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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 26 New Delhi June 15, 2019

Lest We Forget

Monday 17 June 2019

In the last few days we have lost from our midst two outstanding creative personalities—Ruma Guha Thakurta, 84, who has been aptly described as a “cultural icon who straddled multiple disciplines with ease”, and Girish Karnad, 81, a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford where he studied Mathematics besides seamlessly moving across responsibilities and roles—from being the President of the Oxford Union (1962-63) to taking over as the Director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) (1974-75) besides becoming the Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Academy (1988-93) while emerging as one of the architects of the New Wave cinema of the 1970s, even as Professor of English at Delhi University Gautam Choubey pointed out, “his heart remained anchored to theatre and storytelling”.

Ruma Guha Thakurta and Girish Karnad died within the span of a week—the former in Kolkata on June 3 and the latter in his sleep in Bengaluru on June 10. With the passing of these two figures from the Indian cultural scene the country has become that much poorer.

The media has underscored Ruma’s remarkable versatility. “Around the time she was establishing her legacy as an actor, she was also creating a reputation as a successful playback singer.” Yet instead of confining her interest in music within the film industry, ”she left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of Kolkata as the co-founder of the Calcutta Youth Choir” alongwith Salil Chowdhury and Satyajit Ray in 1958. The Choir soon bloomed in full measure: “From performing in Dhaka at the first anniversary celebrations of the Bangladesh liberation to receiving Nelson Mandela when he visited India and welcoming Fidel Castro in the early 1990s, Guha Thakurta leaves behind a rich history and an extensive body of work that is sure to resonate for long,” averred The Indian Express. 

In the tributes to Girish Karnad in newspapers, he has been characterised as an “artist of conscience”. A leading newspaper has unequivocally written:

Politics was the extension of arts for Girish Karnad, and art the expression of his politics. Last September, an ailing Karnad attended a memorial for Gauri Lankesh wearing a placard that read Me Too Urban Naxal, calling attention to the debasement of langauge and politics. That he was allegedly under threat from the criminals who had killed Lankesh, and before that M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar only made him more resolute about the need to be vocal about constitutional morality and freedom of expression. Threatre was an act of conscience for him, and he lived the principle all his life.... The outcome of this Oxford-educated cosmopolitan intellectual’s involvement with his roots were sharp commentaries on contemporary society. Form never subsumed Karnad, he subverted form and myth to speak the unspeakable, the truth. Plays like The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, which retrieved the memory of the Mysuru sultan from prejudiced eyes to uncover a ruler who had died dreaming of building a modern state, were nuanced excursions into history and contemporary politics.

Actor Sudhanva Deshpande, who is the Director of the Jana Natya Manch besides shouldering editorial responsaibilities with Leftword Books, informed that while he was the FTII Director in 1974-75, Karnad resigned from the post after the Emergency was imposed, adding: “And his taking vocal stands against the Hindu Right didn’t start in the last few years; he spoke up at least from the early 1990 onwards.”

Deshpande further underlined one facet from the life and activities of Karnad: he “stood up and spoke out against the Hindu Right”, while maintaining that it would thus be “only fitting if his plays are now re-interpreted with contemporary sensibilities by younger theatre-makers to fight the good fight”. And that indeed would be perhaps the best homage to Karnad’s memory.

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