SOAS University of London

Girish Karnad

Profile by Malvika Pathak BACK

Classifying Girish Karnad is a difficult task, since he has been prolific in various fields. He is well-known as playwright, director, actor as well as for the numerous important positions he has held in the field of Indian culture in general and for the performing arts in particular. No wonder, then, that he is so interesting to meet, and that his talk in SOAS about his work could have gone on for much longer than time allowed.

Girish Karnad was born in Matheran, near Bombay, in 1938. He received a first-class BA from Karnatak University in Dharwar and was a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, from where he obtained a MA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

His career as a playwright was launched just before leaving for England. Influenced by existentialist drama, his first play Yayati (1961) explores the complexities of responsibility and expectations within the Indian family. Drawing on a myth from the Mahabharata, Karnad expressed in it a personal dilemma between his family's demands and his own wish for freedom. Although he was surprised not only about the surfacing of epic material in his work, but also that he should write a play (he had wanted to be a poet) and that, too, in Kannada, he continued to do so and became a prolific playwright. His first play, however, set the tone for his further work. The words of the character Yavakri in his 1994 play, Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain), might be applicable to Karnad as well: 'The past isn't gone. It's here inside me.' (Act 1, 33). In his plays Karnad has striven to relate the past, be it myths from the epics, folk-tales or historical events, to the present.

His second play Tughlaq (1964) on the historical Muhammad ibn Tughlaq was written during his studies at Oxford, and captures the disillusionment of many Indians with the idealistic politics of early independent India. This play established him as one of the foremost playwrights of India. Not only does Karnad strive to make the past relevant, he also tries to incorporate traditional dramatic techniques. As a child, Karnad was exposed to traditional theatre such as yaksagana, as well as plays by natak companies. His parents were enthusiastic about plays they had seen in the 1920s and related them to the young Girish. However, Karnad was stunned when he experienced for the first time the performance of a Western play in Bombay: the openness in which the actors talked about emotions on stage seemed foreign, and he was impressed by the technical possibilities of stage lighting.

In his one-act radio drama, Ma Nisada (1964), Karnad emphasises the importance of the ordinary man for the hero Rama within the Ramayana. In his third major play, Hayavadana (1971), Karnad draws on a tale from the Kathasaritsagara, and its adaptation in Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads. Here Karnad problematises issues of personal identity, adding a sub-plot to the main story. In Naga-Mandala (1988), Karnad turns away from the 'classical' traditions as his source to local Kannada folk-tales, which he had heard from India's renowned scholar of oral traditions, A. K. Ramanujan. Here he combines two tales, the central one focusing on the snake-lover motif, while the frame story explores the notion of stories having a life independent of their narrators, derived from oral traditions. Taledanda (1990) retells an episode of the life of the twelfth-century Lingayat saint and founder of the movement, Basava. This play was prompted by the political situation at the time of writing: in Ayodhya the agitations regarding the alleged birthplace of Rama on the site of the Babri Mosque had started, which were to lead to the mosque's destruction in 1992. This and the protests against the Mandal Commission's policy of caste-reservation exemplified the religious fanaticism of the time. Karnad, by exploring aspects of the Lingayat tradition from more than eight centuries earlier, criticises contemporary religious fundamentalism and the violence committed in the name of religion. Another major play is Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain 1995) in which Karnad deals with the traditional controversy between asceticism and ritual, using as his source an episode from the Mahabharata. It is a complex play with different story-lines, as well as a play within a play, and it has been seen by some critics as Karnad's best work. This play also picks up on a theme central to Indian epics, the relationship between brothers/cousins. Karnad carried the ideas for this play in his mind for years, and was inspired to write it after reading an academic piece on the relation of drama to ritual within Indian traditions. In Karnad's most recent radio-play, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1997), he draws on Tipu Sultan's dream-book, fascinated by the idea that an important warlord should write down his own dreams privately. The document on which the play is based has so far only partially been translated from the Persian original. Here, Karnad switches from English to Kannada, addressing multilingual reality in India.

For Karnad, who was English educated and living in England at the time, it was a surprise when his first play evolved in Kannada (his mother-tongue was actually Konkani). Since then, even when commissioned to write a play for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, his creative language has always been Kannada, followed by re-workings of the originals into English. Many of his plays have also been translated into other Indian languages, and have been performed in them as well as in English. Karnad has received numerous prizes and awards for his plays. To name only a few: the Homi Bhabha Fellowship for creative work in folk theatre (1970-2), the Padma Shri award (1974), the Karnataka Nataka Akademi Award (1984), and the Padma Bhushan award (1992).

Apart from being one of the most important Indian playwrights today, Girish Karnad is also a film-maker whose films have received much acclaim. But it has been his work in television, as actor and host of a science programme, which has made him a household name in India. But Girish Karnad's career does not stop even here. His further positions include: Director of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune (1974-5), President of the Karnataka Nataka Akademi (1976-8), Visiting Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Chicago (1987-8), Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi (1988-93), Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1994) and now, Director of the Nehru Centre, High Commission of India, in London.

Malvika Pathak (malvika_p@yahoo.com), is a research student at the Department of the Study of Religions at SOAS, under the supervision of Dr. I.J. Leslie. Malvika is researching the relationship between contemporary Indian fiction and the Indian epics.