Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad at Cornell University, 2009
Born Girish Raghunath Karnad
ಗಿರೀಶ್ ಕಾರ್ನಾಡ್
(1938-05-19) 19 May 1938
Matheran, British India (present-day Maharashtra, India)
Occupation Playwright, film director, film actor
Nationality Indian
Alma mater University of Oxford
Genre Fiction
Literary movement Navya
Notable works Tughalak 1964

Girish Raghunath Karnad (born 19 May 1938) is an Indian actor, film director, writer[1] playwright and a Rhodes Scholar, who predominantly works in South Indian cinema. his rise as a playwright in 1960s, marked the coming of age of modern Indian playwriting in Kannada, just as Badal Sarkar did in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi.[2] He is a recipient of the 1998 Jnanpith Award, the highest literary honour conferred in India.[3]

For four decades Karnad has been composing plays, often using history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues. He has translated his plays into English and has received acclaim.[4] His plays have been translated into some Indian languages and directed by directors like Ebrahim Alkazi, B. V. Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Prasanna, Arvind Gaur, Satyadev Dubey, Vijaya Mehta, Shyamanand Jalan and Amal Allana.[4] He is active in the world of Indian cinema working as an actor, director, and screenwriter, in Hindi and Kannada cinema, earning awards along the way. He was conferred Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan by the Government of India and won four Filmfare Awards, of which three are Filmfare Award for Best Director – Kannada and the other a Filmfare Best Screenplay Award.

Early life and education

Girish Karnad was born in Matheran, Maharashtra in a Saraswat Brahmin (SB) Konkani family, to Rao Saheb Dr Karnad and Krishna Bai Mankeekara. Krishna Bai was a widow and was serving as a homemaker for Rao Saheb and his bedridden wife for about five years. Rao Saheb and Krishna Bai married according to Arya Samaj tradition.[5] His initial schooling was in Marathi. In Sirsi, Karnataka, he was exposed to travelling theatre groups, Natak Mandalis as his parents were deeply interested in their plays.[6] As a youngster, Karnad was an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theater in his village.[7] His family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka when he was 14 years old, where he grew up with his two sisters and niece.[8]

He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and statistics from Karnatak Arts College, Dharwad (Karnataka University), in 1958. Upon graduation Karnad went to England and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (1960–63), earning his Master of Arts degree in philosophy, political science and economics.[4] Karnad was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1963.


After working with the Oxford University Press, Chennai for seven years (1963–70), he resigned to take to writing full-time.[4] While in Madras (now known as Chennai) he got involved with local amateur theatre group, The Madras Players.[9]

During 1987–88, he was at the University of Chicago as visiting professor and Fulbright playwright-in-residence.[4] During his tenure at Chicago Nagamandala had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis based on Karnad's English translation of the Kannada original.[10] Most recently, he served as director of the Nehru Centre and as Minister of Culture, in the Indian High Commission, London (2000–2003).

He served as director of the Film and Television Institute of India (1974–1975) and chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National Academy of the Performing Arts (1988–93).


Girish Karnad in 2010

Karnad is known as a playwright. His plays, written in Kannada, have been translated into English and some Indian languages. (Karnad's plays are written neither in English, in which he vainly dreamt of earning international fame as a poet, nor in his mother tongue Konkani.) Kannada is his adopted language.

