An obituary on the passing away of Girish Raghunath Karnad
It is said that thou shalt not speaketh ill of the dead. So I shall refrain from speaking ill of Girish Raghunath Karnad but I shall speak only the truth and nothing but the truth. About eighteen years ago, I wrote a six-part series analyzing Girish Karnad’s most acclaimed plays on my defunct blog, The Rediscovery of India. I began the series declaring that “Girish Karnad is a fine actor, a mediocre director and a terrible playwright. In that order.” I’ll spare the details of what happened in its aftermath.
Suffice to say that after 2014, Karnad’s amorphous durbaris continue to feverishly employ their theatrical skills to out-Bhaktify the real, selfless, and true Narendra Modi’s bhakts.
In the hindsight these eighteen years have afforded, let me modify that declaration: Girish Karnad is an outstanding political pamphleteer, artful dodger, fine actor, a mediocre director and a terrible playwright.
Three major instances come to mind vis a vis his political pamphleteering. First, his so-called anti-communal campaign against the Datta Peeta, which he abandoned, dumping scores of his blind followers who trusted him to lead from the front. Second, his role as a member of former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s Communist Kitchen Cabinet, peddling pure anti-Hindu hate. Three, his political pamphlet named Tipuvina Kanasugalu (The Dreams of Tipu Sultan) masquerading as a play, which was useful for Siddaramaiah’s communal agenda of pushing the cruel “Tipu Jayanti” down the throats of Hindus in Karnataka. On a related note, Tipuvina Kanasugalu is Karnad’s second attempt at glorifying Islamic barbarians and mass-murderers of Hindus as freedom fighters and misunderstood geniuses. The first was his “play,” Tughlaq, which bestowed sainthood upon the genocidal Muslim bigot, the madman Mohammad Bin Tughlaq. Outwardly, the “play” was supposedly based on this historical character but it is evident that Karnad drew a parallel between Tughlaq and Jawaharlal Nehru by characterizing both as misunderstood geniuses who were denied their rightful place in history by the fascist forces of orthodox and regressive Brahmanism.
1972: Sangeet Natak Akademi
1992: Padma Bhushan
1994: Sahitya Academy
At this distance in time, it might be hard to believe, but arch-rivals, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Girish Karnad and their Leftwing ilk once lorded over the Kannada literary and publishing space. The running joke back then, uttered only in half-jest, was that among others, Karnataka’s own MGM Studios—Manohara Grantha Mala—operating from Dharwad had developed into a sort of literary arbiter in Kannada, welcoming those who toed the Leftist line and banning and banishing and slandering those who didn’t. One of the prized targets of their unending, vicious slander was Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa. Even back then, another standing joke was that one needed to translate Girish Karnad’s Kannada into Kannada.
Now, the proverbial icy hand of death has finally touched him at the ripe age of 81.
Here is how I had profiled Girish Karnad in the Outlook magazine in 2014. I wrote it on invitation. The context: it was barely a month after U.R. Ananthamurthy’s death. The Bangalore Literature Festival had invited Girish Karnad as an inaugural speaker and also put him on a panel titled Remembering U.R. Ananthamurthy. Karnad in turn, used the platform to lash out against U.R. Ananthamurthy, a fellow Leftist traveler, now dead, unable to rebut or respond, the embers of his mortal remains still smoking.
Given this and given Karnad’s lifelong accomplishments in vandalizing Hindu culture and heritage, the question remains: whether one should mourn him.
Poor U.R. Ananthamurthy, poorer Girish Karnad. That was the precise, first and only thought that sprang in my mind when my friend, a well-known Kannada writer, phoned to narrate Girish Karnad’s latest feat at the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival.
We can begin by briefly exploring an oft-overlooked fact about Karnad’s literary legacy. By all counts, Karnad is primarily a Kannada playwright and writer: all his plays are written in Kannada, as is his autobiography, Aadaadtha Aayushya. He won the Jnanpith for his contribution to Kannada literature. And yet, his fame originated in and spread within India and abroad primarily due to his academic successes in the western world. A Rhodes in your armoury (at least back then) was a formidable magic key that opened several mighty doors that mattered.
This career path pretty much holds true for Ananthamurthy, except for a cardinal difference: upon returning to India, Ananthamurthy remained in close touch with his Kannada roots while Karnad identified himself largely with Hindi, Marathi, English and, to an extent, Kannada theatre, and worked quite extensively in the film industry. In the latter half of the 2000s, Karnad metamorphosed into a Bangalore Page 3 celebrity, whereas Ananthamurthy was still active in the Kannada literary circles till his death recently.
This is perhaps one of the major reasons Ananthamurthy’s popularity and influence over contemporary Kannada literature has steadily towered over that of Karnad’s for at least four decades. Additionally, Karnad simply cannot match Ananthamurthy’s grasp over the native Kannada culture, idiom, and some truly original insights.
And now on to the similarities, which are aplenty. For much of their careers, both subscribed to Marxism—Ananthamurthy high vocal, Karnad subtle. There’s a reason Mark Antony declared that the evil that men do lives after them—Ananthamurthy should shoulder the blame for pioneering the ugly camp culture in the Kannada literary world. His previous generation of litterateurs—Masti, D.R. Bendre, Kuvempu—neither politicised literature nor treated it as a vehicle to reach personal or ideological destinations.
Indeed, both Karnad and Ananthamurthy belong to what I call the Nehruvian generation that failed India’s future. This generation set about desecrating, demonising and erasing India’s ancient civilisational memory and continuity in its quest for attaining the chimera of a new world order.
