On Girish Karnad, 1938–2019

Girish Karnad died early in June. I spent the weeks after his death in an angry despondency: that I didn’t talk to him more when I had the chance, that something rare and wonderful in the cultural and political life of India survives, if it survives at all, in a few ailing octogenarians of his generation, and that I now live in a place where I don’t have anyone I can talk to about him.

And so I leaped at the chance to write about him instead. But having started, I’m not sure I know how. This is in part because I don’t have a clear picture of whom I’m writing for, and in consequence, how much I need to explain. I suppose I could go through the basic biographical facts. I could say he was a playwright in a major south Indian language—Kannada—that has more speakers today than Danish, Norwegian and Swedish combined. I could claim, with conviction, that his plays properly belong with those of such 20th-century luminaries as Eugene O’Neill and Jean Anouilh. I could add that he also directed and acted in films in both Hindi and Kannada that have a secure place in India’s arthouse canon. I could mention his lifetime of courageous outspokenness about liberal and left-wing causes, that his passing was noted with a respectful tweet from the official account of Narendra Modi, whom he had vocally opposed during the last two election campaigns. That comments sections of YouTube clips of his film appearances have been filling up this last month with reverential tributes from thousands of admirers whose admiration may well outlast the reception of O’Neill and Anouilh.

But all that is to play the wrong game. Karnad was far from provincial—he knew many languages, studied at Oxford, and lived away from India for short periods throughout his life—but doesn’t seem to have bemoaned his lack of a global reputation. He belongs in, but didn’t care much about the category of, “world literature.” He created an audience for himself and his work, cutting deftly across the lines between languages, between high culture and low, classical drama and folk, between the stage and cinema, between literature and politics. He managed, as the old Romantic formulation had it, to create the taste by which he wanted to be enjoyed.

I should know; I was one of those whose tastes he shaped. He was the first writer I saw in the flesh, and also the first actor: the perfect twofer given my own growing aspiration (unmatched, alas, by the corresponding talents) to write plays that I could act in. My grandfather raised his helmet to him when we passed by his house—I was riding pillion on his moped—and recited his favorite Sanskrit tag, “The scholar is everywhere revered.” He smiled back, with the air of someone used to strangers delivering acclamation in a dead language. The childhood encounter happened long before I’d read or seen anything of his, but I came to invest it with a retrospective significance.

He lived a few hundred yards away from the house in which I grew up, in a leafy but new neighborhood at (what was then but is no longer) the southern edge of Bangalore. It wasn’t the kind of place one expected to find writers living. His house served as a useful landmark when giving directions—he was one of our three neighborhood celebrities. The other two—an actor-turned-politician and a fast bowler on the national cricket team—were always behind the tinted glass of a large and menacing car. Girish Karnad, on the other hand, was easy to spot running in the park.

A street down from him was the tiny library, really a converted shed, where I graduated from comic books about Spitfires to the early novels of John Grisham, my idea of grown-up literature. My sense of Karnad came at that point from his years in film, where he was at the center of at least two New Waves in Indian cinema, one in Kannada and one in Hindi. The first film of his I saw was also most purely enjoyable film he made. Utsav (1984) was a comic mash-up of the plots of two Sanskrit plays involving those two stock characters, the poor Brahmin and the golden-hearted courtesan. The comedy and the (very) soft erotica combined in Karnad’s most ingenious device, of introducing the semi-historical author of the Kamasutra as a character, living by a brothel to do the primary research for his great work. The film lost its makers a lot of money but has always had its cult admirers.

The summer after I finished high school, I watched, on faded DVD prints, several of his other films of the ’70s and ’80s. There was the one where he plays the earnest leader of a Brahmin community led into sexual and theological temptation (Samskara/Funeral Rites, 1970), and the one where he plays a village schoolmaster who becomes the reluctant leader of a rebellion when his wife is abducted by the sons of a local landlord (Nishant/Night’s End, 1975), and the one where he plays an earnest veterinarian trying to organize a community of small cattle farmers into a dairy cooperative (he was very good at earnest; he had the perfect soulful eyes). But more on that last one in a moment.

I worked that summer at a festival at a shiny new theater that had just opened down the road. I inspected tickets, swept dressing rooms, and ushered people to their seats before the final bell. But mostly, my job was to help pensioners turn off their mobile phones as they fiddled with all the newfangled buttons (it was 2004) on hearing the recorded announcement in—as it happened—Karnad’s voice. It says something about his peculiar status in his adopted city of Bangalore that his was the voice people were thought likeliest to obey.

