Girish Karnad passed away earlier today. He was 81. A veteran playwright, a seasoned actor and one of the most prolific litterateurs of our time, Karnad has left behind a humongous cultural footprint on this generation. However for the current generation, Karnad’s familiarity might stem from the two-part Tiger films starring Salman Khan. Playing the role of the RAW Chief called Dr Shenoy in both Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), Karnad managed to achieve something that he hadn’t been able to do with his work worth five decades. He began to be recognised by the layman as ‘Shenoy’.
Chosen for the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, Karnad wrote his first play Yayati (1961) while he was still at Oxford. Once he came back to India, he went on to write his most revered play, Tughlaq (1964). Adapted by Alyque Padamsee in Mumbai and Ebrahim Alkazi in Delhi, it was because of Tughlaq that Karnad became the next big thing in the pan-India theatre circuit.
Karnad played an important part in Hindi cinema’s parallel movement by starring in Shyam Benegal’s films like Nishant and Manthan. Although, one of Karnad’s best performances came in Basu Chatterjee’s Swami, where he played the role of an emotionally distant husband opposite Shabana Azmi. Karnad had a huge following among kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s for his weekly science show, Turning Point, that aired on Doordarshan. He also played a part in the TV adaptation of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days.
In 1999, Girish Karnad was awarded with the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, for his contribution to literature and theatre. Before this, he had also been bestowed with a Padmashri in 1974 and a Padma Bhushan in 1992.
Karnad was also fearlessly political, where many claimed that Tughlaq was meant to critique the Emergency. His other play, Tale Danda (1990) was a direct rebuttal to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that was taking form and would eventually announce itself with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, about two years later.
Not someone to suppress a passionate opinion, Karnad didn’t make two ways about his dislike for VS Naipaul’s anti-Muslim sentiments at a panel of a literature festival. Being felicitated at the same literature festival, Karnad even criticised the organisers for indulging the likes of Naipaul. He even controversially remarked that Rabindranath Tagore was a ‘second-rate’ playwright, while he was one of the finest poets and thinkers of his time.
Girish Karnad is survived by wife Saraswathi, a renowed social activist by herself. And children Raghu Karnad (Journalist & Author) and Radha Karnad (Doctor).
(*feature illustration by Manimanjari Sengupta)