'With his stature as a playwright and actor, Girish Karnad was one of the voices of modernity for not just Karnataka but the entire country.'
Last October, a play on sexuality and gender titled Shiva ran into trouble after Hindutva groups complained that it hurt religious sentiments and stopped a performance at the Jagriti Theatre in Bengaluru.
Arundhati Ghosh, executive director of the city-based India Foundation for the Arts that had supported the play, was away in the US at the time. As she was waiting to board a flight at Stanford, she got a call from the iconic playwright, actor and director, Girish Karnad.
"You youngsters don't realise you have to stand up to these bullies. You can't stop the play. You tell me who do I need to talk to. I can talk to any minister that you want me to," he told her with his characteristic no-nonsense approach.
"Girishji had nothing to do with the play. But the fact that the play wasn't getting staged bothered him so much that he picked up the phone and called me. That was what was so special about him," said Ghosh.
A cultural icon of modern India, Karnad passed away on Monday, aged 81, after a prolonged illness.
Karnad wrote seminal plays that marked modern Indian playwriting in Kannada, in tandem with stalwarts in other regional languages, and was conferred the Jnanpith, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, and several awards for direction in Kannada cinema.
He made his acting and screenwriting debut with the 1970 Kannada classic Samskara, an adaptation of Kannada writer U R Ananthamurthy's novella.
His popular Kannada movies include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Ondanondu Kaladalli, Cheluvi, Kaadu, and Kanooru Heggadithi. He also left his mark on Hindi cinema, with Nishaant, Manthan, Swami and Pukar, which were among his best known features.
Karnad couldn't change the fate of Shiva, which had had a string of shows earlier. Those associated with the play didn't want to continue it and had to bow to right-wing groups whose writ often runs large in Bengaluru and Karnataka. But, for Karnad, it was always about standing up for a tolerant society.
In a tribute to Karnad on his 80th birthday, noted historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in The Telegraph that Karnad was far less likely than his contemporary Ananthamurthy 'to join a procession, shout slogans, publicly praise or chastise a politician or sign a petition.
But,' Guha added, 'he cherishes as much as his more 'political' contemporary the idea of a plural, tolerant India he grew up in.'
Many who adored Karnad were worried for him after the assassinations of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and M M Kalburgi, Communist leader Govind Pansare and journalist Gauri Lankesh.
"But he didn't complain even after death threats. He was undaunted, because of his conviction in his values. With his stature as a playwright and actor, he was one of the voices of modernity for not just Karnataka but the entire country," Ghosh added.
In 2015, Karnad was issued death threats for demanding that the Bengaluru International Airport be renamed after Mysore king Tipu Sultan and not Kempegowda, the city's founder.
There was police presence outside Karnad's residence.
As a champion of free speech, Karnad stuck to his views, following which the state even assigned a gunman to follow him around 24/7.
Karnad, who never asked for any security detail, was also reportedly on the 'hit list', according to a diary found after the murder of Lankesh in 2017.
Karnad was passionate about the state capital and was one of the trustees of the Bangalore International Centre.
In November 2016, when close to 5,000 Bengalureans came together to form a human chain in order to mark their protest against a steel flyover the government wanted to build, Karnad was in attendance despite his ailing health.
'The city's health is more important than mine,' said Karnad, who had come with a portable oxygen tank.
Similarly, a photo of the ailing Karnad wearing a placard that read 'Me Too Urban Naxal', at an event to mark the death anniversary of Lankesh in 2018, or walking half a mile in the rain to join a 'Not in my Name' protest (following a wave of lynchings of Muslims) a year earlier, inspired many.
Sudhanva Deshpande, actor and director with Delhi-based Jana Natya Manch, said that in the current context it is important to acknowledge Karnad as a public intellectual. "But," he added, "I want to say that it's not something new in Girish, which people associate with him now in the days of social media."
From the late 1980s itself, Karnad had taken part in many secular and anti-communal initiatives and wouldn't shy away from marching on the streets, he added.
"In the mid-90s, the theatre group Samudaya in Karnataka was attacked and Girish was one of the people who came out immediately on the street in their defence."
Karnad was part of the first generation of great Indian playwrights, post-Independence, along with the likes of Badal Sircar, Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar, Habib Tanvir and Dharamvir Bharati. They evolved languages that together formed a modern Indian idiom in playwriting, said Deshpande.
Karnad worked deeply with Indian mythology, with plays like Yayati and Hayavadana, as well as history (Tughlaq and Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu).
Deshpande said that within Karnad's wide-ranging oeuvre, two issues are predominant -- power (how people deal with power and are corrupted by it); and gender, sexuality, desire and women's experiences. "Among our early great playwrights, he was one who was very sensitive to sexuality and sexual desire, with a nuanced and progressive view."
Karnad was a Rhodes scholar who, after returning from England, made a conscious decision to write in Kannada although his primary mode of expression was in English.
"He knew Kannada, of course, but he learnt to naturalise it and became one of the great exponents of Kannada writing," said Deshpande.
During his tenure as chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi from 1988 to 1993, Karnad was also the driving force behind events such as the Nehru Centenary Theatre Festival (1989) that brought together some of the classics of Indian theatre, recalled Deshpande.
"The Akademi then also published a book (Contemporary Indian Theatre: Interviews With Playwrights And Directors) that remains a valuable resource for us," he added.