The seminar on Girish Karnad’s plays discussed several aspects of the playwright and his writing

The seminar on Girish Karnad’s playwriting as part of Samprati, the Rangashankara Theatre Festival, wasn’t exactly stimulating or exciting. For a playwright of Girish Karnad’s stature, a seminar of this nature should have necessarily brought in more ideas. If at times the speakers painted broad brush strokes, there were occasions when it became so personal that the playwright nearly vanished from the canvas.

Certainly among the best sessions was the one on “Portrayal of Women in Girish Karnad’s plays comprising a practitioner like Arundhati Nag, theatre person and translator Shanta Gokhale, activist K.S. Vimala and moderated by critic Ashadevi. Though each of them articulated it differently with different examples from his body of work, they all converged to say that the woman in Karnad is a primordial being. Whether it is Chitralekha, Amritamati, Padmini or Rani, Karnad places them outside the framework of the judgmental, said Shanta Gokhale. “Yamini in Anju Mallige finds that her love for her brother is so intense that it doesn’t even have her own sanction,” observed Arundhati, of a play that is fraught with intense moral dilemmas. In most of Karnad’s plays, you find that men are trapped in the patriarchy that they play so well all along. For instance, in Nagamandala and in Yayati. “You find the man using sexuality as his power and the woman is constantly turning it around, quietly breaking stereotypes. Sexual authority is not a male prerogative, and in all his works Karnad tries to politicize the question of a woman’s sexuality without moralizing,” explained Vimala. In a manner of summing up, Ashadevi remarked that all his women are models of self authentication, and rarely seek validation from men.

In the session on “Politics in Girish Karnad’s Plays”, well-known critic Samik Bandopadhyay stated the oft-said in his analysis of the celebrated play, Tughlaq. “It is the collapse of ideals, and the gloom that marked the end of the Nehrvuvian era,” he said, to which Sadanand Menon, art and culture critic, said that cynicism had set much before Tughlaq came into the picture and was being represented in the world of cinema. Speaking about the general politics in the plays of Girish Karnad, he felt that the absence of the ‘vidhooshaka’ in Karnad’s plays, was also the absence of a critique of the main idea or the central motif. He said by placing his characters in grand settings of history not only made them time worn, but also took away the contemporary urgency from them. Critic and filmmaker Prakash Belavadi who spoke on the play Taledanda said he found in Bijjala a mature idealist and that, he said, is a step forward from Tughlaq. He however said, that he has problems with the kind of decisions that Girish arrives at as a public intellectual more than in his role as a playwright.

Placing Girish Karnad in the history of Kannada theatre, Kannada writer and critic T.P. Ashok felt Girish’s plays were very strong in terms of their structure. In this session on “Girish Karnad on Stage in Kannada”, he said Kannada theatre has responded very forcefully to Tughlaq and Taledanda, discussing their stage transformations in the productions of Akshara K.V., Jambe and B.V. Karanth. “All history is contemporary,” argued Sa. Shettar and insisted that it’s time we stopped looking at plays as historical, folk etc etc. Instead, he said we need to widen the ambit of our understanding of the modern.

“Kandagal Hanumanta Rao wrote 100 plays nearly six decades ago. When you look at those plays, and then a play like Sangya Balya, you can see in them the motions of modernity. Modernity is a multi-layered process and doesn’t belong to the time in which it was written,” he argued. The moderator, theatre director Nataraj Honnavalli made important interventions and re-directed the discussion to more important issues about Karnad.

In the session on “Girish Karnad on Stage in other languages” moderated by Prof. Vanamala Vishwanath, theatre director Vijaya Mehta spoke of her encounter with Girish Karnad in the 60s. “His is a modern mind reflecting on contemporary issues, but with a thorough sense of ancient culture.” While most speakers in this session – Kirti Jain, Pushan Kripalani and Arundhati Raja – spoke about their own process of putting up a Karnad play, Vijaya Mehta, observed that Karnad had an instinctive sense of the dynamics of empty space. Hence, there is a strong visual medium along with an equally strong sub text in his plays.