Shashi Deshpande was giving a talk in Bangalore about being an English language writer in India and Girish Karnad was in the audience. “While listening to her, I began thinking that her father was the great Kannada writer Shriranga, though Shashi herself cannot speak or write in Kannada,” Karnad recalls over the phone from Bangalore. “Her (Deshpande’s) sister, however, can, and she is the one who translated her father’s work in English.”
Attending that talk provided the spark that made Karnad write Odakalu Bimba, a Kannada play about a Kannada writer whose debut novel in English is a big international success. After its Kannada and Hindi versions (Bikhre Bimb) had successful runs, Karnad decided to translate the play in English, calling it Broken Images. Directed by theatre veteran Alyque Padamsee, the single-character play features Shabana Azmi as the Hindi-language writer Manjula Sharma, whose sudden success prompts her to introspect about her language and identity.
Reflections: (top) Karnad; and Azmi in Broken Images.
“Writing plays is like having children,” Karnad says. “You can’t predict what will become of them. They develop their own fate lines.” It is a familiar enough observation, backed in this instance by over 40 years of playwriting experience. Karnad cites the example of his play Naga-Mandala, which he wrote for a college production. Based on a folk tale about a woman who “marries” a snake, it has, much to his surprise, become his most performed play.
Karnad observes that there can be any number of reasons, some of them quite mundane, why a production house chooses to stage a particular play. “Bali (which was staged couple of months ago in Mumbai) has only three characters and Broken Images, one,” he says. “The world over, the trend is towards (a) smaller cast and tighter productions.” He feels that Tughlaq, which is among his most celebrated plays, would be difficult to stage today because of its big cast and high costs.
Padamsee recalls how he prompted Karnad to translate Tughlaq into English from Kannada in 1970 and then directed its phenomenally successful stage run. He is similarly enthused by Broken Images. “When I saw the play in Hindi, I asked him for the English version,” says Padamsee, emphasizing that its dialogues are in Indian English.
The play’s trajectory from Kannada to Hindi and then to English is one that Karnad is only too familiar with. “I like to translate my plays into English because it also facilitates their translation into other Indian languages,” he says, pointing out that an Assamese translator is likely to refer to the English version of a play, not its Kannada or Hindi version. At the same time, he admits that a Hindi translation can be closer in spirit to the Kannada original. “For a word like aarti, there is no English translation,” he explains. “I like to sit with people who translate the play into Hindi. People tell me your plays are performed in so many languages, but they forget the pains I have taken to make the translation happen.”
Fellow playwright Mahesh Dattani sees Karnad, along with Vijay Tendulkar, Chandrasekhar Kambar and Badal Sircar, as among those post-independence playwrights who took Indian theatre back to its roots. According to Dattani, both the form and content of their plays was inspired by folk as well as classical Indian theatre traditions. Karnad’s plays, he feels, lend myths and history a contemporary relevance. “One of my favourite plays is Naga-Mandala,” says Dattani. “In (Karnad’s) hands, it is not just a charming folk tale. It becomes a statement on the condition of women in our society.”
“I write about what excites me,” Karnad says about drawing on mythology and history for his plays. “I want to share that excitement with the audience.” He sees India as a land of a “thousand myths” that are being written and rewritten constantly. This excitement, and the desire to share it with the audience, continues to drive Karnad all these years after he wrote his first play as a 22-year-old. Calling him “the finest writer of drama in India”, Padamsee says, “His narrative structure, which is often lacking in Indian playwrights, is the best; as is his dialogue.” He describes working on Broken Images as a “frightening yet exhilarating experience” because, like the play’s protagonist, both he and Azmi are celebrities in real life. “We saw more of ourselves than we had bargained for,” Padamsee admits.
“Playwriting is a difficult craft; it takes a lifetime to learn,” says Karnad. And then, to emphasize the challenges it poses, he resorts to an unlikely illustration. “It is the only narrative form where the muscles of the bottom play a role. People won’t sit after 2 hours— they will get tired and leave. This demand is on no other form.”
Broken Images will be performed at the India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi, on 1 May and at The Epicentre, Apparel House, Gurgaon, on 2 May.