Girish Karnad Stands Tall as an Outcome of His Milieu

One of the greatest thespian talents of the 20th century, Girish Karnad (1938–2019) was a product of the places, people, and institutions he came in contact with. Michel Foucault’s work on mapping milieus provides insights into the necessary conditions required for individuals to realise their full potential. 

 In 1972, Girish Karnad received the Karnataka state award for his film Vamsha Vriksha (The Tree of Lineage), which is based on S L Bhyrappa’s novel. At that time, Krishnabai, Karnad’s mother, recalled that the family had decided to go for abortion when she was expecting baby Girish, after two months of pregnancy. Eventually, Karnad’s family had visited a hospital in Pune for abortion. But, the doctor Madhumalathi Gune had not turned up at the hospital that day. The couple had waited and returned home for the day, and later, they had decided not to proceed with the abortion.[1]  Karnad’s birth was a fortunate stroke of serendipity, and he went on to become one of the greatest thespian talents of the 20th century and whatnot.  

If only doctor Gune had been available at the hospital that day, probably, we would not have had a multifaceted personality like Karnad. At least,  Kannada literary world would have missed a renowned Jnanpith awardee. What is important to notice here is that along with such chance happenings out of sheer luck, what produces great artists like Karnad is not only their individual talent, but more importantly, the places they grow up and live. Therefore, the article will explore the conditions of possibility that shaped the intellectual life of Karnad. In doing so, it will also provide insights into how to build a conducive environment to enable individuals to realise their full potential and emerge as the men and women of calibre.[2]  

Sirsi: Hub of Oral Storytelling Tradition

Karnad’s father, Ragunath Karnad, was a doctor in the Bombay Presidency. The senior Karnad married a child widow, Krishnabai, who was a nurse. India of the 1930s were tough times for a widow to enter into a second marriage. But, as Karnad used to recall, his mother was a progressive woman, and so was his father. Such a liberal outlook of the family played an important role to shape sensibilities of the boy. Besides what he inherited from his family, he was also a product of his social and intellectual milieu.  As mentioned earlier, places make people, and what they are. If we read his autobiography Aadaadtha Aayushya (2011) (Life Spent as We Play), which is not yet available in English,[3] we come to know that he was shaped by the places where he grew up, studied, and worked. The chapters in the autobiography are named after places Sirsi, Dharwad, Mumbai, Oxford, Madras, Sringeri, Old Mysore, and Pune. 

After all, what are places? They are inhabited by people, practices, and institutions that are our social space. The kind of people we come across, the practices we share with them, and the institutional vision we formulate coalesce to make a difference to our lives. Of course, we also need individual talent and a desire to achieve what we set out to do in our lives. Karnad, who was ambitious and equally talented, was shaped by local cultures, gurus, friends, and the institutions of his time. 

Karnad did his early schooling in Sirsi, a small town in the then Bombay Presidency (presently in Karnataka), after his father had been transferred there from Maharashtra. It was in Sirsi where he developed a passion for plays and other forms of performing arts. The family regularly attended Yakshagana Prasangas, the traditional folk theatre of Dakshina and Uttara Kannada regions. It was also the time when touring theatre companies staged popular plays in villages. He inherited a variety of Kannada dialects including Havyaka, Navuda, and the idiom of North Kannada among others, when was exposed to multiple cultures and languages by theatre companies, such as Havyaka Brahmins. 

Those were the times when there were no electronic media to keep children occupied. Karnad learnt a great deal from local oral storytelling traditions in Sirsi that had an immense impact in his later works. Anyone familiar with his work can get a sense of interconnectedness between his dramatic practice and his surroundings. This is reflected in his famous play Naga-Mandala: Play with a Cobra (1991). The play captures the plight of a playwright, Sutradara, who is in dire need of plot. This could have been possible without the experience of Karnad himself reflecting on dramaturgy. 

