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Ek Tha Tiger

Parsing the raging controversy unleashed by Girish Karnad’s broadsides against V.S. Naipaul and the revered Gurudev.

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If bad is the new sexy and brash, the new hot, Girish Karnad has read the writing on the wall, spot-on. The 74-year old former Rhodes Scholar, eminent playwright (Yayati, Tughlaq, Naga Mandala, Broken Images), active participant in the new-wave cinema of the 1970s, director and respected intellectual, hurled the cat among the pigeons, big time, when he took on the Noble laureate and much worshipped Rabindranath Tagore. Karnad stirred a hornet’s nest by his acerbic comments on the Bard of Bengal: “Tagore was a great poet but not a good playwright. His plays didn’t have any depth. All his plays written till 1947 are second-rate! None of the modern playwrights consider Tagore’s work as a playwright, good enough.”

Needless to say, Karnad’s criticism of Tagore and his earlier critique of the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul sparked a hot national debate. As expected, Bengal blew a fuse! Satyajit Ray’s favorite actor, a Tagore devotee and Dadasaheb Phalke Award (2012) winner Soumitra Chatterjee found Karnad’s comments “embarrassing, because you are calling a Noble Laureate’s work, second-rate. You are also devaluing his contribution to the original development of dramatic literature in the country. One must remember Tagore had his own way of visualizing things.”

Respected dramatist Rudraprasad Sengupta countered that Karnad’s comment were not new, because many others in Bengal too felt that Tagore’s plays were over-rated: “Dramatist Shekhar Chattopadhya, for example, found some of plays too complex and wished he used more simple and lucid language. However, instead of dismissing him, it would be nice if he showed humility to cross-check his view with some experts. It is unfortunate that trained in western theater and into folk forms, he considers himself the best judge without even knowing the Bengali language.” Dramatist Bibash Chakrabarty did not quibble with Karnad’s opinions, because “I too think that all of Tagore’s plays are not superb.” However, he added, “One can hardly discount plays like Roktokorobi or Muktodhara, invested with modern thought in traditional form. It is obviously difficult for a person trained in Western theater to truly fathom the depths of these plays.” C

Communication practitioner and theater director and actor Avijit Dutt jhas a more discerning take: “Girish is a gentleman and he has every right to criticize anyone, even Tagore. However, his latest proclivity of charging at windmills appears a little out of character. However, seen in the context of his life and work, it perhaps makes sense. In our abridged consciousness of consuming media, many old heroes slip off the map, with new ones constructed with high-decibel regularity. How best to grab attention & announce seriousness of intent is the question and Girish seems to have located the answer — hit out at names that can magnify his fame. I have no problems with irreverence for holy cows, but surely supporting reasons, facts or evidence would be in order.”

Mumbai-based adman and actor-director-activist Bharat Dabolkar reckons that the eminent playwright is well within his rights to badmouth any established icon with his personal opinions: “Why shouldn’t people have a right to rock the boat or shake-up the status quo just because revered holy cows are involved?” He added, however, “Only in this case, it might have been a little more dignified and appropriate if he was less dismissive and patronizing. It doesn’t speak well either of him… or Tagore!”

Delhi-based author & novelist Uma Vasudev agrees: “Sweeping claims, while welcome, need to be backed by some solid references, facts or examples… especially if they are being leveled against an icon who wrote in a language Karnad is not familiar with. Otherwise it can well be constructed as a hollow, pompous and attention-grabbing gimmick.”

Pritish Nandy, former editor and head of the PNC Production house, offered a tip of the hat to Karnad for his fusillade aimed at Naipaul and Tagore that unleashed a howling intolerant frenzy: “It disturbs me that most of us shy away from doing this. It’s both escapist and irresponsible. Writers, artists, actors, musicians, painters, they are the conscience of the nation. It’s shameful to see them queuing up behind political establishment and parroting inanities in an environment getting seriously noxious. As a result you will notice most of our national awards each year goes to sycophants and bootlickers not to real talent. And to get these awards, everyone religiously follows the code of omerta, not saying one word, out of line, in public. I am glad that Girish broke that code. It’s time we had sharper critics who used every platform to stand up and speak their mind.”

Columnist Shobhaa De is bewildered by Karnad’s salvo against Naipaul and amused at Naipaul choosing to ignore the broadside: “We need more Naipauls. Mercifully his books aren’t sleeping pills. Nor are they soft, comfy stuff under which readers can sleep and snore. His books and opinions are specially sharpened razors that cut & make you bleed. There is no comfort- zone in Naipaul’s world… and that’s what makes him Naipaul. Girish Karnad may want to reach for his favorite antacid, settle his digestion and maybe comeback later to conduct more Master classes in Mumbai. For like Naipaul, we need more Karnads too!”

Karnad is doing a Naipaul on Tagore, says journalist Srijana Mitra Das: “Failing to catch the layered nuance of his theater, being tone-deaf to his music, overlooking contributions like powerful female protagonists in an iconoclastic flush …. he could well be accused of taking his last masala film Ek Tha Tiger, a little too seriously!”

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Life | Magazine | December 2012

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Girish Karnad hurled the cat among the pigeons, big time, when he took on the Noble laureate and much worshipped Tagore.

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