Home/ News / India/  The untold story of Girish Karnad

Bengaluru: Girish Karnad did not create a spectacle out of his death. He had scripted it that way. There were no politicians with wreaths, no state funeral, no public in winding queues, no television crews with breathless, uninformed commentary, and there were no priests, no chants, no rituals. He had commanded privacy and dignity to his last act. This was in complete contrast to staged, tinselly performances in some recent high-profile exits in Bengaluru, including that of his fellow writer U.R. Ananthamurthy.

This was not totally unexpected. It was in keeping with Karnad’s unsentimental public persona, and a certain rational, pragmatic pursuance of life, all through its eight decades. But, sometimes people wear masks in public and while living, which death mercilessly strips. Not so with Karnad. The integrity of his living approach was endorsed by his final journey.

The ideal of the end matched with the details of Karnad’s own father’s cremation, about which he wrote in the autobiography he published in Kannada, in 2011, titled Aaadaadtha Aayusha (roughly translated A Life Spent Playfully): “Bappa [as he called him] was an atheist. He used to say ‘I’ll not come back as a crow to eat your sacred offerings’ [with reference to a commonly held belief that elders will return as crows after death to inspect and bless offerings made by the family]. He had complete disregard for Brahmins who performed vedic ceremonies. ‘When I die, don’t allow those thieves to step into my house,’ he would say. As per his instructions his body was cremated without any rituals. Balachandra [elder brother] just lit the pyre."

Half an autobiography

There is a lot of anecdotage, derived didactic messaging that we read being written in obituaries for Karnad. But they are all mostly from a time that he stepped into the public eye. After he became a playwright, actor, administrator, and public intellectual. There are, and were, multiple witnesses to tell tales from that life. There is also the halo of a colossus that colours such retrospective visitations. But there is another life before the spotlight came that lies unexposed to a larger audience. This can be found in an autobiography of over 300 pages he wrote in Kannada, from where the passage above was picked.

This autobiography that has remained untranslated is an incomplete one, in the sense that it covers the first half of Karnad’s life. He says it is like Ardhakathanaka, written by a Jain trader called Banarasidas of Agra in the 17th century. This precocious trader had stopped his life story, arguably first of its kind in Indian literary history, at fifty, assuming that the full lifespan is one hundred years. “I am now 73 [in 2011]. The last event in this autobiography is when I walked out of the Film and Television Institute of India. I was 37 then," Karnad writes.

To the many questions and curiosity that we may have about Karnad’s life, it would be enormously interesting, and a deeply enriching exercise, to illustrate and annotate answers from these pages. Like for instance we found a reference to the absence of ceremony at his cremation in that of his own father. One need not simplistically conclude that his inspiration came exactly from there, but that was part of Karnad’s upbringing, exposure, learning, reason and logic.

Likewise, we may want to seek references to how Karnad’s influences lined up, how did they walk in, as if on cue, and perform the crucial role that they were designed to? Here, it may astonish a pan-Indian reader that he literally attributes all his preparation for life, and the sterling success that it became, not to Oxford, not to Mumbai, but to two small yet culturally defined towns in Mumbai presidency (part of Karnataka after 1956): Sirsi and Dharwad, where he was raised (he was born in Matheran, in today’s Maharastra).

Shadow lines in Sirsi

Karnad’s father worked and retired as a doctor (specialized in post-mortems) in these two towns. His mother was a trained nurse and a young widow with a child. She became his father’s second wife, after ‘sensationally’ living with him for five years. The uncertainty, the anguish, the suppressed shame and pain of those years, she revealed in 30 pages she scribbled in the dog-eared pages of her husband’s diary, at the near-end of her life.

This forms the dramatic beginning of Karnad’s autobiography. “My first encounters with pain, tragedy, and hilarity of life happened in the [Sirsi] hospital compound where we lived. A lot of things would happen there unexpectedly and theatrically, but continuously. There was nobody to stop me, my sister Leena and children of our age in the compound, from being premature bystanders to all this. However, we stayed away from the corner post-mortem room. Besides the scary whisper about bodies lying there, as a result of either a suicide, or an accident, or a murder reaching our little ears, the mental image of our father inside, tearing open the bodies and examining them, prevented us from peeping in."

Since the shadow of death stalked his childhood, Karnad writes, dead bodies ceased to evoke an emotion in him. But, he adds, he wouldn’t commit a similar statement on ghosts. It is these ghosts, gliding in his imagination, that perhaps entered his historical and mythological plays, which invariably have a combination of existential and psychological thesis as an underpinning. This is true of his very first play Yayati, of the madness in Tuglaq that followed, of the transposition in Hayavadana or the splintered personality in Nagamandala.