That was the year I saw my first staged performances of Karnad’s plays. The one I remember most vividly was an old and much-revived production of his 1971 Hayavadana: a take on an old story of men who swap heads after a gruesome duel. It was really my first serious encounter with the vibrancy and excitement of that generation of Kannada writing. The folk singing, the traditional masks and bawdy comedy seemed to mark it as a certain kind of work, deeply anxious about its Indianness, traditionally taken to be found only in the village. But the route to the ancestral village went via two urban intermediaries: a Sanskrit version of the story and Thomas Mann’s novella The Transposed Heads, whence the play’s passages of philosophical debate about mind and body. The folk trappings seemed no longer to express an anxiety about authenticity, more a considered artistic choice.

When I started at college, I had, for the first time, the run of a library that contained more than pulp, and it was there that I first read what I still think Karnad’s masterpiece, Tughlaq (Karnad’s excellent English translation of it remains my standard present for theater-loving friends). The titular figure is Mohammad bin-Tughlaq, the brilliant, mad, contradictory, quixotic 14th-century ruler of India: lurching between extreme piety and agnosticism, full of novel but ultimately futile or self-defeating ideas for his kingdom, a sort of avant la lettre secular liberal born several centuries too early. It was no secret that the play, written in the last years of Jawaharlal Nehru’s life and tenure as prime minister, was a reflection on Nehru and his idea of India, as sympathetic and damning a critique as that much-critiqued man and idea have ever received.

Tughlaq was also my first encounter with existentialism, more vividly dramatized, I thought, than even in The Stranger. I obsessed for weeks over the passage of dialogue where Najib, the realpolitik counterpoint in the play to Tughlaq’s flights of fancy (“greater justice, equality, progress and peace”), articulates his reasons for abandoning first Hinduism and then Islam:

Do you know why I gave up Hinduism? Because it didn’t speak of salvation of society. It only talked of the soul—my individual soul—while a poor, frenzied world screamed in agony around. So I became a Muslim. Islam is worried about this world, I said, it’ll bring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. But I know now—it won’t work. There’s only the present moment and we must grasp it firmly.

The play—in fact most everything he wrote—dances between extremes: vacuous utopianism to an equally vacuous cynicism, exploring in turn the many shades of hope in between.

A few years later, Karnad was on the panel that interviewed me for the Rhodes Scholarship: I was applying to study the same Oxford program he had done in the ’60s. He was, as I’d expected, urbane, and his questions, as I’d hoped, sympathetic. I’m not sure what I said that prompted it, but he asked me about Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the novels of Iris Murdoch, and nodded approvingly when I declared, with a risky honesty, that I had only the vaguest idea of what one did with a philosophy degree. Over the next few years, I occasionally wrote to him. He gave good advice, and commented perceptively on the critical essays on Indian modernists I sent him. I had meant to send him the manuscript of the book I had just finished, the actual product of my philosophy degree, but didn’t. I console myself with the thought that he had, in his final illness, better things to be doing: a government to oppose, a final play to finish.

When I heard he’d died, I sat down to watch my favorite of his film performances: Manthan—the Hindi word for “churning,” in both its lactic and its social sense, features a Karnad in his late thirties playing a youngish veterinarian, Manohar Rao, who arrives in a village in Gujarat at some unspecified time in the early postcolonial decades to help set up a milk cooperative. The story belongs on a list of basic twentieth-century plots: the bumbling, idealistic city-slicker goes to the countryside to foment revolution and discovers that things are more complicated than that, and moreover, that he might have more to learn than he has to teach. Manthan distinguishes itself from the standard plot with the subtlety of its treatment.

The politics of the cooperative society are tricky. There are powerful feudal interests ranged against any project of that sort. Getting the landlord class on one’s side means losing the trust of the more politicized of the farmers, and vice versa; but the cooperative will fail unless it includes everyone. There are sexual tensions between the outsiders and the local women and the wrong word, even a gaze held too long, is ripe with risks of exploitation or tragedy. Dr Rao—whom Karnad plays as a man of competence, integrity and realism—makes mistakes, learns from them, and comes to see that there are problems too deep to be solved by a clever enough technocrat. The film was, as we didn’t then say, crowd-funded, by small contributions from hundreds of thousands of milk farmers, who also bought tickets to watch “their” film when it was released.