When Karnad started writing plays, Kannada literature was highly influenced by the renaissance in Western literature. Writers would choose a subject that looked entirely alien to manifestation of native soil. C. Rajagopalachari's version of the Mahabharata published in 1951, left a deep impact on him[11] and soon, sometime in the mid-1950s, one day he experienced a rush of dialogues by characters from the Mahabharata in his adopted Kannada. "I could actually hear the dialogues being spoken into my ears ... I was just the scribe," said Karnad in a later interview. Yayati was published in 1961, when he was 23 years old. It is based on the story of King Yayati, one of the ancestors of the Pandavas, who was cursed into premature old age by his preceptor, Shukracharya, who was incensed at Yayati's infidelity. Yayati in turn asks his sons to sacrifice their youth for him, and one of them agrees. It ridicules the ironies of life through characters in Mahabharata. It became an instant success, immediately translated and staged in several other Indian languages.[10]

Karnad found a new approach of drawing historical and mythological sources to tackle contemporary themes and existentialist crisis of modern man through characters locked in psychological and philosophical conflicts. His next was Tughlaq (1964), about a rashly idealist 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq, and allegory on the Nehruvian era which started with ambitious idealism and ended up in disillusionment.[11] This established Karnad, now 26 years old, as a promising playwright in the country. It was staged by the National School of Drama Repertory under the direction of Ebrahim Alkazi, with the actor Manohar Singh, playing the visionary king who later becomes disillusioned and turns bitter, amidst the historic Purana Qila in Delhi. It was staged in London by the National School of Drama for the Festival of India in 1982.[4][10]

Hayavadana (1971) was based on a theme drawn from The Transposed Heads, a 1940 novella by Thomas Mann, which is originally found in the 11th-century Sanskrit text Kathasaritsagara. Herein he employed the folk theatre form of Yakshagana. A German version of the play was directed by Vijaya Mehta as part of the repertoire of the Deutsches National Theatre, Weimar.

Naga-Mandala (Play with Cobra, 1988) was based on a folk tale related to him by A. K. Ramanujam, brought him the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the Most Creative Work of 1989. It was directed by J. Garland Wright, as part of the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis. The theatre subsequently commissioned him to write the play, Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain). Though before it came Taledanda (Death by Beheading, 1990) which used the backdrop, the rise of Veerashaivism, a radical protest and reform movement in 12th century Karnataka to bring out current issues.[4][12]


Karnad made his acting as well as screenwriting debut in a Kannada movie, Samskara (1970), based on a novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy and directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. That movie won the first President's Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. Over the years he had acted in a number of Hindi and Kannada feature films and worked with directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal.[4]

In television, he played the role of Swami's father in the TV series Malgudi Days (1986–1987), based on R. K. Narayan's books. He also hosted the science magazine Turning Point on Doordarshan, in early 1990s.

He made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), based on a Kannada novel by S. L. Bhyrappa. It won him National Film Award for Best Direction along with B. V. Karanth, who co-directed the film. Later, Karnad directed several movies in Kannada and Hindi, including Godhuli (1977) and Utsav (1984). Karnad has made number of documentaries, like one on the Kannada poet D. R. Bendre (1972), Kanaka-Purandara (English, 1988) on two medieval Bhakti poets of Karnataka, Kanaka Dasa and Purandara Dasa, and The Lamp in the Niche (English, 1989) on Sufism and the Bhakti movement. Many of his films and documentaries have won several national and international awards.

Some of his famous Kannada movies include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Ondanondu Kaladalli, Cheluvi and Kaadu and most recent film Kanooru Heggaditi (1999), based on a novel by Kannada writer Kuvempu.

His Hindi movies include Nishaant (1975), Manthan (1976), Swami (1977) and Pukar (2000). He has acted in a number of Nagesh Kukunoor films, starting with Iqbal (2005), where Karnad's role of the ruthless cricket coach got him critical acclaim. This was followed by Dor (2006), 8 x 10 Tasveer (2009), with lead actor Akshay Kumar and Aashayein (2010).

He came back to Hindi movies after three years. He played a key role in Yash Raj Film's movie Ek Tha Tiger.[13]

Karnad has acted in the Kannada gangster movie Aa Dinagalu.

Other notable works

He has been the voice of A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India, in the audiobook of Kalam's autobiography by Charkha Audiobooks Wings of Fire.

