19 Life's Lessons From Girish Karnad
19 Life’s Lessons From Girish Karnad

Karnad, who died today at the age of 81 spoke to MW in 2004 about the lessons he learnt during his long and illustrious career

The legendary playwright, actor and director who died today at the age of 81 spoke to MW in 2004 about the lessons he learnt during his long and illustrious career.


Take a bold stand. Always uphold what is right, for it defines your character. I quit as Chairman of the national jury of the Mumbai International Film Festival because the selection procedure was flawed and the organisers kept out films that could embarrass the government.


BANGALORE, INDIA – MARCH 7: Girish Raghunath Karnad, a contemporary writer, playwriter, actor and movie director in the Kannada language poses for a profile shoot on March 7, 2010, in Bangalore, India. (Photo by Hemant Mishra/Mint via Getty Images)


The environment of our early years fashions our sense of morality and creativity. My parents used to take me to Yakshagana and folk theatre presentations in Dharwad in interior Karnataka resulting in my fascination with the medium of theatre. Dharwad was also home to such great singers as Savai Gandharva, Gangubhai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi and Mallikarjun Mansur. The arts surrounded me.


Hoary and cruel traditions can be changed through individual or group effort. My mother became a widow at the age of 20. She was a courageous soul, for, in spite of her conservative Brahmin upbringing, she remarried in 1931.


Dreams come true when there’s passion in your gut. I was 23 when I wrote my first play Yayati in 1961.


Communicate in the language in which you think because it will always ring true. I wrote the play in Kannada, even though my mother tongue was Konkani because my thought processes had switched to Kannada. Ever since then, I have written all my plays in Kannada and translated them into English.


There is always room for betterment. I believe that as long as a playwright is alive, he must update his plays. When Oxford University Press brings out my collected works soon, you’ll realise that I’ve made some changes. It holds good even for the Kannada collection. I believe a rewrite makes a play that much more powerful.


Every person experiences a turning point in their life. Sometimes there is just one, if you are lucky, there might be more. For me, life took another dimension when I won a Rhodes scholarship and went to England for an MA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.


Life is meaningless without a soul mate. To find the right one requires patience. Look before you leap.


The happiest moment in my life was when I met Dr Saraswathi (Saras) who was teaching at New York University. I was engaged to her for 15 years before we got married because we were located on two different continents.


Success comes when one let’s go, to chase one’s dreams. I quit my cushy job at Oxford University Press to be ‘on the road’ when B V Karanth invited me to help in the staging of Jokumarswamy, Oedipus and Sankranti in Bangalore. Theatre would become a permanent fix.


I will always cherish and value the times I spent with the late poet and renowned scholar of folktales A K Ramanujan. We grew really close when I became a Visiting Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Chicago in 1987-88. It was because of my interaction and conversations with Ramanujan that I turned away from the classics as my source to local Kannada folktales to create Naga-Mandala in 1988. The late Shankar Nag showcased it wonderfully.


Stick to what you love doing best and everything else will follow. From writing plays to acting and directing was a natural corollary. I especially value my roles in Samskara, Manthan and Swami. It was very challenging directing Kanooru Heggadithi towards the end of the last century.


Don’t let biases and hatred poison your being. My most traumatic moment as an Indian was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. I realised then that intolerance would become the leitmotif of our society for many years to come. Godhra and the massacres that followed only proved my worst fears.


You must speak up, especially if you are a writer. I wrote Taledanda in 1990 as the Ayodhya agitation crescendoed and the protests against the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report turned violent. I’m no Nostradamus, but the play eerily predicted the future.


Cynicism destroys our infinite capacity to improve our lot. Be positive and you’ll find your inner courage. I hold precious our pluralism and multiculturalism.


Do an honest job and the rewards will come. It was a creative high heading the Sangeet Natak Akademi, The Film and Television Institue of India and Nehru Centre in London. It was terrific organising meetings with Amartya Sen, Shyam Benegal, Mira Nair, Naseeruddin Shah and working with theatre in the UK. The Padma Bhushan, the Jnanpith Award and so many more prove my contention.


Take care of your family and you’ll have nothing to regret. I believe in love and marriage – in the joy of watching children grow and their calling in life.


I have managed to do all I could wish for – even been a government servant. Now I believe I must spend the next 10 years doing what I like best – writing plays. 




(Header credits: Getty Images)

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