Karnad gave up philosophy and took up mathematics because he could score high marks and get into Oxford University.
He famously described Hema Malini as a daddi, Kannada for “dimwit”, when she contested an election against Dr K Marulasiddappa, one of his closest friends.
Karnad’s writing, drawing extensively from myth and folklore, was often pitted against the writing of another brilliant Jnanpith awardee, Chandrashekar Kambar.
Karnad is associated with some of the best things to happen to Kannada culture in living memory, although many believe he was Westernised, elitist and blind to the virtues of Hinduism.
With the exit of Girish Karnad, India has lost one of its tallest and most controversial writers. Known widely as a playwright and actor, Karnad was much more: he directed films and TV serials, helmed national institutions and often became the celebrity face of unpopular causes. He was 81 when he died on Monday, June 10.
Through his chequered life, Karnad projected himself as impatient, mean and calculative. In his Kannada autobiography, Aadaadataa Ayushya, he describes how he gave up philosophy and took up mathematics because he could score high marks and get into Oxford University — he wanted to leave no scope for subjective evaluation.
Once his superlative score got him into Oxford, he contested the election to the post of the university’s prestigious debating society, and only because its secretary was entitled to the comfort of a room with a separate bath. Other scholars had to make do with a dormitory and common amenities.
His book is full of other self-deprecating details. In the Bombay of his youth, he lived with his brother at a flat near the sea. He describes how he put up with the unbearable heat, hoping his brother would pay for a fan. His stint passed without a whiff of cool air.
Karnad was famously rude, so much so that journalists dreaded calling him for quotes. But that persona was perhaps something he deployed strategically, and to protect his private time. He was particularly scathing about journalists in English-language newspapers, most whom he considered ‘duffers’, but his cast and crew often sang his praises: he got the best out of them, and paid them better than other producers, and in time.
To be fair, his contempt was not reserved for poorly read journalists. He famously described Hema Malini as a daddi, Kannada for “dimwit”, when she contested an election against Dr K Marulasiddappa, one of his closest friends in the Kannada literary world. Incidentally, at one time, the actress’s mother was trying to set him up with her, but that was not to be–she eventually married Dharmendra. In a TV interview, Karnad described another friend, the legendary singer Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, as an alcoholic. Most people consider such talk brutal, but then, Karnad never set store by politeness. That is one reason he will be missed sorely in an era of carefully managed reputations and social media promotion.
Karnad straddled the Kannada literary world and the theatre world outside. His plays were produced by the biggest theatre groups in India and abroad. He served as director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and later as head of the Nehru Centre in London, and enjoyed worldwide connections. He served Oxford University Press for seven years, and more of his writing is available in English translations than any of his peers’. Several of his books are prescribed reading at universities across the world.
Karnad grappled creatively with the most influential literary minds of our times–U R Ananthamurthy, Chandrashekar Kambar, P Lankesh, D R Nagaraj, B V Karanth, and Shyam Bengal, just to name a few.
Thus, his equations with fellow Kannada writers tended to veer from admiration and pride to envy and ribbing. His writing, drawing extensively from myth and folklore, was often pitted against the writing of another brilliant Jnanpith awardee, Chandrashekar Kambar. In fact, there were times they were competing openly, as when A K Ramanujan told them a folk story, and they separately embarked on writing expeditions. Kambar produced a lovely, lush musical, Siri Sampige, while Karnad wrote a leaner, meaner Nagamandala. Nationally, not many have heard of Siri Sampige. It should be no surprise Kambar is sceptical of Karnad’s accomplishments: he once described the latter’s language as ‘padre Kannada’, meaning it was stilted and bookish like the language of the missionaries.
Karnad wrote his first play Yayati in 1961 when he was just 22. His last play, Rakshasathangadi, came out in 2018. In a career spanning six decades, he has traversed many realms, with his themes spanning Indian history, reworked stories from the Mahabharata, sexual angst, migration. In cinema, he has worked both with arthouse and mainstream. In fact, the Kannada literary critic D R Nagaraj used to tease him, saying he spoke about lofty ideas when he was with Kannada writers, but was always willing, the moment he was offered a good fee, to run away to Chennai to do ‘police Pichamuttu’-style bit roles in Tamil films.
Karnad made many enemies: he went all out against the Shiv Sena, the BJP, and other champions of the Hindu right, and they, in turn, were among his most virulent critics. He was frequently trolled and threatened, and the government gave him police protection in the wake of Gauri Lankesh’s murder.
Karnad’s bluntness was well-known across literary and non-literary communities. He cut off his connections with his Konkani-speaking Saraswat community because, he says, they wrote anonymous letters and wouldn’t confront him directly. When the name for Bengaluru’s airport was being discussed, he voted for Tipu Sultan against Kempegowda. Karnad, by the way, has written a play on Tipu, a military hero viewed from multiple perspectives today, and his choice wasn’t shared by a majority. Karnad has also written another play on Basava, the 12th-century poet and reformer who defines and represents the best of Kannada culture.
In fact, Karnad is associated with some of the best things to happen to Kannada culture in living memory, although many believe he was Westernised, elitist and blind to the virtues of Hinduism. He was part of the 1970s renaissance in theatre and cinema, writing and acting for l