Historian Ramachandra Guha's first impression of Girish Karnad was of a beautiful man who preferred his own company, "I first saw him in the early 1990s at the Indian International Center. Girish Karnad would always dine alone at a table in the middle of the room. All around him would be people — jhola wallahs, secretaries, politicians, writers, scientists, musicians, artists, but Karnad would dine alone in his kurta pajama, flawless skin. He was the kind of man even straight men had a crush on."
It is easy to assess, from this description alone, that Karnad was, perhaps, a solitary figure whose beauty lent easily to the world of cinema. But if you discern him from another perspective, he comes off as a gregarious theater playwright, famous for writing mythological and historical plays, which launched actors like Amrish Puri and Kabir Bedi, moving Indian theater, then mired in social issues and middle class morality, into new territory.
You swerve your perspective again, and you see him as a vocal critic of religious fundamentalism, raking at the roots of the rot, even if it was cloaked in the Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul's words, or Narendra Modi's election manifesto. From another perspective he comes across as an effective administrator — director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where he butted shoulders with his brazenly vocal students, including Naseeruddin Shah, and later, chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, where he attempted to revive the ancient Sanskrit theater Koodiyattam. From another perspective, he was a cutting art critic, writing for The Indian Express, where he was attempting to find a method to the madness of the Indian art world's experiments with tradition and modernity. Another perspective swerve, and you see him as a scholar, India's export to Oxford after getting the Rhodes Scholarship, where he served as president of the Oxford Union — sitting among the suited-booted with a sherwani. From another perspective, the final one, he was a candid memoirist, who took on his own life with a scrutinizing scalpel and a nostalgic caress.
'Autobiography' is too studied, too literary a word for This Life At Play, originally published in Kannada as Aadaadta Aayushya — taken from DR Bendre's poetry — translated into English by Srinath Perur. It is essentially a collection of personal essays. There is a sense that he wrote this book entirely grounded in memory, and not research. He makes statements like "This peninsula used to be seven or eight islands", a statement that could be easily clarified through research. But that is not what Karnad is after. He wants to leak himself dry onto paper, pouring exactly what is on his mind, who is on his mind, damn the literary quality or expectation of flow, damn the fact-checking instinct.
Often in celebrity biographies there is an understandable urge to paste paragraphs after paragraphs recounting incidents with famous people. This helps create the illusion that the writer lived a life entirely among the glitter of the world. It also creates a sense of celebrity by association. This can quickly become tedious, even farcical, like Anupam Kher's audible gasps being in the same room as Woody Allen, which he recounted diligently in one of his two self-help autobiographies.
Here, the desire to account for every person Karnad has ever associated with is not about propping himself, but propping them up, crystallizing them into his life — students who would melt into obscurity, or famous poets like AK Ramanujan he would launch into the stratosphere. There is enough love and memory to go around the table twice, sometimes thrice.
Another irritating tendency among memoirs is to create solid links of determinism between childhood and adulthood. So every childhood episode recounted serves only to explain later behaviour as an adult. Karnad does away with this because for him, telling the story of his childhood is not merely about setting up his story with links to be foiled in adulthood. It is a lush immersive springboard, with a level of detailing that is pedantic and desperate, where these formative influences reflect in his later art, sometimes consciously — like the mood of his play Yayati — sometimes unconsciously — like set design elements of his play Tughluq.
The memoir is almost an attempt at arresting memory before it fades, and so it is dense with names and personalities, some of which recur. This could and was confusing to navigate at various points, but nevertheless, was easy to cruise over given the personal project that this book reads like.
You also sense a change of tone as he recounts his growing years. Towards the end, he is deeply aware of his contributions to people, institutions, and art forms. Why shouldn't he? A memoir is not the place for performing modesty. But you can also sense the accompanying arrogance that comes with clout and talent. Where, in the initial years you are able to see Karnad taking a step back and putting himself in the other shoes, this desire goes away with the years, at least in his telling of it. But even in this telling, you can sense the gaps that he would want to come back to later.
As writer Arshia Sattar noted in her tribute to him, "He wrote with a sense of largesse. His writing was small but there were vast empty spaces between the lines he had written — to have a second thought, a new idea, a temporary expression that could accommodate a newer iteration."
