From touring theatre to films to the information age, B. V. Karanth has seen it all and done it all. One of the greatest living theatre personalities in India, Karanth was recently in Chandigarh to provide sound-patterns for a play.
WAY BACK IN 1982, a plane was taking a lot longer to reach its destination. The passengers soon realised that their flight had been hijacked. Among the anxious passengers was a bearded man who was watching the drama with a relatively detached air. But for someone who considered the entire world a stage, and all events a quirk of fate, he opened his diary, and for the first time wrote down his name and address. . . just in case. This was a bit out of character because all his life he had been a bohemian with no permanent home or address. What was going on in his mind during those tense moments?
"You see, accidents happen to me; not incidents," says B. V. Karanth, taking a long hard look at his eventful life. "The hijacking experience was just another accident in my life. To be honest, I was afraid for a while, but you see fear is not a sthayi bhaav (permanent emotion). In Rasa theory, we have this concept of sthayi bhaav. In a frightful situation, we might be afraid for a while, but after some time fear subsides and we even begin to play and joke. When the appropriately named hijacker, Musibat Singh, read his demands out, one of the hostages said in jest: "Granted!" There were some French and Americans as well. Most of us had resigned ourselves to our fate, except for an American who tried to escape but failed. That got me thinking about the difference in our attitudes. Americans and the westerners in general cannot wait; Indians can. Because if we don't get something in this birth, we hope to get it in another, but since the westerners believe in just one life, they can't afford to wait, they have to do it now."
Whether there are other lives or not, Karanth seems to have done a lot more in one life than what most of us might do in a dozen. Here is a man who started his career with touring theatre, then worked in proscenium theatre, did modern theatre, and is now a legend in Indian theatre with such acclaimed plays as Hayavadana, Panjara Shaale, Ghasiram Kotwal, Andher Nagari Chaupat Raja, Skandagupta, Barnam Vanam, Sattavara Neralu (Shadows of the Dead), Chhote Sayyad Bade Sayyad, Adhe Adhure, Khamosh Adalat Zari hai and so on. Whether it is a play, a light-and-sound production or a film, Karanth relies heavily on music, especially folk music, to create his spectacular productions that are known for their innovation and originality. With a Kalidas Samman, a Sangeet Natak Akademi award, a Padamshree, and host of other awards and honours behind him, it has been a long journey for a man who left his home at 14 to join the famous theatre troupe called the Veeranna Gubbi Company.
What prompted this young man to leave home at such an early age? Were his parents against his taking up theatre as a career?
"Not at all. Ours was a theatre-loving family. In those days of touring theatre, Guru Veeranna, the founder of the Veeranna Gubbi Company, used to come to Mangalore, my hometown, to perform. He was very famous, like the present-day movie stars. He had a troupe of at least 150 performers and backstage professionals. His plays were so popular that people actually bought tickets to see them. There used to be a lot of trick scenes, floods, clouds, rain and so on. With the arrival of films, the theatre companies had to close down. But let me tell you one thing, I didn't run away to Mysore in order to join any theatre company. I actually went there to learn classical music, because music was in my veins and a musician was what I wanted to be. Ours was a very poor family from Babukodi village in South Canara. My parents did not have the means to educate me beyond the eighth class. I had heard that the Maharaja of Mysore was a great patron of the arts. After reaching Mysore, I learnt that the Veeranna Company was performing there, and I thought of checking if they had a job for me. When they learnt that I could sing, they auditioned me and gave me the job straightaway, although for two months I did not get any pay. I got food twice a day, and that itself was a great thing for a person like me. They gave me two annas for breakfast! And because I was a brahmin, I used to get dakshina every Friday and Saturday after the pooja. Then the boy who used to play Krishna had to leave the Company because his voice had begun to crack, so I was asked to do the role. I played Krishna for the next two years, and then my voice too began to crack. This time, however, I thought, I will do something about it; not run away."
All the while, Karanth had this nagging feeling that his education was still incomplete. One day, quite hesitatingly, he wrote a letter to Guru Veeranna, requesting him to sponsor his education. The Guru wrote back saying that he was sad at losing a good performer, but he would pay for his education nevertheless. But why did Karanth choose to do his graduation in Hindi and not in Kannada?
