Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad emerged as a prominent playwright during the 1960s, marking a significant era for modern Indian playwriting in Kannada. His plays have been translated into various Indian languages. His talent was recognized with the prestigious 1998 Jnanpith Award, the highest literary accolade in India.

Karnad, born in 1938 in Matheran, present-day Maharashtra, belonged to the Konkani-speaking Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community.

His early education took place in Marathi, and during the renowned Balgandharva era, he was exposed to nataka mandalis, or theatre troupes. Karnad held a deep admiration for Yakshagana during his youth.

Karnad pursued his Bachelor of Arts degree at Karnataka Arts College, Dharwad (Karnataka University), graduating in 1958. He then ventured to England as a Rhodes Scholar (1960–63) and studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, and got an MA degree. Notably, Karnad was elected as the President of the Oxford Union in 1962–63.

He dedicated seven years of his career to working at the Oxford University Press in Chennai from 1963 to 1970 before deciding to pursue writing full-time. While working in Madras Girish Karnad encountered Saraswathi Ganapathy, his future wife, and married her when he was 42 years old. During his time in Madras, he became involved with the local amateur theatre group, The Madras Players, nurturing his passion for the dramatic arts.

Karnad made notable contributions to Indian cinema, actively engaging as an actor, director, and screenwriter in both Hindi and Kannada films. Additionally, he lent his expertise as a presenter on the weekly science magazine program “Turning Point,” which aired on Doordarshan in 1991.

He lent his voice to the audiobook rendition of “Wings of Fire,” the autobiography of A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the former President of India. His narration skillfully brought Kalam’s inspiring story to life for listeners through the medium of Charkha Audiobooks.

Karnad served as the director of the Film and Television Institute of India from 1974 to 1975 and held the position of chairman at the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National Academy of Performing Arts, from 1988 to 1993. Karnad also took on the role of director at the Nehru Centre and served as Minister of Culture at the Indian High Commission in London from 2000 to 2003.

Literature career of Girish Karnad: Karnad was a multifaceted literary figure, making significant contributions to Indian literature through his plays, novels, essays, and translations.

Karnad’s prominence in Indian literature largely stems from his achievements as a playwright. His plays, often drawing inspiration from mythology, history, and contemporary society, revolutionized Indian theater. Notable works include “Yayati,” “Tughlaq,” “Hayavadana,” “Nagamandala,” and “Taledanda”.

Yayati published in 1961 when Girish Karnad was 23 years old, draws upon the narrative of King Yayati, an ancestor of the Pandavas, who was cursed into premature old age by his preceptor, Shukracharya, due to Yayati’s infidelity. In the play, Yayati requests his sons to sacrifice their youth for him, and one of them agrees to do so. Karnad employs this storyline from the Mahabharata to satirize life’s ironies through the various characters. The Hindi adaptation of the play was crafted by Satyadev Dubey, with Amrish Puri in the lead role. It enjoyed immediate success and was swiftly translated and staged in numerous other Indian languages, becoming an instant hit among audiences.

Tughlaq in 1964, is a play that delves into the life of Muhammad bin Tughluq, the idealistic yet impulsive 14th-century Sultan of Delhi. The play explores the complexities and contradictions within Tughluq’s character, depicting his idealism and the repercussions of his decisions during his tumultuous reign.

Hayavadana in 1971, a play based on Thomas Mann’s novella “The Transposed Heads,” which, in turn, originates from the 11th-century Sanskrit text Kathasaritsagara. He skillfully employed the folk theatre form of Yakshagana in this play. Notably, a German version of “Hayavadana” directed by Vijaya Mehta became part of the Deutsches National Theatre, Weimar’s repertoire.

Naga-Mandala (Play with Cobra, 1988), a play inspired by a folk tale shared by A. K. Ramanujam. Karnad’s adaptation earned him the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the Most Creative Work of 1989. Directed by J. Garland Wright, it was featured in the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Subsequently, the Guthrie Theatre commissioned Karnad to write another play, “Agni Mattu Male” (The Fire and the Rain).

