Playwright Karnad, fan of Tipu Sultan, dies at 81

June 11, 2019

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Girish Karnad.—AP
Girish Karnad.—AP

NEW DELHI: Celebrated Indian playwright and movie actor Girish Karnad who died in Bengaluru on Monday, has left behind a legacy of political activism that tethered his art to a life-long to commitment to social justice and secularism. He was 81.

Often seen at the barricades in recent years as an activist for peace and justice, communal harmony and hate-free politics, Karnad was a major force for the beleaguered world of theatre and cinema, which has come to be mortally challenged by the rising influence of Hindutva in the sphere of culture.

One of Karnad’s great heroes was Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore. In Tipu, Karnad found core values of secularism, patriotism and religious accord with different social communities. Hin­dutva bigots targeted him for that and more.

Karnad used his literary skills and, in later years, his popularity, as a platform to fight fundamentalism and defend freedom of expression. Despite receiving numerous death threats, he never backed down from expressing his views.

In April, he was among some 200 writers from across India who put out an open letter against the “politics of hate”.

In September last year, he was charged for holding a placard that read “Me Too Urban Naxal” at an event to mark one year of journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder. He had protested against the house arrest of five activists who were accused of links with Maoists.

In 2015 he joined a group of activists protesting the beef ban in Maharashtra.

That same year, he received death threats for his comment that the Bengaluru airport should be named after Tipu Sultan, reviled by Hindutva ideologues as a religious fanatic, which Karnad said he wasn’t.

Born on May 19, 1938, in Mumbai (then Bombay Presidency), his critically-acclaimed body of work includes plays like “Yayati”, “Hayavadana” and “Tughlaq”, all of which he wrote in Kannada and then translated to English, losing none of the beauty of the original texts.

A prominent figure in the Kannada literary scene, many of his plays drew from mythology and traditional stories to create wonderful insights into modern life from mythology and he helped transform the Kannada theatre scene.

His contributions were not limited to the stage.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2019