If This Life At Play is far from what one might call a contemplative work, blithely letting its call for occurrences speak for itself, its descriptive linearity finally settles in a strongly individualistic but not sentimental narrative.

Discreetly released last month even as the arts and literary world celebrated its 83rd birthday, Girish Karnad’s This life at stake is the English translation of his memoirs in Kannada, Aadaadta Aayushya (which translates to “life goes on while playing”). This volume was published in 2011 by Dharwad-based publishing company Manohara Grantha Mala, the well-regarded stronghold of Kannada literature. Fifty years earlier (in 1961), they had also conveniently released Karnad’s first feature film, Yayati, when the late dean was not yet 25 years old.

Looking back in the book, Karnad places this feverishly written, but far from rudimentary first manuscript – in which a son diligently exchanges his youth with his father’s old age – both against the backdrop of his own break. imminent umbilicus. -cord so to speak, on the eve of his departure for a stay in Oxford as a scholar of Rhodes (and the cultural alienation that predicted), and in the unexpected (and at the time, disorienting) ” germination ”of a deep link with the Puranic texts which so strongly influenced his work as a playwright par excellence.

Such intriguing contradictions – like Karnad’s entrenchment in the face of fervent Western edification, or his questioning of the social order when it seems rooted in the status quo, or the diaphanous modesty of the tone used to emphasize eminently safe credentials – give distinctive weight and advantage to This life at stake. Beside it are complex and revealing (not always favorable) accounts from long-standing associations, such as those with publisher GB Joshi of the Grantha Mala and writer Kirtinath Kurtakoti – both early supporters of his prodigious talent – or later collaborators like Kannadiga’s cultural warhorses. BV Karanth or GV Iyer, who give the book its compelling human backbone, mixed with an undercurrent of brutal acuteness so clearly appreciated that perhaps would have been even more pronounced in the Kannada version.

While Karnad had translated parts of the text himself, it was author Srinath Perur who completed the work. For those unfamiliar with the original, the volume ends quite unexpectedly at a time when Karnad had arguably entered its absolute heyday – after a turbulent direction from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune (au during which he oversaw the teardown of the very first of many historic FTII strikes, even as a rare director ‘sympathetic to the cause of striking students’), the burgeoning legacy of three classic and contemporary plays (Yayati, Tughlaq and Hayavadana) who had taken modern Indian theater by storm, and his pioneering and multifaceted contribution (as a screenwriter, actor or director) to the New Wave of Kannada cinema with ground-breaking films like Samskara and Vamsha Vriksha. This makes the book the story of a very special era, which captures with a certain immediacy the burgeoning cultural movements of a changing young country and the first seemingly ordinary engines that are gradually moving towards imposing posterity.

Read also on Firstpost – This Life at Play: Read an excerpt from Girish Karnad’s memoir about how he transformed the FTII acting course

While This life at stake is far from what one might call a contemplative work, blithely letting its call for occurrences speak for itself, its descriptive linearity finally settles into a strongly individualistic yet non-sentimental narrative.

It opens powerfully with Karnad’s account of the unusual circumstances in which his mother Krishnabai, a widowed child, remarried his father, Dr. Raghunath Karnad, a government physician, under the progressive aegis of Arya. Samaj – whose figureheads have become an indelible figure. part of the prayer rooms in the successive homes of Karnad.

Rich in authentic detail, this first chapter emerged from Krishnabai’s own scribbles, filled with ancestral secrets and revelations only revealed later in his life. Karnad’s childhood and maturity in the emerging townships of Sirsi and Dharwad in the 1950s, provide the memoir with its most fascinating (and literally accomplished) chapters – a romance novel not only for a budding writer with a predilection for l social observation, but a humanist with still liberal convictions. However, Karnad does not dwell on his upbringing in the typically sequestered Brahmin community of Chitrapur Saraswat, instead masking it from examples of social egalitarianism or religious diversity or cultural exposure in the ecosystem around their hamlet, which apparently wielded much more influence over those impressionable years.

The narrative look of the book is not so much retrospective as it seems to be turned towards the future, which allows the gradual deployment of the infirmities of life and the first blinders giving way to a healthy cynicism. Although, at the same time, the pure lyricism of a childhood without electricity spent in dark and eerily illuminated evenings, also gives way to character sketches of mentors and cohorts that seem somehow less than inspired.

Karnad’s years at the famous Karnatak College in Dharwad, and indeed, Oxford, point as much to the jaded notion of merit as it obscures privilege, another blind spot. These turn out to be the most hectic parts of the book, but luckily they quickly follow on to the rigorously detailed chapters dealing with the making of groundbreaking films, Samskara and Vamsha Vriksha. It’s almost a stand-alone memoir in its own right, stylistically and thematically distinct from the rest of the book. The films are tangentially linked to her parents’ travels – her father’s unostentatious funeral or her mother’s proto-feminist story. These connections are retrospective and give these personal stories told without flinching a lasting and essential intensity that is never overplayed.

In the end, the glue, or rather the filling clay, which brilliantly brings these strands together, is of course theater. So much has already been written about Karnad’s journey in the performing arts, that This life at stake is like a treasure trove of familiar goodies. From searching for drama in real settings – his father’s hospital, for example – to escaping with servants to attend nightly performances of Yakshagana as a child, to a much more prodigious engagement with the arts of the scene long before his plays saw the light of day. professionally staged, Karnad’s This life at stake, true to its title, is exuberantly filled with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, intrepid reflections on directing, approaches to playwriting discovered, thrilled and rejected, and vivid tales of real-life performances that never stop coming.

Karnad’s marriage to Dr Saraswathy Ganapathy in 1980 marks the tenderly bounded coda for the book, and also the auspicious start of the next chapter of his life, not written here but widely documented in the public sphere, which in interviews Karnad has compared to a pure litany of accolades that hardly lent themselves to an unvarnished biography (although he started working on this volume, and Perur has included some of these new passages in this edition). Of course, a reader seeking a full edition might miss out on the sharper and often radical political perspective of his later years, and this period was contextualized in detail by his children, Raghu and Radha, in an afterword. charged with emotion. .

In his own epilogue, Karnad draws a parallel with Ardhakathana (or, “Half The Tale”), a similarly truncated 17th-century autobiography; although the exact words of the title Kannada come from a poem by DR Bendre, one of the most important formative influences in Karnad’s life. In balance, this so-called half-tale, even with its stated omissions, is far more comprehensive than most, and to use an oft-repeated cliché, well worth the price of admission.


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