The spirit of renaissance and its relevance

By Prof. Satya Narayan Misra*

As we celebrate Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s 250th Birthday on 22nd May, the memories of his pioneering contribution towards socio-religious movement trickle in. Ram Mohan Roy was a polyglot who studied ancient texts like Vedas and Upanishads and also Quoran and Bible. It was he who pleaded before the Viceroy for abolition of pernicious practices of Sati, child marriage and polygamy. He also pleaded for inheritance rights of women. The Brahmo Sabha which he created in 1828 segued into the Brahamo Samaj movement with prominent adherents like Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, who can be considered as the torch bearers of India’s renaissance.

However, the genesis of renaissance could be traced to the Republic of Florence in early 16th century which took decisive steps to transit from the middle age to modernity, by adopting new thinking in art, architecture, politics, science and literature. It has always been an enigma why renaissance happened in the city of Florence and not elsewhere. Eric Weiner in his fascinating book “Geography of the Genius” writes how Florence was swampy, malarial and prone to bubonic plague. It was also surrounded by spiteful bellicose neighbours. He quotes Plato who wrote: “what is honoured in a country will be cultivated there”. Athens honoured wisdom, it got Socrates, Rome honoured power, it got the Roman empire. Florence honoured art, it got Leonardo da Vinci. Weiner writes that on 25th January 1504, a group of famous artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Botticelli congregated in Florence to choose a suitable location to display city’s latest masterpiece created by Michelangelo, “David”. Though these artists had intense rivalry, it did not stop them from celebrating the genius of an individual. Florence had the unique distinction of having a workshop which was mentored by Verrocchio which trained the greatest artists of their time including Leonardo. Interestingly, Verrocchio believed that creativity is not a free floating skill that can be taught. Verrocchio mentored his students to develop thinking styles and encouraged them to find problems. Leonardo was a problem finder and hence he excelled. Pablo Picasso, the great artist used to say “computers are stupid because they give only answers”.

While the genius of Rabindranath Tagore and originality of Satyajit Ray are well known, it would be interesting to study the contribution of Girish Karnad, the last renaissance man who died 3 years back. Girish Karnad was born to a father who married a widow which was opposed by the community, by following the rites of Arya Samaj. He did his graduation from Dharwad and subsequently MA in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Just as Florence was the epicentre of art, Dharwad was the confluence of music when musicians with Hindustani classical tradition used to sing along with singers in Carnatic style. No wonder it produced exceptional musical maestros like Gangubai Hangal, Mallikajun Mansoor, Bhimsen Joshi and Kumar Gandharva. It also created a cultural ambience when Bhimsen Joshi anointed Rashid Khan as his successor. Religion never mattered to these masters of music.

Girish Karnad’s contribution as the renaissance man can be seen as a great script writer, actor, director, and activist. The 50s saw the emergence of a rare film director Satyajit Ray, with his Apu Triology (1955-1959). The 1960s saw the rise of great script writers in India; with Badal Sarkar, writing in Bengali, Mohan Rakesh in Hindi, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Girish Karnad in Kannada. Karnad shot into fame with his 2nd play, Tuqhlaq, written in 1964 about an idealistic 14th century ruler who shifted the capital from Delhi to Dauladabad. He wanted to foster Hindu Muslim unity and secularism. However, his decision became catastrophic as he was not realistic about the ground level difficulty. Tughlaq was a political allegory of the Nehru era which started with enormous hope for the Indian masses, petering in to disillusionment with his obsession with socialism and the Chinese debacle of 1962.  The other play that became very popular was Nagamandala in 1997. It was a folk tale showing the predicament of a woman who becomes a victim of her husband’s lust and ruthlessness. Karnad was deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s concept of “Complex Seeing”.

Karnad , the actor, made his debut  in the iconic film Samskara (1970) based on a novel written UR Ananatamurthy (1965). It was blistering attack on the caste system and moral superiority of Brahmins. Initially censored, it won the national award beating Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi. The other movie in which he excelled was Nisant (1976) directed by the new wave director Shyam Benegal. In the backdrop of the caste conflict in a village, it brings out how an intrepid veterinary surgeon ensures success of milk cooperative revolution triggered by Varghese Kurien. Karnad directed Ondanondu Kaladili (Once upon a time) based  on Seven Sumrai of Akira Kurusewa. The film had fascinating stunt scenes, delineating the code of warrior’s ethics with a modern vision.

Karnad was raised in world without electricity. However, he electrified India culturally. He was most comfortable in a theatre hall, when the lights go out and stories play out. Karnad was an activist who publicly condemned demolition of Babri Masjid and wrote an open letter against hate politics. He championed the cause of multiculturalism and’ diverse and equal India. He wore a placard “Me Too Naxal” on 7th sept 2018 to commemorate the 1st anniversary of Gauri Lankesh, the journalist who was brutally killed because of her tirade against rising right wing fundamentalism. Karnad died on 10th June 2019. As per his wishes there was no floral procession and no VVIPs to perform his last rites. He was an agnostic, polyglot and spoke out against rising tide of communalism. Tagore, the great renaissance son of India wrote that ‘the mind should be without fear and the clear stream of reason must not lose its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habits’.  In these turbulent times when religion is being used to divide the country and responsible dissent not honoured, the voices of these renaissance men would hopefully resonate and take us out from the tunnel of hatred, bigotry and divisive politics.



*Prof Misra was Joint Secretary (HAL) . Views are personal.




DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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