Thank God, I got to hear Girish Karnad

Karnad opened the Mysore litfest and I was surprised to see him with a pipe stuck in his nose and carrying an oxygen device by its handle.

By Aditya Sinha

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Published: Tue 11 Jun 2019, 9:30 PM

Last updated: Tue 11 Jun 2019, 11:33 PM

I had the good fortune of listening to Girish Karnad, the man of letters who passed away on Monday. He was an asset to Indian society, an asset that, in society's current hypermasculine zeitgeist, is less and less needed. It was two years ago at a literature festival in Mysore, a town in the Chamundi Hills, located closer to the Kerala border than to Bangalore. I had never seen him in person before. He was known foremost as a playwright and won literary honours, including the Sahitya Akademi and the Jnanpith awards, but one of the things I admired him for was a film he directed, Utsav; it opened many possibilities in my mind for revisiting works of the classical era.
Karnad opened the Mysore litfest and I was surprised to see him with a pipe stuck in his nose and carrying an oxygen device by its handle, in his hand, as if it were a briefcase. Everybody else who was on stage  -  an inauguration in India comprises several grandees who usually have little to do with the subject at hand - quickly dispersed and he sat down to talk.
I should mention here that several authors who had been invited were absent. Local cricketing hero Javagal Srinath turned up after Karnad's session was over. A historical writer who had done extensive work on the Wadiyar dynasty that ruled Mysore for nearly 600 years was missing, though he too had a session later that morning. Presumably he was still upset over Karnad's suggestion, two years earlier, to rename Bangalore's airport after Tipu Sultan.
After reciting a piece by a Kannada poet Gopal Krishna Adiga, Karnad spoke and his topic was Mysore-born poet A. K. Ramanujan. Not only did Karnad's sonorous, stage-trained voice pull me in, but also Ramanujan's thesis that the main carriers of our culture were our grandmothers, who relayed to us the stories that underpinned our philosophies while feeding us as children. I always thought my grandmother told me stories during dinner to get me to finish quickly so that I could get the heck out of the dimly lit kitchen; presumably she was in a hurry to serve the adult men, only after which she and other women would eat.
Using Ramanujan's Ajji Kathegalu, also called Kitchen Tales, Karnad said oral culture was 90 per cent of Indian culture, doing the actual transmission of myths, tales, taboos and moral compasses, and that classical culture was only 10 per cent. It irked Ramanujan that so-called Indologists in the West - he mentioned some American academic who said that the 90 per cent of cultural transmission was illiterate - pointed out that in oral culture, it is the women who were revealed to be the heroes. The woman was in charge of the man and her house. She might even be a courtesan but she is still in charge. Also, in Karnad's view, in oral story-telling women are not necessarily as pious as they are made out to be in classics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Such texts are, one might say, scrubbed versions of the stories women passed around.
Karnad also said that though nowadays there are more stories on television, much of it is substandard whereas earlier stories told by one's grandmother not only served a binding social function within the home but also gave food for thought.
I felt energised by Karnad's address. It was much to mull over, not just in resolving to read more Ramanujan after the litfest, but also with regard to a writer's personal agenda. None of us follow a template of working but I have several projects lined up in my head to work on after I finish my current book; and there is no greater joy than to collecting nuggets of wisdom on art and culture from a stalwart to guide you forward.
This lesson was particularly stark given how uninspiring many other panels were - especially the ones on literary fiction. Many of these writers dwelt not on larger Indian society but on their own tiny pockets of privilege - think of the web-series Made in Heaven or of books trying to "do" a modern Indian Jane Austen - and you can only shake your head in dismay at their elitist ostrich behaviour. Thank God I got to hear Girish Karnad. I can only now mourn the passing of a truly engaged Indian intellectual.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in India

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