Birthday Greetings to Girish Karnad, one of India’s brightest shining stars and one of the most loved and revered playwrights, who turned 79 years today.

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One of modern India’s leading playwrights and an actor and director of New Wave Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, Girish Karnad has won several National awards for his Kannada films but directed only one Hindi film. Still, Shashi Kapoor’s Utsav (1984), based on Sudraka’s Sanskrit play Mricchakatika, was an important achievement in this multi-talented artiste’s career. (Karnad co-directed Godhuli (1977) with BV Karanth.) Born in Matheran, now in Maharashtra, into a medical family, Girish Karnad grew up in Sirsi, now in Karnataka, where he was exposed to folk theatre. After graduating in mathematics and statistics, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar in 1960 and got an MA in philosophy, political science and economics. He wrote his first play Yayati (1961) while in England. On returning to India, he worked at the Oxford University Press (OUP) in Madras for a few years before turning to writing full time.

Karnad is considered a luminary of the post-Independence theatre movement along with Badal Sircar, Mohan Rakesh and Satyadev Dubey. He is known for his mythological plays with a psychological dimension. Among his well-known plays in Kannada and English are Yayati, Tughlaq (1964), Hayavadana (1972), Nagamandala (1982) and Taledanda (1990) published by OUP. His plays have been translated and adapted by eminent directors like Ebrahim Alkazi, BV Karanth, Alyque Padamsee, Prasanna, Arvind Gaur and Satyadev Dubey.

Karnad made his debut as actor and screenplay writer with Samskara (1970). The film won the President’s Golden Lotus award. He won the National award for his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha (1971).

Karnad’s film work in the early years was predominantly with offbeat filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, for whom he co-wrote scenarios (Bhumika, 1977) and acted (Nishant, 1975 and Manthan, 1976). He also worked with Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray. Through the late 1970s up to the mid-1980s, his acting career did well, both in off-beat and mainstream cinema, notably in Swami (1977), Aasha (1980), Man Pasand (1980), Subah (1982) and Sur Sangam (1985), in which he played the protagonist, a musical genius in search of a worthy successor.

Utsav (1984), an elaborate period piece set in the city of Ujjain during the reign of king Palaka around the 5th century BC, traces the journey of a courtesan named Vasantasena (Rekha), who is being chased by the evil Samsthanak (Shashi Kapoor) and ends up meeting Charudatta (Shekhar Suman) whom she teaches the art of making love. Amjad Khan played the sutradhar Vatsyayan, author of the Kama Sutra, the ancient treatise on life and love. Apart from the period detailing and Laxmikant Pyarelal’s haunting music, including ‘Mann Kyun Behka’, which brought the Mangeshkar sisters Lata and Asha together for possibly the last time, the film is a celebration of the liberal values nurtured by classical Indian society in stark contrast to modern traditionalism.

Karnad became a popular face with his portrayal of Swami’s father in Malgudi Days (1986–1987) on the small screen. His acting career has continued through the 1990s and the 2000s. His recent work has also been received well, especially his turn as the manipulative coach in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal (2005) and as a spymaster in Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012). He is a recipient of the Padma Shri (1974) and Padma Bhushan (1992) awarded by the government of India. He has also won the Sahitya Akademi award (1994) and the Jnanpith award (1998). His plays have been adapted and staged across India and the globe.

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