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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 14    Issue 02   01 - 31 July 2019


Writer and Playwright with a Conscience

Minaret Research Network

Girish Karnad, 81, India’s well-known playwright, writer, actor and public intellectual, passed away in Bangalore on 10 June 2019.

Karnad was one of the most prominent theatre personalities in the 1960s and 1970s. His plays, written in Kannada and translated into English, reflected a creative and ingenious synthesis of themes and motifs derived from mythology and history and modern sensibilities.

As a public intellectual, Karnad had an exceptional courage of conviction. He wrote a play on the 18th- century Muslim ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, for whom he had great admiration. He said in one of his statements about Tipu Sultan, “I think he is one of the best Kannadigas we had in the last 500 years, after the fall of Vijayanagar.” He suggested that the new international airport at Bangalore be named after this enlightened ruler, a suggestion that sparked a good deal of controversy among Karnataka’s right-wing circles.

Karnad was a firm believer in the ethos of pluralism, tolerance, open-mindedness, secularism and accommodation. He rejected all forms of narrow-mindedness, fanaticism and bigotry. In one of his articles (reproduced below) he lashed out against the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul for his virulent hatred for Islam and Muslims.

Naipaul is Unworthy of Lifetime Achievement Award

Girish Karnad

At a literary festival held in Mumbai on November 2, 2012, the noted playwright Girish Karnad launched a scathing attack on Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the festival organizers. Karnad accused Naipaul of harbouring deeply-entrenched prejudices against Muslims and of misrepresenting the role of Muslims in India. The following are excerpts from his speech.

The award ceremony held on the 31st of October coyly failed to mention that Naipaul was not an Indian and has never claimed to be one. But at no point was the question raised, and the words Shashi Deshpande, the novelist, had used to describe the Neemrana Festival conducted by the ICCR in 2002 perfectly fitted the present event: it was a celebration of a Nobel Laureate whom India, hopefully, even sycophantically, considered an Indian. Apart from his novels, only two of which take place in India and are abysmal, Naipaul has written three books on India and the books are brilliantly written - he is certainly among the great English writers of our generation. They have been hailed as a continued exploration of India’s journey into modernity, but what strikes one from the very first book, A Wounded Civilization, is their rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim. The wound in the title is the one inflicted on India by Babur’s invasion. Since then Naipaul has never missed a chance to weigh in against the invaders, accusing them of having savaged India for five centuries, of having brought, among other dreadful things, poverty into it and destroying the glorious ancient Hindu culture.

A point that strikes one immediately about these books is that there is not a single word in any of them on Indian music. And I believe that if you cannot respond to music, you cannot understand India. Music is the defining art form of the Indian identity. Naipaul’s silence on the subject when he is exploring the whole of modern Indian culture suggests to me that he is tone deaf - which in turn explains his insensitivity to the intricate interweaving of Hindu and Muslim creativities, through the Bhakti and Sufi movements, that gave us this extraordinary heritage, alive in the heart of every Indian home. What Naipaul’s virulence against Indian Islam conceals, however, is that he has borrowed his model of the history of Indian culture from the British musicologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like William Jones.

They decided that this once pure - and - glorious music must have been, at some point during the course of its long history, corrupted and mauled - and they found the villain in the invading Muslim. So, according to them, once upon a time there was a pristine Indian musical culture, which the Muslims had disfigured. They therefore ignored the music that was being performed around them and went in search of the true Hindu music. In his analysis of Indian culture Naipaul simply borrows this line of argument and reemploys it - as his original perception. And not for the first time. Naipaul accuses R.K. Narayan of being indifferent to the destruction and death symbolized by the ruins of Vijayanagar, which to him was a bastion of Hindu culture destroyed by the maurauding Muslims. But again he gets this interpretation of the history of Vijayanagar readymade from a book by Robert Sewell called A Forgotten Empire, published in 1900. Naipaul, as always in awe of his colonial sources, simply accepts this picture as the unadorned truth and recycles it wholesale as his own.

Of the Taj, probably the most beloved of the monuments in India, Naipaul writes, The Taj is so wasteful so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people. He brushes off historian Romila Thapar’s argument that the Mughal era saw a rich efflorescence of the mixture of Hindu and Muslim styles, by attributing her judgment to her Marxist bias and says, The correct truth is the way the invaders look at their actions, They were conquering.

They were subjugating. To Naipaul, the Indian Muslim remains an invader for ever, forever condemned to be condemned, because some of them had invaders for their ancestors. It is a usage would yield some strange results if applied to the USA.

As for Naipaul’s journalistic exploration of modern India, mainly in the form of a series of interviews conducted with Indians right across the board, one must confess they are supremely well written and that he is a master in drawing sharp and precise visuals of the people he talks to and of the places he visits. (but) How reliable are the conversations he records? In a well-known essay, Naipaul describes his visit to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, where he stayed with his friend, Ashoke Chatterjee, the director of the Institute. In a recent email to me, Mr Chatterjee said, that Naipaul’s essay was a scenario that could have been but was not what he actually saw. Fragments of reality selected and put together, into a collage of pure fantasy. Chatterjee’s friendship with Naipaul came to an abrupt end when Chatterjee told Naipaul that his book, A Wounded Civilization, should be classified as fiction.

In a recent book, Naipaul takes up for examination the autobiography of Munshi Rahman Khan, who emigrated to Suriname at the end of the nineteenth century, and contrasts it with Gandhi’s. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the historian, has reviewed the essay in the London Review of Books and it doesn’t take him much effort to establish that Naipaul could only have read a third-hand, truncated translation of the text. It is as if a reader in Gorakhpur was reading Naipaul in Maithili after the text had passed through a Japanese translation. That doesn’t prevent Naipaul from commenting even on the style and linguistic usage of Rahman Khan.

One of the first things Naipaul did on receiving the Nobel Prize was to visit the office of the BJP in Delhi. He who had earlier declared that he was not political, that to have a political view is to be programmed, now declared that he was happy to be politically appropriated. It was then that he made his most infamous remark: Ayodhya, he said, is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity.In cold blood, Naipaul was glamorizing these events as passion, as a creative act. Salman Rushdie’s response was that Naipaul was behaving like a fellow-traveller of Fascism and (that he) disgraces the Noble Prize.Landmark and Literature Alive who have announced this Award have a responsibility to explain to us where exactly they stand with regard to these Naipaul remarks.

Naipaul is a foreigner and can make pronouncements as he wishes. But do they mean to valorize Naipaul’s stand that Indian Muslims are raiders and marauders? Are they supporting his continued insistence on Muslim buildings in India being monuments to rape and loot? Or are they by their silence suggesting that these views do not matter? The Award givers have much to answer for.

(Source: Mumbai Mirror, November 3, 2012)

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