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Leading light of Kannada theatre fades out

By K.N. Venkatasubba Rao

BANGALORE SEPT. 1. The septuagenarian "missionary'' director, actor, and musician of modern Indian theatre, and Kannada and Hindi new-wave cinema, B.V. Karanth, died in a private hospital here today after a prolonged illness. According to his family sources, the end came at 7.20 p.m. Mr. Karanth had been suffering from prostate cancer for the past three years.

Born into a poor family on September 19, 1929, at Manchi Koppalli (Babukodi) near Pane Mangalore in Bantwal taluk of Dakshina Kannada, Mr. Karanth developed a penchant for books and music. He was forced to bid farewell to his native place when he was studying in the eighth standard owing to his "obsession'' with books and music.

Contrary to his wishes, he joined the Gubbi Company, a professional Kannada theatre group, which moulded the stalwarts of Kannada cinema such as G.V. Iyer, Rajkumar, and late Balakrishna, and guided the course of Kannada theatre and cinema cultures. Mr. Karanth pursued his dreams under the guidance of noted "drama teachers'' and litterateurs, Bellave Narahari Shastri and B. Puttaswamaiah.

The influence of books, Hindustani music, the characters he played, the poverty of the Gubbi Company, and Mahatma Gandhi's Harijan made him choose between Hindi and English for his further "education'' and livelihood. He preferred Hindi to English.

While learning Hindi, he felt that he should live in the Hindi heartland to learn the genuine language and left for North India. He joined the Banaras Hindu University to do his postgraduation in Hindi literature and continued to learn music under the tutelage of Pandit Omkarnath Thakur. He married Prema, then a schoolteacher. He later joined the National School of Drama to study theatre in depth. After having obtained an NSD diploma, he tried to build his own theatre group, Kannada Bharati, in Karnataka. He came to Bangalore with the Kannada version of Badal Sarkar's Aevam Indrajit when the Navya literary tradition was in search of new things in all forms of Kannada literature. The instant success of Aevam Indrajit and Mr. Karanth paved the way for staging the late P. Lankesh's Sankranti and Oedipus (Kannada version of the Greek tragedy) and Chandrashekhara Kambar's Jokumaraswamy, Kannada version of Shakespeare's King Lear and other plays. He also rejuvenated the traditional Bayalu Rangamandira (open air theatre) concept.

After having an influence and being an integral part of modern Kannada theatre as a director and musician, he succeeded his Guru Ibrahim Alkaji as the Director of the NSD. Despite adverse situations, he attempted to "Indianise'' the NSD. It was during this period he directed the national award-winning Kannada film, Chomana Dudi, based on the novel by the late Jnan Pith Award winner, K. Shivarama Karanth. He co-directed another two national award-winning Kannada films, Vamsha Vruksha and Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, based on S.L. Byrappa's Kannada novels, with Girish Karnad. In keeping with his "nomadic attitude'', he left for Bhopal to join the Bharat Bhavan. When he was at the peak of his creativity, he also became the centre of a "controversy'' with a woman actor, Vibha Mishra, and spent five months in jail. In 1987, Karanth returned to Karnataka and established the prestigious Rangayana repertory on the lines of the NSD in Mysore for the State Government. He was very active till recently and ventured to direct and scored music for a number of plays despite knowing that he was suffering from terminal cancer. He composed music for a number of award-winning films made by the acclaimed directors of Indian cinema, including Mrinal Sen, G.V. Iyer, M.S. Satyu, Girish Karnad, and Girish Kasaravalli. He won a number of national awards, including Padmashri (1981), Kalidas Samman (Madhya Pradesh), and the prestigious Gubbi Veeranna Award instituted by the Karnataka Government after the doyen of Kannada theatre, Gubbi Veeranna. As an actor, Karanth's histrionic talent in playing the role of a mendicant musician in G.V. Iyer's Hamsa Geete remained an indelible chapter of Indian new-wave cinema.

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