Veteran actor, playwright Girish Karnad passes away

Celebrated actor, playwright and filmmaker Girish Karnad passed away today at the age of 81, after battling a prolonged illness in Bengaluru.

Karnad worked largely in Bollywood and South Indian cinema but rose to prominence with his playwriting in Kannada, many plays of which have been translated into English as well as other Indian languages.

He was the recipient of the Jnanpith Award in 1998, the highest literary honour conferred in India. He was also awarded the Padma Shri in 1974 and then the Padma Bhushan in 1992.

  Girish Karnad rose to prominence with his playwriting in Kannada, many plays of which have been translated into English as well as other Indian languages. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia
Girish Karnad rose to prominence with his playwriting in Kannada, many plays of which have been translated into English as well as other Indian languages. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

Born on May 19, 1938, Karnad began writing at the young age of 14. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and statistics from Karnataka Arts College, Dharwad (Karnataka University) and then went to England as a Rhodes scholar to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford.

He subsequently returned to India and went to work for the Oxford University Press in Chennai. However, before long he had returned to Dharawad and become heavily involved in theatre.  

Considered one of Kannada literature's foremost playwrights, Karnad’s first play was Maa Nishada written in 1959. This was followed by Yayati in 1961 — a Kannada play that established him among big theatre names at just 23 years old. Some of his other famous plays include Tughlaq in 1964 (a thirteen-scene play set during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq), Hayavadana in 1972 and Nagamandala in 1988. In fact Tughlaq was staged by the National School of Drama Repertory under the direction of Director Ebrahim Alkazi, as well as in London by the National School of Drama for the Festival of India in 1982.

One of Girish Karnad's famous plays include 'Tughlaq' written in 1964. It is a thirteen-scene play set during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The play was staged by the National School of Drama Repertory under the direction of Director Ebrahim Alkazi. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia
One of Girish Karnad's famous plays include 'Tughlaq' written in 1964. It is a thirteen-scene play set during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The play was staged by the National School of Drama Repertory under the direction of Director Ebrahim Alkazi. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

During 1987–88, Karnad was at the University of Chicago as visiting professor and Fulbright playwright-in-residence. During this time, his play Nagamandala had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis based on Karnad's English translation of the Kannada original. The play later went on to be made into a film, giving actor Prakash Raj his big break in acting.

Karnad made his acting as well as screenwriting debut in a Kannada movie titled, Samskara in 1970. The movie, based on a novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy, won the first President's Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema.

     Girish Karnad directed Hindi drama film 'Utsav' in 1984. The film is based on the 2nd-century BC Sanskrit play, Mrichakatika (The Little Clay Cart). Photo courtesy: xiluslink.com
Girish Karnad directed Hindi drama film 'Utsav' in 1984. The film is based on the 2nd-century BC Sanskrit play, Mrichakatika (The Little Clay Cart). Photo courtesy: xiluslink.com

He made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), which won him the National Film Award for Best Direction along with co-director, B. V. Karanth. Karnad went on to direct several movies, both in Kannada and Hindi, including Godhuli (1977) and Utsav (1984).

He also made a number of documentaries several of which won various national and international awards.

Karnad also acted in a number of Hindi movies like Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Swami (1977) and Pukar (2000). His more recent work includes the Nagesh Kukunoor film Iqbal (2005), Dor (2006), 8 x 10 Tasveer (2009) and Aashayein (2009). In 2012, he played the role of RAW chairman, Shenoy, in the Salman Khan-starrer Ek Tha Tiger and reprised the role in the sequel, Tiger Zinda Hai in 2017.

The actor is well remembered as Swami's father in Malgudi Days, a television adaptation of RK Narayan's timeless collection of short stories. He also hosted a weekly science program on Doordarshan titled Turning Point in the early 1990s.

Karnad was perhaps equally well-known as a prolific advocate of free speech and expression. He felt passionately about social justice and equality and was major campaigner in the fight against intolerance. In April of this year, he was among about 200 writers from across India who published an open letter against the "politics of hate".

  Girish Karnad felt passionately about social justice and equality and was major campaigner in the fight against intolerance. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia
Girish Karnad felt passionately about social justice and equality and was major campaigner in the fight against intolerance. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

In September 2018, he was charged for holding a placard that read "Me Too Urban Naxal" at an event to mark one year of journalist Gauri Lankesh's murder. In 2015, he joined a group of activists protesting the beef ban in Maharashtra. In the same year, he received death threats for his comment that the Bengaluru airport should be named after 18th century ruler Tipu Sultan.

Karnad is survived by his wife Saraswathi, son Raghu Karnad, a journalist and writer and daughter Radha, a doctor based in Kenya. 

Tributes poured in from across the country as people mourned the loss of one of India’s greatest actors and playwrights.

“Girish Karnad will be remembered for his versatile acting across all mediums. He also spoke passionately on causes dear to him. His works will continue being popular in the years to come. Saddened by his demise. May his soul rest in peace,” tweeted Prime Minister Modi.

President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted "our cultural world is poorer today".

Author Amitav Ghosh tweeted his condolences to Karnad’s family.

Well-known historian Ramchandra Guha said, “It was a privilege to have known him, a far greater privilege to have seen his plays and read his work.”

While, author and politician Shashi Tharoor called his death a 'devastating loss'.

Actor Kamal Haasan also paid tribute, tweeting, “Mr.Girish Karnad, His scripts both awe and inspire me. He has left behind many inspired fans who are writers. Their works perhaps will make his loss partly bearable.”

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CtoI News Desk
CtoI News Desk – CtoI

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