It was the spring of 2002. I was meeting Girish Karnad for the first time, over lunch at a pub in London, where he had graciously invited me after watching a performance of our play Dance Like A Man at a well-known theatre in the city. As the director of Nehru Centre, we had reached out to him to help publicise our weeklong run in the Metropolis.
Across me sat this giant of modern Indian theatre, a man whom I had admired since I was in college for his enormous intellect, talent, erudition, wide breadth of understanding of the arts, strongly articulate and forthright voice and not the least, his charming and attractive persona.
I know reams have been, and will be, written about Girish’s astounding body of work as an actor, playwright, director, screenplay writer, translator, arts administrator, and outspoken champion of causes he believed in. He played many roles with effortless ease and brilliance.
I write here, therefore, modestly, only of the Girish Karnad I knew a little from theatre. A man who loved it with every fibre of his being. A man as passionate about it as I was and who, I realised over time, placed it above all other forms, though his contribution to it as a writer of immense intelligence, penetrative insight and knowledge far outstripped my own as a mere practitioner.
That afternoon, I realised that with his furlough in London, Girish had rediscovered his great love for theatre. He told me how it was an unimaginable treat to have feasted for the last couple of years on some of the best international theatre in London, and how seeing it had fuelled and fired him. We spoke for hours over some excellent lager and fish and chips, which he enjoyed with as much relish as our chat. We spoke about my doing some of his plays, and thus, our association began, forged in our common love for this ephemeral shared experience we call theatre.
I had set up my company specifically to promote original Indian writing and Girish’s work interested me greatly. He began to send me his scripts, some of which I had read already. This is when I discovered his humility as a playwright. He generously heard my views on them and waited till I found one that hadn’t been done too often before and resonated with me.
I loved one that he sent me called The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. Commissioned as a radio play by the BBC to commemorate India’s 50 years of independence, it, however, needed a great deal of time and work to be adapted for the stage, time which I then didn’t have due to my other commitments.
A few years later he offered me Broken Images. Arundhati Nag had played the main role in the Hindi version and he asked me if I would like to do the English version. I liked the script enormously, but my father had recently been diagnosed with last-stage cancer. I was distracted, disturbed and procrastinated committing to doing it immediately.
Six months later, after having waited patiently for me to revert, he called to ask me if he could offer it to Alyque Padamsee (if I was very sure I couldn’t do it), who he said was very keen to do it with Shabana Azmi. This was the graciousness of the man. I passed on doing the play with sadness (one of the few regrets in my life) because my father was in a critical phase and nothing was certain. Though spending time with my dad, I never regretted.
And then came Wedding Album. He offered the script to me straight off the computer and we worked together polishing it (a process that I enjoy next only to directing and acting). I was delighted with this new Girish Karnad gaze that started with Broken Images and continued with the new play, where he looked at the contemporary world with his customary insight, wit and sharpness in a direct and realistic manner, illuminating it as only he could.
During this period, I learnt of his generosity and confidence. Donning my director hat, I discussed edits, rewrites, deleting and adding characters. He was happy and unfazed and trusted my judgement completely, never questioning my reasons. He always said once a play was being produced, it was out of his hands and belonged to the director.
Wedding Album went on to become an enormous success—it has travelled the world with over 300 shows and is still running strong. Everyone in the production was a recipient of Girish’s enthusiasm at its success. His reaction to critics who were disappointed because he moved from his erstwhile grander themes rooted in myth and history to “drawing room” plays didn’t bother him. He pronounced that he wrote for himself and what interested him, not what others expected of him and wondered why he was obliged to write forever on the same subjects.
His conviction and sense of belief in himself was inspiring as always. The play, deceptively simple on the surface, is imbued with brilliant commentary on a variety of themes which are subtly woven (a la Chekhov whom he admired) into the fabric of a story of a wedding that is never seen. These were picked up by critics abroad and praised greatly.
Our next outing together, Boiled Beans on Toast, another modern tale that he was kind enough to let me premiere in English, was set in Bangalore where he lived (though he always called himself a ‘Dharwad man’) and was an attempt to understand the urban experience, through a cross section of disparate people, whose stories of survival, disappointment and expectations are often left incomplete and leave us feeling a sense of recognition and yet make us uncomfortable. Modern in its style of ambivalence and even creating a kind of distance from the audience, with it, Girish seemed to be moving in a new and exciting direction.
He belonged to that vintage of writers of the ‘60s who never cared about money where theatre was concerned. When I offered him a modest royalty for his shows, he said he didn’t need payment, he was happy that I was doing his plays. This pure passion for the craft belonged to an era that has passed with his going. Now the four pillars of modern Indian theatre—Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar and Girish Karnad—are all gone. They were so intensely involved and committed to creating a solid foundation that the commerce was never what interested them. For most of them, it was the joy of creating and seeing their work performed.
Before he fell ill, we spoke on working on a new play together soon. I’m sure Girish had a hundred more stories to tell. He always said life was the best fodder for his work. My only regret is that I didn’t do more of his plays while he was there to see them, but fortunately his legacy is enormous and forever, and for us in theatre, our biggest tribute to him would be to keep his work alive and blazing for new generations. As I finish this, I’m running to a rehearsal. I think Girish would have been happy hearing that.
(The author is an actor and artistic director of The Primetime Theatre Company)