Each of the ten essays in this book is rooted to a specific geography. It begins with his early days in Sirsi, a malarial hotbed in the backwoods of Karnataka, where the swirling art of Yakshagana theater and folklore embedded in Karnad, formative experiences of myth and folklore which would gestate over time, producing his first play, his take on a side-plot of the Mahabharata, Yayati. The next chapter is set in Dharwad where in college he studied Mathematics — as opposed to Kannada or English Literature or Philosophy, all of which he was pursuing on the side — because he knew he would get a first division in Mathematics easily. The first division was essential if he wanted to go abroad with a scholarship, which is exactly what he was working towards.
Later, in the documentary on his life Scattering Golden Feathers he notes how mathematics, despite not feeling important then, gave him both discipline and rigour which were important qualities to have in a playwright. In this memoir too he notes that the way he attempted to prove mathematical theorems — identifying the constituent parts, recognizing the relationships among them, working out the individual parts while keeping an eye on the overall structure — was instrumental in how he plumbed his plays into place, like a narrative architect.
It was in these early days that his initial desire to be an English poet morphed, and he ended up becoming a Kannada playwright. This happened not by planning and plotting, but by Kannada pouring forth from him, unplanned in the form of Yayati, "It was as if a spirit had entered me. Never again in my life did I experience this kind of loss of control while writing a play."
When he went to Oxford, on the Rhodes Scholarship, he was working on a draft of Yayati, and when he was coming back he had a draft of Tughluq. This was translated and performed in Bombay by Alyque Padamsee (famous for debuting the world to Kabir Bedi, who is introduced in the play, bare butt first), it was done in Marathi by Arvind Deshpande, and in Bengali by Shyamanand Jalan. This play is still being performed religiously and rigorously; I had caught a Hindi version of it performed by Betaal in Mumbai before the pandemic — a rousing, existential renegotiation with the infamous reputation of Muhammed bin Tughlaq, the 14th Century Delhi Sultanate.
What is worth noting is that Karnad saw in the epics and in history not a finality but a lush springboard from where to launch into more pressing, contemporary, and even personal questions. In Yayati, where a son exchanges his youth with his father's old age, he saw in the son a "personification of [his] own angst at that time," leaving for the West where he was eager to come into his own, encumbered by his parents making their expectations and endearments clear.
He writes candidly about sexual frustration, about his virginity, some stray affairs, passionate necking, and there is a clear sense of Karnad's resentment towards his internalized Victorian mores. A battle within that he gives voice to in this book, and through his playwrights. For Karnad, theater is an expression of the personal, and the societal, and never one at the expense of the other.
He is clear that the origins of secularism in India comes from theater. Where with the introduction of a ticketed theater, you had Muslims writing in Hindi, financed by the Parsis, for a largely Hindu audience. Theater, which was a caste calling, became a respectable profession during the British — who introduced the stage space as separate from the audience and ticketing to make money off of it.
Even as Karnad's gaze turned towards cinema, where he achieved laurels as a screenwriter, actor and director, his heart beat firmly for theater, "[T]o the end, I could never get from films the satisfaction I got from theatre."
When Karnad passed away in 2019, he was mourned in some national dailies as the man from Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai. There was an uproar, that a fulcral man of the arts was mourned as a side-character of entertainment. I often wondered what Karnad would make of this brouhaha, this firm distinction in eulogizing him.
There were many moments in his life, and in this book too, where Karnad could have given in to the impulse of deriding commercial cinema or to the easy romanticism of parallel cinema and theater. He resists both, looking at each with equal love and frustration.
In one chapter, in a parenthetical statement, Karnad notes that he sweats copiously and while doing movies in closed, badly ventilated studios, when he would hold onto his actress during a love scene, he would worry that a small bead of sweat rolling over his head would drop onto her. About a 100 pages later he is talking about moderating the Oxford Union as its president, discussing politics and philosophy. Another 100 pages later, he is talking of cobbling together funds to produce a film in line with Ray's neorealism. The tone he uses throughout, stringing these stray anecdotes together, doesn't waver. Karnad is firmly a man of culture — high brow, low brow, no brow, doesn't matter.
But this doesn't mean he isn't aware of the bifurcations. As a director at NFII, he notes the different perspectives and biases of his students — some of whom model themselves on parallel cinema, and some of whom are gurgling to be thrust into the chaos of commercial cinema. He recognizes that art and entertainment might be different but they are buds from the same root. In a lecture, when trying to differentiate the two, he paraphrases the Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan, "The main difference between entertainment and art is that artform is entertainment which has lost its audience." And it is precisely through his attempt to give these two seemingly disparate worlds what they were lacking — to give entertainment the heft of an artform, and to give artform the relevance of entertainment — that Karnad lived his life.