Awards and honours

For literature
For cinema
National Film Awards
Filmfare Awards South
Filmfare Awards
Karnataka State Film Awards


At the 2012 TATA Lit Fest held in Mumbai, Karnad was invited to speak about "his life in theater" in an hour-long session. Instead of talking about the subject, he took the opportunity to lash out at V. S. Naipaul for his "antipathy towards Indian Muslims". V. S. Naipaul had earlier been conferred the Lifetime achievement award by the festival's organisers. Karnad also criticized the organizers for having honored Naipaul.

The audience, which had gathered to hear Karnad speak, had mixed reactions to the speech. Some, like organizer Anil Dharker, tried ineffectually to steer the speech to more politically correct waters. Others were amused by the episode, and some commented on the research and logic that had gone into the speech (unfortunately overshadowed by its 'scandalous' nature).[20]

Just a few weeks after this, Karnad again created controversy by claiming that Rabindranath Tagore was a second-rate playwright and that his plays were "unbearable".[21][22]

In November 2015, during celebrations marking the birth anniversary of 18th-century Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan, Karnad stated that Bangalore International Airport should have been named after Tipu Sultan instead of Kempe Gowda. This created a furore among right-wing groups. Karnad apologised the following day.[23][24]

Personal life

Karnad is married to Dr. Saraswathy Ganapathy and they have two children. He lives in Bangalore.[4] Girish Karnad, while working in Madras for Oxford University Press on his return from England,met his future wife Saraswathi Ganapathy at a party. They decided to marry but the marriage was formalised after 10 years, when Karnad was 42 years old. Saraswathi was born to a Parsi mother, Nargis Mugaseth and a Kodava father, Kodandera Ganapathy.[5]


He is a proponent of multi-culturalism and freedom of expression, Girish Karnad has been a critic of religious fundamentalism and Hindutva in India. He publicly condemned the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and later spoke against the attempts to create controversy about the Idgah Maidan in Hubli.[4] He is a proponent of secularism and has opposed RSS, BJP and other Hindu organizations on several occasions. He has opposed Narendra Modi for the Prime Minister's post in the 2014 parliament elections.


Plays in Kannada

Plays in English



Title Year Role Language Notes
Tiger Zinda Hai 2017 Shenoy Hindi
Shivaay 2016 Hindi
24 2016 Sathya's grandfather Tamil
Dheera Rana Vikrama 2015 Home Minister Of Karnataka
Rudra Tandava 2015 Chiranjeevi Sarja's Father
Savari 2 2014 Vishwanath
Samrat & Co. 2014
Yaare Koogadali 2012
Mugamoodi 2012 Tamil
Ek Tha Tiger 2012 Dr. Shenoy (RAW Chief)
Kempe Gowda 2011 Mahadev Gowda (Kavya's Father)
Narthagi 2011 Tamil
Komaram Puli 2010 Telugu
Life Goes On 2009 Sanjay
Aashayein 2009 Parthasarthi
8 x 10 Tasveer 2009 Anil Sharma
Aa dinagalu 2007 Girish Nayak Kannada
Tananam Tananam 2006 Shastry Kannada
Dor 2006 Randhir Singh
Iqbal 2005 Guruji
Shankar Dada MBBS 2004 Satya Prasad Telugu
Chellamae 2004 Rajasekhar Tamil
Hey Ram 2000 Uppilli Iyengar Tamil
Pukar 2000 Mr. Rajvansh
Prathyartha 1999 Sheshanag Dixit (Home Minister of India)
Aakrosh: Cyclone of Anger 1998 Rajwansh Shashtri
China Gate 1998 Forest Officer Sunder Rajan
Minsaara Kanavu 1997 Amal Raj Tamil
Ratchagan 1997 Sriram Tamil
The Prince 1996 Vishwanath Malayalam
Aatank 1996 Inspector Khan
Dharma Chakram 1996
Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai 1995 Hanagal Kumaraswamiji
Aagatha 1994 Psychiatrist Kannada
Kadhalan 1994 Kakarla Satyanarayana Murti Tamil
Praana Daata 1993
Cheluvi 1992 Village Headman
Gunaa 1991
Antarnaad 1991
Brahma 1991
Chaithanya 1991
AK-47 1999
Nehru: The Jewel of India 1990
Santha Shishunala Sharifa 1990 Govindabhatta Kannada
Mil Gayee Manzil Mujhe 1989
Akarshan 1988
Sutradhar 1987 Zamindar
Naan Adimai Illai 1986 Rajinikanth's Father-in-law
Neela Kurinji Poothappol 1986 Appu Menon Malayalam
Sur Sangam 1985 Pandit Shivshankar Shastri
Meri Jung 1985 Deepak Verma
Zamana 1985 Satish Kumar
Nee Thanda Kanike 1985
Divorce 1984
Tarang 1984 Dinesh
Ek Baar Chale Aao 1983 Din Dayal
Ananda Bhairavi 1983 Narayana Sarma
Teri Kasam 1982 Rakesh
Aparoopa 1982
Umbartha 1982 Advocate Subhash Mahajan Marathi
Shama 1981 Nawab Yusuf Khan
Apne Paraye 1980 Harish
Man Pasand 1980 Khinath
Aasha 1980 Deepak
Anveshane 1983 Rotti
Beqasoor 1980 Dr. Anand Bhatnagar
Ratnadeep 1979
Sampark 1979 Heera
Jeevan Mukt 1977 Amarjeet
Swami 1977 Ghanshyam
Manthan 1976 Dr.Rao
Nishaant 1975 Schoolmaster
Jadu Ka Shankh 1974
Vamsha Vriksha 1971
Samskara 1970 Praneshacharya

