He is a multifaceted, Oxford-educated intellectual: playwright, film actor, scriptwriter and producer. He has received several major awards— Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, the Jnanpith and the Sahitya Academy Awards and has been the director of the Nehru Centre in London. His plays TughlaqHayavadanaNagamandalaAgni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain), most of them complex re-enactments of Indian myths, are landmarks of Indian theatre. In Mumbai for his latest play Bikhre Bimb (A Heap of Broken Images), Girish Karnad speaks to Sayandeb Chowdhury about his latest play and issues of language and identity.

You are in Mumbai after a long time. Where have you been?

After returning from London after finishing my tenure with the Nehru Centre, where I had a whale of a time, I have been largely busy with the setting up of Rangashankara in Bangalore. It is a production and performance centre dedicated entirely to the theatre, named in memory of the late Shankar Nag. Then I also got busy with this new play of mine.

Your new play brings together two of your most important concerns: the impact of technology-induced hyper-reality on our lives and the debate about English writers selling their soul to money and fame moving away from native languages, in your case Kannada.

Absolutely, because they are interconnected. Technology has changed and is changing our lives in unrecognizable ways and I wanted to explore how it looks back at the way we self-fashion ourselves. How identities are reverted back upon by the technology we use and how the former is reconstructed. In this case, the identity of the protagonist is further complicated by the fact that she is an unsuccessful Kannada writer who faces a deluge of local belligerence after she attains international fame and money after writing a novel in English. So the play is an exploration of how, as she gains fame, her immediate surroundings, dominated by technology, interrogate the loss and recovery of her identity.

The English title, A Heap of Broken Images is from TS Eliot’s Wasteland. You have transported Eliot’s bleak post-war rendition into a postmodern search for identity. The Hindi title, Bikhre Bimb is comparatively stale.

Oh yes. In English image means so many things. As well as so much that is metaphysical. I played upon that. There is no Indian word that renders the expanse of the word image. So we had to stick to mirrors.

The play seems to involve videography and live telecasts and has been mounted on a big scale. How are you funding its production?

So far, I have always found funding without begging. I have managed with my own money and that from private funding. Sponsorers are welcome and they do come.

The vernacular-English debate is particularly strong in Karnataka, especially in Bangalore. And you have even been the subject of criticism from other writers. 

With me, the problem is that I translate my own plays, so I cannot be accused of writing in any one particular language and playing to the politics of either. But the issue is a touchy one. See, Bangalore is the only Indian metropolis that struggles with the local language, even when it doesn’t even have one. In Calcutta it’s Bengali, in Chennai it is Tamil. Even Mumbai, even though commerce has brought all kinds of people to the city, Marathi has stayed. But in Bangalore, there were always more speakers of Telugu and Tamil than Kannada. And in the waves of migration either during the British rule, in the 50s or in the 90s when IT bloomed, the Kannada language has suffered in importance. So the tension between the Kannada-speaking population and the other populations in Bangalore has never really subsided.

This is the first play of yours that you are directing. 

Yes. I do not like to direct my plays. In fact, I saw myself as a film director and a playwright but not as a theatre director. I felt fulfilled writing the play and leaving the rest to the discretion of the director. But when I wrote this one I thought that I have to do a lot of work on stage because it involves a lot of manoeuvring at a theatrical level. I have been ably supported here by a young man called KM Chaitanya who has to set up the complicated visual techniques that are involved in the play— screens, circuits and the flow of images.

You have been particularly drawn towards Indian mythology.

Yes, as I took to play-writing I realized how little of the varied and complex myths we have been used in theatre. See, except a bit of Tagore, whose translations are weak, there is hardly a playwright of yore who explored myths as they should be: a repository of complex and dynamic human elements. What we mostly have is either costume dramas or sentimental trash. But look at the way the Greeks have used myth or even Europeans, like Jean Anouilh. For them, the larger than life myths have made for compelling drama. I want to write plays like them. That is why I was so drawn to writers like Vijay Tendulkar or Badal Sarkar.

It was Sarkar’s Ebam Indrajit that you last directed on stage.

Yes, it was. Because it was my kind of play.

How were your Nehru Centre days?

Extremely fulfilling. Imagine somebody paying you for staying in the heart of London, having a chauffeur-driven car and watching theatre at the best of places. It was a dream tenure. And London is truly the capital of the world. I saw so many classics and contemporary plays and exposed to so much of world theatre, I evolved as a person.

Will theatre survive in India? 

It will. There is no substitution to the theatre’s intimate appeal. Its human element. And there will be people who will always be interested in that. So it will survive.

What about acting in cinema? You seem to have taken yourself away from the genre completely, except a few small appearances, like in Iqbal?

I always did movies so that I can sustain my interests in theatre. And I have made what I needed. I want to concentrate now on theatre and theatre only.

Would we see you again ever directing another movie?

In all possibility, no. See, I am not a filmmaker that I aspire to be. When I see a Ray, Kurosawa or Bergman on screen, I feel depressed, because I know I can never become one of them. But when I read a play by the classicists, a great aside in Shakespeare, a magical turn in Ibsen or a theatrical device used by Brecht, I feel blood running faster in my vein. I feel an urge to write like them, to grow. And I have realized that I am fundamentally a playwright, nothing else. I am 68, and the rest of my life I just want to do this. And die, known as one.

This is a longer version of the interview published on 3rd September 2006.