Girish Karnad
Girish Karnad at Cornell University, 2009
Girish Karnad at Cornell University, 2009
BornGirish Raghunath Karnad
(1938-05-19)19 May 1938
Matheran, Bombay Presidency, British India
(now in Maharashtra, India)
Died10 June 2019(2019-06-10) (aged 81)
Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
  • Playwright
  • director
  • actor
Alma materKarnataka University
Magdalen College, Oxford
Literary movementNavya
Notable worksTughlaq
Ajit Shenoy in YRF Spy Universe
SpouseSaraswathy Ganapathy
ChildrenRaghu Karnad, Shalmali Radha

Girish Karnad (19 May 1938 – 10 June 2019)[1] was an Indian actor, film director, Kannada writer,[2] playwright and a Jnanpith awardee, who predominantly worked in Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Marathi films. His rise as a playwright in the 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.[3] He was a recipient of the 1998 Jnanpith Award, the highest literary honour conferred in India.[4]

For four decades Karnad composed plays, often using history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues. He translated his plays into English and received acclaim. 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, Amal Allanaa and Zafer Mohiuddin.[5]

He was active in the world of Indian cinema working as an actor, director and screenwriter, in Hindi and Kannada cinema, and has earned awards.

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 fourth a Filmfare Best Screenplay Award. He was a presenter for a weekly science magazine programme called "Turning Point" that aired on Doordarshan in 1991.

Early life and education

Girish Karnad was born in Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin family[6] of Matheran, in present-day Maharashtra, in 1938. His mother Krishnabai (née Mankikar) was a young widow with a son who belonged to a poor family. Since it was necessary for her to earn a living, she began working as a nurse and cook (general housekeeper) for the bedridden wife of a certain Raghunath Karnad, a doctor in the Bombay Medical Services. He was from the Konkani speaking Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community.[7]

Some five years later, and while the first wife was still alive, Krishnabai and Raghunath Karnad were married in a private ceremony. The marriage was controversial not because of bigamy (it was legal until 1956 for a Hindu man to have more than one wife) but because of the prevailing social prejudice against widow remarriage. Therefore, the wedding was held privately, and under the dispensation of the Arya Samaj, a reform organization that condones widow remarriage. Girish was the third of the four children born thereafter.[8]

Karnad's initial schooling was in Marathi. Later, after his father was transferred to Sirsi in the Kannada-speaking regions of Bombay Presidency, Karnad was exposed to travelling theatre groups and nataka mandalis (theatre troupes), which were experiencing a period of efflorescence during the iconic Balgandharva era .[9] As a youngster, he was an ardent admirer of Yakshagana and the theater in his village.[10] His family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka when he was fourteen, where he grew up with his two sisters and a niece.[11]

He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and statistics from Karnataka Arts College, Dharwad (Karnataka University), in 1958. After graduation, he 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.[5] Karnad was elected the President of the Oxford Union in 1962–63.[12]


After working with the Oxford University Press, Chennai for seven years (1963–70), he resigned to take to writing full-time.[5] While in Madras (now known as Chennai) he got involved with local amateur theatre group, The Madras Players.[13]

During 1987–88, he was at the University of Chicago as visiting professor and Fulbright playwright-in-residence.[5] 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.[14]

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). He served as director of the Nehru Centre and as Minister of Culture, in the Indian High Commission, London (2000–2003).


Karnad in 2010

Karnad is known as a playwright. His plays, written in Kannada, have been translated into English (mostly translated by himself) and some Indian languages. Kannada is his language of choice.

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[15] and soon, sometime in the mid-1950s, one day he experienced a rush of dialogues by characters from the Mahabharata in 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. The play in Hindi was adapted by Satyadev Dubey and Amrish Puri was lead actor for the play. It became an instant success, immediately translated and staged in several other Indian languages.[14]

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.[15] 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.[5][14]

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.[5][16]


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.

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, directed by Kannada actor and director Shankar Nag. He also hosted the science magazine Turning Point on Doordarshan, in the 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) and Aashayein (2010). He played a key role in movies "Ek Tha Tiger" (2012) and its sequel "Tiger Zinda Hai" (2017) produced by Yash Raj Films.

Karnad has acted in the Kannada gangster movie Aa Dinagalu.

Other works

He provided 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. He narrated and recorded a collection of folk and mythological stories as 'Karadi the Bear' for the children's book publisher Karadi Tales (Charkha is also an initiative of Karadi Tales for young adults).