TV series

1. Malgudi Days (1987) as Swami's Father

2. Indradhanush (1989) as Appu and Bala's Father

Movies directed

Other works

Works in translation



  1. "Sahitya Akademi : Who's Who of Indian Writers". Sahitya Akademi. Sahitya Akademi. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  2. "Drama between the lines". Financial Express. 28 January 2007.
  3. "Jnanpith for Dr Girish Karnad". 21 January 1999. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 AWARDS: The multi-faceted playwright Frontline, Vol. 16, No. 3, 30 Jan.–12 Feb 1999.
  5. 1 2
  6. Kumar, p.115
  7. "Conversation with Girish Karnad". Bhargavi Rao on Muse India. Muse India. Archived from the original on 16 March 2007. Retrieved 11 July 2007.
  8. "Conversation: 'I wish I were a magician'". Livemint. 11 October 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-12.
  9. Sachindananda, p. 57
  10. 1 2 3 "PROFILE: GIRISH KARNAD: Renaissance Man". India Today. 12 April 1999.
  11. 1 2 Sachindananda, p. 58
  12. Don Rubin (1998). The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia. Taylor & Francis. p. 196. ISBN 0-415-05933-X.
  14. 1 2 "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  15. "USC News". 14 April 2011. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  16. "25th National Film Awards". International Film Festival of India. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  17. "25th National Film Awards (PDF)" (PDF). Directorate of Film Festivals. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  18. Biography and plays of Girish Karnad
  20. Girish Karnad slams V S Naipaul for his anti-Islam views, questions his Mumbai fest award, Indian Express, 3 November 2012.
  21. Deccan Chronicle.
  22. "Rabindranath Tagore a 'second-rate playwright', Girish Karnad says". The Times of India. Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  23. "Karnataka Simmers Over Tipu Sultan Row, Girish Karnad Offers Apology". NDTV. 12 November 2015.
  24. "Girish Karnad offers apology over remarks on Kempegowda". The Hindu. 12 November 2015.
  25. Kumar, p. 114
  26. Drama critics. "Girish Karnad's Rakt Kalyan (Tale-Danda)". Retrieved 25 December 2008.


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