Autobiographies, by definition subjective, often stoke controversies, with those who figure in the work or their kin feeling wronged or hurt by the way they are represented. Girish Karnad’s critically acclaimed autobiography published in 2011 in Kannada, Aadadata Aayushya (‘A Playful Lifetime’), has stirred one such controversy.
A reference in the book to the late K.J. Shah, one of modern India’s most eminent philosophers, has incensed Anuradha Veeravalli, Shah’s daughter. She has taken serious objection to what she calls Mr. Karnad’s “malicious dismissal” of an academic and his work.
Prof. Shah, who retired as a professor of philosophy at Karnatak University, studied under Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge and kept meticulous notes of his lectures. Later, along with fellow students P.T. Geach and A.C. Jackson, he was responsible for the posthumous publication of the iconic European philosopher’s writings.
In his autobiography, Mr. Karnad gratefully acknowledges Shah’s mentoring when he was a student in Dharwad, although he bemoans what he claimed was his teacher’s rightward ideological shift in the later years. However, it is Mr. Karnad’s account of a 1992 seminar, at which there was an alleged misconduct on the part of Shah, that has enraged his daughter. The seminar on “Natyashastra” was conceptualised by Shah and Amrit Srinivasan, and held under the aegis of the Sangeet Natak Akademi when Mr. Karnad was the Chairperson.
Mr. Karnad writes that he was “shocked” that Shah had invited his own “close friends” (Shantinath Desai, C.D. Narasimhaiah and Ragavendra Rao) “as though for a picnic,” rather than those who knew Sanskrit and had studied the text. When he questioned Shah about this, the latter admitted to making a “mistake,” Mr. Karnad claims in his autobiography. He further notes that he was disturbed by Shah using facilities “provided by a public institution to bring his friends to Delhi.”
Ms. Veeravalli says these allegations on corruption and misuse of public funds “amount to slander/libel.” Making them 18 years after her father’s death, when he cannot defend himself, is “not fair play,” she says.
In her father’s defence, she highlights Mr. Karnad’s own comments published earlier by the Akademi.
Mr. Karnad had said, in his concluding remarks at the event and in the subsequent publication of papers from the seminar, that the purpose of the seminar was to bring together academics from various disciplines for a debate even if they are not specialists in “Natyashastra.”
“I was of course aware of other seminars that had previously taken up the venerable text for study, but the design of the seminar proposed by Shah and Srinivasan was unique and seemed to open up ways of understanding the text that had not been explored before,” Mr. Karnad wrote in this preface to Knowledge Tradition Text: Approaches to Bharata’s Natyashastra, the 2007 book published by the Sangeet Natak Akademi which flowed from the conference proceedings. “Most significantly, they did not merely wish to look at the Natyashastra as a manual of performance arts or as a textbook of dramatic aesthetics: rather, they wished to investigate the ethical assumptions that informed its argument and held it together as a coherent philosophical text… In effect while concentrating on the Natyashastra, the seminar aspired to identify the ethical values underpinning an entire classical intellectual heritage.
“It was with this goal in view that academicians, scholars and thinkers from other disciplines were also invited to participate in the event. This emphasis on close reading proved most stimulating, generating rich and unexpected insights. There were dissents. But the dissonance only underlined the success of the seminar in generating a lively debate, which often revealed the living contemporary relevance of the Natyashastra.”
Ms. Veeravalli says Mr. Karnad’s own published remarks are “in stark contrast to his malicious dismissal of both the seminar and Prof. Shah in 2011.” She hopes that the publishers, Manohara Granthamala, would rethink their editorial policy and not permit “slander and vanity to pass off as literature.”
When contacted by The Hindu, Ramakanth Joshi of Manohara Granthamala said that Ms. Veeravalli had not raised this issue with the publishers.
Mr. Karnad told The Hindu that he stood by what he had said in his autobiography, and refused to comment further on Ms. Veeravalli’s refutation of his narrative.
Jyotirmaya Sharma, a professor of political science at Hyderabad University who knows Shah’s work, contested Mr. Karnad’s charge that the eminent philosopher had drifted rightward towards the end of his life. “In one of the last pieces Professor K.J. Shah published, he drew attention to the hollowness of the claims of Hindu nationalists by posing a set of questions. These were: 1. Is Hinduism a religion? 2. Is Hinduism a philosophy? 3. Is Hinduism more a religion or more a philosophy? 4. Is Hinduism a religion and a philosophy? 5. Who knows what is Hinduism?”
The last question, Prof. Sharma told The Hindu, “not only brings to centre-stage the question of legitimacy, or adhikaar, but also questions the very arbitrariness that constitutes the Hindu nationalist’s project to fashion themselves as the self-appointed guardians of the content, meaning and practice of Hinduism.”