Girish Karnad (1938-2019), arguably India’s foremost playwright and film actor, thespian, director and scholar, was larger than life. His demise on June 10 created considerable reflection and nostalgia. A well-known litterateur and contemporary recounted how Karnad had told her that “myth” had become a “principle” for him, a reference to the use of allegory in his first play Yayati (a mythological king) which he wrote while at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. The theme from Hindu legend is the son’s sacrifice for his father and his place in society, a pressure he had apparently experienced while still abroad.
The directness of his manner and a virtual idée fixe of talking truth to power had made one wonder how long it could be sustained. His piece de resistance in those years was Tughlak. Artistic licence permitted him to depict the 14th century Delhi sultan as a romantic visionary whose dreams for his people dissolved in strife, a possible representation of the national political stage.
The contemplative idealist was strongly reflected in his work. He culled the profound from a variety of the mundane, by the sheer power of observation, and sometimes foregrounded them in a historical context. He had indeed recorded his amazement at the insights of real-life conversation.
A graduate in Mathematics, who did his Masters in Statistics, he saw logic and discipline in great literature. The living, feeling, individual juxtaposed by tradition in Samskara (Funeral Rites) developed from a cause celebre to the genesis of parallel cinema in his southern home State of Karnataka, Karnad featuring as the anti-heroic protagonist in a story by a friend and kindred spirit, U R Ananthamurty. There are many ways in which one can construe objectivity and ethics in parallel cinema, born to balance unrealism and insensitivity, and the treatment of discomfiting, glossed-over social circumstance. The plot had emotional power on behalf of the customarily marginalised and left the conclusions to the viewer. The endeavour suited the tastes and understanding of up-and-coming cognoscenti but not those who accept the existing state of affairs and try to make the best of it. In what could be described as a morally relativistic predicament, the anti-hero, a conservative pillar, is caught in the choice between body and soul and the social contract.
Whether as the village schoolmaster seeking justice for his wife in celebrated director Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (Dawn) or a fictionally iconic child-character’s forbidding father in (writer) R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days, Karnad captured the popular imagination across diverse ideas in several Indian languages and English. When the explicitly agreed upon restraints on authority are no longer either plain or settled, the role of the public intellectual is to comprehend and mediate the principles of what is essential in life. Karnad was the part with his recognized intellect and integrity, but the heavy weather he ran into was a measure of its enormity. Or perhaps his powers of reasoning and understanding were too acute for water-tight conclusions and his search was still on.
By Uttam Sen
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