This Life At Play: Even with its declared omissions, Girish Karnad's 'half-tale' memoir is a complex, nuanced narration

·6 min read

Quietly released last month even as the world of arts and letters observed his 83rd birth anniversary, Girish Karnad's This Life At Play is the English translation of his memoirs in Kannada, Aadaadta Aayushya (which translates as 'life moves on while playing'). That volume was published in 2011 by the Dharwad-based publishing outfit Manohara Grantha Mala, the well-regarded bastion of Kannada literature. Fifty years earlier (in 1961), they had also propitiously brought out Karnad's first full-length play, Yayati, when the late doyen was not yet 25.

Looking back in the book, Karnad places that feverishly written, but far from inchoate, early manuscript €" in which a son diligently exchanges his youth with his father's old age €" both in the contrary context of his own imminent severing-of-the-umbilical-cord as it were, on the eve of his setting sail for a stint at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar (and the cultural alienation that foretold), and in the unexpected (and at the time, disorienting) 'sprouting' of an innate and deep linkage with puranic texts that have so heavily informed his body of work as a playwright par excellence.

Such intriguing contradictions €" like Karnad's rootedness in the face of fervent western edification, or his challenging of the social order while seemingly entrenched in the status quo, or the diaphanous modestness of tone employed to showcase eminently fail-safe credentials €" lend distinctive heft and edge to This Life At Play. Alongside, are intricate and revelatory accounts (that are not always favourable) of life-long associations, like those with publisher GB Joshi of the Grantha Mala and writer Kirtinath Kurtakoti €" both early backers of his prodigious talent €" or later collaborators like Kannadiga cultural warhorses BV Karanth or GV Iyer, which provide the book its compelling human spine, laced with an undercurrent of blunt if clearly relished acerbity that might perhaps have been even more pronounced in the Kannada version.

While Karnad had translated some portions of the text himself, it is author Srinath Perur who has completed the work. For those unfamiliar with the original, the volume ends rather unexpectedly at a point when Karnad had arguably entered his absolute prime €" coming off an eventful directorship of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune (during which he oversaw the disassembling of the very first of the FTII's many historical strikes, even as a rare director 'sympathetic to the cause of the striking students'), the burgeoning legacy of three classical-yet-contemporary plays (Yayati, Tughlaq and Hayavadana) that had taken modern Indian theatre by storm, and his pioneering and multi-faceted contribution (as screenwriter, actor or director) to the New Wave in Kannada cinema with path-breaking films like Samskara and Vamsha Vriksha. This makes the book the story of a very particular epoch, that captures with some immediacy the nascent cultural movements of a young country in flux and seemingly ordinary prime movers inching their way towards towering posterity.

Also read on Firstpost €" This Life at Play: Read an excerpt from Girish Karnad's memoir on how he transformed FTII's acting course

While This Life At Play is far from what one might call a contemplative work, blithely letting its roll-call of occurrences speak for itself, its descriptive linearity ultimately settles into a sharply individualistic if unsentimental account.

It opens powerfully with Karnad's account of the unusual circumstances under which his mother Krishnabai, a child widow, came to be remarried to his father, Dr Raghunath Karnad, a government doctor, under the progressive aegis of the Arya Samaj €" whose figureheads became an indelible part of prayer rooms in successive Karnad households.

Rich in authentic detail, this first chapter emerged from Krishnabai's own scribblings, replete with ancestral secrets and revelations made known only later in her life. Karnad's childhood and coming of age in the emerging townships of Sirsi and Dharwad in the 1950s, provide the memoir its most compelling (and literarily accomplished) chapters €" a Bildungsroman not just for a budding writer with a predilection for social observation, but a humanist with unremittingly liberal persuasions. However, Karnad does not belabour upon his upbringing in the typically sequestered Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community, cloaking it instead with instances of social egalitarianism or religious diversity or cultural exposure in the eco-system around their hamlet, that ostensibly wielded much more of an influence on those impressionable years.

The book's narrative gaze is not so much retrospective as it appears to be forward-looking, which allows for the gradual unfolding of life's infirmities, and early blinkers giving way to a healthy cynicism. Although, by the same token, the sheer lyricism of an electricity-free childhood spent in uncannily illuminated darkened evenings, also gives way to character sketches of mentors and cohorts that seem somehow less than inspired.

Karnad's years at Dharwad's famed Karnatak College, and indeed, at Oxford, point as much towards the jaded notion of merit as it obscures privilege, another blind spot. These prove to be the choppier portions of the book, but thankfully they quickly segue into the rigorously detailed chapters dealing with the making of the path-breaking films, Samskara and Vamsha Vriksha. This is almost a stand-alone memoir in its own right, stylistically and thematically distinct from the rest of the book. The films are linked tangentially with his parent's journeys €" his father's ostentation-free funeral or his mother's proto-feminist back-story. These connections come in hindsight, and they provide these unflinchingly recounted personal histories a lasting and essential poignancy that is never overplayed.

In the end, the glue, or rather filling clay, that masterfully brings these strands together is, of course, theatre. So much has already been written of Karnad's journey in the performing arts, that This Life At Play is like a treasure trove of familiar treats. From looking for drama in real-life settings €" his father's hospital, for one €" to stealing out with servants to catch night-long Yakshagana performances as a kid, to a much more prodigious engagement with the performing arts long before his plays came to be professionally staged, Karnad's This Life At Play, true to its title, is exuberantly filled with backstage anecdotes, intrepid musings on stagecraft, approaches to playwriting discovered, delighted in and discarded, and vivid accounts of actual performances that never stop coming.

Karnad's marriage to Dr Saraswathy Ganapathy in 1980 marks the tenderly delineated coda for the book, and also the auspicious beginning of the next chapter of his life, unwritten here but widely documented in the public sphere, which in interviews Karnad has likened to a sheer litany of accolades that scarcely lent itself to unvarnished biography (although he had started work on that volume, and Perur has included some of those new passages in this edition). Of course, a reader in search of an unabridged edition might miss out upon the sharper and often radical political outlook of his later years, and this period has been contextualised in some detail by his children, Raghu and Radha, in an emotionally-charged afterword.

In his own epilogue, Karnad inks a parallel with Ardhakathana (or, 'Half The Tale'), a similarly truncated 17th-century autobiography; even if the exact words of the Kannada title come from a poem by DR Bendre, one of the more important formative influences of Karnad's life. In the balance of things, this so-called half tale, even with its declared omissions, is far more complete than most, and to use an oft-repeated cliché, well worth the price of admission.

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