Girish Karnad

Last night there was a talk at the Nehru Centre given by Girish Karnad. This was the first time that the Ravi Dayal memorial lectures were being held and so to a large extent the purpose was to acquaint the listeners about the work of Ravi Dayal and his contribution to the world of publishing.

Of course, it was the name of Girish Karnad that made me decide to attend the talk. Ever since I had to study his play Tughlaq for my M.A. examination I have had a fascination for him. Not that I was deeply moved by the play.

The fact was, until then I only knew him as a film actor and had admired him for his subdued acting in the roles he played opposite actresses like Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. In the seventies and eighties a film actor’s life was limited to the screen and the illusion was carefully nurtured that he was the role he played and not a real life man. There was no TV in India and so you could only buy a film magazine to see your favourite star in a still photo. And an actor’s main job was to look good, he wasn’t supposed to think. In such an ambience to actually read a play written by an actor you had seen on the screen was unthinkable, and that too for an examination in English literature. Wasn’t this the man whom I had seen holding Shabana in his arms, or exchanging passionate looks with Smita, how could he write a play?

It is this versatile nature of his creative mind that made him my hero. He straddled the worlds that seemed so difficult to reconcile. Besides acting he was also a script-writer, director and a producer, and Tughlaq wasn’t his only play, he was a prominent figure in the literary scene. He is also among the very few who write in English as well as in an Indian language. As if that wasn’t enough he had also been the director of the Nehru Centre and been associated with the administration of many other centres of culture and learning. And last night I learnt that he had also been an assistant editor for Oxford University Press and that it had been his first job. It was such a treat to hear him talk about the world of publishing, about the little known, behind-the-scene, stories and the people who choose to remain anonymous while those whose writing styles they had brought to perfection become celebrities.

But there was something else that made him go up several metres in my esteem. Before the lectures started there was an opening of an exhibition in the ground floor of the Nehru Centre and to mark the inauguration the ceremonial oil lamp with a figure of Ganesh was lit by those who were involved in the event. Being so eminent a personality Girish Karnad was also asked to light one of the lamps. To my utter admiration and surprise he first, very discreetly, removed his shoes before lighting it. This to my mind was the sign of a truly cultured man.

Today I see him not only as someone who could combine in himself the world of Bombay show-business and high literary style but also the beautiful traditions of the East and the modern thinking of the West. It was so good to see you, Mr.Karnad.

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