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His soul was Kannada

By June 15, 2019No Comments


Though his plays were translated into several languages of India and the world, Girish Karnad’s thoughts and emotions had their moorings in Kannada. He was a global figure, but he kept his relationship with Kannada language and writing intact

A few minutes before Girish Karnad was seen off from his home for the last time, on the family’s request, I read a small excerpt from his play, Nagamandala,before the small gathering of friends and relatives. Karnad was sleeping motionless. Arjun Sajnani read a conversation from Hayavadana , in English. There was no particular reason for me to choose the passage that I read. When I picked his complete plays, I saw there were markings on that specific page inNagamandala . I had little idea why they were there. However, I decided to read what had been touched by him. Rani’s distress in waiting for Nagappa, her happiness on his arrival, confiding her worries in him… the power that those lines had left me emotional. Rani’s anxiety, the falsity of marital relationships, the fragmented nature of human ties — I began to realise the extraordinary skill with which he had captured all of this in Kannada. Keeping to the ebb and flow of the language, he had taken control of Rani’s tumultous thoughts — my heart was full. That evening, I read the English translation of the play. I glanced through the English translation of other plays as well. When I returned to Kannada, I felt it is in Kannada that one gets to savour the richness of his plays.

This is more a comment on the poetic quality of Karnad’s plays and less on the merit of the translations. The structure of his plays are so immaculate and the meaning so deep, that even when one feels that are have lost in translation, it has seen successful productions across the world.

Karnad clearly knew where his spirit would blossom, he was aware of those creative moments when thoughts and emotions materialised in a particular language: it is precisely because of this reason that he gave up the desire of becoming an English poet and decided to be a playwright in Kannada. It is perhaps important to recall what he says in his autobiography about the birth of his first play, Yayati . “The characters came alive with conversation and started walking before my eyes. I, like a stenographer, began to put it down on paper. I have never experienced an intensity such as this ever after.”

Fortunately for Karnad, since such an experience was at the beginning of his career, he realised that the sources of his creativity were in Kannada.

The lyricism of his plays, the flow of dialogue, and the latent sorrows of his characters could be captured only in Kannada. The mad dreamer Tughlaq, can be made sense of completely only in Kannada. Kapila, Padmini and Devadutta ofHayavadana belong to Kannada. So are Basava-Bijjala of Taledanda . Rani ofNagamandala , Tipu, Nittile of Agni Mattu Male — they all live in Kannada. This may sound disappointing to those who have read Karnad in several other languages, but a creative writer can be completely experienced only in his mother tongue. This also becomes the reason for his greatness, like in the case of Karnad.

When plays were being used to fight social battles, to lampoon, to laugh, to be entertained, and to celebrate mythological stories, Karnad, for the first time, gave voice to the angst of the modern man, when Puru cried: “What is the meaning of all this, God?”

For the first time, he showed the possibility of theatre becoming a tool to express rational and philosophical worries. With this, he ushered a new tradition in Kannada theatre. His second play Tughlaq and later Hayavadanahave gone on to become classics and serve as evidence to him being a forerunner on this path.

It was Karnad who showed that it was possible to construct a play without any structural flaws. If one reads his excellent critical essays on Mrichchakatika, Kakana Kote , and Harijanwara , it becomes clear how he imagined a total theatrical process, as also his constant search for that perfect structure. The dialogues in his play are so deeply interconnected that whichever part of the play you touch you can experience the whole. If you eliminate any one thing, the whole structure collapses. I know personally how hard he worked to achieve this perfection. I was the first reader of his play, Maduve Album . It was a manuscript that came after several drafts. He gave permission to publish the first three scenes to Desha Kaala, the literary magazine I used to edit. Till his end, Karnad wrote by hand and did not use the computer. So, after it was keyed in and the magazine pages designed, I sent the proof to him.

The manuscript that came back was so full of corrections that typing it all over again was a better idea than to incorporate corrections. It came back with corrections one more time. When I sent it the third time, with the deadline hemming in, I requested him to make any other corrections in the book that would be published. He had the patience to work on a manuscript for years. Exactly like a musician who tirelessly works on a raga till he captures it completely.

Not just that, each time his plays went for a reprint, Karnad used to make changes.

For instance, you can see the changes in Tughlaq from the first edition to now. To put it in his own words, he could not cut off connections with any of his plays till the very end. All his plays have received wide acclaim. The country’s leading directors, actors and actresses have directed and performed them. Even then, he never stopped revisiting them.

For him, the final goal was not a successful performance of the play. The plot, language, and text had a connection with the soul of the writer, and he constantly explored it. This struggle was important for him. Unfortunately, he was such a luminous persona that many glossed over this side of him and its importance.

Never did Karnad use his fame, popularity, contacts and position to promote his writing. He never believed that awards were achievements. That is precisely why he refused to be honoured after winning the Jnanapith. It is for the same reason that Karnad shunned a state funeral. He was someone who knew the value of a writer’s privacy. Even with his global reach, he retained a fond relationship with Kannada. In today’s times when writing is directly linked to global capital, Karnad’s pursuits seem spiritual.

With all awards, accolades and fame, he never lost the zeal and excitement to make changes to a play that has already seen several reprints. Though he traversed many realms, he kept his private relationship with language and writing intact. Precisely why his being was rooted in Kannada and in no other place.

The author is an acclaimed Kannada writer.

Translated from Kannada by Deepa Ganesh

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