Awards and honours

For literature

For cinema

National Film Awards

Filmfare Awards South

Filmfare Awards Hindi

Karnataka State Film Awards



At the Tata Literary Festival held in Mumbai in 2012, Karnad was invited to speak about "his life in theater" in an hour-long session. During his speech, he lashed out at V. S. Naipaul for his "antipathy towards Indian Muslims". 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 toward less controversial 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).[23]

Just a few weeks after this, Karnad again created controversy by claiming that Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote India's national anthem, was a great poet but a second-rate playwright.[24][25]

In November 2015, during celebrations marking the anniversary of 18th-century Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan's birth, Karnad stated that Bangalore International Airport should have been named after Tipu Sultan instead of Kempe Gowda. This created a furore among many people. Karnad apologised the following day.[26][27]

Personal life

While working in Madras for Oxford University Press on his return from England, Karnad met his future wife Saraswathi Ganapathy at a party. They decided to marry but the marriage was only formalised ten years later, when Karnad was 42 years old. Saraswathi was born to a Parsi mother, Nurgesh Mugaseth, and a Kodava Hindu father, Kodandera Ganapathy.[28] The couple had two children. They lived in Bangalore.[5] He was extremely fluent and well-versed in Marathi, Kannada, Konkani, Hindi, and English.


He was a proponent of multiculturalism and freedom of expression. He was a critic of religious fundamentalism. He had publicly condemned the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and later spoke against the attempts to create controversy about the Idgah Maidan in Hubli.[5] He had opposed RSS, BJP and other organizations on several occasions. He opposed Narendra Modi for the Prime Minister's post in the 2014 parliament elections.[29] He was one of the 200 writers who put out an open letter against hate politics and for “diverse and equal India” during the 2019 general elections. With a tube in his nose, he wore a placard saying "Me Too Urban Naxal"[30] at the first death anniversary of slain journalist Gauri Lankesh.[29] Karnad claimed that Tipu Sultan was the greatest king Karnataka had in 500 years, on a religious controversy about the king.[29] Karnad was a supporter of the Forum for Communal Harmony.[31]


Karnad died on 10 June 2019 at Bengaluru at the age of 81 due to multiple organ failure following prolonged illness.[32][33]

"After a discussion with his son, it was made clear to us that his last wish was to not have any floral procession, VVIPs or visits of any dignitaries. Hence, it will be a simple affair."


Plays in Kannada

Plays translated in English



Year Title Role Language Notes
1970 Samskara Praneshacharya Kannada
1971 Vamsha Vriksha Raju (lecturer) Kannada
1974 Jadu Ka Shankh Hindi
1975 Nishaant Schoolmaster Hindi
1976 Manthan Dr. Rao Hindi
1977 Swami Ghanshyam Hindi
Jeevan Mukt Amarjeet Hindi
1978 Sandharbha Psychiatrist Kannada Special appearance
1979 Sampark Heera Hindi
Ratnadeep Madan Hindi
1980 Beqasoor Dr. Anand Bhatnagar Hindi
Aasha Deepak Hindi
Man Pasand Kashinath Hindi
Apne Paraye Harish Hindi
1981 Shama Nawab Yusuf Khan Hindi
1982 Umbartha Advocate Subhash Mahajan Marathi
Aparoopa Mr. Khanna Assamese
Teri Kasam Rakesh Hindi
1983 Ananda Bhairavi Narayana Sarma
  • Kannada
  • Telugu
Bilingual Film
Ek Baar Chale Aao Din Dayal Hindi
Anveshane Rotti Kannada
1984 Tarang Dinesh Hindi
Divorce Hindi
1985 Nee Thanda Kanike Rao Bahadur Raja Ram Mohan Rao Kannada
Zamana Satish Kumar Hindi
Meri Jung Deepak Verma Hindi
Sur Sangam Pandit Shivshankar Shastri Hindi
1986 Nenapina Doni Kannada
Neela Kurinji Poothappol Appu Menon Malayalam
Naan Adimai Illai Rajasekhar Tamil
1987 Sutradhar Zamindar Hindi
1988 Kaadina Benki Kannada
Akarshan Hindi
1989 Prathama Ushakirana Doctor Kannada
Mil Gayee Manzil Mujhe Hindi
1990 Santha Shishunala Sharifa Govindabhatta Kannada
Nehru: The Jewel of India Hindi
1991 Mysore Mallige Padma's Father Kannada
Chaitanya Retired Major Harischandra Prasad Telugu
Antarnaad Hindi
Gunaa Dr. Ganesh Tamil
1992 Cheluvi Village Headman Kannada
Pranadaata Telugu
1993 Jeevana Vedam Telugu
1994 Poorna Sathya Kannada
Kadhalan Kakarla Satyanarayana Murti
(Governor of Tamil Nadu)
Aagatha Psychiatrist Kannada
1995 Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai Hanagal Kumaraswamiji Kannada
1996 Dharma Chakram Mahendra Telugu
Aatank Inspector Khan Hindi
The Prince Vishwanath Malayalam
1997 Ratchagan Sriram Tamil
Minsaara Kanavu Amal Raj Tamil
1998 China Gate Sunder Rajan
(Forest Officer)
Kadhal Mannan Rudran
(Black Dog Security Chief)
April Fool A. N. Ramakrishnaiah
(Chief Minister of Karnataka)
Aakrosh: Cyclone of Anger Rajwansh Shashtri Hindi
1999 Kanooru Heggadithi Chandregowda Kannada Director also
AK-47 Jagannath Rao Kannada
Janumadatha Dr. Akbar Ali Kannada
Prathyartha Sheshanag Dixit
(Home Minister of India)
2000 Pukar Mr. Rajvansh Hindi
Hey Ram Uppilli Iyengar Tamil
2001 Vande Matharam Mr. Ballal Kannada
2003 Tiger Harischandra Prasad Prime Minister Telugu Cameo appearance
2004 Chellamae Rajasekhar Tamil
Shankar Dada MBBS Satya Prasad Telugu
2005 Iqbal Guruji Hindi
2006 Dor Randhir Singh Hindi
Tananam Tananam Krishnamurthy Kannada
Amirtham Ramaswamy Iyengar Tamil
2007 Aa Dinagalu Girish Nayak Kannada Screenplay Writer also
Lava Kusha Ranga Rao Kannada
2008 Chilipili Hakkigalu School Master Kannada
Sangaathi Kannada
Dhanam Ananth' Father Tamil
2009 8 x 10 Tasveer Anil Sharma Hindi
Aashayein Parthasarthi Hindi
Life Goes On Sanjay English
2010 Komaram Puli Narasimha Rao
(Prime Minister)
2011 Narthagi Tamil
Kempe Gowda Mahadev Gowda Kannada
2012 Ek Tha Tiger Dr. Ajit Shenoy
(RAW Chief)
Mugamoodi Lee's Grandfather Tamil
Yaare Koogadali Doctor Kannada
2013 Sweety Nanna Jodi Priya's Father Kannada
Chandra Kannada
2014 Samrat & Co. Mahendra Pratap Singh Hindi
Chandra Tamil
Savaari 2 Vishwanath Kannada
2015 Rudra Tandava Shivaraj's Father Kannada
Rana Vikrama K. V. Anand Rao Kannada
Chandrika Kannada
Guru Dakshina Guruji Hindi
2016 24 Sathya's Grandfather Tamil
Shivaay Anushka's father Hindi
Chalk n Duster Manohar Sawant Hindi
2017 Tiger Zinda Hai Dr. Ajit Shenoy
(RAW Chief)
2018 Neenillada Male Kannada
2019 Pora Kannada
Sketch For Love Telugu
Vidura Kannada

