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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Girish Karnad: The Modernist

When we think of Kannada theatre, the first name that comes to mind is likely be that of Girish Karnad. Rightly so, for his plays have been performed all over the country for decades. They have been produced in many different Indian languages, he has won literary and civilian awards of all kinds, he has been chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, he remains an active playwright, and his new works are eagerly awaited and quickly performed.

No less than eight Kannada writers have won the Jnanpith award for literature, and more than half of them, including Karnad, have been playwrights. So when we think of Karnad as the best-known face of Kannada theatre in the country and in the world, we must acknowledge that he represents a wide and deep tradition of writing for the stage in that language, a tradition which, in the 20th century, starts with Sriranga in the 1930s and 1940s and comes down to Karnad’s contemporaries such as P. Lankesh, Chandrashekar Kambar and H.S. Shivaprakash, to name but a few.

“When I was growing up, it was all about Sriranga," says Karnad, as he places himself within this lineage. “He was influenced by the social realism of Marathi theatre. You had to write an Ibsenite play, which I hated. It was so stilted, you know, student performers, two chairs, one sofa. I reacted to him. But I admired Sriranga because he pursued play-writing. Also, he didn’t just write the play, he kept theatre going by making his students perform his work."

From the precocious Yayati, which he wrote when he was in his early 20s, to his most recent play, Boiled Beans On Toast, the 77-year-old has been writing plays for just about 50 years, spanning and responding to the many (and often cataclysmic) cultural, social and economic changes that the nation has undergone since independence. Like other Kannada playwrights, in many of his plays (Yayati, Hayavadana, Nagamandala, Bali and The Fire And The Rain, for example), Karnad uses stories from myth and folklore. In Karnad’s hands, these classical tales became vehicles to explore modern, existential questions. Historical characters, too, attract Karnad—his Tughlaq, Taledanda and The Dreams Of Tipu Sultan are firmly rooted in a historical past but speak across it to contemporary situations and issues. Yet other plays (Anjumallige, A Heap Of Broken Image, Wedding Album, Boiled Beans On Toast) draw from the immediate world that surrounds Karnad, more overtly expressing his personal reactions to social and economic change.

Modernity was the exploratory mood of the 1960s and 1970s in literature and the arts in India. Traditions were being questioned, new answers to age-old problems were being sought, hierarchy and privilege were being challenged, new forms and conventions in writing and performance were being developed. Whether it was Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, or Badal Sircar in Bengali, playwrights across the country were dealing with these vexed and vexatious issues in their works. More importantly, they were in touch with each other, translating and performing each other’s work with enthusiasm and zeal.

Karnad remembers this period with enthusiastic nostalgia. “In the 1970s, it was (publisher) Ravi Dayal who realized that Indian plays were required. He asked me to translate my plays into English. He wanted to publish them so that they could be more widely read."

At the time, one of the most important theatrical conversations in the Kannada world was between Karnad and B.V. Karanth, another theatre-maker whose politics and vision were seminal in determining the shape and form of the Kannada stage. Karnad says: “Something very important happened in Bangalore in 1971. P. Lankesh organized a festival of plays, all directed by Karanth—Oedipus, Sankranti and Jokumaraswamy. It established me as an actor and Kambar as a playwright. There was so much excitement because it was the first time that we were in the presence of a truly imaginative director. Karanth was professionally trained and Sriranga, who was very active on the theatre scene, welcomed him and made him do workshops and train people. Around this time, Karanth started his own theatre group, Benaka, which developed a whole new generation of actors and performers. The 1970s were marvellous. Then, in the early 1980s, colour television arrived and theatre everywhere was affected."