Dharwad: Nerve Centre of Art and Literature

After the retirement of his father, Karnad’s family moved to Dharwad, the intellectual city under the Bombay Presidency that shaped the modern Kannada sensibility. It was a tumultuous time that marked the birth and the unification of the present-day Karnataka. The political turmoil had prepared a solid ground for literary and educational culture to flourish in the city. It was the time when Dharwad witnessed the establishment of reputed educational institutions like the Karnatak College and Karnatak University, besides institutions like Training College, Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha, and a few well-known publishing houses. Along with the literary culture and numerous centres of learning, Dharwad was also home to Hindustani classical music. Such an intellectually vibrant Dharwad of that time welcomed Karnad and offered him a space to hone his skills to emerge as a playwright and a man of letters of the highest order. 

After the higher primary schooling at Basel Mission High School, Karnad enrolled himself for a bachelor’s degree at Karnatak College in the city. Another veteran Jnanpith awardee V K Gokak was the principal of the college, and scholars of  Kannada S S Malwad and V M Inamdar taught him. Professor K J Shah, who was a student of renowned philosopher Ludwig  Wittgenstein, taught philosophy in Dharwad, and he had a great influence on young minds like Karnad. The intellectual milieu and writers like V K Gokak, who himself was an Oxonian, kindled an urge in Karnad to pursue higher education at the Oxford University. He secured the prestigious Rhodes scholarship after completing bachelors in statistics and mathematics with a first class in Dharwad. The culture of writing that flourished in Dharwad had fashioned the writer in Karnad. The great poet of the Navodaya period of Kannada poetry D R Bendre was Karnad’s favourite. He regularly visited Bendre at his residence in Sadhanakere, Bendre’s poetic cosmopolis in Dharwad. On several occasions in his lifetime, Karnad quoted Bendre’s poetry by heart and demonstrated immense liking to the profundity of Bendre’s poetry. The title of Karnad’s autobiography is inspired from Bendre’s poem “Aadaadtha Aayushya." He also produced a documentary on the life of D R Bendre in 1972. The dialogues in Karnad’s plays are laced with a poetic flair owing to his engagement with the great tradition of Kannada poetry that Bendre was part of.  It was perhaps under the spell of great poets like Bendre and Gopalakrishna Adiga, another important poet of the Navya movement in Kannada literature, Karnad developed an ambition to write poetry, but he soon discovered his forte to write plays. 

G B Joshi, the founder of publishing house Manohar Granthamala, was a man of the theatre. He wrote plays himself and was responsible to develop readership in north Karnataka. His effort to create a literary culture in Dharwad region is an epic story of struggle and triumph, which requires a separate piece to deal with. It was such a figure who first came forward to publish Karnad’s plays in Kannada. Later, Karnad himself translated all his works into English, and were published by the Oxford University Press.  

Manohara Granthamala not only published Kannada literary texts, but also created a space for literary discussions. It was a meeting point for several men of letters in those days. Housed in a multi-storied building on Subhas Road in Dharwad, the publishing house is popularly known locally as “Atta,” the Bengali equivalent of Adda, a meeting point. It was discussions in this space that made Karnad, the playwright, and other literary stalwarts. 

Karnad and his Varied Influences

At Atta, Karnad met two great minds of that time, Keerthinath Kurtakoti and A K Ramanujan. Releasing his autobiography in Dharwad in 2011, he called Kurtakoti and Ramanujan as his gurus. It was Kurtakoti who read the manuscript of Karnad’s debut play Yayati (1961) and corrected it almost to the extent of being a co-author, and got it published by the Grantha Mala.  Kurthakoti, one of the finest minds on the Kannada literature, and who contributed immensely to the modern literary and cultural criticism,  was the consulting editor for the Granthamala at that time. Karnad not only honed his Kannada language skills for producing dramatic texts under the tutelage of Kurtakoti, but also the theory of dramatic art. Kurthakoti was a good conversationalist, and his conversations imbued with literary and scholarly insights have shaped at least a part of literary culture in Dharwad. Further, Karnad and Kurtakoti interactions provide us with a hermeneutic key to understand how a critic can help a writer to develop his sensibilities and the art of writing.

