In Samskara, he impressed us as a devout Brahmin whose only motive is to attain moksha or liberation. His efforts to mobilise an entire village to get justice for his wife in Nishant inspired us as well. And we quaked with fear along with nine-year-old Swami whenever we saw his strict father in Malgudi Days.
Whether it was theatre, Bollywood or Chandanavana, Girish Karnad played each and every role with equal aplomb and finesse. Sadly, June 10, 2019, heralded the end of an era after 81-year-old Karnad passed away in Bengaluru. In his diverse career spanning five decades, he won acclaim as a playwright, scholar, theatre personality, actor and director. Here’s a look at Karnad’s unforgettable contribution to the world of literature, theatre, cinema and television.
Girish Raghunath Karnad was born in Maharashtra in 1938 and his family later moved to Sirsi in Karnataka. This is where he was exposed to travelling theatre groups or Natak Mandalis. After graduating from Karnatak Arts College, he won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and went to study at Oxford University. He was president of the Oxford Students’ Union and reportedly also the first person of Indian origin to head the Oxford Debate Club. Karnad returned to India after receiving his MA and took up a job. However, he soon quit that to enter theatre full time.
Among the many roles that he played with flair, Karnad shone the most as a playwright. His plays were a blend of myth and history but they beautifully depicted contemporary reality. He preferred writing plays in Kannada, but his work has been translated into English and other Indian languages.
Karnad was known for his unorthodox approach to theatre and literature and earned a reputation for breaking boundaries. His first play — Yayati — was written in 1961 when he was a 23-year-old student at Oxford. It ridiculed the ironies of life through characters in Mahabharata. The play was an instant hit and catapulted Karnad into the league of theatre bigwigs. Yayati was later translated and staged in several other Indian languages.
Karnad went on to establish himself as a leading playwright with other equally solid works. In 1964 came Tughlaq, which is considered Karnad’s most famous stage work. This featured Muhammad bin Tughluq, the idealistic but impatient Sultan of Delhi who is disillusioned after the failure of his visionary ideas. Karnad’s other famous plays include Hayavadana, Angumalige, Hittina Hunja, Naga-Mandala, Tale-Danda and Agni Mattu Male.
His contribution to Kannada playwriting equals that of Vijay Tendulkar’s in Marathi and Mohan Rakesh’s in Hindi. In 1998, he received the Jnanpith Award (the highest literary recognition in India) for his stellar work.
Karnad also entered the world of TV and cinema in the 70s. Literature continued to be the foundation of his work here as well. He made his debut as an actor and screenplay writer with Samskara, for which he adapted UR Ananthmurthy's seminal Kannada novel. The film went on to win the President’s Gold Medal in 1971. He made invaluable contributions to the Kannada film industry as a director with Vamsha Vriksha, Tabbaliyu Neenade
Magane and Ondanondu Kaladall. And he also directed films in Hindi like Godhuli and Utsav.
With Shyam Benegal’s Manthan and Nishant, he ventured into the world of parallel cinema. Karnad also explored the medium of television. One of his best remembered roles was of Swami’s father in the much-loved and iconic Malgudi Days.
Karnad has also been a part of several commercial Hindi and Kannada movies. The most recent one was the 2017 release Tiger Zinda Hai where he played the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief.
Diversity is an apt word to describe Karnad’s 50-year-long career. His extensive list of honors includes an impressive 10 National Film Awards, the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan by the Government of India, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Sahitya Akademi Award.