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Girish Raghunath Karnad is a noted writer, playwright, screenwriter, actor and movie director in Kannada. But, among the creative geniuses of the modem age who have contributed significantly to Indian English drama, he stands supreme. Karnad has translated his major plays into English and has received critical acclaim across India. His rise as a prominent playwright in the 1960s marked the coming of age of Modern Indian playwriting in Kannada. Arguably, Karnad is the first Indian playwright whose works have been staged and discussed abroad with keen interest. As a public intellectual and writer, he discussed Indian cultural ethos and theatre on international platforms.

Girish Karnad was born on May 19, 1938, in Matheran near Mumbai. He had his early education in a small village in Karnataka named Sirsi. After having done his B A in Mathematics and Statistics in 1958 from the University of Karnataka, Dharwad he proceeded to Magdalen College, Oxford where he did his M A in Philosophy, Politics and Economics as a Rhodes scholar. Karnad, after his return to India in 1963, joined the Oxford University Press in Chennai where he worked for seven years.

Karnad had a great ambition to be known as a poet of international fame. Although he couldn’t realise this dream, he has surely earned a prominent place in the history of Indian English drama. He himself has told, “I wanted to be a poet, the greatest ambition in my life. At the age of 22, I realised I would not be a poet, but only a playwright.” Thus, he began his literary career.

As a playwright, Girish Karnad has left an indelible impact on the history of contemporary Indian dramaturgy. Karnad has received widespread appreciation for his complex portrayal of topics in his plays, which examine existential issues and the human condition. Karnad’s use of a variety of dramatic devices adds to the innovative merging of Indian reason with Western emotive culture in his plays. He was rooted in the cultural tradition of his soil with a deep understanding of Western dramatic aesthetics and craft. His two plays –Tughlaq and Hayavadana –have helped redefine the form and structure of drama.

Karnad was among a group of post-independence playwrights who experimented with form in order to enhance the amazing strategy and then highlight Indian sensibility. On the urban stage, Karnad honoured traditional ideals while exploring current subjects to portray contemporary society’s challenges. Folk norms such as masks, chorus, and spectacle, as well as the mingling of non-human and human worlds, provided him with the specialised independence to cater to society’s mental needs. Karnad combined history with the present male challenge of estrangement, as well as the absurdity of the man’s predicament.

Karnad’s first play Yayati (1961) chronicles the adventures of mythical characters from The Mahabharata at the same time showing the influence of Camus and Satre. The influence of Camus is also evident in his well-known play Tughlaq (1962) which is historical in concept based on the life of Sultan Mohammad bin Tughlaq of fourteenth-century India. He has written many plays like Hayavadana, Bali, The Sacrifice, Naga-Mandala, The Fire and the Rain and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. His two short monologues are Broken Images and Flowers. The plots of all these plays are based on legend, history, myth and folklore. Yayati and The Fire and the Rain are based on the Mahabharata. Tughlaq and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan are based on Indian history. The plot of Hayavadana is based on Kathasaritsagar. Bali, the Sacrifice is based on the Yashodhara Charite. Naga-Mandala is a folk play. It is based on the oral tales from Karnataka.

Girish Karnad

As a playwright, Karnad was highly influenced by Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra. At the same time Brechtian technique of drama also influenced him. But as a dramatist Karnad is original. He does not copy any definite pattern. His plays depict the crisis of human identity and the complexity and duality of human character. His dramas analyse and interpret contemporary social problems. Selfhood, search for identity, isolation, alienation and frustration are the major themes of Karnad’s plays. The undercurrent of existentialism can also be seen in those plays.

Plots in Karnad’s plays are precise and well-constructed. The devices like parallelism and contrast, suspense and surprise help in the logical development of the play. The events and incidents are organised into an artistic whole. Settings in Karnad’s plays are in keeping with the plots. The art of characterization of Karnad is also appreciable. His characters are well-delineated. Those characters promote the unity of effect. In Karnad’s plays both incident and situation are correlated with characters. The playwright observes economy, precision and realism in portraying his characters. He emphasises those qualities that are essential for the development of the plot. All his characters have been portrayed with great psychological insight. The characters of Karnad speak a language that suits their temperament.

Karnad’s English is lucid and simple. He successfully moulded this language to express typical Indian ethos in his plays. He used rich and apt words. His words were highly suggestive. His dialogues were crisp, precise and pointed. Karnad frequently used symbols. His style was simple, straightforward and idiomatic.

Karnad’s plays have been translated into several Indian languages and directed by eminent directors like Ebrahim Alkazi, B V Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Prasanna, Arvind Gaur, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta, Shyamanand Jalan and Amal Allana. He was also active in the world of Indian cinema working as an actor, director, and screenwriter, both in Hindi and Kannada cinema, earning numerous awards along the way.

Girish Karnad is a recipient of the 1998 Jnanpith Award for Kannada, the highest literary honour conferred in India. For four decades Karnad composed plays, often using history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues. He was conferred Padma Sri and Padma Bhushan by the Government of India.

Girish Karnad was a gifted dramatic craftsman, a man of versatile genius. He was well-versed in Indian stage techniques. All his plays are noticeable for the consummate excellence of dramatic technique. Karnad’s plays are known for stageability. His plays are universal in their appeal. He is a crusader against all those evils that are prevalent in the society. Karnad has used various theatrical devices for developing the plot and for creating the desired dramatic effect. The dramatic technique evolved by him is appreciated in the entire world of theatre. His plot, characters, setting, style and language contribute a lot to the creation of unity of effect in his plays.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.