Not even a week had passed since the death of Enver Sajjad that another great actor, director, playwright, public intellectual, translator, and social commentator of the Subcontinent – Girish Karnad – died on June 10, 2019, at the age of 81 in Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.
Though both had outstanding creative skills, the difference was the political and social response both had in their respective countries. While both were critical in their approach to the established set of norms and values, the level of appreciation and freedom they enjoyed was very different in their societies.
Enver Sajjad had to opt for abstract and symbolic writings during the military dictatorships of General Ayub and Yahya. But he could not avoid the wrath of the establishment and suffered multiple imprisonments at the hands of the dark dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq. Sajjad should have been a sought-after speaker at public gatherings, and could be a professor emeritus at a private or a public university. But that was not to be; his anti-establishment approach, his liberal and progressive outlook made him persona-non-grata and he ended up in penury and died a pauper begging for help for his medical treatment.
Girish Karnad was equally – or perhaps even more – vocal in his outbursts against traditional ways of thinking. While many Indians felt proud at V S Naipaul winning a Nobel Prize for literature, Karnad was highly critical of Naipaul for his anti-Muslim views. Rabindranath Tagore has the distinction of being the poet whose two poems are now the national anthems of two countries – Bangladesh and India. Girish Karnad minced no words in declaring Tagore a better poet than he was a playwright. But still Karnad was widely respected at literary, political, and social levels alike.
When Karnad died, the government offered a state funeral but his family declined the offer. I became a fan of Karnad after watching his film ‘Manthan’ (The Churning, 1976) directed by Shyam Benegal and with dialogues written by Kaifi Azmi. The screenplay was written by Vijay Tendulkar, another leading playwright and essayist. In fact Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar, and Badal Sarkar formed a trio of great playwrights in the second half of the 20th century. All three were anti-establishment in India, hated the bigoted politics of the BJP, fought against Hindutva, and were targeted one way or the other by Hindu fundamentalists.
But much before appearing in ‘Manthan’, Karnad had established himself as a notable playwright both in English and in Kannada, the language of Karnataka. He was still in his mid-20s when he penned the first of his masterpieces, ‘Tughluq’. The play is based on the life of the 14th-century Muslim king of India, Muhammad bin Tughluq, sometimes dubbed as the Mad King. If you watch the play now (it is available on YouTube) you notice a particular relevance to the politics of today. Karnad did extensive research for his play and most of the people and events portrayed are not fictional, but real.
In literature, we have had characters such as Don Quixote and Haji Baghlol who are so immersed in their own selves that they fail to realise their own faults and shortcomings. In history too, there have been figures who – by hook or by crook – became rulers such as Roman Emperor Nero, Indian King Muhammad bin Tughluq, English King George III, German Chancellor Hitler, Italian Fascist Mussolini, and many others in our own time and place. These rulers make idiotic pronouncements and impose their ill-defined and ill-planned decisions on the people, leading them to disaster.
Girish Karnad must have relied on the English translations of at least two contemporary sources of Tughluq history: ‘Tarikh-e-Firozshahi’ by Ziauddin Barani, and the travelogue of Ibn-e-Battuta. The Urdu translation of Barani that I have was done by Syed Moin ul Haq and published by Urdu Science Board Lahore. Then there is a very good book by famous Aligarh Muslim University historian, Ishwari Prasad, titled A Short History of Muslim Rule in India published in 1925. All these books testify that M B Tughluq was excellent in some areas of knowledge and expertise and totally silly in others.
For example, he was a good communicator but it was fairly difficult to argue with him. One of the first administrative measures he took was to increase taxes on people. Barani says that “it operated to the ruin of the country and the decay of the people”. The duties levied on the necessities of life, realized with the utmost vigour, were too great for the power of industry to cope with. The taxes were raised, according to Barani, out of all proportion to the income of the people, and some oppressive taxes were also invented which broke the back of the people, and reduced them to utter poverty and misery.
Karnad’s play also shows Tughluq’s obsession with his decision-making power. Irrespective of popular resentment and disagreements by his colleagues, the king moves on with his decisions. For example, the venue that the previous kings used to rule over the country (Delhi) was changed. The king announced that he would rule from a new place (Doulatabad). Soon the king realizes that it is not possible to rule from the new venue, so he moves back to the previous venue. His promises prove hollow and misleading, but he never repents nor acknowledges his mistakes.
Girish Karnad also shows in his play how Tughluq almost destroyed the currency system of India. Because of his foolish policies, the country was suffering from tremendous economic pressure. Rather than improving economy by encouraging trade and industry, he opted for something that totally devalued the currency. He ordered the minting of more and more money. Since the gold and silver were not in enough in the coffers, he relied on brass, bronze, and copper. This resulted in the glut of money in the market and a hyperinflation followed with extreme dearness of commodities.
Then Tughluq, rather than developing friendly relations with his neighbours, kept preparing for and actually fighting battles and wars that ultimately reduced his kingdom to smithereens. Throughout his rule, Tughluq never admitted any of his mistakes, never realized the magnitude of the miseries he had inflicted on his people. This tendency leads a nation to ruin – and that’s what Tughluq did with his utmost overconfidence and misadventures. He had hubris of imperial proportions and he targeted his opponents with ultimate vengeance. No one who did not toe his line was spared, and all this destruction of opposition and dissenting voices was done to enhance his own powers.
Another historical play by Karnad, ‘The Dreams of Tipu Sultan’, has an entirely different focus. Here Karnad shows a ruler who genuinely loves his people and wants to improve their lot. He has full support from his masses but is surrounded by the real power brokers – the East India Company. The company has the superior power of the gun and more manipulative strength to entice other political powers in the region. The Marathas and the Nizam are the political powers that side with the encroachers and target Tipu.
The tiger of Mysore is subdued, as are the other local political powers that should have fought against the encroachers, for their meagre benefits target the tiger and are ultimately crushed by those who manipulated them. Karnad’s plays – ‘Tughluq’ and ‘Tipu’ – are a lesson in economic, social, and political history with much relevance to the present-day situation. Karnad’s films were also good, but his stagecraft is unmatchable.
The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.