In memoriam: Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad: Any play of any period has to become relevant and contemporary

Girish Karnad at the Bangalore Literature Festival in Bengaluru in 2018

Girish Karnad at the Bangalore Literature Festival in Bengaluru in 2018   | Photo Credit: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

An unpublished interview with Girish Karnad from 2018, on the sidelines of his published play Rakshasa Tangadi

Girish Karnad made few public appearances as his health failed and an oxygen cylinder remained his constant companion. But that did not deter his commitment as a playwright, which is evident in the meticulous research he did for the play Rakshasa Tangadi, published in 2018.

The Hindu had caught up with him just after its release of the play, which was Karnad’s fourth play based on historical incidents. He said three episodes -- the Vachana revolution of the 11th century, Vijayanagar empire of the 16th century and politics of Tipu Sultan of 18th century – had always caught his attention. As a playwright, he had already responded to two incidents — in Tale Danda and Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu -- and Rakshasa-Tangadi was the third.

Unpublished excerpts from the interview:

Rakshasa-Tangadi breaks some of the assumptions about the fall of Vijayanagara empire. By focussing on realpolitik and palace intrigue, it breaks the assumption that it was a war between two religions. Can you elaborate?

Robert Sewell first threw light on Hampi in his “A Forgotten Empire.” His colonial understanding of Talikota as the war between two religions - Hindu and Muslim - was universally accepted. But it is fake history. They did not bother to refer to works like Takikh-i-Farishta of Mohammad Kasim. A study of such written sources of history points at the fallacy that Talikota was a war between two religions. The downfall of the Vijayanagara empire in itself is a very complex and fascinating study. I researched on the subject for nearly three years. Works like A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761 by Prof. Richard M. Eaton, University of Arizona, and works published by scholar Krishna Kolhara Kulkarni offer interesting views. It was noted critic the late Keerthinatha Kurtakoti who triggered curiosity in me about complex character Aliya Ramaraya, who led the Talikota war. I invented very little in the play as everything was very much there, especially in the document Ramarayana Bakhyru by Ramaji Tirumala Harikhare written in 1604.

Tell us something about the palace intrigue

Aliya Ramaraya could not ascend the throne as he did not belong to the Tuluva dynasty. He remained as “protector” of Vijayanagara empire. He ran the show in the name of Sadashivaraya - a puppet king. I have also looked at the feelings of Satyabhama, wife of Ramaraya and Nizam Shah's wife to understand palace politics. In a way, Rakshasa-Tangadi fell on my lap. Sometimes I feel you don’t choose the subject. Subject chooses you. It is like falling in love.

Is it then also a play about identity?

Identity crisis always plagues the political process. Throughout his lifetime, Aliya Ramaraya longed for a new identity. Tuluvas did not recognise him as their own. He was trying to gain identity as belonging to the Chalukya lineage. The Araveedu dynasty to which he belonged was seen as lower and not qualified to rule Tuluva kingdom. Reinventing is nothing new in history and there is nothing wrong in it considering the politics of the period.

There is quite a bit of reference to his age-related issues too.

I am looking at the character through the periscope of ageing. At the time of writing Yayati, I was just 22 years old and Puru is also of the same age. At the time of writing Rakshasa Tangadi, I am in my 80s and Aliya Ramaraya is also around the same age. I refer to his loss of bladder control in one of the scenes.

Is Rakshasa Tangadi a historical play or a play based on history? How relevant is the play today?

It is a play based on a period and a powerful personality in the history of the sixteenth century. When I wrote Tughlaq, the theory of existentialism was very popular. I wrote Tughlaq also because he was matching all theories of existentialism. I did not know much about Tughlaq at that point in time. I read and researched whatever was needed to write the play. But during the writing of Rakshasa Tangadi I did a lot of research and study. One interesting thing about the historical play is that a playwright narrates and interprets things that happen then. For instance, in Rakshasa Tangadi it is a decisive war between Vijayanagara empire and the combined force of four Sultans in 1565. But the audience is watching the play now. A historical or mythological play is deemed to be successful only when the audience finds its contemporariness and finds them relevant in the present. The audience has to feel that they are reaching for a historical incident at the present moment. When Tughlaq was directed by Satyadev Dube in Pune, eight days after assassination of Indira Gandhi, there was a big response during a conversation between two guards, because Indira was killed by her guards. The audience felt that the play was about Indira Gandhi. The relation between the play and the subject is always complex. Its success depends on how it reaches an audience for that day. Any play of any period has to become relevant and contemporary. But I avoid making the play too explicitly relevant. There is a need to balance these things while writing a play.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 10:26:10 AM |

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