SIRSI, A sleepy town in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, was infamous for its power cuts. With little else to do, a favourite pastime of its denizens was to share stories. At home, grandparents would spin yarns; at school, if a teacher failed to turn up, students were instructed to regale each other with tales. As a child Girish Karnad partook of this tradition, and would accompany his father, a physician, on free trips to performances at the local theatre, too. (The area was affected by malaria and actors could need treatment at short notice.) “I saw play after play after play,” he said, “and theatre got into my blood without my realising it.”
As a teenager, Mr Karnad dreamt of being a poet—though he knew his verse was clunky and awkward—and fantasised about winning the Nobel prize. He would spend hours drawing sketches of famous writers such as Agatha Christie and T.S. Eliot, sending these portraits with pleas to sign and return them to him. One of his idols, Sean O’Casey, a great Irish dramatist, advised him to stop wasting his time with autographs and write something of his own.
It was sage advice. Mr Karnad’s first play, “Yayati”, was published in 1961 when he was 23 years old. It drew on a story in the “Bhagavata Purana”, a Hindu text, about a lustful king cursed with premature old age who orders his son to sacrifice his youth for him. With no formal training in script-writing, and working in Kannada, his native tongue, the play “just poured out,” Mr Karnad recalled. “I was like a steno-typist writing down whatever [the characters] were saying. It was an ecstatic process.” It was a hit, and was translated into several Indian languages.
The work popularised the idea of the “Yayati complex” or “reverse Oedipal complex”, where children forsake their freedom to submit to their parents’ demands. It was hardly a coincidence that Mr Karnad had written the play just weeks before taking up a Rhodes Scholarship to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, against his parents’ wishes—they wanted him to be a bureaucrat in the Indian Administrative Service. (They also worried that he would marry a white woman without seeking their blessing.)
His writing often combined contemporary concerns with history and mythology. “Tughlaq”, a play which had its premiere in 1964, retold the story of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, a 13th-century Mughal king who banned public prayers and introduced madcap economic schemes. It was an instant success at a time when India was growing impatient with its own leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his ideals. “Taledanda” or “Death by Beheading”, first staged in 1990, charted the rise of radical protest and reform movements in 12th-century Karnataka. Mr Karnad probed ancient, but persistent, problems in the caste structure and tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities.
Yet for all his accomplishments as a playwright, Mr Karnad was best known as an actor. “I got into Hindi films to make money and pursued money quite single-mindedly,” he said. In more than 100 movies, he played corrupt cricket officials, dance teachers, professors, lawyers and ministers. He was brilliant on the small screen, too. In “Malgudi Days”, a cult television series broadcast in the 1980s, he played a strict father: the actor who played his child often said that a cold stare from Mr Karnad was enough to put him in a catatonic state. He directed many award-winning movies in Hindi and Kannada, and his contribution to the arts earned him India’s third- and fourth-highest civilian awards, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, as well as the Jnanpith award, the country’s highest literary honour.
Off-screen, Mr Karnad was a scathing critic of political leaders who stoked communal tensions. “I really feel that secularism is the great legacy that we have and we need to fight for it. There are forces that have eaten away at it and made the country a dangerous place,” he once declared on national television. During the recent elections he was among 200 writers who appealed to Indians not to fall prey to the sectarian campaign run by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and urged people to vote for a “diverse and equal India”. The BJP, led by Narendra Modi, won with a thumping majority.
Speaking his mind had consequences. His home in Bangalore was frequently pelted with stones. Sometimes the threats warranted police protection. A special investigation found that Mr Karnad was a target of a far-right militant group that in 2017 had shot dead Gauri Lankesh, a journalist. At a memorial of Lankesh’s death last September, he declared that he was “proud to be part of the hit list”.
He derived his life force from storytelling and speaking out, even in ill health. In his penultimate film, “Tiger Zinda Hain” (“Tiger is Alive”, 2017), he acted with a tube in his nose, tethered to an oxygen cylinder. He played his part, of a suave secret service officer, with a flourish.