India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Vol. 16 :: No. 03 :: Jan. 30 - Feb. 12, 1999


The multi-faceted playwright

Girish Karnad gets the Jnanpith, the country's highest literary recognition, for his contributions to modern Indian drama.

in Bangalore

IT seemed entirely fitting that Girish Karnad, this year's winner of the Jnanpith Award, should receive news of the award while shooting at Shimoga a teleserial based on the novel Kanuru Subbamma Heggadathi, written by Kuvempu (K.V. Puttappa), the first Jnanpith awardee from Karnataka. Karnad is the seventh Kannadiga and the second playwright to win the award, which is given each year for the best creative writing by an Indian citizen. The award carries a citation, a bronze image of Vagdevi, and a cash award of Rs.5 lakhs.

One of India's foremost modern playwrights, Girish Karnad gets the country's highest literary recognition for his contributions to modern Indian drama. Karnad's plays - all in Kannada - have received countrywide critical acclaim thanks to the translations he has made of his major plays into English. The comfortable adaptation of his plays into a Western language medium is a reflection at one level of his command of the two languages. More than that, however, it is Karnad's ability to universalise the individual and social predicament through the medium of drama that has given his works wide appeal and easy entry into other languages. His works have been translated into several Indian languages and staged by eminent directors such as E. Alkazi, Satyadev Dubey, B.V. Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Vijaya Mehta, Shyamanand Jalan and Amal Allana. They have also been translated and performed for audiences abroad. Karnad is in fact one of the most done Indian playwrights abroad. Girish Karnad has also made a substantial contribution to Indian cinema, having scripted for and directed a number of films in Hindi and Kannada, besides acting in many films.

Karnad was born in 1938 in Maharashtra. His initial schooling was in Marathi. He did his B.A. at Karnatak University, Dharwad in mathematics and statistics, and his M.A. in philosophy, politics and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. After his return to India Karnad worked with the Oxford University Press in Chennai for seven years. He left the job in 1970 to become a full-time writer.

Karnad has written ten plays, of which he has translated five into English. Although rooted in Indian mythology and history, his plays at the same time convey a strong and unmistakable Western philosophical sensibility. The existentialist crisis of modern man is conveyed through strong individuals who are locked in intense psychological and philosophical conflicts. "Karnad has been accused of escaping into the past," said Lakshmi Chandrashekhar, an academic and an active figure in Kannada theatre. "But the use of mythology in most modern literature validates individual experience and universalises it. And I think Karnad has been able to do that."

Yayati, Karnad's first play, was written in 1961 and won the Mysore State Award in 1962. It is based on an episode in the Mahabharata, where Yayati, one of the ancestors of the Pandavas, is given the curse of premature old age by his father-in-law, Shukracharya, who is incensed by Yayati's infidelity. Yayati could redeem this curse only if someone was willing to exchange his youth with him. It is his son, Puru, who finally offers to do this for his father. The play examines the moment of crisis that Puru's decision sparks, and the dilemma it presents for Yayati, Puru and Puru's young wife.

Girish Karnad. His plays have received countrywide critical acclaim.

Tughlaq, Karnad's second play, written in 1964, is perhaps his best known. Tughlaq was directed by E. Alkazi and presented in London by the National School of Drama for the Festival of India in 1982. The play shows the transformation of the character of the medieval ruler Mohammad bin Tughlaq. From a sensitive and intelligent ruler who sets out to do the best for his people, Tughlaq, misunderstood and maligned, suffers an increasing sense of alienation and is forced to abandon his earlier idealism and end up as a tyrant.

Karnad won the Kamaladevi Award of the Bharatiya Natya Sangh in 1972 for his play Hayavadana, the theme of which was drawn from "Transposed Heads", a story by Thomas Mann. In it Karnad used the folk art form of yakshagana to examine the modern problem of the body/intellect divide. The character Padmini's search for the complete man who must have the best attributes of mind and body is frustrated in spite of her best efforts, and she realises that it is the intellect that is supreme and always determines what a man is and will become. The play was directed in German by Vijaya Mehta as part of the repertoire of the Deutsches National Theatre, Weimar.

In 1988 and 1990 Karnad wrote Naga-Mandala and Taledanda respectively, both of which received critical acclaim. Both of them were translated into English. Taledanda brought Karnad the "Writer of the Year" award, instituted by Granthaloka, in 1990, followed by the Karnataka Nataka Academy Award for the best play of 1990-91. He also received the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award in 1993 and the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of the Letters) Award in 1994, both for Taledanda. The play deals with the rise of Veerashaivism, a radical protest and reform movement in 12th century Karnataka, and the struggle between the forces of reaction and protest. It is seen as Karnad's first play that deals explicitly with the influence of the larger social and intellectual milieu on individual action. "I get the impression that from Taledanda onwards Karnad's plays begin to turn outward in a more obvious way," said Lakshmi Chandrashekhar. "He foregrounds the social context of individual conflict, something that is further developed in Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain), his most recent play. The modern relevance is unmistakable." Naga-Mandala (Play with Cobra) was based on a folk tale related by A.K. Ramanujam to Karnad. It gave him the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the Most Creative Work of 1989. It was directed by J. Garland Wright, as part of the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis. Agni Mattu Male was premiered in English recently in Bangalore.

Karnad has acted, directed and scripted a number of films and documentaries. He scripted Samskara, the award-winning novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy, and played its lead role. The film was initially banned on grounds that its bold anti-caste message would spark tensions, but it went on to win the President's Gold Medal for the Best Indian Film in 1970. He scripted and acted in Vamsha Vriksha (Kannada), Kaadu (Kannada), Godhuli (Hindi), Ondanondu Kaaladalli (Kannada), Utsav (Hindi) and Cheluvi (Kannada). He has made three documentaries: a film on the Kannada poet D.R. Bendre in 1973, Kanaka-Purandara (English) in 1988 on two medieval Bhakti poets of Karnataka, and The Lamp in the Niche (English) in 1989, on Sufism and the Bhakti movement. A number of his films and documentaries won awards and have been shown at film festivals all over the world. Karnad has also acted in several Hindi and Kannada feature films, for well-known directors such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal. He has also contributed substantially to the literature on Indian theatre and cinema.

Girish Karnad was awarded the Padma Shri in 1974 and the Padma Bhushan in 1992. He was President of the Karnataka Nataka Academy (1976-78) and Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Academy and the National Academy of the Performing Arts (1988-93). He was a Visiting Professor and Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Chicago during 1987-88. He was made Doctor of Letters by Karnatak University in 1994.

Karnad has been a bitter critic in recent years of the rise of religious fundamentalism in India. He publicly condemned the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992; he uses all public platforms to warn of the threat Hindutva poses to secularism, multi-culturalism and the freedom of expression. When religious fundamentalists tried to whip up communal tensions over the controversy about the Idgah Maidan in Hubli, Karnad (who hails from Dharwad) strongly opposed them. More recently, he has publicly opposed the threats made by the Sangh Parivar of stopping the Tipu Bicentennial celebrations.

Karnad lives in Bangalore with his wife Dr. Saraswathy Ganapathy and two children, Shalmali Radha and Raghu Amay.

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