Girish Karnad: Biography & Dramatic Career

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      Among the creative geniuses of the modem age who have contributed significantly to Indian English drama, Girish Kamad stands supreme. Born in 1938 in Maharashtra his initial schooling was in Marathi. After having done his B.A. in Mathematics and Statistics in 1958 from the university of Kamatak, Dharwad he proceeded to Magdalen college, Oxford where he did his M. A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics as a Rhodes scholar Kamad, after his return to India, joined the Oxford University Press in Chennai where he worked for seven years.

      Girish Raghunath Karnad as a playwright of international fame translated his plays originally written in Kannada into English. His first play Yayati (1961) chronicles the adventures of mythical characters from The Mahabharata at the same time showing the influence of Camus and Satre. In the play he explains the complexities of responsibilities and experiences within the Indian family. The influence of Camus is also evident in his well-known play Tughlaq (1962) which is historical in concept based on the life of Sultan Mohammad bin Tughlaq of fourteenth-century India. Karnad projects the complex contradictions in the personality of the Sultan. In due course of time, his idealism and shortcomings brought misery to his kingdom. Karnad called the play a political allegory for he saw a great deal of correspondence between Nehru and Tughlaq. Karnad found Tughlaq’s history to be quite contemporary containing a close similarity between the failure of Tughlaq’s idealism and the disenchantment that prevailed in India after the demise of Nehru. In Hayavadan (1970) Karnad uses folk motifs. The immediate source of the play is Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Head. In Hayavadan Karnad concentrates upon the existential theme of ambiguity of the human condition. The play presents cases of fractured personalities who suffer due to lack of integration. However, instead of pausing at existential despair, Karnad suggests alternatives for achieving integration in a world overshadowed by absurdity and irrationality. Girish Karnad in this play has used ancient legends to explain a modern theme.

      For an early play, Tughlaq is quite well constructed establishing the fact that Karnad had evolved into a seasoned actor and director. The story being rooted in actual history may be ignored while examining Karnad’s contribution to drama but his dramatic rendering of history through compact plot construction, perfect interaction of characters and employment of appropriate language for conversation provides a pleasurable action to the audience. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford for three years and a Visiting Professor at Chicago University for two years initiated Karnad into the intricacies of the Western Theatre at the same time the exposure to conversational idiom of English language provided him enough impetus to translate his Kannada plays into English. Analysis of his art of characterization or endeavoring to delve into his pattern of plot construction or studying his style and language is not an easy critical venture and therefore, it is essential to peruse his plays thematically as well as symbolically before attempting an exercise to examine his dramaturgy.

      Karnad as a lover of literature developed a passion for English poetry desiring to be a poet himself, hence grabbing the first possible opportunity to study in the United Kingdom. Before journeying abroad Karnad composed his first play Yayati in Kannada which was produced successfully but was published later in 1961 when the dramatist was abroad. Tughlaq was also written and produced originally in Kannada and subsequently translated into English. Yayati was translated by the dramatist after this. Then onwards, all the plays of Karnad were written in Kannada, simultaneously getting translated into English till recently when he experimented with writing English plays directly after return from his three years’ stay at U.K., a period which prevented him from any fruitful creative activity.

      Karnad’s failure to become a poet, in no way, submerges his creativity. His decision to practice as a playwright was inspired by local Nataka Company and almost extinct Parsi
Theatre as the dramatist recalls:

I wanted to be a poet, the greatest ambition in my life. At the age of 22, I realized I would not be a poet, but only a playwright. What surprised me most was that I wrote in Kannada because I spent all my teenage years preparing to be an English poet. I trained myself to be an English writer, but when it really came to expressing one’s tensions it came off in Kannada.

      Karnad states:

There were two kinds of theatre, the Parsi theatre and the Yaksha Gana, popularly known as Company Nataka. I survived in this kind of theatrical atmosphere until I came to Bombay.

