Home / Lounge / Features /  Vivek Shanbhag: ‘We are weaker today because Girish Karnad is no more’

The last time I spoke to Girish Karnad was at 9 pm on Sunday, the day before his death. I was watching a film that a friend of mine had directed, and had put my phone on silent. When I came out, I saw that he had called, and wondered if I should call him then or wait till the next day. And then I thought, “Let me talk to him."

If I hadn’t, I would have felt guilty for the rest of my life. The next morning, he was gone.

In fact, just a couple of days earlier, on Friday, we recorded a conversation between us, part of a series of interviews with Girish that Arshia (Sattar) had been recording. We spoke at length about his life and work. Later, when it was just me and him on the balcony, I was urging him to start writing something new, and I told him about Edward Said’s book, On Late Style, in which Said talks about the work of writers and artists who are approaching their final years. At some point during this conversation, Girish said to me in Konkani—it’s our mother tongue, and whenever we were together, and it was just the two of us, we always spoke in Konkani—“Magele jhalle(I’m done)."

During the conversation that Arshia was recording, we spoke about his non-fiction writing. He had published two collections of essays in Kannada (they are not available in English) that are very important. We spoke for over 2 hours, and he was a bit tired, but as sharp as ever some of the essays are over 40 years old. The two essays we focused on were commentaries on two Kannada plays—one was Harijanvara, a social play by Sriranga, writer Shashi Deshpande’s father and a very prominent playwright in Kannada when Girish started writing, and the other was Kakana Kote by Masti (Kannada writer and Jnanpith awardee Masti Venkatesha Iyengar).

Vivek Shanbhag.
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Vivek Shanbhag.

I thought his reflections on the work of these two playwrights were very important. You see, when one playwright writes about another, it is a way to understand what his own quest is—what are his expectations from a play and from the theatrical experience. It is a way to communicate to others what your own work is all about.

Reading these essays is vital to understanding Girish’s own work. Stagecraft and structure were very important to him. He has written, acted in, directed, and been involved with every aspect of theatre, so he knew what it means to stage a play and perform it, and his writing reflects this—he could see and feel the pulse of the words that he used. His plays have intricate structures, yet they are spare and tight. Nothing is wasted.

This was reflected in his personality as well—he would do whatever was necessary and just enough, not more. He wouldn’t spend his energy on anything frivolous or not thought through, which is why sometimes people thought he was rude. It’s just that if you couldn’t engage him intellectually, you couldn’t talk to him. You couldn’t just call him and have a casual conversation. He didn’t do casual conversation. He was a wonderful host and a very warm person to his friends, but if you wanted to, say, get a quote from him, he could be abrupt. He had to protect his privacy.

Even after his plays had been performed a hundred times, he would make small changes in new editions. His attention to detail was unparalleled, whether it was a film or an interview, which is why he would get annoyed if anyone asked him to do something in an unplanned and casual manner. He would go to an event and people, seeing him, would ask him to “say a few words". He hated it. He would just say no. He would say, “Unless I am scheduled to speak and I can come prepared to talk, I won’t do it."

Karnad in the role of a Kuchipudi dancer in the film ‘Ananda Bhairavi’, for which he learnt the dance form at the age of 55.
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Karnad in the role of a Kuchipudi dancer in the film ‘Ananda Bhairavi’, for which he learnt the dance form at the age of 55.

This attention to detail comes through in everything. He had a great understanding of art—not many people know that he used to write art reviews in his younger days, when he was in Chennai. Recently, he showed me the cover of the English translation of his most recent play Rakshasa Tangadi, which was the same as the Kannada one, and he explained why he had retained it, speaking at length about the cover art.

I feel his loss as a personal one, as well as a great loss to culture. He was one of the last of a generation who brought in a new sensibility to Kannada literature. Of course, he was beyond Kannada—his theatre was universal. And he was actually active and writing till the end.

He published his play Rakshasa Tangadi only last year. I see many parallels between Tughlaq (1964) and this play. (Note: Rakshasa Tangadi, translated into English as Crossing Over To Talikote, is a historical drama about the battle of Talikota between the Vijayanagara empire and the Deccan sultanate). I observed to him that in Tughlaq, most of the action takes place outdoors—there is great drama and action—while Rakshasa Tangadi takes place almost exclusively indoors. I feel it is important to see this shift, and the shifts in contemporary politics that gave rise to both the works. Tughlaq is just as relevant today as it was during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, as it will be relevant to every authoritarian regime. But authoritarianism itself has shifted in its nature, and Girish recognized this. And it’s not just authoritarianism, which is a limited word—till the end, he was fascinated by the way people dealt with power and negotiated power.

Karnad at a protest against cow vigilantes outside Bengaluru’s Town Hall in 2018.
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Karnad at a protest against cow vigilantes outside Bengaluru’s Town Hall in 2018. (Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times)

We will miss so many things about him. First of all, we will miss his work—how many writers can write a new play at the age of 80? We will miss the way he constantly responded to everything around him—you can see that in his political stands, his public protests. But it is not just the fact that he sat in front of Town Hall and protested—it also reflected in his creative work. He did not just lend his name to an idea or a cause—he thought it through. We are certainly much weaker today because Girish is no more.

Although he played so many roles and was involved in so many things—in public life, in films—his connection with his creative writing had a kind of sanctity that he maintained and protected fiercely. His relationship with writing and language was intense. He was working on his plays continuously, for decades sometimes—imagine someone who stays with a theme for the right amount of time for it to be perfect. As a writer, I respect him for that kind of craftsmanship, patience and perseverance, because without that you cannot produce great art.

—As told to Shrabonti Bagchi

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