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Girish Karnad - Poetry in Dramatic Motion


In 1999, Karnataka gained a rare literary distinction. When Jnanpith Award was awarded to noted playwright Girish Karnad, it became the only state, and Kannada the only language, to have seven Jnanpith Awardees. Not even Hindi, the national language, had that distinction.

Kannadigas rejoiced, not only due to the rare honor, but also because Karnad deserved the award. Anybody who is even remotely familiar with his work could have seen that.

Later that year, when the state government decided to hold a week long festival of his plays, not even theatre lovers could have guessed what a runaway success it would be. The modest Ravindra Kalakshetra could not hold all those who wanted to witness his plays, and some even had to be turned away. Inside the auditorium, enthusiasts thought nothing of sitting on the ground in the aisles and standing at the far end, when seats were exhausted. There were loud claps and whistles, much like a popular film.

A very emotional and touched Karnad said he could not have anticipated a better felicitation and stated that for a playwright, being staged and appreciated, was the greatest gift of all. Not for nothing is Karnad hailed as a master craftsman when it comes to writing plays. Probably to kill criticism, or to explore his boundaries, but his plays span a wide range of time - from the historical Tughlaq, with its grandiose settings and costumes, to mythical ones like Yayati, Nagamandala and Hayavadana. And then came commissioned works - Nagamandala was translated and premiered in the US by Guthrie Theatres, which then went onto commission him to write his latest play Agni mattu male (The fire and rain) which has been received to rave reviews.

Karnad's themes, no matter in what garment they are couched or embellished, always contain an unmistakable thread - a comment on contemporary ideas allegorized in whatever form he thinks best. The most telling example is that of Tughlaq, where he depicts the mood swings of the controversial Muhammad bin Tughlaq, but the underlying comment was always on the goings on of the Nehruvian era. Staged today, it can always be compared to any one of the scatter brained politicians who is leading our country, or state.

And it is for this reason that Karnad has admirers and detractors in equal number, indicating there's no way he can be ignored. ``He's happy and content to draw parallels with mythology and in generalizations,'' his detractors say. But his admirers contend this and say that is precisely what makes his plays always contemporary and it is his art and craft which are more noteworthy, that his is the work of poetry in dramatic action. Be that as it may, Karnad is never the one to have let criticism affect his work adversely.

Karnad's forays into film and filmmaking have not been minor events either. He produced and acted in Samskara, based on a novel by another Jnanpith awardee U.R. Ananthmurthy that created controversy and was banned due to the stark depiction of caste politics but later went on to win accolades and awards.

Incidentally, Karnad was on location shooting his film Kanooru Heggadathi, based on a book by the same name by Kuvempu, the first Kannada Jnanpith awardee, when Karnad's award was announced.

Coincidence, destiny or pure chance - call it what you will. However, despite the tremendous response to his plays, Karnad feels the theatre scene in Karnataka and India, is not something to write home about. And a major obstacle is not a glut of TV shows and soaps, but the poor quality of civic infrastructure. ``One just does not want to get out after coming back home from work. Bad roads, congested traffic and lack of efficient public transport are major deterrents. Look at the classy TV shows in the US or UK, and yet theatregoers flock to shows. So obviously, a part of the problem lies elsewhere,'' he says. Surprising analysis, this is. Wake Up! Bangalore City Corporation!!

But a greater honour was to be bestowed on Karnad. Soon after the Janpith award, Karnad was made chairperson of the prestigious Nehru Centre in London. And never the one to sit still, Karnad is on to his next project and next play. And seems to be enjoying his stint there as well.

Not only has the center gained new momentum and witnessed vigorous activity, the space has been opened up for performances by young talented people because Karnad firmly believes in sharing and exposing available creativity to more people.

What can one say of a persona so distinguished? Except that people back home are very proud, and eagerly waiting for the next work from the same stable.

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