Literary Career

      However, Kamad had a great ambition to be known as a poet of international fame. Although he couldn’t realise this dream, he has surely earned a prominent place in the history of Indian English drama. He himself tells us, “I wanted to be a poet, the greatest ambition in my life. At the age of 22, I realised I would not be a poet, but only a playwright.” Thus, he began his literary career. He further throws light on how he took up writing plays:

I was very tense and I found ultimately and suddenly on the eve of my leaving for England, that I had started writing and writing a play rather than a poem and it surprised me for three reasons. One thing that it was a play, because I just said I wanted to be a poet. The second thing that surprised me was that I wrote in Kannada because I spent all my teenage years preparing to be an English poet. I wanted to go abroad and be in England, the country where Auden and Eliot lived and shone there, and it seemed to me there was nothing to do in India and, therefore, I trained myself to be an English writer. But when it really came to expressing one’s tensions it came off in Kannada and I suddenly realised that I wasted some years of my life practising writing. The third thing that surprised me was that it was a play about a myth, Yayati, from the Mahabharat. All these three things came as a surprise because I just said, “one thought one was modem alienated from one’s background, from one’s language.”

      This is how Kamad himself underwent an existential ‘alienation’ and struggled hard to become a writer of eminence in a language not his own. During his stay in England he came under the influence of great playwrights like Shakespeare, Ibsen and Shaw and thus developed a strong fascination for English language. Striking a balance between kannada and English he first wrote his plays in kannada and then translated some of them into English, in order to be known as an English playwright, to enrich Indian drama in English. Did he make a deliberate choice of Kannada, rather than English or even his mother tongue Konkani ? ‘No’ is his reply, “Kannada chose me. One does not choose, one simply falls into a language.”


      Kamad’s first play Yayati (1961) (written in Kannad) in based on an episode in the Mahabharat. It is a kind of re-interpretation of the Indian mythology in a modem context. The playwright’s purpose is to provide a stage for the dramatization of Indian mythology, as he himself says, “I wanted Indian myths to achieve the status Greek myths have on world stage.” Yayati was so effective and powerful in theatre that it won the Mysore, State award in 1962.


      Karnad’s second play Tughlaq appeared in 1964 and is possibly his best known. It is a history play based on the theme of the fall and tragedy in the life of Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq, a medieval ruler in India. The play presents Tughlaq as a sensitive and intelligent ruler who sets out to do the best for his subjects and kingdom, but ironically enough, he is misunderstood by whom he loved and trusted. As a result, all his dreams and aspirations crumble down to ashes and he suffers existential alienation when he becomes a tyrant. The play is based on the last five years of the troubled reign of Muhammad Tughlaq (1327-32 AD) in India. Originally written in Kannada and later translated into English by Girish Karnad himself Tughlaq, like Yayati was an immediate success on the stage. It was also translated into several other languages and staged at different places. When Tughlaq was produced in English in 1970 in Mumbai it was given standing ovations. The play, directed by E. Alkazi was also presented in London by the National School of Drama during the Festival of India in 1982.


      This is Kamad’s third play written in 1970 and later translated into English. It is based on a tale from Kathasaritasagara that was used by Thomas Mann for his short novel, The Transposed Heads. Search for identity is the existential theme of the play, It was another great success, and Kamad won the Kamalader’s Award of the Bhartiya Natya Sangh in 1972 for this play. Its German version was directed by Vijay a Mehta.


      Kamad in this play of 1988 takes a departure from the “classical” sources and concentrates on local kannad folk-tales to produce an entirely new kind of drama. For theatrical effectiveness, the playwright has employed here some techniques from the folk theatre. About it Kamad has said:

The energy of folk theatre comes from the fact that although it seems to uphold traditional values, it also has the means of questioning these values....The various conventions - the chorus, the music, the seemingly unrelated comic interludes, the mixing of human and non-human worlds - permit a simultaneous presentation of alternative points of view.....They allow, for to borrow a phrase, from Bertolt Brecht, ‘complex seeing’.

      Naga-Mandala (Play with Cobra) was also translated into English. It was based, interestingly enough, on a folk tale related to Kamad by A. K. Ramanujam. Kamad won the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the most creative work of 1989 for this play. J. Garland Wright directed this play during the celebrations of the 30th Anniversary of Guthrie Theatre, Minnepolis.