Which brings us to yet another point of homogeneity between Ananthamurthy and Karnad: S.L. Bhyrappa. Ananthamurthy led a four-decade-long literary witch-hunt against Bhyrappa, a fact that Bhyrappa has recounted in great detail in his autobiography. Karnad too pitched into this witch-hunt sporadically, the most recent being his diatribe against Bhyrappa in 2008 over the historical legacy of Tipu Sultan. While Ananthamurthy remained consistently hostile to Bhyrappa till the end, Karnad took a slightly more nuanced approach. He made two movies based on Bhyrappa’s novels, Vamsha Vruksha and Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane. And then, when the Tipu controversy erupted, Karnad claimed he was “ashamed of” and “regretted” making those movies.
And that was a starting point of sorts.
Fast forward to 2012 to the Tata Live! LitFest in Mumbai, where instead of honouring his commitment to speak on his assigned topic ‘Life in Theatre’, Karnad unleashed a wanton onslaught against literary giant V.S. Naipaul in his absence, calling him “tone-deaf” and “unreliable”. If you are a conspiracy theorist, you would conclude that his ire against Naipaul actually stems from his ire against Ananthamurthy. In the first page of Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilisation, he speaks glowingly of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara as a “powerful” literary work. No such luck for Karnad.
Karnad was unstoppable. Within ten days, he chose Tagore as his next target, dubbing him a “second-rate playwright”, and the characters in his plays as “really cardboard characters”. Reminds us of the adage about people living in glass houses because a few years ago, another Kannada Jnanpith awardee averred that Karnad’s Kannada plays had to be translated into Kannada.
The point was really not about the merit of either Naipaul or Tagore. The point was the outrage that followed in both cases. The point was that Karnad was back in the limelight: bad publicity is also publicity.
And now, at this year’s Bangalore Literature Festival, Karnad scored an encore: this time over the fresh memories of Ananthamurthy. Karnad was supposed to pay shraddhanjali (tributes) to Ananthamurthy, and he paid it by characterising Ananthamurthy’s works as “second-rate”, and by labelling his most celebrated work, Samskara, as “very baseless” and “shallow”. And then Karnad got personal: “He (Ananthamurthy) loved a seat but was not given. He pursued a (Rajya Sabha) seat like mad.”
It is of course nobody’s contention that only positive remarks can or need to be made about the legacy of a writer, living or deceased. However, given Karnad’s record, it is his practised duplicity on the question that jars. In all these long years, and as long as Ananthamurthy was alive, Karnad didn’t mutter as much as one negative word about the former’s work. And barely a month after his death, we are treated to this torrent of strident attacks. The duplicity is magnified when we consider the fact that the celluloid adaptation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara was one of the steps of the success-ladder Karnad climbed—he played the protagonist Praneshacharya. Apparently, Karnad spares none—first it was Bhyrappa’s two novels, and now it is Ananthamurthy’s turn. Needless to say, Karnad “regretted” Samskara as well.
Perhaps the most vital isomorphic relationship between Karnad and Ananthamurthy is their proximity to political power throughout their careers.
Ananthamurthy made no secret of his penchant for chasing politicians. From the socialist politician Shantaveri Gopala Gowda to a series of CMs like Ramakrishna Hegde to J.H. Patel to Siddaramaiah, he courted several heavyweights and himself carried considerable influence. But his opposition to the BJP and the Sangh parivar remained steadfast.
Karnad’s politics was differently coloured. Like Ananthamurthy, he was publicly opposed to the BJP and the Sangh parivar and mouthed the right words against “Hindu communalism, fascism” and the rest. Yet, he was not averse to accepting the directorship of the Nehru Centre and the post of minister of culture in the Indian high commission in London under Vajpayee’s “fascist” government. Not too long ago, he called Narendra Modi a “dangerous man”, but in July 2014, he decided to certify that Modi has “provided good governance”. That statement needs to be placed in perspective: Karnad is also part of chief minister Siddaramaiah’s kitchen cabinet. The rewards naturally ensued: in the recently concluded Mysore Dasara celebrations, Karnad and Siddaramaiah offered the inaugural puja to Goddess Chamundeshwari. What strain of morality whispered in the ears of this declared atheist that it was acceptable to be a guest of honour of sorts at a temple in which idols are worshipped is both a self-evident question and answer.
Karnad’s below-the-belt diatribe against Ananthamurthy shows the abyss he has touched, and by definition, it is bottomless. If Karnad’s call is “not to whitewash” the legacy of writers, and to look at their “darker shades”, why did he need to wait until Ananthamurthy was dead? And why didn’t he apply the same lofty standard to, say Bhyrappa, who he has attacked at will on political, not literary, grounds? And what has been his reaction when his darker shades were exposed in the media and elsewhere? Most people in Karnataka are familiar with his template-like reaction: when subject to critical scrutiny, Karnad has labelled people as BJP-RSS agents, fascists, communal and divisive.
Indeed, such considerations shouldn’t bother us. Karnad has both got what he wanted and gotten away with his anti-Ananthamurthy fulmination: a place back in the spotlight, and public memory is short. Here is a quote to recall when you hear of the next Karnad-generated outrage: “With more opportunity come more opportunists.” Oh! Also, Karnad’s serial volte-faces and attacks against eminent figures prove that opportunity lies in the midst of difficulty. We now know the exact difficulty that Karnad faces.