Padma Bhushan Girish Karnad passed away earlier today, June 10, at his Lavelle road residence in Bengaluru. The acclaimed playwright reportedly succumbed to a multiple organ failure and was 81 years old. Karnad is survived by his wife and two children, author and journalist Raghu Karnad, and Kenya-based doctor Radha Karnad.
My introduction to Karnad’s works
Last year, I watched an adaptation of his play Nagamandalam. It left a deep impression on me, as the story played with the themes of gendered abuse, sexual liberation, and the power of human connection. It explored them through the story of Rani, a deeply lonely and deprived young housewife in lush, rural Kerala, where the snakes still abound, and their mystical, shape-shifting nature is more than just a lore.
Karnad finished writing the play in 1988. This makes Nagamandalam over three decades old, and yet, I found these psycho-social experiences more relevant than ever. The backdrop has certainly changed from Rani’s private scandal in a superstitious, pre-information technology village to a growingly urban, post-SocMed India, where an expanding movement of fourth wave feminism is simmering just under the surface. However, the social approaches that restrict a young woman’s exploration of sexuality and personhood by arranging her marriage at the ‘right age’ and slut-shaming her if she dares to embark beyond, makes me think of the my own lived experiences and that of my peers.
Karnad’s decades-long contribution to shaping modern India
This is perhaps the genius of Karnad, who burst into the Indo-Anglican scene in the early 1960s and contributed to the cultural renaissance of a young independent India. Although he primarily wrote in English, his stories were deeply rooted in the experiences and public consciousness of Indian people. For instance, while watching Nagamandalam, I wondered how female sexuality was so brutally shackled in a land that explored sexuality so explicitly and sensually through works like the Kamasutra and the sculptures at Khajuraho. Surely, there were other motives at play here that go beyond what is considered ‘natural’.
With time, Karnad’s sphere of influence did not wane, and his public image was front-and-centre of the ‘urban naxal’ issue. His criticism of the then-emerging Hindutva politics landed him on the hitlist of saffron terrorists, a fact that emerged during the investigation of Gauri Lankesh’s murder. In fact, for many millenials, the events and discussions that followed served as their introduction to Karnad’s voice.
In post-2019 elections era, Karnad’s imaginative and erudite presence as a keeper of the public conscience of post-colonial, independent India will be sorely missed. Those who seek to take forward the spirit of his work will do well to study his works for its commentary linking the modern psyche with the land’s cultural legacy, and understand how it has contributed to the politics & culture of 21st century India.