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Published On: Mon, Jun 10th, 2019

Girish Karnad: The Man Who Always Fought for Freedom of Expression

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Girish-Karnad-21BANGALORE/ NEW DELHI : : Girish Karnad once revealed, “When my mother was expecting me, she decided she did not want to have any more children…So, she persuaded my father to take her to a doctor for an abortion. But, I will forever be grateful to that doctor, because that day she did not come to her clinic. My mother waited half a day, got bored and returned.”
Eventually, his mother gave up on the idea of abortion, and Karnad was born. When Karnad’s mother told him this story for the first time his reaction was that of utter shock. “It was so shocking for me to think that there will be this world without me in it,” he said. Unfortunately, today such a day has come, that Karnad is no more in this world. However, the actor has left behind an oeuvre of work that will be valued for years to come, as modern literary treasures.

Some will remember him for his roles in popular commercial films, others would remember his thought-provoking plays. Some would applaud him for standing up for the values that made India a progressive, liberal nation, such as protesting and mourning the slain journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh, but some others would resent him for wanting Bengaluru’s airport to be named after Tipu Sultan.
What set Karnad apart was not only his literary talents (which he had in abundance) but also, the social consciousness that reflected in each of his works, along with his love for Indian languages such as Marathi and Kannada, and the messy ‘absurdities of life’, which he beautifully portrayed in his plays.
A pillar of Indian theatre, Karnad also translated what is perhaps the finest existential play of modern India, Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajit, which brought to the fore the pessimism and nihilism that shrouded India within a decade of independence. Karnad was a worthy recipient of the Jnanpith Award in 1998.

The characters Karnad played were progressive, not radical; some of those characters were morally flawed and compromised. Life was not about absolutes; Karnad understood that as human condition. But his commitment to integrity was absolute. He was consistent in his support of justice, equality, civil liberties, and inclusive governance.
Even as he was ailing, he came to public demonstrations to protest the spate of deaths due to lynching in recent years. And in outlining his life in theatre at the Tata Literary Festival in 2012, he cast aside protocol and criticised V.S. Naipaul, who was being given a lifetime honour at the festival, because in Karnad’s view, the elegance of Naipaul’s prose could not mask his misanthropy and racism.

There could be no compromise over values. And to understand those values, he rediscovered the wisdom from India’s ancient stories to bring clarity to our ambiguous present. And thus Karnad told us the meaning of what it means to be human.

Many years ago, when he was a young Rhodes scholar, he had harboured the secret dream of being a great English poet — like TS Eliot, and WH Auden. But when he sat down to write, what poured out of him was a Kannada play — not an English poem — shaped from Indian myths and lores, called Yayati. After that, Karnad returned to India from Oxford and began his career as a playwright and eventually went on to act and direct movies.

Karnad’s plays are often wonderfully woven and aim at either bringing social reform or pointed out the hypocrisy of our society — be it caste, or gender-based discrimination, or religious intolerance. In Yayati, for example, it was Puru’s wife, who is victimised, and yet, like in reality, little thought was spared for her because she was a woman. Likewise, in Hayavadana, the status of a woman in her family as well as in the society was explored. In Tale-Danda, Karnad tried to depict the need for an equal society, be it in terms of class or caste.
Karnad also went on to play many memorable film characters onscreen. He was the affectionate but slightly strict father of Swami in iconic TV series Malgudi Days, Verghese Kurien in Manthan, and the fierce cricket coach in Iqbal. But, in real life, Karnad played a far more difficult role of being that man who always stood up when freedom of expression was under threat, or when secular voices were being drowned.
Needless to say that it didn’t make him very popular among Hindutva fundamentalists, and the actor, who had otherwise had a blemish-less career, found himself among many controversies and even death threats. But, Karnad never shied away from taking a stance.
Last year, during the police investigation of journalist Gauri Lankesh’s death, it was reportedly revealed that Karnad was also on the hit list. The report, which was published last year in NDTV stated that Girish Karnad’s security was “beefed up following the killing of Ms Lankesh.” However, that did not scare Karnad. In fact, on the first death anniversary of Lankesh, Karnad sat in the audience, with a placard that read, “Me Too Urban Naxal.” Although the actor was in poor health and had a tube wrapped around his nose, he made an appearance in the event to speak his mind.

Several years ago, during a literary festival in Mumbai, in which British Writer VS Naipaul was being given a lifetime achievement award, and Karnad only had a masterclass in theater to teach, the actor took on the stage, and instead of talking about theatre called out Naipaul for his ‘anti-muslim’ views.
It didn’t go down well with most, as Naipaul was, and still remains, a celebrated writer in his own right, but Karnad did not kowtow to pressures and criticised Naipaul vehemently for his misrepresentation of Indian history.(With Agency Inputs ).

 

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