Karnad’s other guru Ramanujan was an intellectual phenomenon. Among many things that he learnt from Ramanujan, Karnad always remembered the insights on the craft of writing. Ramanujan believed that “to write is to always rewrite.” He convinced Karnad that the first draft was always a point of departure and texts would emerge gradually (Chaitanya 2016). Karnad turned out to be a rare writer who revised and edited his plays even after several editions following their publication. For instance, he revised his first play Yayati 30 years after it had been published.  

Karnad’s intellectual and artistic flourishing could not be possible without Kurtakoti and Ramanujan. As the legend goes, Karnad’s renowned play Naga-Mandala and Chandrashekar Kambar's Siri Sampige (1991) were inspired from a folktale that Ramanujan had once narrated to Karnad and Kambar, another famous Kannada writer. 

Karnad’s dramatic art was also shaped by different traditions of performing arts, including folk, Parsi, and Marathi theatres. The influence of the Western theatre and thought was equally strong on Karnad’s work. William Shakespeare had a tremendous influence on him, and in particular, how to effectively use dialogues. He believed that dialogues were not merely conversations, but meaningful sounds characters used to persuade other characters in his plays.[4] He worked meticulously on dialogues and gave scope to the dialogue-centric theatre. One can pick several dialogues from his plays as quotable quotes. During a discussion with Girish Karnad on his famous play Rakshasa Tangadi [5], S Surendranath observed that Karnad's plays gave Kannada theatre quotable quotes for the first time in its long history (Surendranath 2019).  

Artists learn from a tradition and from their predecessors. Karnad left no stone unturned to get his craft right from all sources. He was an avid reader of the theory of drama. He also honed his theatrical skills by critically reflecting on his own work. As a case in point his The Fire and the Rain (1998), dramatises the theory of drama and ritual.      

When Karnad went to Oxford, he came in contact with the Western culture and values that also contributed to the making of his sensibility. Upon his return to India, he worked with several institutions, including the Oxford University Press, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Film and Television Institute of India, and Nehru Centre in London, among others. Tracing the trajectory of his life with these institutions, and his career in the film and media industry is altogether a different exercise, which requires a separate article. 

A Markedly Different Public Intellectual 

Karnad’s role as a public intellectual is as important as his contribution to the theatre. He took positions on wide-ranging sociopolitical issues, and remained committed to his stances. There were also times when he made controversial statements. He called V S Naipul as anti-Ismalic at the Tata Literary Festival in 2012; termed Rabindranath Tagore as a second-rate playwright; demanded Bengaluru International Airport be named after Tipu Sultan, instead of Kempegowda; and protested with a “Me Too Urban Naxal” placard after the assassination of journalist Gauri Lankesh are a few instances when he stoked controversy.   

Unlike his contemporaries and prominent Kannada intellectuals, U R Ananthamurthy and P Lankesh, he did not come across a strong public voice. Though he took clear positions on contemporary issues, his style was markedly different. His work and engagement with the society were at a different level that robbed him of a charisma, generally, a public figure is endowed with. Though he appeared on celluloid, his work as an actor lacked breadth and depth. On several occasions, Karnad himself acknowledged that writing for theatre was his passion, and his engagement with other media was only to make a living.  

Finally, why this story? Karnad constructed his life as a work of art. It is, indeed, a classic. We learn from the “stories” narrated by storytellers, and further, we also learn from their lives. There is so much to learn from the story of Karnad; he was a go-getter, highly ambitious, and career-oriented personality. More importantly, he found pleasure in learning all his life, and always had time for philosophical reflection. Let us go back to the story of abortion at the beginning of the article. Karnad said when he had learnt from his mother about the abortion, he experienced a sense of absurdity of the life, and the utter meaninglessness of his existence.  “How do we imagine a world in which we are not?” he mused (Chaitanya 2016). He has left us with a legacy beyond his work, and philosophical insights into the art of life. Milieus, time, and space do matter to produce our subjectivities.  

I am grateful to the useful insights from the anonymous reviewer, and to Sundar Sarukkai, Simon Barnabas, Manjunath Hiremath, and Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi for their valuable suggestions.

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