Rooted in Indian tradition, Girish Karnad’s plays will continue to converse with the contemporary world. 

As a playwright, Girish Karnad has left an indelible impact on the history of contemporary Indian dramaturgy. He was rooted in the cultural tradition of his soil with a deep understanding Western dramatic aesthetics and craft. His two plays – Tughlaq and Hayavadana – have helped redefine the form and structure of drama.

Arguably, Karnad is the first contemporary Indian playwright whose works have been staged and discussed abroad with keen interest. As a public intellectual and writer, he discussed Indian cultural ethos and theatre on international platforms. Originally written in Kannada, Tughlaq was first staged in English in Mumbai and its presentation by the National School of Drama under the direction of E. Alkazi in Hindustani catapulted Tughlaq to national fame. It appeared  on the Kannada stage later. Karnad and his workers are respected by Delhi theatre-lovers and theatre practitioners have a great fascination to perform his plays, especially Tughlaq.

Timeless Appeal

Bhanu Bharti’s mega production of Tughlaq staged against the backdrop of the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla’s open lawns in 2012 gave the play greater dimension. The stage design with a greater number of levels, exploring the space vertically and horizontally captured historical vista, minimal use of property, highly trained and experienced performers with lighting effects by veteran lighting designer R.K Dhingra created an aura that cast a spell on the audience.

Bhanu says, “In the ’50s and ’60s, we had versatile playwrights in most of the Indian languages like Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, and Dharamvir Bharati.”

After 50 years, if we look back, we only find Bharti’s Andha Yug, which was initially not rated high, and Karnad’s Tughlaq that have emerged as modern classics in the history of contemporary Indian theatre.”

Elaborating on this point further, Bhanu says, “Girish Karnad explored mythology and history with the vision of a modernist, resulting in the creation of great theatrical works. I feel it is either mythology or history which helps in the wider understanding of human situation.”

In fact, the more we watch Tughlaq, the more we discover its multiple layers and its striking relevance with contemporary India, starting with the Nehruvian era. Within the historical canvas, Karnad created the character if of Aziz.

Eminent Kannada critic, Kirtinath Kurtkoti once commented, “Strictly speaking, it is a parody. The result of this parody is that it provides the comic double of a serious character in order to give an image of complete truth.” Bhanu adds, “I feel this play dissects deeper to enable us to understand human condition politically and sociologically against the panoramic backdrop against history.”

In recent years, Prof. K. S. Rajendran is mostly staging Karnad’s plays such as Agni Aur Barkha, Wedding Album, and Bali for Hindi audiences in Delhi. His production of Agni Aur Barkha elicited critical acclaim and had several houseful shows. He says, “Karnad achieved the fine art of blending Western dramaturgy and Indian theatre tradition, ‘Hayavadana’ changed the entire concept of play production and acting style. I discovered similar intricacy in Nagamandala and Bali“.

Hayavadana has been staged a number of times by noted directors like B.V. Karanth and Satyadev Dubey. Incorporating folk elements, it projects a mysterious world where dolls speak, goddess Kali commits a blunder that creates complications which defy resolution.

There is a character with features of half-horse and half-human and boy who is inarticulate. All these complicated situations are interwoven into a metaphor that reflects the dilemma of a woman and leaves the conflict of the body and the mind unresolved.

Nagamandala is one of the plays by Karnad which has been viewed by Delhi audiences on several occasions. Though absorbing, it is not easy to describe the structure of Nagamandala.

It has a main plot and a sub plot and some mysterious elements like the love relationship between Rani, neglected by her husband, who keeps her under lock and key, and a serpent. Then there is an old blind woman and her son. Yakshini takes away the blind woman’s son. Last year, an amateur group from Dehradun brought Nagmandala to Delhi which mesmerized the audience with its emphasis on the serpent, Rani’s lover and her true savior.

Karnad wanted from directors to display fidelity to the work of the playwright. A few years ago, Prasanna, while directing his play Agni Aur Barkha for the National School of Drama had edited some portions of the original script. When it came to the notice of Karnad, he lodged a strong protest against the pruning of his script. This lef to a debate about the relationship between the director the playwright. However, the matter was resolved with NSD restoring the original script n the subsequent productions.

Dramatic Masterpieces

As the chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, he was the brain behind organizing Nehru Shatabdi Natya Samaroh in 1989 Delhi which was planned as a retrospective of modern Indian theatre. It was truly a great Indian theatre festival in which dramatic masterpieces were featured under the directions of Indian theatre legends like Utpal Dutt. It was Karnad’s idea that young theatre practitioners and audiences should what great productions staged in the course of the last five decades.

As a public speaker and activist, he raised his voice for saving the secular fabric, freedom of expression and composite culture.

Indeed, Karnad will be remembered for years to come through his works, especially Tughlaq.


This article was reposted with permission from and was originally published on June 13th, 2019.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.

This post was written by Diwan Singh Bajeli.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.