Chandra Mouli: Namaste, Sir! Thanks for according permission for this interview.
Professor Basavaraj Naikar: Thank you very much for your kind gesture.
CM: May we know about your childhood and studies, sir?
BN: In my childhood I was initiated into spiritual literature by my father, Sri Shivashankarappa and my maternal great-grandfather. I was made to read the works of Saint Nijaguna Shivayogi and the vacanas of Basaveswara and other super saranas. You may not believe that I used to read Vichara Sagara, a Vedantic work by a monk of Sri Siddharudha Monastery of Hubballi at that young age although I could not understand their full import at that time. But now I understand them properly. My father was a very pious man who used to visit temples and monasteries regularly and take me with him there. Likewise my maternal grandfather also used to take me to the local monasteries to listen to the religious discourses like Sastras and Kirtanas. Besides I was trained in Hindustani classical music by a famous maestro, Sri Dattubua Thikurdas at Naragund and I used to give public performances along with my guru. I was well known in my town as Bala Kalavida (young artist). Thus religion, philosophy and music played an important role in my childhood. These interests have continued in my later life.
In my school and college days I had great liking and fascination for Sanskrit language and literature. But I had to choose English literature as a major subject in my college for practical purpose of getting employment. I studied some French also but could not continue it due to the contingencies of my life. Later I studied American and Indian Writing in English at the Karnatak University, but I always missed Sanskrit and longed for its study.
CM: How and when did you develop interest in drama?
BN: In my childhood I used to see and enjoy the folk plays like Doddata (Big Plays) and Company Nataks (or professional drama) in my hometown, Naragund as well as in fairs and festivals at Gadag, Dharwad, Gulbarga, Bengaluru and Chennai. I was deeply influenced by them then. Because of my special interest in music, dance and drama, I used to long for such artistic experiences. It is at that time that I dreamt of becoming a dramatist in my later life. I have a special liking for total theatre, which combines dialogues, music and dance. I do not appreciate merely prose plays which are rather dry.
Later after I became a University Lecturer in English at the Post Graduate Centre of Karnatak University at Gulbarga, I came in contact with the staff of All India Radio of Dharwad-Gulbarga and was inspired and compelled to write some Radio Plays and adopt some Irish plays of J. M. Synge (especially his The Well of the Saints) into Kannada. Thus slowly I began to learn the technique of Radio Drama and Stage Drama in my own way. My cultural translation of The Well of the Saints into Jogibhavi (The Well of Jogis) was such a great success on the stage that it earned the first prize in the Gulbarga District Drama Competition. Later it was broadcast from the All India Radio Stations of Dharwad and Gulbarga. It was prescribed as a text book for B.A. Degree of Karnatak University and M.A. Degree of Gulbarga University. In 2001, it was telecast as a successful tele-film from DD1 of the Doordarshan Kendra of Bengaluru.
CM: What are your impressions about Indian drama?
BN: In my view Indian drama in regional languages is richer and more varied than the Indian English drama. In fact drama in India is not encouraged by the State Governments or sponsors from Industries or institutes as much as they should. The NSD activities are highly limited when compared to the vastness of our country. Besides the Indian English Drama is elitist in nature and meant only for the English – educated class of people as it is produced also by such people. Theatre history is not written or recorded in India as it is done in other countries like England and America. We have yet to grow a lot to reach that level of organized artistic consciousness.
CM: Could you tell us about Kannada drama, please? Like origin, development, prevailing scenario…
BN: Kannada drama may be classified roughly into three categories: Folk, Professional, Amateur or modernist/absurdist. The fold drama is represented by the famous Yaksagana of coastal Karnataka and Doddata (Big Play) and Sannata (Small Play) and their variants like Radhanata (Radha-Play), Dasarata (Dasa-Play) etc., in northern part of Karnataka. Sri Krishna Parijata and Sangya-Balya are the most famous sannatas of North Karnataka. The Professional Theatre is known as Company Natak in North Karnataka, which is found scarcely in southern Karnataka. Gubbi Viranna’s, Enagi Balappa’s and N. Basavaraj’s Drama Companies were very famous in Karnataka and provided both instruction and entertainment to the vast masses of connoisseurs. Then the Amateur or Modernist/Absurdist drama has been quite fashionable these days, although it is not totally understood and appreciated by the common man. It is by and for the elitist audience. Sriranga and Kailasam were good social dramatists in the middle period of twentieth century. Samsa and Lingadevaru Halemane were the famous historical dramatists who wrote plays on the rulers of Mysore kingdom. B. Puttaswamayya is a well known professional playwright. Kuvempu is a well known playwright who wrote a number of mythological plays based on the events of the Mahabharata. Jadabharata (or G.B.Joshi) is a well known social playwright from North Karnataka. Chandrasekhar Kambar, Chandrasekhar Patil and Chandrasekhar Kusanur are well known absurd playwrights. P. Lankesh is a famous social-satirical dramatist. Girish Karnad and Chandrasekhar Kambar are known for their experimentation with dramatic techniques especially with regard to the revisionist use of folk and classical myths. It is unfortunate that nowadays there has been a decline in the writing and performances of historical drama in Kannada.
