Jnanpith Award winner and recipient of the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, Girish Karnad was one of the most noted playwrights in India.
He wrote his first play, the critically acclaimed Yayati (1961), while still at Oxford. Centred on the story of a mythological king, the play established Karnad’s use of the themes of history and mythology. Karnad’s next play, Tughlaq (1964), tells the story of the 14th-century sultan Muḥammad bin Tughluq and remains among the best known of his works.
Karnad has written numerous plays in Kannada and is considered one of Kannada literature’s foremost playwrights. His most famous include Yayati in 1961, Hayavadana in 1972 and Nagamandala in 1988. Tughlaq, a play he wrote in 1964, made Karnad a name to reckon with among playwrights in the country. The thirteen-scene play is set during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq.
He was conferred Padma Shri in 1974 and in 1992, the Indian government awarded Karnad the Padma Bhushan, in recognition of his contributions to the arts. He was the recipient of the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary prize, in 1999 for his contributions to literature and theatre.
Karnad’s acting and screenwriting debut came in 1970 in the Kannada film Samskara (1970), which is based on a novel by UR Ananthamurthy. The film won the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. Karnad followed with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), co-directed by BV Karanth. During this period Karnad continued to produce work as a playwright, including Hayavadana (1971), widely acclaimed as among the most important plays of post-independence India.
For his contributions to theatre, he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s top civilian honours, in 1974. Karnad’s other well-known films in Kannada include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977) and Ondanondu Kaaladalli (1978). He also worked in Hindi, directing the critically acclaimed Utsav (1984), an adaptation of Shūdraka’s 4th-century Sanskrit play Mrichchakatika.
The multifaceted author and playwright also hosted a weekly science program on the Doordarshan titled Turning Point. Featuring Indian scientist Yash Pal, the award-winning show explained complex, modern scientific discoveries in simple language.
Even as he aged, he continued to make public appearances at panel discussions and literature festivals to discuss his work.
Outside of his work on stage and on screen, he was an active voice against violence against writers and journalists in India. On the one-year anniversary of the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, he attended an event with a placard around his neck that read, “#MeTooUrbanNaxal.” He also took part in protests in Bengaluru after Lankesh’s death as well as protests against the murder of academic MM Kalburgi.
During the Karnataka police’s investigation into Gauri Lankesh’s murder, they found that Karnad’s name was first on a hit list of a far-right conspiracy, by members associated with groups that were targeting several litterateurs and rationalists.
He was born in Maharashtra on May 19, 1938. He got his Bachelor’s degree from the Karnataka University in 1958 and then proceeded on a fellowship to study at Oxford where he secured his M.A. degree in 1963. At Oxford, Karnad studied philosophy, politics, and economics.
He is survived by his wife Saraswathi, son Raghu Karnad, a journalist and writer and daughter Radha, a doctor based in Kenya.