In memoriam: Girish Karnad

The multifaceted Girish Karnad says theatre is not dead

‘You can’t write about a family without writing about its caste.’

‘You can’t write about a family without writing about its caste.’

In the Salman Khan-starrer Tiger Zinda Hai , still running in theatres weeks after its Christmas release, Girish Karnad plays boss to the 007-like hero. “I have acted in the film with this on,” smiles Karnad, pointing to the portable oxygen cylinder and the nasal cannula that are now his constant companions. “If wearing spectacles is fine, why not this?”

The last month of 2017 also saw the third and final volume of Karnad’s Collected Plays reach the stands. The volumes span his 60-year creative graph as a playwright — starting with Yayati in 1961, based on a myth, to his most recent Boiled Beans on Toast (2012) set in Bengaluru. Some of the 12 plays in this set were originally written in English and the rest are his own translations from Kannada.

TV and a megapolis

The playwright and actor, director and scholar, writer and administrator, translator and public intellectual, who does not shy away from speaking his mind, turns 80 this May, and has cut down on film assignments and public appearances. But if anything preoccupies Karnad today, it is theatre.

Sitting in the living room of his house in Bengaluru’s J.P. Nagar, which has transformed from a quiet residential area to one overrun by commercial establishments and traffic, our conversation veers inevitably towards theatre’s place in the changing world.

“Television came in the 80s and the audience was almost immediately taken away. The middle-class stopped going out,” he says. This was in contrast to the preceding decades that saw a great flowering of theatre in Kannada and across India, with the likes of Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, K.V. Subbanna, B.V. Karanth, P. Lankesh and Chandrashekar Kambar.

And the unbridled expansion of cities like Bengaluru, which began almost soon after the arrival of television, has quite literally added to the distance between theatre and its audiences.

“In the last 20-30 years, Bengaluru has exploded. So much that nobody wants to go out in the evening. People want to just come home and sit quietly. It takes so long to reach anywhere. The whole megalopolis is killing any theatre.”

Just plain Raja

The city has been a recent entrant into Karnad’s own repertoire of plays. He has more often used stories from myth, folklore and history, even though, through these tales, he explores modern questions. But his most recent play – Boiled Beans on Toast — is a distinctly Bengaluru play.

“I couldn’t have written about modern life in Bengaluru any earlier,” says Karnad. “People think writing a play set in contemporary times is the easiest, but it is the most difficult. The Kannada tradition of contemporary plays, which one really owes to T.P. Kailasam and Sriranga, was essentially about social reform. “The simple idea of observing life around us and recording it has not come into Kannada theatre yet.”

This, Karnad argues, requires not just enormous technical expertise but a kind of honesty that does not come easily. “One of the reasons why contemporary plays on India are few is because people are very self-conscious about writing about their families and castes. You cannot write about a family without writing about its caste.” Most of our films are set in a ‘neutral world’ with a ‘synthetic caste’. “For instance, the hero in our films is Raja, but not a Raja Kulkarni or a Raja Gowda... We tend to be stilted in our description of this familiar world and write as if it is observed from outside.” Another reason for this could be that he, and most of his contemporaries, were migrants to Bengaluru.

So Boiled Beans came when he — and the city — was ready for it. “ I wrote the play here (in the sitting room), recording a world and people familiar to me,” he says. It tells the story of the interwoven lives of a cross-section of characters drawn from different social strata and locations in Bengaluru.

Though this burgeoning city is inimical to theatre in more ways than one, Karnad thinks it is possible to reinvent it with some imagination. “We need more small theatres in suburbs. What people are not willing to do is travel one-and-a-half hours to see a one-hour play. But they do need entertainment and they are sick of television.”

One workable model is Ranga Shankara, the theatre space built by actor Arundhati Nag, not far from Karnad’s home, where shows run full almost every evening. Other smaller spaces in Bengaluru’s suburbs and in small towns see a good turnout, says Karnad. “Theatre is clearly not dead. One great strength of theatre is that you are responding to a live person, a live actor. It is an experience like listening to a live concert, which is very unlike listening to a tape.”

Work in progress

Karnad has, for some time, been working on a play centred around the Battle of Talikota (1565), fought between Ramaraya of the Vijayanagara empire and the united forces of the Deccan sultanate. This work in progress tries to look at what happened at Rakkasa-Tangadi (the villages near where the war was fought) and the build-up to it through an unconventional lens. The play begins with Ali Adil Shah coming to Vijayanagara and being received by Ramaraya warmly. Shah says to him, “You are like my father.”

The plot and the protagonists were far more intriguing than the mainstream narrative that has “whitewashed it into a Hindu-Muslim conflict,” says Karnad. “Ramaraya, who led the Vijayanagara army, was 82 and supported by two brothers who were 75 and 76. On the other side were five Sultans in their 30s and 40s. So in terms of energy and vision, there was no match... If I could write the play it would be interesting because the relationships and complexities are just marvellous!”

Will the play see the light of day soon? “I find it difficult to sit for hours at a stretch now, my head feels heavy,” says Karnad. “The play is almost there but not quite there... If it happens it happens, if not fine...”

As Karnataka gets set for elections later this year, Karnad, who was active in 2013 campaigning for Nandan Nilekani, remains aloof. “Sniping has become official now on television debates and so on... Fortunately I am now going to be 80 and I have done my bit. I don’t have the energy and I don’t understand Twitter, Facebook and so on... I want to be left alone.”

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2022 8:41:53 pm |