The liberal foundation

Karnad’s strident public positions on liberal traditions, communal harmony and cultural diversity that we became familiar with later perhaps had its formative embedding in his consciousness, so to say, in Sirsi. There was a church in the vicinity of his house, where the service happened in Konkani, Karnad’s mother tongue. It was a non-event for him, his siblings and other Hindu children to visit the church every Sunday and participate in the happenings, and listen to stories from the Bible. Karnad’s family was from a high caste Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community, the same as Nandan Nilekani, Deepika Padukone, Prakash Padukone, Shyam Benegal, or to pick from a slightly distant past, Guru Dutt.

Recounting an incident from a Good Friday event, he writes: “One particular year that day, I saw children in our neighbourhood catching hold of a chameleon, making a cross from twigs and crucifying the helpless creature. When it kept putting its tongue out, vigorously shaking its head, they showered it with flowers and prayed. A boy in that gang gave a commentary as the ritual took place: when Christ was crucified, a chameleon had mocked at him, and therefore it was now time for it to repent."

There is yet another incident from that time. When the chief pontiff of the Chitrapur Saraswats visited Karnad’s house in Sirsi, there was no raised chair befitting his status. The family borrows a chair from the nearby church, which was reserved for the Bishop. “The church had no problem that the chair was being borrowed to seat a Hindu religious head," says Karnad.

This innocence and accommodation have largely gone missing in India’s small and big towns today. There is also something else that is missing in towns like Sirsi. According to Karnad, it is the romance that darkness brought in the absence of electricity lines. Plus, the plethora of stories that were tucked in every crevice, corner, lane and bylane, in a world shorn of manufactured entertainment. The mind had the freedom to work its own independent cosmos. “In the hospital-house and later the Rayarapet house that we stayed in Sirsi for a total ten years, electricity had not made an entry. We lived experiencing darkness, in fact it would be more appropriate to say we grew up relishing it. In that darkness light came in hundred different ways to provoke our senses," he writes.

Growing up in Dharwad

The next town, Dharwad for Karnad is about the specifics of knowledge and academic strides. It is here that his intellectual trajectory takes shape. It is here that he gets passionate about literature and philosophy, but his pragmatism draws him closer to mathematics. He aspires to be a poet but ends up being a playwright. It is in Dharwad that he develops ambition to escape the limitations of a small town, but comes back with renewed love from England and buys two bungalows to celebrate his roots. He fights to protect the serenity and picturesqueness of the bungalows when the real estate boom begins.

It is a small publisher, Manohara Grantamala, housed in a small attic in Dharwad, that mentored his extraordinary talent, and published all his works from beginning to end, including the Kannada autobiography. Despite his global success, his loyalty to the Joshi family that runs it never wavered. Incidentally, they are close relatives of Hindustani music legend Bhimsen Joshi.

About his student years in Dharwad, Karnad says: “As a student of mathematics, initially, I was not very loyal to the subject. It was to score high marks that I took it up. But when I got immersed in it as months passed, I began to understand its rhythm, its pitch, its progression, and crescendo. Its beauty danced in front of my eyes. A character in Aldous Huxley’s novel weeps at the beauty of the Binomial Theorem. There is nothing surprising about this reaction when numbers unravel their mystical attributes wave by wave, branch by branch. I realized the impact that mathematics had on me when I started writing Tuglaq in Oxford. I solved the structural issues like I would while working on theorems. I first figured out what internal network and relationship different aspects and characters of the play had, what its balance at various points were, and what happens to that balance if the play progresses in a certain direction, just like it happens in a theorem. The technical training, I needed to write plays came from mathematics."

In Dharwad, he came under the wings of a formidable teacher called K J Shah, who had studied philosophy of mathematics, mind, and language, under the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Cambridge. It is Shah who first encourages Karnad to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. But Karnad is not given to blind worship of any guru. When in later years Shah became an apologist for anti-Muslim politics, supported the Emergency and supported Hindutva politics of Ram Janambhoomi, he feels exasperated by his compromise.

In conclusion

Finally, returning to the beginning of Karnad’s creative odyssey, it is but natural to ask why he gave up the relatively easy avenues of living abroad and writing in English after such a stupendous academic climb? While in Oxford, his play Yayati was published in Kannada, and it had become a runaway success.

In a rare sentimental expression, Karnad writes: “At that point, after having experienced alienation of various sorts in English society, the innocence about talent getting a huge reception, and success being assured in England, had somewhat dissolved in my head. I asked myself if I would ever get the near maternal affection with which the Kannada intellectual world had celebrated my first play? I concluded that my decision to settle down abroad was not only vacuous, but also self-defeating… So, I landed up in India where a cultural resurgence had begun. Although the country’s economy was struggling, a grand new spirit was being forged in the world of films, literature and theatre. It was opening up doors to a new era and it beckoned me. It is into this infinite opportunity that I had walked in."

He of course became one of the fulcrums of that resurgent spirit in a very short time.

Sugata Srinivasaraju is a journalist and author. The translation of Kannada passages into English in the essay is by the author

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Updated: 13 Jun 2019, 08:50 PM IST
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