Denigrating Indian Culture: The Girish Karnad Way

Published: Saturday, Nov 03,2012, 17:44 IST
Girish Karnad, sandeep web, Denigrating Indian Culture, Yayati, Aravasu, art film Utsav, Shudraka Mricchakatika, Mumbai LitFest, V S Naipaul, anti-Islam views, lifetime achievement award

It is surprising how somebody whom you’ve had as your personal icon later transmogrifies in your eyes and then becomes the object of shallowness and intellectual vacuity. To me, Girish Karnad symbolizes this metamorphosis. I was an ardent admirer of this dramatist in my late teens; this admiration spilled over into my early twenties, too. I’ve read almost all of his plays in the original, Kannada, and was swept away especially after seeing most of them performed on stage.

Over the past three or so years I realized how wrong I have been.

Karnad is a fine actor, a decent director, and a mediocre playwright; necessarily in that order. While the first two statements can be reasonably verified after watching his plays on stage, and his movies on screen, the other, last statement needs some analysis, which is what I’ve attempted here. I plan to do this as a multi-part series. However, I can’t promise I’ll post-a-piece everyday.

As a playwright, Karnad like so many of the writers of his time, wrote only with the Western audience in mind. Apart from assured monetary returns, these plays fitted well with the prevailing ideology of his time: socialism/communism, nay pseudo secularism.

Most of Karnad’s plays are hewed around existentialism: his first play, Yayati, then Tughlaq, and Agni Mattu Male contain heavy-duty existentialism, which Wikipedia defines as:

Existentialism is a unilateral philosophical movement that views the individual, the self, the individual’s experience, and the uniqueness therein as the only reality.
and says, an Existentialist is one who

…prefer(s) subjectivity, and view general existence as arcane, that they are isolated entities in an indifferent and often ambiguous universe.

This definition of Existentialism as a philosophical concept is important to understand and interpret Karnad’s plays. I’ve selected these three plays with a specific reason. These are regarded as Karnad’s greatest: Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain) is rated by some as his finest till date–its staging by Arjun Sajnani was so hugely successful in the Indian theatre circuit that Sajnani roped in the likes of Jackie Shroff, Raveena Tandon, and Milind Soman to make its celluloid version entitled, Agni Varsha. Apart from their emphasis on Existentialism, what stands out in these plays, subtly though, is their denigration of ancient Indian culture by misinterpreting mythology, epics, history, and folklore.

As he himself admits, Karnad’s plays are drawn from, and based upon Indian mythology, epics, history, and folklore. While critics damn him for lack of originality, the playwright says,

Often accused by his detractors of doing to death the use of myths and folklore in his plays and about a lack of originality, the playwright himself subscribes to the view that there is nothing called originality. He believes that it is nothing but a western concept which came to us as a result of colonization.One of few existing and flourishing playwrights of modern India, Karnad believes that we have lost the tradition of writing plays. After Sanskrit drama died out, the entire tradition of writing plays also died out. He rues the fact that in India we have lost the art of improvisation. It is perhaps this search for a dramatic tradition of acting which has lead Karnad to folk lore

A commendable thought indeed. When Karnad made the remark about originality as a non-existent concept, he probably referred to the following (famous) verse from Jayantha Bhatta:

kuto vaa nutanam vastu vayam utprekshitum
kshamaah vaakya vinyaasa vaichitriya maatramatra vicharayataam

What new (thing) am I capable of showing to the world?

All that I can do perhaps, is provide some delight using new words (word play)

In essence, this sloka says that all thoughts/things/objects already exist in nature, and it only awaits to be discovered by some person. The person therefore cannot claim the thought as his own. However, one can embellish these thoughts, add novelty, and grace by external aids such as language. This is perhaps one of the reasons why we find such elaborate imagery and word play in poetry: a brook is not a mere body of flowing water, a skylark is not a mere bird, and thought is a fox.

However, for dramatists, especially those who base their plays on mythology, history, etc, this is hardly an issue. The raw material is readily available. How they use it without altering facts so the audience will have a good (maybe instructive?) time is the test for their skill. Which is where Karnad has failed. He has resorted to (mis)interpretation. A quick comparison: Shakespeare used Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Romans as the basis for his Julius Caesar. We do not find Shakespeare interpreting (although he introduces the supernatural element merely as a dramatic device) Caesar or Brutus or Cassius or Antony’s characters; he rather lets us interpret them. Karnad however, has cast his protagonists: Tughlaq, Aravasu (more on him later), and Yayati as persons living an existential life, which is grossly opposed to their characterisation in the Originals.

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