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Power & Glory of Girish Karnad
Tears masks, downs pants!

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"Life is like a game of bridge ... we did not invent the game or design the cards; we did not frame the rules and we cannot control the dealing. The cards are dealt out to us whether they be good or bad... But we can play the game well or play it badly. A skilful player may have poor hand and win the game. A bad player may have a good hand and yet make a mess of it. Our life is a mixture of necessity and freedom, chance and choice... we may not change events but we can change our approach to events."
— Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Philosopher and former President of India.

On April 6 morning, as is my practice, I was reading Mysooru Mithra and ran into Dr. M. R. Ravi's article titled “Kodagina Gangamma” wherein at the tailend he mentions of the autobiography of Girish Karnad, the well - known Kannada playwright, the blessed one anointed 16 times, as per the list given in the book, with Fellowships, Padma Bhushan, Jnanpith award and more from 1970 to 2011. I am sure more will follow as he completes the second volume as promised. Let it be.

Dr. M. R. Ravi, a senior Karnataka Civil Service Officer, surprisingly for a government officer still pursuing his interest in art and literature, has written in that article about three “daughters of Coorg” (now Kodagu) — Poet Gowramma who blossomed early and withered ephemerally at age 23; Princess Gowramma, born in Varanasi when her father King of Kodagu was exiled, who later went to England to become Victoria Gowramma and another Gangamma living in Kodagu with memories of Mahatma Gandhi connection when the latter visited Kodagu. In a way the article was in the nature of reminiscing, as also about the trials, tribulations and stress some women bear stoically in life. While some succeed, some fail. The mother of Girish Karnad belongs to the former “some”. That was the reason why Dr. M. R. Ravi mentioned Girish Karnad's mother in this article. Therein was also my interest to read the book.

Immediately I sent my reporter to city's “Sapna Book House” and got the book. Priced Rs. 300, it is within the pockets of an average book - lover for all its 339 pages, though last 12 pages are devoted to a database of his till - date education, positions, works, seminars, films, honours, awards, etc. Well, it was a revelation for me.

The man seems to be a 24 x 7 workaholic. Volume of his works is voluminous. Otherwise how could he have produced so many plays — 13 so far with English translations, apparently rendered by himself or at least vetted by him. He has done translations, conducted workshops done films both as actor and director, done TV serials, presided over various committees, written articles, research papers, went on lecture tours and yet married at the late age of 42 and got two children — one daughter Shalmalee Radha and son Raghu Ameya. Real achiever.

When in 1992 he was conferred the National civilian honour of Padma Bhushan (he was earlier conferred Padma Shri in 1974), I thought he deserved it. He has done us all proud, especially Kannadigas, by his intellectual prowess and genius as a playwright. However, I was aghast when he was given the Jnanpith award in 1999. That one is "supposed" to be for literature of Nobel kind. He has not produced anything of that value. Could be his excellent PR and “connections” in right places helped, just as with Dr. U. R. Ananthamurthy, who too wangled Jnanpith that raised many eyebrows.

In my humble opinion, a contemporary work of literature deserves an award of such prestige only if the work has the quality or potential to become a classic for the next generation. I do not think the works of both pass this test and many of my friends from the literary world too feel the same. However, if the award is given for lifetime achievement, as in Hollywood's Oscar, it is quite deserving in the case of Girish Karnad but certainly not so with Dr. U. R. Ananthamurthy who no doubt contributed to Kannada literature but to a minor degree, volume - wise. After all, one sparrow does not make a summer!

Be that as it may, to begin with I had difficulty with Girish Karnad's Kannada language itself as it is Hubli - Dharwad oriented — apparently Konkani -Marathi influence. And the title of the book "Aadaadatha Aayushya" ["Playful life," my crude translation]. It is taken from a poem of another Kannada Jnanpith awardee D. R. Bendre (of Marathi origin). Karnad says for the likely second volume of his autobiography again, he would prefer the title taken from the same poem — "Nod Nodatha Dinamana" ["Passing of days, unknowingly," my crude translation]. The title is such a tongue - twister and memory - teaser, I can't tell you the title immediately should you ask me. I would rather say Girish Karnad's autobiography. This is what happens if you indulge too much in intellectual or call it artistic gimmickry.

