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Reminiscing the late Girish Karnad

Reminiscing the late Girish Karnad










Girish Karnad, one of India’s most eminent playwrights and an acclaimed film actor and director, passed away peacefully in his sleep in Bangalore on 10th June, 2019.

A Rhodes Scholar, he read Politics Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford and was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1963. No small achievement for a man from a modest background whose father was a government doctor and whose job entailed the family moving through small towns in the Western Ghats.

Girish was born in Matheran, but spent his formative years in Sirsi and then Dharwad. His mother tongue was Konkani, but he was as comfortable in Marathi, Hindi and of course the language in which he wrote and dreamed, Kannada. His plays straddled multiple genres and themes from historical and mythological works such as Yayati, Tughlaq, Nagamandala (which he translated into English himself) to the more contemporary, like The Wedding Album and Benda Kaalu on Toast. His acting debut was in Kannada in the 1970 film Sanskara but he also went on to act in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Assamese films. More recently, he was known for his part in the Bollywood hits Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai in which he co-starred with Salman Khan.

Girish was my brother in law, my wife Leena’s elder brother. She remembers an intellectual powerhouse whose Math teachers would call on him in class to explain tough Math sums or English comprehensions that were beyond their ability. They acted and danced (he was a talented Bharatnatyam dancer) in many plays together at college in Dharwad which he wrote and directed of course. A doting uncle, my daughters remember lazy days in Dharwad visiting their grandmother and being enriched with myths, historical facts, family lore, being taught to recognise the stars in the night sky from the terrace, poring over his brilliant portraits of famous writers and being entertained in the evenings with hand shadow puppet shows. He was a man of many interests and diverse talents.

The tributes have been overwhelming. He touched many lives and supported many causes, always championing the underdog. He had no time for pomp, ceremony or celebrity status. Incredibly modest – he travelled by train and taxi in Mumbai for years – he was forthright in his views on religious tolerance, secularism, and freedom of speech and expression. Even when hampered by a debilitating lung condition and an oxygen cylinder, he would join the masses on the streets of Bangalore to protest and support causes he believed in.

His contribution to the arts earned him some of the highest honours in India. He was the recipient of Padma Shri in 1974 and Padma Bhusan in 1992. In 1998 he was bestowed with the Jnanpith Award, India’s most prestigious literary award.

More than the tributes and condolences from the President and Prime Minister of India, Girish would have warmed to the overwhelming messages from people in India and around the globe whose lives he touched so deeply. His brilliance and, more so, his humanity, has made an impact on the world of arts and civil society in a way that no public figure has in recent memory.

His legacy will endure. He leaves behind his wife Saras and his daughter Radha (both doctors) and his writer/journalist son, Raghu. Radha married to Achal Kapila lives in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Sharad Rao

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