"Those were turbulent times. The entire nation was up against the British. Most of us wanted to serve the country, and we had three missions in life: go to jail, spin the wheel and learn the national language. Since the Company did not allow us to take part in the Independence struggle, I thought that the least I could do was to learn Hindi. Even so, I did take part in the 1948 Goa struggle, and was beaten up by the police. Coming back to learning Hindi, I realised that to learn proper Hindi, it would be better to go to a Hindi-speaking area. So I left for Banaras, thanks to Guru Veeranna who sent me 60 rupees every month, a hefty amount in those days. In Banaras, I learnt Hindi from Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, at Banaras Hindu University, and had the great privilege of learning Hindustani classical music from the great Omkar Nath Thakur."
His university education notwithstanding, Karanth kept on staging plays. After his post graduation, he married Prema Karanth who turned out to be the guiding force in his life. To learn the inns and outs of modern theatre, Karanth later enrolled himself in National School of Drama. After his course at the NSD, he got a call from G. V. Iyer, his old associate from the Gubbi Company. Iyer was planning to make a film based on S. L Byrappa's Kannada novel Vamsahvriksha, and he wanted Karanth to help him out.
"Byrappa had earlier refused permission to G. V. Iyer to direct the film but he said if I directed it, he would. I told him I had no experience in making films, I might make mistakes. He said, 'At least you will make original mistakes'. By then Girish Karnad had made a name for himself with the highly acclaimed Samskara, so Iyer roped in Karnad and we started the project." Vamshavriksha won the National Award for best direction. And then I made my own film Chomanna Dudi, based on Shivram Karanth's novel. It got the gold medal and the best actor award. But I soon realised that films were not my cup of tea, and I returned to theatre."
Meanwhile other things were happening in Delhi. With Ebrahim Alkazi's departure, Karanth was appointed director of NSD, and from thence he went to Bhopal and put that sleepy city on the cultural map of the world. Bhopal took him to dizzy heights of achievement. But just when everything was going right for him, things began to go terribly wrong. A man known for his integrity and honour was suddenly accused of attempting to burn, Vibha Mishra, a student of his. The entire episode was blown out of proportion, and Karanth, described by Neelam Mansingh as "the perfect victim" was thrown into the vortex of the storm. What was it like at a time when even some of his best friends had begun to suspect him. How did this simple man from South Canara cope with situation?
"I had faith in myself, that's because I was innocent. And the fact that the girl herself later retracted the statement, and said that I was innocent. But people were envious of the success of Bharat Bhavan. They wanted to create trouble, and were looking for a scapegoat. If not me, they would have implicated someone else. I am glad this thing didn't happen to anyone else, and I hope it never happens to anyone else ever. That's why I have no hard feelings as such."
But what actually happened, and how?
"It was about 11.30, we were getting ready to do a play. Vibha Mishra went to the kitchen to make something. Suddenly I realised there was a fire. I went to save her. I did not know what to do. You see, things happened in rapid succession. Amidst all the confusion, she asked me to shut the door. I did as I was told. And that was the mistake that later caused so much trouble for me. I shouldn't have shut that door. Anyhow, I took her to hospital. But from the next day onwards, the police started accusing me of all sorts of things. They treated me like a petty criminal; they wouldn't let me sleep. But everyone in Bharat Bhavan firmly believed I couldn't have done such a thing, and that I was being implicated by some vicious elements. Even the judges had faith in me. About the time, I had to leave for the USA on some work, I asked if I could go for a month, but the judges had so much respect for me that they said one month was not enough, I could have three months! But for some reason, the media had turned against me. Except for the press in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Bengal and some English language papers all others had already declared me guilty. My wife, Ashok Bajpayee, Ramakrishna Hegde, Girish Karnad, Amol Palekar, Dr Shreeram Lagoo, and some other friends stood by me.
But in spite of all the love and support that I got from my friends, it was a harrowing experience. And now after all the years that have gone by, I feel that the story is not mine. I feel as if it happened to someone else. That's why I call it an accident. It could have happened to anyone."