Taledanda (Death by Beheading, 1990), set against the backdrop of the rise of Veerashaivism, a radical protest and reform movement in 12th-century Karnataka, this play by Karnad aimed to highlight contemporary issues. It reflected on societal concerns by drawing parallels with historical events and movements.

Alongside his theatrical accomplishments, Karnad also authored novels, such as “The Dreams of Tipu Sultan,” which explored the life and dreams of the historical figure Tipu Sultan. His novels reflected his deep interest in history, culture, and the complexities of Indian society.

Karnad’s literary repertoire extends to essays and translations. He penned thought-provoking essays that delved into various cultural and social aspects of India. Additionally, he contributed significantly to translating literary works from Kannada to English, making regional literature more accessible to a wider audience. His versatile contributions across multiple literary genres continue to influence and inspire readers and artists in India and beyond.

Girish Karnad’s career in movies: His involvement in cinema spanned across acting, screenwriting, directing, and even documentary filmmaking.

Karnad marked his acting and screenwriting debut in the Kannada film “Samskara” (1970), an adaptation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novel directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. The movie received the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema.

He portrayed Swami’s father in the TV series “Malgudi Days” (1986–1987) based on R.K. Narayan’s books, and also hosted the science magazine “Turning Point” on Doordarshan in the early 1990s.

Karnad co-directed his directorial debut, “Vamsha Vriksha” (1971), which won the National Film Award for Best Direction. He directed several movies in Kannada and Hindi, including “Godhuli” (1977) and “Utsav” (1984), along with documentaries like “The Lamp in the Niche” (1989) and others, earning numerous national and international awards.

Some of his famous Kannada movies include “Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane,” “Ondanondu Kaladalli,” “Cheluvi,” “Kaadu,” and “Kanooru Heggaditi” (1999), based on a novel by Kuvempu.

In Hindi cinema, Karnad acted in movies such as “Nishaant” (1975), “Manthan” (1976), “Swami” (1977), and “Pukar” (2000). He garnered critical acclaim for his roles in Nagesh Kukunoor’s films like “Iqbal” (2005), “Dor” (2006), “8 x 10 Tasveer” (2009), and “Aashayein” (2010). He also played significant roles in “Ek Tha Tiger” (2012) and its sequel “Tiger Zinda Hai” (2017) produced by Yash Raj Films.

Karnad acted in the Kannada gangster movie “Aa Dinagalu” and was involved in a wide array of cinematic ventures that showcased his versatility as an actor, director, and writer across different languages and genres.

Girish Karnad, throughout his illustrious career, received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to literature, theater, cinema, and cultural enrichment.

Jnanpith Award (1998): Karnad was honored with the prestigious Jnanpith Award, one of India’s highest literary awards, in recognition of his exceptional contributions to literature.

Padma Bhushan (1992): He was conferred with the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in India, for his remarkable achievements in the fields of literature and theater.

Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1972): Karnad received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his outstanding contribution to Indian theater as a playwright.

National Film Awards: He won the National Film Award for Best Direction for his directorial venture “Vamsha Vriksha” (1971), which he co-directed with B.V. Karanth.

Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award (1989): Karnad earned this award for his play “Naga-Mandala,” recognized as the Most Creative Work of 1989 by the Karnataka Sahitya Academy.

President’s Golden Lotus Award: Karnad’s screenplay for the Kannada film “Samskara” (1970) won the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema.

He received honorary doctorates from various universities, including the University of Southern California, the University of Hyderabad, and Hampi University, in recognition of his remarkable contributions to literature and culture.

Controversies of Girish Karnad:  Karnad was an outspoken critic of religious fundamentalism. Additionally, Karnad aligned himself as a supporter of the Forum for Communal Harmony. He openly condemned the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Furthermore, he vocally opposed attempts aimed at creating controversy surrounding the Idgah Maidan in Hubli, advocating against actions that could provoke tensions or discord in society. Karnad again stirred controversy when he expressed his opinion that Rabindranath Tagore, renowned for writing India’s national anthem, was a distinguished poet but considered him a second-rate playwright.

Karnad died on 10 June 2019 in Bengaluru at the age of 81. His death was attributed to multiple organ failure resulting from an extended period of illness.