CM: Are there any traces of influence of English drama on Kannada theatre, sir?
BN: Definitely. The social drama in Kannada represented by Sriranga and Kailasam was directly or indirectly influenced by the British dramatists like Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. Both went to England and witnessed and studied the European stage performances for several years and imbibed the dramatic technique in them. The Kannada Absurd drama is directly inspired and influenced by the European absurd playwright like Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello and Brecht.
CM: You seem to have developed special liking for historical plays. Why, sir?
BN: I feel that India is a land of great history, but with very little awareness of history. Historical literature (including fiction, short fiction and drama) is very poor in comparison to our great, vast and varied history, because it requires a serious writer with a research-oriented bent of mind, historical imagination and a dramatic sense. This is utterly neglected genre in Indian literature. Hence I feel that the writers should take seriously to this genre.
CM: Your contribution to Indian Literature in English is significant. You have translated Fall of Kalyana and Sangya Balya: Betrayal from Kannada into English. These plays have been received very well. Why did you plan to write a play in English?
BN: Many significant plays in Indian regional languages are not well known across the country because they are not available in English translation. For example, when I discovered a Telugu play entitled Kanyasulkam written by Gurjada Apparao hundred years ago, I was astounded by its originality of vision, powerful social satire and scathing attack on the colonial hang up and unusual attraction for the English language as early as nineteenth century. I felt that the play could out-Jonson Ben Jonson himself in the satirical vision. I felt proud of an Indian dramatist who could be on par with any great European writer. Hence I instantly prescribed it as a text in our (i.e. Karnatak University, Dharwad) syllabus as part of Indian Literature in English Translation. In India many playwrights were efficient in their art and could articulate their vision only in the regional languages, but could not do so in English. Hence they had to wait for the arrival of willing translators. Since I happen to be a Professor of English I decided to write my plays originally in English to reach the wide audience at the national and possibly international level. My second play is The Rani of Kittur, which I was inspired to write under the influence of Guru Charan Das’s Larins Sahib. A common element between these two plays is the colonial encounter between the Indian Ranis and the authorities of the East India Company.
CM: Your play A Dreamer of Freedom is a historical play about 1857 War of Independence. Could you enlighten us as regards the motivation?
BN: There are a few plays and novels in Kannada dealing with this theme, but almost all of them are faulty, partial and crude in their presentation and language as most of them were written by illiterate people. I, therefore, decided to set things right by writing a comprehensive play dealing with all the important aspects of the theme so that it may remain as an important record in history. During the colonial period even such crude plays, which were very popular for their patriotic feeling, were banned by the British government. I have written the play without either glorifying or denigrating the Indian or British characters. I have maintained objectivity in my presentation as far as is humanly possible. Dr. Chandrasekhar Kambar opines that this play is excellently suited to the film version. I have been waiting for an adventurous film producer to take up the case. Mr. Suresh Heblikar, a film director in Kannada and a distant relative of the royal family of Bhaskararao Bhave of Naragund feels that it should be filmed in Hindi. I don’t know when that day will come. But I am actually hoping for a Western film producer and director to take up the play for conversion into a film.
CM: How could you integrate fact and fiction in this play? Is it an attempt to historicize /dramatize Indian resistance or response to certain measures undertaken by East India Company in India? What is the difference between historicizing and dramatizing?
BN: In my play everything is fact and nothing is fictional or imaginary. I have based my play on the solid facts of history and presented them in the form of a play by providing a logical link between the events. I have tried to provide a comprehensive picture of Bhaskararao Bhave. The importance of my play can be understood only by comparing it with other plays which are crude, faulty, partial and misinformed or half informed.
CM: Are there any deviations from historical facts?
BN: There is absolutely no deviation from historical facts. You may not believe I have taken about fifteen years to collect the correct information from written records, oral versions, personal interviews, correspondence with people and folk songs available on this patriotic hero who staked everything for the sake of his honour and freedom. I have removed the contradictory, incredible and defective pieces of information and reconstructed the historical picture by logically connecting them and making them credible and probable. That has been a difficult task for me. A reader may mistake the clarity of my writing for mere simplicity. The material is not easily available at one place. Only a historical playwright can understand this difficulty and challenge.
CM: Some characters like Virabhadra Nayaka seem to have inspired you greatly. Could you amplify, sir?