The book begins with his mother's story, not his father's. Rightly so, for she was a young widow with a son before she married his father Rao Saheb Dr. Karnad who was already married to one who was endemically sick and later died. His mother Krishna Bai Mankeekara (maiden name) married to a Gokarna family became a young widow with a son and literally found herself in the lurch when her late husband's parents totally ignored her. I am curious, as a journalist, to know what was her first husband Gokarna by profession. Girish Karnad does not tell. It was her brother – in - law, her elder sister's husband, who acted as a good samaritan at this darkest hour of her life and the story moves on…

Girish Karnad was also not clear in his writing about the passing away of his father's first wife. Readers would surely like to know about this. The book published in 2011 has already seen four editions (may be 1,000 copies in each edition as is the practice with Kannada book publishers) and in the future editions this information may be provided.

Dr. Karnad, who was a government doctor at Belgaum, was a relation of Krishna Bai (Girish Karnad's mother) and her brother – in - law Mangesh Rao gets a seat for her in the Nursing School with the help of Dr. Karnad. Thereafter, Krishna Bai nee Kutta Bai, never looked back. It was a turning point in her life. She lives in the house of Dr. Karnad for five years working in the hospital as a nurse and by inference, as Dr. Karnad's house keeper; what with his bedridden wife. Naturally, for the tradition - bound society of those times, this “arrangement” led to tongue - wagging by her community (Gowd Saraswat). Finally after five years, they get married privately as per Arya Samaj tradition.

Drawing a parallel to his mother's marriage 80 years ago with his father, Girish Karnad relates it to Shalmalee, his own daughter. Shalmalee too had an open live-in arrangement with her boyfriend for five years before getting married to him. Wonder whether it was a case of hereditary habit, like hereditary disease!

This is an immensely readable book because there is just enough of “I” and more of other people and events this “I” had lived and interacted with, giving the reader an insight into the life and times of people living in the northern part of old Mysore Kingdom — Belgaum, Sirsi, Karwar, Dharwad, Hubli etc. With proper editing for clarity of language and removal of puff, fluff and trumpeting, this could be made a non - detailed text for high schools across Karnataka.

There are two emotion - charged incidents in the book that I would like to share with my readers for the reason such incidents keep happening all the time for some all over the world because of circumstances that might bring shame upon the person or economic burden and not necessarily for reasons of disgust, ill - will or intent to disown.

First One:
The book is dedicated to one Dr. Madhumalathi Gune. This doctor apparently was an expert in abortion, in terminating unwanted pregnancy.

In 1973 Girish Karnad had made a name with art films like “Samskara”, “Kaadu” and “Vamshavruksha” and was also appointed the Director of Poona's Film and Television Institute. One day he and his parents were having food in their Dharwad home happy and contented with their life situation. Suddenly his mother looks up at his father and says, "... and you know we had decided not to have him!"

This was a sudden shocker for his father who went red in the face as if stung by these pointed words. He responded with a rigmarole, "Hmm... ho... that, that was your idea, not mine. Why talk about it now?" He continued to eat using the plate as a face - saving device.

This brief, casual and unwise conversation roused Girish Karnad's curiosity and he asked his mother, what was it all about. She was eloquent: "When you were in my womb, I thought no more children for me. I have already three. Why now? So we went to meet Dr. Madhumalathi Gune of Pune at her clinic. But she never came to the clinic despite our appointment. We waited for an hour and left the place disappointed."

"What happened thereafter?" Girish Karnad asked.

"Thereafter we never went that side," concluded his mother.

Girish Karnad writes that hearing this he felt paralysed. "I was then 35 years old. Yet I sat dazed thinking that this world would have existed even without me. And without me?"

A while later he asked in wonder, "In that case my younger sister — Leena — how did you...?"