TV series

Films directed


Other works

Works in translation



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  2. ^ "Sahitya Akademi : Who's Who of Indian Writers". Sahitya Akademi. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
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  9. ^ Kumar, p.115
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  11. ^ "Conversation: 'I wish I were a magician'". Livemint. 11 October 2013. Archived from the original on 12 October 2013. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  12. ^ Hibbert, Christopher, ed. (1988). "Presidents of the Union since 1900". The Encyclopaedia of Oxford. Macmillan. pp. 527–532. ISBN 0-333-39917-X.
  13. ^ Sachindananda, p. 57
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  15. ^ a b Sachindananda, p. 58
  16. ^ Don Rubin (1998). The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia. Taylor & Francis. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-415-05933-6. Archived from the original on 4 July 2023. Retrieved 27 October 2020.
  17. ^ a b "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  18. ^ "USC News". 14 April 2011. Archived from the original on 24 March 2012. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  19. ^ "25th National Film Awards". International Film Festival of India. Archived from the original on 10 October 2014. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  20. ^ "25th National Film Awards (PDF)" (PDF). Directorate of Film Festivals. Archived (PDF) from the original on 19 January 2017. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  21. ^ "Biography and plays of Girish Karnad". Archived from the original on 4 December 2004. Retrieved 4 December 2004.
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  23. ^ Girish Karnad slams V S Naipaul for his anti-Islam views, questions his Mumbai fest award Archived 5 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Indian Express, 3 November 2012.
  24. ^ [1] Archived 10 November 2012 at the Wayback MachineDeccan Chronicle.
  25. ^ "Rabindranath Tagore a 'second-rate playwright', Girish Karnad says". The Times of India. Archived from the original on 27 January 2013. Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  26. ^ "Karnataka Simmers Over Tipu Sultan Row, Girish Karnad Offers Apology". NDTV. 12 November 2015. Archived from the original on 13 November 2015. Retrieved 13 November 2015.
  27. ^ "Girish Karnad offers apology over remarks on Kempegowda". The Hindu. 12 November 2015. Archived from the original on 4 January 2020. Retrieved 13 November 2015.
  28. ^ "WebHost4Life | Web Hosting, Unix Hosting, E-Mail, Web Design". Archived from the original on 8 September 2013. Retrieved 3 May 2014.
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  31. ^ "Girish Karnad: Writer, actor and activist who too was on the hit list". The New Indian Express. 11 June 2019. Archived from the original on 3 July 2019. Retrieved 3 July 2019.
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  33. ^ "Girish Karnad, veteran actor and playwright, dies at 81 and it's a great loss for Karnataka". PINKVILLA. 10 June 2019. Archived from the original on 10 June 2019. Retrieved 10 June 2019.
  34. ^ Kumar, p. 114
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Further reading