In around 1972-73, when I was still in school, I happened to see Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana, directed by Satyadev Dubey. And that had a very strong influence on me. Even today, I remember how that performance had panned out on stage. It was clear to me after seeing Hayavadana — which involved both the play itself, and its production — that I wanted to do theatre.
Over the years, I read a lot of his plays. There were two things that connected me to what he wrote: his deep interest in folk tales and how he was able to use them as metaphors, and his love for history. He belonged to a generation of playwrights who forged an entirely new identity for contemporary Indian theatre. It was a generation of writers who were sensitive to what was happening around them and their work reflected their political concerns, and understanding of society. Girish’s greatest strength was his cultural rootedness. The fact that he always wrote first in Kannada says a lot. Of course, his own English translations of his works were superb. He was a great conversationalist, extremely well read, erudite, and made connections between what you would think were very discreet things. It was that kind of a mind.
We would meet on and off; not as much as one would have liked. But he was very supportive and generous. When I was trying to get some funding to go to England in the mid-’80s, he very kindly wrote a letter of recommendation. Most recently, when there was this brouhaha about my Sangeet Natak Akademi award — whether it should have been given or not — he wrote this wonderful letter to the chairman of the academy, firstly congratulating him for having stood by the decision of the committee to award me, and then making a couple of powerful political points. He has been a great support, doing what he believed was right. He stood by his fearless positions on his political beliefs and stood up for Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, despite the threats to his own life. Not many writers would do that.
I had always wanted to do Hayavadana at some point, as a tribute to that first encounter. But, every time I planned to do it, somebody else was already doing a production of it. It was only this year that, for the first time, I directed another of his plays, Rakt Kalyan. It’s a fine example of how he used history to understand the contemporary situation. His plays are challenging and complex. But when you have a script written by a master playwright, half of your job is done. I met him when we took the production to Bangalore. He was very thrilled that we were doing Rakt Kalyan in western India — the play had had many productions in Kannada and Delhi — and that I was doing it with students. He was quite frail, but most pleased that he had finished writing a play on the Vijaynagar empire at the age of 81. I believe he was also working on the translation of his autobiography, which is out in Kannada. A playwright’s work deserves to be staged. That’s when it really completes the circle. There is a lot of academic writing on his work, including critiques and PhD theses. But eventually, a play needs to be produced. And I really hope that more people take on his work and produce it so we have the advantage of seeing different interpretations of his writing. It’s a huge loss. The best way we can pay a tribute to him and keep his legacy alive is to keep producing his plays.