I met Girish Karnad only once in all these years. It was at a party linked to the International Film Festival of India in 1992 when it used to be organized in Delhi. His feature film Cheluvi was a part of the Indian Panorama that year and it was a beautiful film directed by Karnad. I went up to congratulate him on the beautiful surrealistic love story and he was as happy as a child. I was surprised because he was already a legend in his own right and to be so thrilled on admiration for a film was not expected. Based on folklore of Karnataka and the plot of Cheluvi has been penned down by Girish Karnad himself.

Many years later, I approached him for an e-mail interview on behalf of a friend of mine in whose film he had done an important role. But he declined in a few sentences saying that he had little time to answer my queries that could make a mini book! The opportunity was lost forever and I never met this legend again.

My vocation of a film critic always, almost on reflex, links me to the person’s contribution to cinema. So, I am reminded of another film done in two versions, Kannada and Telugu, called Ananda Bhairavi (1983) which I chanced upon during a television screening. It was without any sub-titles but what drew me to continue watching was Girish Karnad’s graceful performance of traditional Kuchipudi. In this film, Karnad played a conventional teacher of the Kuchipudi school of dance whose entire life is dedicated to breaking the golden rule of Kuchiputi that banned any girl from learning this form of dance. He fought against the entire Kuchipudi traditional practitioners and finally found a little girl who he began to train. Girish Karnad portrayed this guru and his dance numbers mesmerised me and amazed me. Who would have ever thought that this outstanding playwright who created his own literary genre of drama could also dance so well? The film bagged two State (Nandi) Awards for Best Feature and Best Direction while Karnad bagged the Filmfare Award for Best Acting. However, in commercial terms, the film did not do too well beside the Kamal Hasan starrer Sagara Sangamam in which Kamal too, dances throughout the film and he was the actor with the greater pull among audiences across the South. But Kamal Hasan was a trained dancer himself while Karnad must have gone through special training in Kuchipudi to perform the role and that was what caught my attention. He worked on his appearance and his costume as well so that the portrayal comes across with conviction and it did.

In Perspectives and Challenges in Indian-English Drama (2006) editor Neeru Tandon writes: “Girish Karnad, undoubtedly the most important dramatist of the contemporary Indian stage has enriched this genre with his talent as an actor, director, writer and producer. He (has) represented India in foreign lands as an emissary of art and culture.”

When asked why, as a litterateur, he chose drama as a genre over poetry and fiction, he said, “Because I don’t have the patience to write a novel and I couldn’t dabble in poetry. As a youngster, I was an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theatre in our village. They influenced me a lot. It was then that I made up my mind to explore its depth—but I now realize that I am yet to touch even the edge of it.”

The fact that he was an actor and a playwright gave him an edge over those who only wrote plays and those who only acted in plays. He said this was possible for him “I know how to write a play and to give it a slant from the production point of view. I carry a lot of goodwill with theatre groups and actors. I read out my plays and make a few suitable changes from the feedback I receive. But once I complete the writing, I don’t go back. I leave it to the Directors’ creativity. I don’t interfere.”

Though he was born in Matheran, a small hill station in Maharashtra, his father shifted to Sivisi, a small town in Karnataka where he spent most of his boyhood. This brought him into contact with Natak Mandalis or wandering theatre groups who were prominent in Karnataka in the Fifties. The seeds were perhaps sown right then but the fruits were to appear later, to turn him into one of the greatest playwrights in Indian contemporary literature.

His first play Yayati (1961) was created while he was still studying at Oxford. It revolved around the story of Yayati the mythological king through which and his following play Tughlaq (1964) and many more,created a new genre of theatre that brought about a very happy and unique blending of mythology and theatre and also, for some plays, folklore and theatre. Tughlaq, that narrates the story of the 14th century Sultan Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, remains among his best known works some of which he himself translated from the original Kannada to English.

If one were to list his entire graph of titles and awards, it would demand a separate tribute altogether. But the quality in him apart from being the sixth person in Kannada literature to be bestowed the Dadasaheb Phalke Award and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Southern California Los Angeles, Karnad never allowed himself the political insularity of many litterateurs who choose to refrain from the political happenings going on around them. Two major incidents that come to mind deserve mention here.

In 2012, when the Times Literary Festival was organized in Mumbai, where Karnad was invited to talk on “his life in theatre”, he did steered clear of anything to do with his “life in theatre” and chose instead to strike out at V.S. Naipaul for his “antipathy towards Muslims” and went ahead to criticise the organizers of the TLF for having honoured Naipaul on a previous occasion.

He lent his angry voice to the protests following the murders of Gauri Lankesh, Kalburgi and others. During the first anniversary memorial function after Gauri Lankesh’s heinous murder by right wing Hindu fundamentalists, he attended the event with a placard around his neck that spelt out “MeTooUrbanNaxal” which went viral across the media. When Gauri Lankesh’s murder was being investigated by the Karnataka police, many discovered with shock that his name happened to be the first in the hit list prepared by a far right conspiracy by members associated with groups that were targeting litterateurs and rationalists. But Karnad was not one to back out of his courage.

Among his films, one would remember the off-beat Hindi films like Nishaant in which he played the timid school teacher husband of his abducted wife performed by Shabana Azmi while in Manthan, he played the city man visiting a Gujarat village to help in furthering a milk revolution. His performance on the television serial Swami based on R.K. Narayan’s series of works as Swami’s father became a hot attraction for couch potatoes across the Hindi speaking belt. But by his own admission, he worked in films “only to make money,” which of course, is contradicted by the list of awards that came his way. His last hit play was perhaps Broken Images in English directed by the late Alyque Padamsee in which Shabana Azmi played a double role and Padamsee introduced some visual tricks to create the effect of a mirror that cracks into pieces on the stage itself. But Karnad will remain distant from any impression of a broken image, whatever that means.