, Odakalu Bimba, it is said, was about the choice of language for writers and how it affected their world view. This was also the first play in which Karnad did not draw from mythology or history.
Karnad straddled many spheres: he was a film maker, director, actor, activist, administrator and many other things. But I will always remember him as a playwright and director.
And the image that will stay with me forever is the image of him – with oxygen tubes attached – protesting on the streets of Bangalore when journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed.
Not only was he an intellectual, he was a daring intellectual.
As a BBC journalist said, and I quote, the curtain has come down, but the rehearsals will go on. Karnad’s words and images will stay.