Of all the accidents in Karanth's life, the one at Bhopal literally ruined his otherwise illustrious career, but it is to Karanth's credit that he rose from the ashes. Regardless of all the setbacks, he kept staging plays and developing his own theatrical metaphor. Being a musician at heart, it is no wonder that music plays such a dominant role in his productions. How different is composing music for the stage as opposed to films?
"In both films and plays, we have to go by the story but the way to go about is quite different. In films, sound is very important, but in theatre gestures and expressions are important. That is why you can have long musical pieces in plays but not in films. In films there is scope for interpretation; not in plays. Well, there is some interpretation in plays, but it is done by the actors themselves, and that's why it is said that film is basically the director's medium, and the theatre is the actor's."
While most serious professionals shudder at the thought of doing theatre with children, Karanth goes out of his way to work with them. What is it like working with children? Is it any different from regular theatre?
"I make it a point to do at least two plays for children every year, and that's because I was once a child artiste myself. Working with children is a totally different experience. When I work with children, I drop all titles and adjectives like Padamashree Karanth, the doyen of theatre, the great director etc., because for children they mean nothing. It's only my work that has any significance for them. And that's why I like to work with them. Children relate to me as a person, not as a famous personality. Last year, I did a play here in Chandigarh with the children of Vivek High School — the experience was exhilarating."
Karanth recently provided what he calls 'sound-patterns' to Neelam Mansingh's latest play. What's is a sound-pattern, and how is it different from stage music?
"In songs and other forms of music, words are of prime importance, not so in sound-patterns where we hardly use words, poetry and formal music. Our life is full of sounds, although we do not usually notice it. The cacophony of traffic, the chirping of bids, ticking of the clock and so on. A milk man sells milk using his own sound-patterns, a newsvendor sells newspapers using his distinct sound-patterns, using blow horns or whistles. I actually got this idea from my experiences at railway stations. And these sounds have a very strong relationship with life. I decided to use these sounds to enhance the dramatic impact in plays. For example, in one of the scenes in a play, the tyranny of a villain was brought out with great impact by using the sounds of a chandelier. The effect would have diluted had we used songs or poetry."
As Karanth did more and more plays, he began to observe the great affinity between language and music. And he found this affinity not only in Hindi, but in other languages as well, although their rhythm differed. "Every language has its own rhythm. For example, the Bengali has a three-beat rhythm . . . ekla chalo re ekla chalo re. . . 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Hindi has a four-beat rhythm: Raghukula reet sada chali ayee 1-2-3-4,1-2-3-4. 1-2-3-4. Kannada has five beats: Yen aadu ru maadu thirutamma taka tikita taka tikita 1-2-3-4-5. Punjabi, like Hindi has four beats, but while the stress in Hindi is on the first beat, in Punjabi it is on the second: Uhu uhoon uhu uhoon balle balle balle balle. So I have been trying to catch the rhythm of various languages."
"And now I have come to a conclusion that there is no difference between music and language. Music is a vital part of language. Sound is as important as visuals. When you speak it must seem as though you are singing, and when you sing it must appear as though you are speaking. Music is created not just by sitars and violins; things like stones, glass, utensils, or even bells could create music. During my stint in Rangayan, an institution set up by the Karnataka government to promote theatre, I used a 25-piece orchestra that used such mundane household objects.
"By language I don't just mean similes and metaphors. When it comes to theatre music, mantra and gaali (swear words) have an equal place. Mantra is also music, gaali is also music. When you want to have mystery in a language you use mantra, but when you want language to have force, you use gaali. That is why I lay importance on mantra as well as gaali. Whatever the moralists and conscience-keepers might say, without gaali, language has no force. When you say Hai Ram! Hey Bhagwan! Or for that matter teri !!!! the language acquires a unique force, and it becomes a lot more emphatic.
But would our censors and other so-called cultural blackguards allow the use of what they consider vulgar language?
"That is because of social pressure, and the fact that they think they are the guardians of morality. They have a point, maybe, but I also recognise the force of language, and in my opinion without gaali, language cannot exist. That's why it is said ek ki boli dusrey ki gaali."
And thus Karanth continues tirelessly with his act, and in spite of all the 'accidents' in his life, he has proved it beyond doubt that he could not be upstaged in a hurry