Manthan could have been a collectivist fairy tale, but ends up transcending its socialist realist origins. The film delivers a sad ending that conceals a happy one:  Dr Rao is called away by a mysterious “Head Office,” outmaneuvered by the machinations of the local landlords. But even as his train pulls away from the lonely station, leaving behind a trail of disappointed and betrayed farmers, the real climax happens: why should they care about the fate of another fancy city doctor cutting and running, as those types always do? The cooperative is theirs to run or misrun, the fight theirs to win or lose. And so the movement survives, just about, imperfect and riven with tensions but still there, standing as a beacon of, well, not an actually existing socialism, but offering a glimpse of something almost as inspiring: a feudal order being replaced, from the bottom up, by something better than capitalism.

The intellectual trajectory that allowed Karnad to build up such a body of work is at once extraordinary and not so uncommon. Its range, linguistic and intellectual, was the product of a formation in some ways common to many of his generation, and partly a consciously undertaken self-fashioning. His 2011 memoirs in Kannada, Aadaadtha Aayushya (roughly, “A Life Spent on Play”), describe his early years speaking Konkani and Marathi, languages of India’s southwestern coast. He learned Kannada when his family moved a little way south into the small and malaria-ridden hill town of Sirsi, and a little later, into the town of Dharwad—all part of the colonial Bombay Presidency, split a decade after Indian independence into the linguistically defined states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. He grew up, in other words, in the kind of mixed-up linguistic and cultural world that makes all talk of a “first language” or “mother tongue” quite absurd.

He spent his childhood and adolescence watching plays in Marathi and Kannada, captivated by the day-long performances of Yakshagana, where dancers in stylized masks would half-improvise scenes from one of the ancient epics. His undergraduate degree, incongruously, was in mathematics, a subject he disliked but which gave him a better chance of getting the first-class degree that might help him win a scholarship to study in England. He took every chance to sit in on the philosophy lectures of Kanti Shah, who had spent World War II as a member of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s hermetic philosophical circle in Cambridge. The principal of his college, Professor V.G. Gokak, was a pioneer in modernist Kannada writing and closely followed literary developments in Europe. When the young Karnad asked him for a recommendation, he sent him to W.H. Auden and Louis Macneice.

Being at college in Dharwad threw Karnad into the world of Kannada-speaking intellectuals and writers, most of them confidently multilingual and at ease with European ideas, the circle around the publishers Manohara Granthamala. But when he did begin to harbor literary aspirations, his memoirs report, it was to be a modernist poet in English. He drew little pencil sketches of writers and sent them to their subjects for autographs (T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden both received them).

His teachers in Dharwad didn’t set the best example: they taught English texts with knowledge and insight, but nothing they wrote in English was any good. There was, Karnad would later recall in an interview about those years, “a real breach in the sensibility there; for them, modernist writing was something that was happening in England.” He found a better example in a young academic called A.K. Ramanujan, a 26-year-old lecturer in English in Belgaum, another thriving town fifty miles away. Ramanujan was writing poetry in English utterly unlike the Romantic pap he was having to teach as part of the still colonial curriculum and managing to get it published in the Illustrated Weekly, the newspaper of the growing middle class. Karnad met Ramanujan in 1955 and came under his spell. Ramanujan saw British and American poets as contemporaries who could be taken apart, emulated and criticized, like anyone in Dharwad. At the same time, he was an eager student of the languages of his childhood, Tamil and Kannada, obsessively collecting proverbs, idioms and traditional bedtime stories long before he came to know that there was such a thing as the academic study of folklore. Karnad spent many hours of his youth with Ramanujan, standing in line for train tickets or waiting for trains on railway platforms, while Ramanujan held forth on the nature of poetic form, or the sexual predilections of Aldous Huxley.

In 1958, Karnad moved to Bombay to do a Master’s degree in Statistics, one eye still trained on that elusive scholarship. He spent his evenings at the theater and particularly admired the productions of Ebrahim Alkazi, a young director of Arab parentage and British training. Alkazi, he would later recall, “had a penchant for dark, intense plays with quivering heroines.” He also had a penchant for unusual, non-traditional sets, for which he would enlist his friends in the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. Karnad’s evenings at the theater introduced him for the first time to modern playwriting: August Strindberg, and perhaps most important, Jean Anouilh. Anouilh’s Eurydice and Antigone showed him, even more than Ramanujan’s theoretical pronouncements, the many ways of doing things with ancient myth. It may also have inspired the great preoccupation of his writerly career: the possibility of integrity in a world of compromise.

