Remembering Girish Karnad in a time of trauma

Candles are, at times, lit, from fuming hearts inside burning bodies, and slogans snatched from silenced lips and feeble lungs. Tragic as it may seem, that is how resistance has grown all over the world, like catching a glimpse of a possible paradise in the hellfire of concentration camps and communal genocides or as Tony Chakar, the Turkish architect and democratic philosopher said of the Arab Spring, getting a vision of the plausible future in a fleeting flash through a tear in the sky.  Ultimately the word triumphs over silence and acts perpetuate the inspiring memories of the departed until souls catch fire and burn down the thrones of the tyrants who temporarily win dividing their people with hatred, malice, distortions of history, manufactured truths and manipulative propaganda to gain the people’s consent for their acts of malicious intent — be it creating a racist or theocratic nation or pampering their pet sponsors and sycophants. History teaches us that empires built on the quicksand of untruth cannot withstand the final assault of the victims of jingoistic or communal violence.

And here we light a candle from the flames of a great writer’s righteous discontent that he kept articulating throughout his life, at times subtly through his art on the stage or the screen and when necessary directly through acts of protest played on the streets. Girish Karnad was born in a generation of rebellious Kannada writers and radical thinkers that included U R Ananathamurthy, P Lankesh, Chandrashekhara Kambara, AK Ramanujan and Poornnachandra Thejaswi who were all initially inspired by India’s independence struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi  and later by the socialist ideals of Ram Manohar Lohia and the anti-caste ideals of B R Ambedkar. But for them, this tradition went back to the twelfth century Shaivites like Basavaanna, Mahadevi Akka and Allama Prabhu who had created small models of an egalitarian society that interrogated the hierarchies of caste, class and gender thus sowing the seeds of radical spirituality with its contempt for material power, political as well as financial.  No wonder one of Girish Karnad’s finest plays, Tale Danda ( Punishment by Beheading) was inspired by the life of  Basava – that had also fascinated a great scholar like MM Kalburgi who proclaimed, after a profound study of Basava’s life and ideals that Basava was not ‘Hindu’ in the orthodox sense, for which he was first chastised and then murdered by the pedlars of an insular, hateful and casteist version of Hinduism. It was natural that the writer of Tale Danda was one of the first to respond to this callous act of cowardice and shocking intolerance.

This egalitarian political vein was strong in Girish Karnad’s work from the very beginning. Indeed, like many writers of his generation like Ananthamurthy, he was fascinated by the basic existential questions of being and becoming, freedom, choice, justice, gender, identity and death as is evident in his plays like Yayati, Hayavadana , Nagamandala and Agni mattu Male ( Fire and Rain); but myth, folklore and history never remained the same once he touched them. The image of the Emperor in Tughaq is not that of the idiosyncratic ruler many of us had grown up with, but that of a visionary idealist assailed by doubt and dilemma, defeated by his simple credulousness and trust in the opportunistic sycophants who had besieged his court. This allegory of the Nehruvian era gains a new relevance and meaning in our time when Nehru’s secular legacy is downplayed and his image deliberately deflated so that he is replaced by the parochial Hindu leaders of his time. Girish also retrieves Tipu Sultan’s real image as a fighter against the colonialists in his play named after him. We may recall, to the chagrin of many, including the political leaders of Karnataka, he had opposed the naming of the Bangalore airport after Kempa Gowda and suggested it be a memorial to the dauntless Sultan. The actor and the filmmaker in him only complemented the formidable playwright who had revolutionised Indian theatre along with the likes of Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar and Badal Sircar.

Slavoj Zizek in a recent essay, ‘The Poetic Torture House of Language’ said that there are times when language has to be tortured to make it tell the truth. If language is the house of being as Heidegger says, when the subject that inhabits is evil, the genuine writer is compelled to create new structures of language, to make it strange and torment the language to make it speak the truth or leave the land of lies altogether as many German writers really did during the Third Reich.  Following this use of Elfried Jelinek’s violent imagery, Zizek points to the need to critically re-read the writings of the nationalists at a time when crimes and human right violations are committed in the name of a jingoistic and communal nationalism. Though he takes examples from his own fragmented and torn Eastern Europe, his exhortation for a careful re-examination of our textbooks of history and celebrated ‘nationalistic’ writings is equally applicable to India today. Like some of his contemporaries, Girish Karnad was acutely aware of this demand of truth that forced him to innovate alike the language and structure of drama as a literary form as well as theatre as a mode of physical communication. But he did not stop with a notional avant-gardism; he knew, as the theorists like Peter Burger or Jacques Ranciere or playwrights like Bertolt Brecht and Wole Soyinka did, that to be avant-garde is also to be political and to interrogate the existing ‘common-sense’ notions about life and society. And when called for, he did extend that politics beyond theatre and cinema and beyond his unconcealed preference for his mother-tongue as his first language of expression with due respect for India’s multilingualism and cultural plurality, as evidenced by  his resignation from the Chairmanship of FTII, Pune when Emergency was declared in India by the then-government , his consistently uncompromising  stance against the Hindutva hegemony, his open protest against the destruction of Babri Masjid, his sharp criticism of V S Naipaul’s Islamophobia at the Tata Literature Live Literary Festival in Bombay that had bestowed its ‘Life-time Achievement Award’ on the Nobel Prize-winning writer, his participation in ‘Not in My Name’ and ‘Me too an Urban Naxal’ protests, his irrepressible rage ‘against the dying of the light’ as expressed in his intense responses to the murder of MM Kalburgi , Gowri Lankesh and other thinkers and writers and his legitimate intolerance towards all forms of intolerance. Let me close my words with the translation of a few lines I chanced to write in my language following the planned day-light murder of MM Kalburgi, a friend and inspirer of Girish Karnad, equally applicable to Girish himself:

BEWARE (2015)

Beware of my silence!
It is heavier than speech,
A ceaseless river in search of
A new earth, like my Basava’s vachanas.

Beware of my words!
They can change the wind’s directions,
Restore to life every buried truth
Turn every pavement-stone into God,
Every sewer into Ganga
And every scavenger into a saint.

Beware of my magic!
It can transform your bullets
Into garlands for my master
Until he dances with your skulls
Over your ashes in the burning ground.

I will lend my voice to words
Your lexicons had silenced.
I will name planets
That were never in your orbit.
I will create new laws
For a new country none has seen
Where the first human will be born.

Beware of my words:
They have many tongues like the sea.
They are tomorrow’s seeds
Set to enlighten many more Buddhas.

My eyes are now polestars
And my breath, the borderless wind.

Beware! I am more alive now
Than when I was alive!
Beware! Beware!

(Talk delivered at the memorial meeting organised on 17th June 2019 at the India International Centre, Delhi jointly by the Indian Writers’ Forum, Raza Foundation and Jana Natya Manch)

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