The genius of Karanth
For him the play was like a toy; he would try to bend and break it to make it work his way. The playwright merely provided the material for his creativity. Noted writer VIJAY TENDULKAR remembers B.V. Karanth.
Joy in creation ... Karanth grapples with actors, set design, lighting and the music.
"WHO is this Karanth? Haven't heard of him." This is what the Minister of Culture said when the governing council of the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, recommended B.V. Karanth to be appointed as the director of that institution. The Minister had someone from his state in mind (the man had directed a play written by the Minister). We said that if our choice was turned down the council intended to resign en bloc. That worked. Karanth became the director of NSD. I was the Vice-Chairman then.
Much earlier, as a student of the NSD, Karanth had played the main human vulture in the Hindi version of my play "Gidhade". I was told that he played it convincingly. I too was convinced of that when I met him for the first time in Delhi, in a group of theatre mad persons who roamed merrily through the biting cold winter night. He had wrapped himself well in muffler and shawl over jacket and kurta. His deep-set eyes looked at me from under the dark muffler, through the jungle of unkempt moustache and beard. He resembled a terrorist or a hired assassin .His peculiar Hindi with its Kannada accent and rhythms proclaimed his roots. We became friends.
During his tenure at the NSD we met regularly, worked together and had long conversations. The School, like all government-supported so-called autonomous bodies, was riddled with problems. Karanth soon got bored with administrative and bureaucratic hassles. He became increasingly restless, eager to be a free bird again, to fly across the world doing his kind of theatre where the play was a vehicle for his creative genius. And he believed that he was a genius. He worked on productions with supreme confidence and authority.
But soon he quit the NSD to resume his wanderings. We began to bump into each other in various airports, catching up over a cup of coffee on our activities (compared to mine were miniscule).
No use asking why Karanth accepted the headship of Rang Mandal in Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal. Probably he was promised freedom from administrative responsibilities. As a member of the governing council of what Karanth fondly called the "Rum Mandal", we spent hours chatting together whenever I went to Bhopal. In those days the sprawling Bharat Bhavan had artistes from many disciplines gathering to talk shop, and to debate over serious matters until they became too drunk or sleepy to continue...
In Rang Mandal, Karanth started with ambitious plans as usual. He had an enthusiastic repertory of mainly inexperienced youngsters to groom. The productions he churned out had nothing new, they were repetitions of what he had done before. The actors were strong in group work and acrobatics, but woefully deficient in depicting well-rounded characters in contemporary situations. Karanth had not trained his team in that major aspect of the theatre.
Bhopal is not Delhi. Delhi has patient audiences willing to sit through almost anything, occasionally applauding at wrong moments. But Bhopal found Karanth's theatre unexciting and foren (most of the plays he produced were adaptations).
Karanath was also an accomplished singer.
In Bharat Bhavan, the artistes had created a world of themselves by cutting themselves off from the real, living world. Karanth was the first victim of this situation. He drank round the clock, became tense, excitable and uninterested in what he himself had created. He was not himself.
Why didn't he leave Rang Mandal as he left the NSD? Why did he not go back to his life of a theatre-gypsy if he felt so suffocated? He was not a man who developed and preserved attachments. His only real attachment was to the theatre, to music. And to himself. He always had a taste for alcohol. He was also fond of women. He was an emotional being, not a go-getter. A gentleman to the core. And extremely sensitive. Could he have done what he was accused of doing at Bhopal ? Not the Karanth I knew. But like many of us, he was capable of losing his better sense when agitated, infuriated or drunk. He came out of that experience shaken and introspective. Thereafter he was never the same Karanth.
Girish Karnad had been his partner in many projects, and if I am not wrong, his best friend to date. With his perfect English, sophistication, and a personality, which gave the impression of being consciously cultivated even in informal moments, Girish was the exact counterpart to Karanth's uncultivated informality and simplicity in clothes, speech and behaviour. They did film projects together. Karanth translated Karnad's plays into Hindi for the NSD. One wished Karanth had Girish's equanimity and practical sense.
Karnatak traditions of folk music were a part of Karanth's repertoire. He played musical instruments like a traditional player. He made profuse use of folk music in stage and screen productions. He must have spent a fortune on his collection of folk instruments, and displayed them proudly to those who visited his home. I have heard him humming a folk tune while he was lost in thought. And he used to get lost in thought even when he was in the midst of a meeting or a conversation.
Karanth's theatre was essentially musical. If music was not a part of a play Karanth would impose it as a form and work on it day and night on it with passion. He had told me that he would produce "Ghashiram Kotwal" when he found his own way to deal with it. He avoided the Marathi production as he feared he may be influenced by it. I did not ask him how his version would be different but once in a while I would ask, "When are you going to do Ghashiram?" He would say, "Wait and see!" Finally, looking exasperated, he said, "I can't think of a way to make it different. You suggest something!"
He did stage "Ghashiram" in Rang Mandal, but though it drew huge crowds, he was not at all happy. "What is mine in it? Everything is yours!" he said. For him the play was a toy to play with; he would try to bend and break the toy to make it work his way. In his projects he was the only creative person, the playwright merely provided the material for Karanth's creativity.
He found great joy in creation. It was an experience to meet him while he grappled with actors, set design, lighting, and most of all the music.
Once when we met in the midst of his frequent and hectic jaunts from airport to airport, city to city, project to project, I asked, "Karanth , what do you want out of this nomadic life?" Away from his home for a long spell, away from his life-partner Prema, away from family life, in his alcoholic state, Karanth, looking lost, hummed a little and said, "I want to become a movement."
The writer is a noted Marathi author and playwright.
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