BN: I have a family connection with this theme of the novel. Virabhadranayaka was my paternal great-grandfather, who served as a Dandanayaka or Administrator in the court of Bhaskararao Bhave of Naragund kingdom. He lay down his life when he was hit by a bullet of the Company soldier while he was on duty protecting the palace of Bhaskararao Bhave during the war. (Earlier, according to historians, the ancestors of my family are said to have migrated from the Keladi Kingdom to Naragund after the fall of Shivappa Nayaka and settled down at Naragund as they could get some shelter by the rulers of Naragund.) In my childhood I used to feel proud of my great grandfather who laid down his life for the freedom of the kingdom. We had swords and shields in our house as reminders of the past glory and heroism. Though my great grandfather had taken an active part in the war of independence some ignorant novelists had neglected it totally in their superficial novels and plays. Hence I had to take up the decision to set the records right. Hence I wrote this play.
CM: Diction in the play appears to be refreshingly different. Was it deliberately attempted?
BN: I should thank you for finding my language refreshingly different. You know I am a self-conscious writer and try to do my best in writing whatever I choose.
CM: Why was a glossary of ‘native’ words appended? Did you use the expression ‘native’ purposely, since the play deals with the Company rule in India?
BN: I think that the Western readers should not feel it difficult to understand some culture-specific words. I, therefore, wanted to help them with the glossary.
CM: A Dreamer of Freedom looks a ‘drisya kavya’, meant for performance on stage. Any information about it, please!
BN: Many Kannada scholars including Dr. Chandrasekhar Kambar opine that it would be quite successful on the stage. But I do not know when that golden chance of a stage performance will be available to this play. Staging the historical drama is an unusually expensive affair. Hence the directors shy away from such adventures.
CM: You richly deserve enchanting encomiums for kindling patriotic fervour through this play. Are you happy with the way it has been received?
BN: I am quite happy that it has been liked and appreciated wholeheartedly by senior and discerning writers and critics both in Karnataka and outside Karnataka.
CM: Kindly enlighten us on translating a play from an Indian language like Kannada into English and directly writing a play in English, sir! What was your own experience?
BN: In my opinion translating a play from an Indian language is more difficult and challenging than writing a play originally in English. To put it differently, all original writing is relatively easier than translating from any language, because translation has to face the problems of cultural barriers, linguistic codes and technical terms. Many English Professors, who have written in their own mother tongues, have not been able to translate their own works into English. That is why they depend on the mercy of willing translators. For example, Samskara had to be translated by A.K.Ramanujan and not by the author himself.
CM: What is the message you wanted to deliver through this play?
BN: My message is that one should be patriotic and self-respecting and should not tolerate slavery of any kind; that idealism involves some kind of sacrifice; and that we, Indians should never forget the patriotic heroes like Bhaskararao Bhave who kindled the spark of freedom in India as early as 1857.
CM: Do you feel that a play has better reach and appeal?
BN: Definitely yes. Drama is a live art and the dramatist has to be very alert in capturing the attention of the spectator, who cannot tolerate anything that is irrelevant and redundant on the stage. The experience of drama borders on the epiphany that last long in one’s heart and mind.
CM: Kindly review the present scenario as regards Indian English drama?
BN: The present scenario of Indian English Drama is very bleak. After Asif Curimbhoy there has been no major playwright in English. As for Mahesh Dattani, he is quite enthusiastic and experimental in his stage techniques, but he is still young and needs maturity apart from and in addition to his cleverness. His choice of contemporary themes is admirable but one desires a greater depth of vision in his dramatic output. This is not to belittle him, but only to alert him towards that expected goal.
CM: What is your prognosis about Indian English drama?
BN: Indian English Drama is an anemic patient which needs a lot of blood from the donors. It will not grow sufficiently until and unless all the English Departments of the Indian Universities introduce the play-writing courses in their syllabi. It is by the elitists meant for the elitists. That is the problem.
CM: You are rendering yeomen service in the cause of Indian English Literature and English Literature. This play A Dreamer of Freedom adds another colourful feather on your illustrious cap, sir! It extends a new dimension to your creative genius. We are grateful to you for enriching Indian English Drama with this magnificent play.
BN: Thank you very much, sir. I am quite humble about my ‘squirrel’s service’ to the realm of Indian English letters.
CM: You are a poet, translator, critic, novelist and a playwright. Among these which do you like most? Why?
BN: I like the genre of fiction because it is easier to practice than drama. But I respect translation as it is an academic and social service and a moral duty.
CM: Thanks for sharing your erudite views and fresh inputs, sir. We are honoured!
BN: Thank you very much Dr. Chandra Mowli for your perceptive questions and sensitive appreciation of drama.
[First published in Illuminati, A Transnational Journal of Literature, Language and Culture Studies [2013-2014], Chief Editor: Neeru Tandon.]