On June 10th, revered Indian playwright, actor, and director Girish Karnad passed away. Leaving behind a monumental legacy as a pioneering artist of the 60s and onwards, Karnad has been lionized extensively in his death. Theatre and Bollywood fans have been expressing their grief as well as their gratefulness to the late artists, Indian politician Dr. G Parameshwara labelling him one of the “crown jewels of Kannada art”, the language Karnad wrote the majority of his work in. This title, and his career itself, may have been of some surprise to Karnad had he seen the course of his career when he first began it.
Starting out in mathematic studies- being so apt in fact that he received a Rhodes scholarship for it from Oxford- Girish Karnad had a desire to chase after literary fame. He would write out poetry in English in the hopes of attaining that dream while still pursuing his studies at Oxford. However, the first step to Karnad’s status as a renowned creator came not from works in the language he was surrounded by, and not in his mother tongue of Konkani. His debut play in 1961, Yayani, was written in Karnad, an adoptive language for Karnad. The play dealt with the story of Yayani, a figure in Indian folk lore who was the first king of Pauravas. The play was an instant success, being translated into many languages throughout India, and setting the stage for Karnad’s theatrical style: the utilization of historical mythological content to explore modern ideas, and a way for Karnad to be plainly outspoken about societal issues.
This resonant approach that brought both introspection and questioning to the forefront of Indian theatre cemented Karnad as an innovator in the field, and placing him in a prominent position within the Navya literary movement. The Navya sought to move away from work serving to uphold existing ideas of the pursuit of meaning and happiness, and found their style veering towards the poetical and metaphorical. Such was the case with Karnad’s most well known work, Tughlaq, an allegorical play examining the dangers of idealism through a conflicted portrayal of the 14th century Sultan of Dehli, Mohammad Tughlaq.
Karnad’s career was a full and varied one; along with his prolific works as a theatre artist, he also worked for the Oxford University Press, as the director for the Film and Television Institute of India, the chairman of India’s national performing arts academy, and even as the Minister of Culture at the Indian High Commission in London. Seemingly having strong roots in both his homeland of India and England, evidenced by his extensive work in both cultures, there was also conflict between these distinctly separate spheres within him. In 2006, Karnad, by then well established, gave voice to those writers who must choose which tongue to express themselves with and its effect on the worlds communities through his play Odakalu Bimba (which translates to Heap of Broken Images).
Through his rigorous pursuit of meaning in the modern world by examination of the tales and histories behind us, Girish Karnad left a pervasive mark on the culture of India. It can be seen through social media alone how strong the response has been to his work even to this day. While Karnad may not have been able to predict the path he would take to his dreams, it is safe to say he walked side by side with it all the way to the end.