The scholarship eventually did come his way. He set sail for Dover in 1960, India’s one Rhodes Scholar for the year. His family gathered at the quay in Bombay weeping, full of dire injunctions to return once he finished his degree. As he told his interview, they had seen other young men make those perilous decisions: emigration, deracination, and marriage to an Englishwoman. In the weeks leading up to the sea voyage, thoughts of being the new Auden still in mind, he was confronted by an unexpected and overpowering urge. He had been reading an English retelling of the Mahabharata and found himself newly transfixed by the myth of the king Yayati, the aging hedonist allowed to retain his youth for a thousand years if one of his young sons would swap his own for a thousand years of old age. The story was familiar to him from childhood, but encountering it in English after months of watching stagings of Antigone set off a chain of ideas that culminated in not a poem in English, but a play in Kannada. The writing, he wrote in his memoirs, took such little conscious effort that it felt almost like he was taking dictation.

At Oxford, Karnad threw himself into the life of the overseas student, getting elected president of the Union debating society, and—one of very few Indians at the university—becoming, willy-nilly, a sort of young diplomat wherever there were students or dons wanting to talk about Nehru or decolonization. He encountered the theorists of European social democracy, British linguistic philosophy and French existentialism; like most young people, he found the latter the best spur to his creative promptings. While there, he discovered that Yayati, despite its inconvenient number of female parts (most Kannada troupes had at most two male actors able to play the female roles), was a theatrical hit.

He did return to India, living in Madras from 1963 to 1970, working as an editor for Oxford University Press while performing Shakespeare and Ibsen in the evenings with the Madras Players. The return to India seems to have been prompted by many things: the sense of public duty felt by many would-be elites of his generation, a sense of post-colonial excitement, and a sense that it was in new India and not in old England that everything remained to be done. His first two years in India were the last of Nehru’s long tenure as Prime Minister and the years in which, much weakened by a humiliating military defeat to China, he and his vision of a rational, scientifically minded, secular and multi-religious socialism were at their most vulnerable. Tughlaq, the play in which he responded to this moment, was a harder-won achievement, taking two years of research, writing and revision. The success of Yayati could well have been a fluke; it was with Tughlaq that Karnad really made himself into a playwright, with all that the word suggests of deliberate craftmanship.

When I try to collect my memories of him now, I am struck most of all by how tall he was, and how he retained that thinking-person’s matinée idol appearance into his eighties. He spoke English with an accent marked only by its hard-earned neutrality: one could not hear traces of any particular Indian language, nor were his the plummy English tones of what Indians call the convent-educated. And then there were his clothes, marked by the aesthetic of FabIndia, chain store of choice for a certain kind of Indian: hand-made and with the air of being from nowhere more specific than “India.” My favorite photograph of Karnad has him posing in an off-white long kurta and sleeveless Nehru jacket against a deep ocher wall, perhaps of some museum, with a stylized elephant head of the god Ganesha joined by masks that look generically Tibetan, or African, or South American.

The usual Indian word for it is “ethnic.” I was never quite sure what unsettled me about that label until I read an essay by Amit Chaudhuri that proposed, in passing, a hypothesis: “‘ethnic,’ in India, is not really a proclamation of identity, but a register of homelessness and displacement.” He lists the elements of the ethnic style:

cotton or khadi tops, sleeveless jackets with Nehru collars, cloth shoulder bags, a copy of Lorca, an interest in Bergman, a passion for the dhrupad—all or some of these elements, with a few others thrown in, added up to this ensemble of homelessness, of belonging nowhere—an odd, vibrant cosmopolitanism.

When I fantasize about the room of my own that I can decorate free from the stipulations of landlords, I populate it with just such objects, and imagine collapsing on to thick cotton bedspreads with sharp abstract patterns. I suppose I too identify with what Chaudhuri calls “the ambition of that generation”:

urgently to move from identity into abstraction—to become . . . or to . . . be woven into . . . a sort of Rothko painting. So much of that world seems organic, and yet so much of it was design, that it becomes difficult to tell where the apparently natural ends and the created begins.

Karnad was never a Kannada writer in the way that others of his generation were Kannada writers (or Bengali writers or Tamil writers). His uses of medieval Indian history and folk culture, his choice of a specific regional language, paradoxically, served to underline his cosmopolitanism. He seemed ill at ease in literary cultures that tended to the chauvinistic. The Kannada language was an instrument, and one among several he used, not a sentimental attachment, and he gave the impression that if his life had gone very slightly differently, he might have chosen Hindi or Marathi or indeed English instead (he knew them all well enough to translate his work into them, or check the proofs of other people’s translations against his originals). His writerly, and indeed his actorly, persona was, in the best sense, a construction. His greatest success was to find, and where necessary construct out of nothing, an audience for that persona, people who watched his plays and films and understood what he was doing.

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