      This play, too, was translated into English and was perfonned to standing ovations, “It is seen as Karnad’s first play that deals explicitly with the influence of the larger social and intellectual milieu on individual action.” It is a play of 1990 that is based on an episode in the life of Lingayat, the saint and founder of Basava movement in the 12th century in Karnataka. Possibly Kamad here was motivated to write this play by the political situations that had arisen due to caste-reservation policy of the Mandal commission and religious fanaticism growing in Ayodhya. The play is so powerful that Karnad won the “Writer of the year” award given by Granthaloka in 1990. It also won the Karnataka Nataka Academy award for the best play of 1990-91. Remarkably enough, this play also brought Kamad two more prestigious awards: Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award in 1993 and the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of the Letters) Award in 1994.

      In Tale-Danda, Karnad once again resorts to history. He writes of Basavanna, a social reformer of repute of the twelfth-century Karnataka who had founded the Lingayat faith. As chief minister of the kingdom of King Bijjala, Basavanna tried to do away with the caste system, inequality of the sexes, rejection of idol worship, etc. The higher castes resented these. Consequently, King Bijjala is dethroned by his son while Basavanna dies a mysterious death. Once again history has been used to explain contemporary events. Karnad confesses that while writing this play he had the “Mandal” and “Mandir” issues in mind.


      Once again Kamad turns to the epic Mahabharat for the source of his play of 1995, Agni Mattu Male (the Fire and the Rain), Based on the themes of relationship between brothers or cousins and also the relation of drama to ritual within Indian traditions this play is considered Kamad’s best creation.


      In 1997 Kamad produced a radio-play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan in Kannada dramatizing the dreams of a great Warrior.


      Kamad’s play Odakalu Bimba (A Heap of Broken Images) appeared in 2005. It is different from other plays as it is based neither on mythology nor history. It deals with a contemporary theme of a writer’s dilemma who fails miserably in her own language, but earns worldwide acclaim when she switches over to English medium. Kamad himself says how the idea for such a play was born:

The idea was born when I heard the author Shashi Deshpande speak at a writer’s conference. She was talking about writers in regional languages versus writers in English, and I thought to myself, what better example of this than Shashi herself? Two languages exist in her own home. She is the daughter of the famous Kannada dramatist Shriranga, but Shashi chose English as her intermediary to tell her tales.

      Girish Karnad’s another play Bali The Sacrifice has earned worldwide recognition for its effective stage-dialogue and dramatic technique. In 2002 this play was invited by The Hay Market Theatre in Leicester (U. K.) for its premier show. Its performance there received loud applause.

      Kamad’s concept of ‘global village’ finds expression in his latest play Wedding Album (2008). It’s a modern play in the true sense of the term. It deals with urban middle class family and the moving and hillarious scenes therein delight the audience most. It’s a ‘wonderful comic drama’ that reflects the modern Indian society we live in.

      In view of Kamad’s dramatic creations he is called the “Renaissance Man.” According to Mahesh Dattani Karnad, “has a historic vision but a contemporary voice,” which makes his plays universal. About his plays K. R. S. Iyenger says, “——Be the theme, historical, mythical or legendary - Kamad’s approach is modern.”

Other Prestigious Awards

      President’s Gold Medal for the best Indian Film in 1970 was given to Samskara which Karnad scripted and played its lead role. Samskara is the award winning novel by U. R. Ananthamurthy. His films and documentaries won several awards and have been shown at film festivals all over the world. He has also acted in several Hindi and Kannada feature films and thus contributed significantly to the literature on Indian movies and theatre.

      In view of his contributions and achievements Karnad was awarded the Padma Shri in 1974 and the Padma Bhushan in 1992. He was awarded the Jnanpith, the highest literary award in India for his contributions to modem Indian drama in 1999.

Distinguished Positions

Karnad held following distinguished positions and graced certain offices: President - Karnataka Nataka Academy - 1976 - 78

Chairman - Sangeet Natak Academy and National Academy of the Performing Arts 1988 - 93

Visiting Professor and Fullbright Scholar-in-Residence - University of Chicago - 1987 - 88

Earned Doctor of Letters - Karnataka University - 1994.

      Girish Karnad is another ‘myriad-minded’ genius who is at once a great scholar, a playwright, an actor, a producer, a director and also a script writer of a number of films and documentaries.

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