Like all mother - diplomats his mother, a bit shy, said, "Well by then we gave up such ideas altogether," and guffawed.

As for his father, he sought refuge in the plate.

Girish Karnad concludes with this refrain: "If that doctor had come to the clinic in keeping with her words, not only this autobiography but also the protagonist of it would not have been here. Hence, I dedicate this autobiography to the memory of Dr. Madhumalathi Gune who is the cause for my birth and also that of my autobiography."

No doubt, like a successful playwright, he has created drama even while dedicating this book, but I am unable to understand his misplaced and even immature sense of emotion. And at that age — 35. After all, man-woman relationship is always multi - dimensional. There is sex, ego, emotion, economics, pride and helplessness due to various reasons. He was a bachelor at this point of time. He married at the age of 42. Probably if his mother had made this revelation when Girish Karnad was 55, his reaction would have been different, full of empathy, if not sympathy, because he had made name, money and gained fame. Imagine if Girish Karnad were to be born physically handicapped, uneducated and jobless in 1973 when his mother had revealed this to him. Surely he would have cursed Dr. Madhumalathi Gune for not keeping the appointment. Here, I am thinking in the manner he thought while writing his first play Yayati.

The second emotionally charged situation in the book was at Page 12. It appears between Dr. Karnad and his second wife's (Girish Karnad's mother) son by first marriage, Balachandra Gokarna, there always used be a kind of benign silence. No tension. However, with his mother (who is also Girish Karnad's mother), the relationship seemed to simmer in a kind of silent restlessness and rage for Balachandra.

In '70s when Balachandra, working in Indian Railways as an engineer, aged 55, in a letter to his mother wrote, "you never considered me as your son."

On learning this, Girish Karnad asks his mother why should he be writing in this manner. The answer he got, says Girish Karnad, suggested the pain of a festering wound embedded in Balachandra's life.

When Krishna Bai married Dr. Karnad, her son by her first husband, Balachandra was 11 years old. When the couple came to Bagalkot (where apparently Dr. Karnad was posted) after getting married, her son Balachandra came to them in school uniform.

Seeing him, one woman there asked Krishna Bai who this boy was. Understandably she was in a predicament. She was just married and how could she own up the boy as her son?

Instinctively, she said: "My younger brother." Balachandra was right there.

"This is a 40 – year - old incident. He is now 55. Yet, not forgotten the incident. What can I say?" Krishna Bai told Girish Karnad with sadness in her voice.

Balachandra too seemed both unwise and immature to nurse this incident and worse rub it on his poor mother even at her old age. Just as Girish Karnad himself has done with great flourish in dedicating this autobiography.

To add my own experience at the Central High School, Madikeri, Kodagu, to that of Balachandra Gokarna's, I recall a classmate of mine, coming from a very poor family telling me and a few of my friends that the person who had just come to see him was a worker in his paddy fields. Later we learnt he was his father who had come to pay his school fee. Sure, you have guessed the reason. Situations such as this do arise and sympathetic understanding is the only way to move on in life contentedly, happily.

Every individual, in this existential world, is either a victim or a beneficiary of circumstances. As for Girish Karnad, the reading of his autobiography suggests that he is lucky, that God (nature) had endowed him with more than average intelligence. As a result he was a brilliant student who could take decisions that would shape his future — his decision to take maths, for example, when he knew that he was very good at maths and was sure to get highest marks. He gets a rank and moves on...

Girish Karnad moves on to England to join the Oxford University with a scholarship he secured on merit. He leaves for England from Bombay's Ballard Pier by ship on 7th September 1960. He devotes 57 pages with two pages of colour pictures for this chapter simply titled "Oxford." It is the most readable part of the book after the preceding pages dealing with his early days. It is brutally frank and detailed. Wonder how he could remember so many names and events even if he has an elephantine memory. After all, there must be some truth in the saying that “Palest ink is better than the best memory”.

Who knows Girish Karnad must have maintained a diary to recall the events and remember the names of so many people after so many years of his leaving England. It is amazing that he has such keen sense of observation and an eye for detail.

