Multifaceted artist Girish Karnad passes away at 81

India mourns the loss of a legendary actor-director-writer and fearless activist

Cinema

June 10, 2019

/ By / Kolkata

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Girish Karnad was known for his seminal plays mixing history, folk tales and mythology to represent the contemporary issues of society

Noted playwright-actor-director and activist Girish Karnad breathed his last today in Bengaluru at the age of 81.

The multilingual actor-director-writer Girish Karnad, propagator of modernist Indian play-writing in Kannada theatre died on June 10 in Bengaluru. He was known for working predominantly in south-Indian cinema and Bollywood and was one of the progressive voices from India who championed the freedom of expression.

In a career spanning more than five decades, Karnad has composed great seminal plays which often used history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues and existentialist crisis of modern society. He translated his plays into English which received the deserved acclaim that led to his plays being translated and performed in other Indian languages as well. Karnad also had an active presence in the Indian cinema as he worked as an actor, director and screenwriter in Hindi and Kannada cinema. He has been the recipient of 1998 Jnanpith award, the highest literary honour conferred in India. He was also felicitated with Padma Shri (fourth highest civilian award) and Padma Bhushan (third highest civilian award) by the Government of India and has won four Filmfare awards.

As an activist

A fearless political activist, Karnad had worn a placard that read ‘Me Too Urban Naxal’ around his neck at an event to mark the first death anniversary of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in September 2018. Despite being on a breathing tube due to his illness, he had attended and spoke at the gathering against the house arrests of activists across the country at the gathering.

“What is horrifying now is not what the Naxals or terrorists are doing but what the police are saying. The accusations against rationalists are a complete hogwash. It is not rational talk. It’s scary because they believe they can do what they want. Someone in Pune is investigating the case and someone in Delhi is directing them. This is grim. If speaking up means being a Naxal then I am an Urban Naxal. I am proud to be part of the hit list,” he had said.

He was also one of the 200 writers who appealed to Indians in April to vote out hate politics in the Lok Sabha elections and instead vote for a ‘diverse and equal India’.

As an artist

Modernist by heart, he challenged norms and traditions of the society which are highly reflected in his plays. His plays were based on stories from epics like Mahabharata, events from history, allegories and folktales. His works like Yayati (1961), Tughlaq (1964), Hayavadana (1972), Taledanda (Death by beheading, 1990) and Agni mattu Malle (The Fire and the Rain, 1995) not only portrayed his outlook but also defined and shaped the Kannada theatre.

Karnad made his acting and screenwriting debut with Kannada movie Samskara in 1970, which won the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. The movie had a strong anti-caste message as found in his plays and had to face a long struggle with censors. He made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), based on a Kannada novel. He also forayed into acting and directing in Hindi cinema and television series. He is well-known among television audience for playing the role of Swami’s father in Malgudi Days (1986-87).

Some of his famous Kannada movies are Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Ondanondu Kaladalli, Cheluvi and Kaadu. He has also appeared in many Hindi movies like Manthan (1976) a crowdfunded movie on how the famous milk cooperative AMUL came to be formed, Swami (1977), Pukar (2000) , Iqbal (2005), Dor (2006), Aashayein (2010), Ek tha Tiger (2012) and its sequel Tiger Zinda Hai (2017).

The news of his death was met with fond tributes on Twitter. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mourned the loss of the veteran actor and added that the actor will be “remembered for his versatile acting across all mediums.”

“In his plays, Girish Karnad beautifully and seamlessly blended north and south, the folk and the classical, the demotic and the scholarly. In his life, he embodied the richness and depth of Indian civilisation more nobly and less self-consciously than anyone else I knew,” expressed eminent historian Ramachandra Guha in his tweets today.

Karnataka has declared a holiday for schools, colleges and government offices in the state today and a three-day mourning till Wednesday, as a mark of respect for the Jnanpith awardee, multi-lingual actor and noted writer.

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