A Man of Integrity : Girish Karnad (1938-2019)
I met Girish Karnad only once. It was a session in Jaipur Literary festival - 2015. He was among the audience, and was conversing with Prof. Sheldon Pollock on the Murty Classical Library Project. After the session, I saw him talking to some students and just went near him, took some photos and came back without interfering. It was really fandom, which had been evolving since my graduation days at the Department Of English, Payyanur College. My seniors had made it to the news about a puppet play on Naga-Mandala, which was in the syllabi. There was a news clipping on the department notice board about the adaptation. Later, Naga-Mandala came back to me in the form of an exceptionally brilliant performance by Thasil Suhara Backer as the Naga, at Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communications, University of Hyderabad. My skepticism on how efficient a man can act like a snake just faded away that day. Prof. Noushad Mohamed Kunju directed that version and it was a limited studio performance for few days, and everyone was talking about it for weeks. Later, I read Yayati and Hayavadana and watched a few early Shyam Benegal movies like Manthan and Nishant, and saw him as an actor too. But the Girish Karnad I know now is a different man. For, all this happened before the Modi government started implementing what they call 'policies'.
A year after the JLF, Prof. Sheldon Pollock and the Murty Library were caught up in controversy, after the 'nationalist' right-wing propaganda machine demanded the removal of Prof. Pollock from the project. Hindutva became the new ideal nationalism. People were getting lynched in the name of cow and intellectuals were getting shot. Many of the known secularists jumped to the safer side overnight, succumbing to the threats of the communalists. Then, there were people like Girish Karnad, who vehemently opposed the state-sponsored violence. He protested in the streets with younger people. He did not take heed of the insults or death threats hurled at him. Instead, he loudly stated that he inherits the courage passed on by people like U. R. Ananthamurthy, whose demise the communalist thugs celebrated in the streets of Bengaluru.
Girish Karnad didn't have to do any of these. He was already one of the most prominent writers alive. He had it all; a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford, who established himself as a playwright, director, and actor, winning all major honours in all fields. Leaving an incredible legacy, he could pass on peacefully. He just didn't. He chose to speak for what he believed in. He chose to stay unsafe. He spoke against the demolition of Babri Masjid. He spoke against the Islamophobia of V. S. Naipaul while Naipaul was in the ivory towers. He chose to protest against killing people for their belief and cuisine, sat-down against killing secularists and intellectuals, saw one of his colleagues - Gauri Lankesh - getting killed. He did not mind facing the bullets, despite his sickness, in his eighties.
And the despicable bootlicking journalists at India Today reported and identified that “'Tiger Zinda Hai' actor Girish Karnad passed away.” I am not surprised. They just showed how badly they miss something Girish Karnad had - Integrity. Once this country will wake up from these hard times and Girish Karnad will be a hero to remember, somebody who chose to remain with the uncomfortable side when things were not comfortable.
(Dheeraj Paleri is a doctoral student at IIT Guwahati.)