He does well at Oxford and even thinks of settling down there. However, the appreciation and accolades his first play Yayati, written while in India, received from the critics made him change his mind.

Are matches made in heaven? For Girish Karnad, it was made in Madras when he was working for Oxford University Press, on his return from England, between age 23 and 32. It was here he met his future wife Saraswathi Ganapathy at a party within a few months of his joining duty. And it was a rare case of love at first sight. Having once given up a girl of his community because his mother was not comfortable with her (after all, in traditional families one is always married into a family as well), he had decided to bide his time. However, here too he had to wait for 10 years, till he was 42 to marry her. Fortunately for both, there was no belief in high Victorian sense of morality and consensually were liberated in matters of pre - marital sex. For them the observance of fidelity came only after marriage and they were true to each other once married. So the reader should assume. And who is that girl? Her mother was a Parsi, Nargis Mugaseth and father a Kodava, Kodandera Ganapathy. Both had met while studying medicine. In 1942, Ganapathy joined army during the II World War and died in service. His wife Nargis was in the family way at that time and Saraswathi was born a posthumous child. Nargis came back to Madras and joined government medical service. Saraswathi, apparently, was fond of Kodavas but her father's family members, after his death, did not show any affection to the relationship. Despite this attitude, Saraswathi on her part deliberately chose to live in the room where three Kodava girl students were living when she joined the medical college and had even learnt Kodava language. Hip, hip, hurrah! No wonder A. K. Subbaiah on meeting Girish Karnad after his marriage to Saraswathi at Mangalore bellowed, “Welcome to the son – in - law of Coorg”.

In the intervening period of his decision to marry Saraswathi and the actual marriage, he had two offers of marriage — one was the famous dancer Balasaraswathi's daughter Laxmi and another, the famous Hindi film actress Hema Malini. As expected, he turned down both offers. He has graphically described in detail the manner in which the proposal was made by Hema Malini's mother Jaya Chakravarthy throwing light on the ways of people in the film world in dealing with such matters.

There is an interesting reference to the Kannada film world's famous star late Vishnuvardhan who is believed to have been discovered by the famous film director Puttanna Kanagal. However, Girish Karnad says Vishnuvardhan was his discovery as it was he who first cast him in the role of Pruthvi in his film Vamshavruksha. Sampath Kumar, a student of National College, meets Girish Karnad at the renowned Kannada journalist YNK's residence seeking a role in the film. The conversation between the two is quite amusing what with Sampath Kumar bluffing his way to impress Girish Karnad and the latter seeing through the aspirant's bluff. Surprisingly, in the beginning Sampath Kumar did not know that he was talking to Girish Karnad.

However, Sampath Kumar gets the role in the film and assumes Kumar as his film name. Later, Puttanna Kanagal changed it to Vishnuvardhan when he cast him as hero in Nagarahavu. The book is interesting, especially for me because I am familiar with many places and persons mentioned in the book as also the areas of his activity especially in connection with films and theatre.

The book carries photographs germane to the text thus enhancing the reader's interest. I was pleasantly surprised that Girish Karnad is an artist as well when I saw four of his line-drawings printed in the book — that of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, all giants in the English literary world and all of them autographed by the subjects. Having tasted all these writers, I feel impelled to publish these picture here.

The book, however, lacks in structure. Incidents move forward and backward. Narration is rather staggered. Like his art films and plays, this book too is rather complex in style, both of the language and the content. But surely he scores highest marks for his honesty in writing his life story so far. Good reading.

And indeed as Dr. Radhakrishnan says, he played his cards well. He was a skillful player, had a good hand and easily won the game. Considering India of '60s, to which I belong, Girish Karnad shows himself in this autobiography as a go - getter and gate - crasher. He knew how to get what he wanted — including girls and women. On returning to India he becomes so famous in the world of art, literature, theatre and film that he not only won many honours and awards but also qualified himself to write an autobiography!

By K. B. Ganapathy
Editor in Chief

Courtesy: Star of Mysore

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