Biography of Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad was one of India’s most prominent intellectuals. He is difficult to categorize because he was active in numerous cultural arenas—he was a writer and a playwright, an actor, a screenwriter, and a director.

Karnad was born on May 19, 1938 in Matheran, Bombay Presidency (now Maharashtra), India to middle-class parents. When he was fourteen, the family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka, south India. There he attended Karnataka University and began studying Yakshagana theater.

Karnad then attended Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar studying politics, economics, and philosophy. While at Oxford he wrote his first play, Yayati (1961). His second play was Tughlaq (1964), one of his best-known works. His plays were written in the south Indian language of Kannada, and translated into English and other Indian languages. Karnad often did the translations into English himself.

Having since moved back to India from England, Karnad made his foray into the film world in 1970 with Samskara, writing the screenplay and playing the lead role. That film won the Golden Lotus Award, the national prize for Kannada cinema. Even as he worked in film, he kept writing plays, such as Hayavadana (1971), Nagamandala (1988), and Agni Mattu Male (1995), and created a one-act radio drama, Ma Nisada (1964).

Karnad received numerous awards during his lifetime. In 1974, he was awarded the Padma Shri, a top civilian honor. In 1992, he won the Padma Bhushan for his contributions to the arts. And in 1998, he was awarded the Jnanpith Award, which is India’s most prestigious literary award.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, he primarily focused on film, directing movies like Kanooru Heggadithi (1999) and acting in Iqbal (2005) and Life Goes On (2009). His final literary work, Rakshasa-Tangadi, was published in 2018.

His other positions included: Director of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune (1974-5), President of the Karnataka Nataka Akademi (1976-8), Visiting Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Chicago (1987-8), Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi (1988-93), Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1994), and Director of the Nehru Centre, High Commission of India, in London. Karnad died on June 10, 2019. His Guardian obituary states, “A secularist who condemned the rise of nationalism in India, he took advantage of his position to campaign for the rights of the LGBT community, women, the Dalit caste and religious minorities. He was critical of the 2002 Gujarat riots which saw the murder of many Muslims by Hindus when the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, was chief minister of Gujarat. Karnad continued to be critical of Modi after his election and in recent years had spoken out against the house arrests of activists by the government across the country, and of the murders of prominent journalists.”

Study Guides on Works by Girish Karnad

Hayavadana is a 1971 play by Indian writer Girish Karnad. It tells the story of best friends Devadatta and Kapila, and their love, Padmini, as well as that of a man in the story with the face of a horse (the title of the okat means “one with a...