Girish Karnad, who passed away at the age of 81, after a prolonged illness was a man for all seasons – an acclaimed playwright, an actor, a phenomenal writer, a socialite, a fearless social and political activist. He stood for the values that made India a progressive and liberal nation. He fought against those oppressing the innocent and advocated the freedom of expression despite numerous death threats and failing health.
To bid adieu to the legend and pay homage to his contributions, a memorial was organised collectively by Indian Writers Forum, Raza Foundation, and Jan Natya Manch. Held at India International Centre, the event ‘A Life of Cultural Resistance: Paying Tribute to Girish Karnad’ saw known figures from across the fields including art, theatre, literature and more in attendance. People who had worked with Karnad in the past, knew him personally, admirers of his work and those who look up to him as an idol flocked the auditorium.
Ashok Vajpayee, Gita Hariharan, TM Krishna, MK Raina, Anuradha Kapur, and K Satchinandan were among the dignitaries present at the venue, who delivered their eulogies and recalled how Karnad was a man of clear conscience and courage. All acknowledged Karnad for speaking against the evils of society and challenging the irrational norms that should be eliminated.
Moderator of the discussion Gita Hariharan, highlighted how Karnad was a master of languages. “Though he was fluent in English, the playwright didn’t shy away from choosing the language of his preference – Kannada, in writing his plays. Besides, he proved his excellence in other languages like Hindi, and Malayalam. Girish is an example of how a multilingual environment can be turned into an advantage, rather than a barrier,” she said at the event.
Gita also mentioned another essential aspect to Karnad. “Myth, tale, and history always had been his area of interest. Though important to his work, he did not freeze in the past. Rather his use of myth and tale was open-ended. While the past fed his creative energy, it was actually the present he was engaged with – be it his plays, ideas, speaking up for freedom of speech or against crushing of dissent.”
As part of the event, selected clips of his plays, films, interviews and a lot more compiled in a video was shown to the audience. One of the main highlights of the event was Jan Natya Manch’s performance. The group presented excerpts from plays like Tughlaq, Talenanda, Nagamandala, written by Karnad himself.
Next on the dais was acclaimed Hindi poet, essayist, and a literary-cultural critic Ashok Vajpayee, who elaborately talked about how Karnad along with Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, and Badal Sarkar contributed to the establishment of a parallel theatre that ‘entertained less and disturbed the audience more’. “Karnad was one of the few people who maintained a balance between modernity and traditions. He staged plays which had traditional dialogues with a modern tone,” Vajpayee added.
Ashok also recalled how the late poet would raise his voice against the wrong, without thinking about the consequences. “In the ’70s and ’80s, Karnad made all the efforts to establish a new cinema movement. He wasn’t scared of calling classical dance as ‘overly Brahminised’.” Ashok ended by saying that the only way to remember Karnad is to remain dynamic, active, courageous and vocal.
Taking a trip down memory lane, MK Raina, one of the best-known theatre actors and directors, recalled the days when a national grid was formed in the ’60s. “Led by Karnad, Tendulkar, Sarkar, and Rakesh, the grid would work in the translation of various regional plays to Hindi and then perform it across the nation.” It was during the same time that Raina shifted to Delhi as a student.
“The grid started to raise questions, thereby breaking the norms of cinema and experimenting more with subjects. However, on the other hand, one question that kept on rising was: ‘What is Indian theatre?’ All we had been doing until then was to make adaptations of Western plays, and there was a strong need to work on originality and create our own grammar,” Raina added.
It was then that Karnad came up with a response in the form of ‘Hayavadana’, followed by other plays. He chose to create a new definition of theatre and was successful in bringing a major change in the Indian theatre scene.
In his eulogy, TM Krishna praised Karnad using the Tamil word ‘Thedal’ meaning to search/ seek. “Karnad was a seeker of truth and honesty. It was this urge that made him a man of such high principles. The curiosity to learn more further drove him to write. All I can say is, it would be unfair to put him under a specific professional category because he was a perfect example of interdisciplinary talent.”
The event wrapped up with K Satchinandan reciting his poem Beware, followed by T M Krishna’s performance where he sang Vachana of Basavanna in Kannada. A fitting tribute to one of India’s best-loved greats, who passed away on June 10 this year.