Written in 1971 (and, apparently, after a conversation with Karanth), Karnad’s seminal play, Hayavadana, uses myth and history as metaphors to examine the issues of the time, as lenses through which we can look at ourselves in our world. Hayavadana is the story of a man with the head of a horse who longs to be either horse or human. This delightful and comic tale frames a darker story of a woman who tries to create the perfect man by attaching her friend’s severed head to her husband’s headless body. The play draws its content from folk tales and, in its form, it aggressively makes use of traditional Indian theatrical elements such as masks, a sutradhar (narrator) and the on-stage curtain to tell these stories of a search for completeness. But there is enough in the play to point to its nuanced subtext of a young nation battling the opposing attractions of tradition and modernity, growing inevitably towards one while rooted in the other, searching for coherence and cohesion.

As the nation and its polity continued to struggle with change, some of it violent, artistes across the country responded through their work with critiques that were based as often in hope as they were in defeat. Discussions about the use of indigenous forms in cultural expression continued and our own histories were investigated with rigour and mined for significance and illumination. For example, there is a moment in Kannada history which rests heavily on the creative imagination of its writers: the destruction of the Sharana movement and the disappearance of the poet-saint Basavanna in the 12th century. No less than three plays have been written about the legendary confrontation between the king, Bijjala, and his treasurer, Basavanna, and the massacre and rout of the Sharanas after Basavanna insists on putting his anti-caste beliefs into practice and supporting the marriage of a Brahmin girl to the son of a cobbler.

Lankesh’s Sankranti was written in 1971 and Shivaprakash’s Mahachaitra, in 1986. Karnad’s Taledanda (1990) is the most recent iteration of this seminal episode, with its far-reaching social and political consequences. Over a span of 20 years, each of these Kannada playwrights returned to a well-known and transformative moment from their collective past to think about their present in which religious and social upheaval, the abuse of power and revolutionary ideas threatened to change the very nature and composition of society.

For all that the Kannada stage has been enriched by its many playwrights, much of its energy has been sustained by theatre groups such as Samudaya, Spandana and Ninasam, and by the state repertory, Rangayana. Often trained at the National School of Drama, Kannada theatre-makers, such as B. Jayashree, Prasanna and K.V. Akshara, have found it viable to work in their own language and idiom, translating, adapting and innovating as they added momentum to what their own playwrights were giving them. “Ninasam always saw itself as a place of training," Karnad says with admiration. “They create people who know theatre, who have done or read the great plays, they know the vocabulary of theatre."

Karnad has loomed over all these additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions within Kannada theatre, exemplary in his writing and unimpeachable for the continued relevance of his work. “I deliberately sought out new forms, I studied them and thought, I must go in that direction," says Karnad. In recent years, younger directors working in languages other than Kannada, have been drawn to Hayavadana, even as the production of the play directed by Karanth for Benaka in the 1970s continues to make an appearance on stage. Nagamandala and Bali have been picked for performance by theatre groups in the US and UK; the most exciting version of Boiled Beans On Toast at the moment is in Marathi.

Among all his contemporaries, it is Karnad who is able to negotiate and express an urban modernity, even in his mythological and historical plays. Whether it’s Tughlaq or Tipu in The Dreams Of Tipu Sultan, or even Basavanna in Taledanda, the historical figure transcends his time and becomes an allegory for the present. The Jain queen’s revulsion at blood sacrifice in Bali points to what violence does to the human soul, whether you live in the 13th century or the 21st. Further, Karnad speaks to the dilemmas and torments of the cosmopolitan Indian, rather than to those of a primarily local audience, giving his plays a greater reach. But most of all, at the heart of his finely-structured plays lies wit and an essential theatricality—they are plays, first and foremost, so they have to be seen to be enjoyed. Who can resist the on-stage transformation of a cobra into a seductive nocturnal lover, the visualization of surreal dreams from the warrior king Tipu Sultan’s secret diary, the flamboyant entry of a horse-headed man singing not the first, but the second verse of the national anthem?

“The hardest thing about a play is its externality. It has to work on stage. A cast of five or eight people has to engage an audience of 500," Karnad says. “I don’t know what ‘theatricality’ is when I am writing. But I know it when I see it."

Arshia Sattar is an author, translator and co-founder of the writer’s residency Sangam House.

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