An ear for Karnad

Updated: Jun 19, 2019, 12:55 IST | Dalreen Ramos

Directors of audiobook publisher Karadi Tales reminisce about the late theatre icon who lent his voice to Karadi, the bear, and never thought highly of himself

An ear for Karnad
Girish Karnad was the voice of Karadi the bear in a mythological series

As a journalist, when you ask someone what a good time for them to talk would be, you expect them to be specific, especially when it's right in the middle of the week. After briefing him about what we're going to chat about — the association between Chennai-based audiobooks publisher Karadi Tales (KT) and theatre icon Girish Karnad, who passed away this week — I ask Narayan Parasuram, the co-founder of KT, the same question. "Any time. I am happy to share my experience of working with Shri Karnad," he responds. And a lot has been said in a couple of sentences.

The company was founded in 1996 and has since brought on a star-studded list of narrators on board, including Naseeruddin Shah, and Saeed Jaffrey. Karnad came into the picture in '98. "We had just come out with a mythology series and were in search of a narrator. When we approached him, KT was already quite popular and Karnad, being a writer, was familiar with the literary scene. Also, our stories were not to do with religion but with storytelling and he had a background in it," Parasuram says, elaborating on how the eminent playwright, has always had an independent existence in the literary world despite carving out a niche in Bollywood.

Narayan Parasuram with Karadi the bear
Narayan Parasuram with Karadi the bear

As the narrator i.e. Karadi the bear, Karnad was tasked with retelling stories of the birth of Krishna and his conquests, the birth of Ganesha and his meeting with Kubera as well as one on Hanuman's journey. "Despite being Oxford-bred, he had a certain Indianness in his voice and delivered his lines with exceptional clarity and rich vocal timbre," Parasuram explains. Owing to Karnad's busy schedule, the recording had to be done in two parts — one in Bengaluru and the other in Mumbai. Both Parasuram and his colleague, publishing director Shobha Viswanath, have fond memories from their trip to Karnad's home in Bengaluru. "We were driving and lost the route to our destination. He stopped the car, stepped outside to a pharmacy and asked someone there for directions. Now, obviously the people in the pharmacy were shocked that Girish Karnad was there. But he didn't think highly of himself," Parasuram recalls.

In 2003, KT was planning to launch an audiobook version of APJ Abdul Kalam's autobiography, Wings of Fire. "We went to Rashtrapati Bhavan and asked Mr Kalam if he would lend his voice to the project. But he refused as he was still in office and couldn't undertake any commercial work. Plus, he didn't think he had the best voice," Viswanath reveals. The team was looking to find a voice that didn't resemble Kalam, but reminded listeners of him. If Amitabh Bachchan were to narrate it, for instance, it would still sound like the actor himself. Karnad was the next choice. And he refused, too.

Shobha Viswanath. Pic/Amar Ramesh
Shobha Viswanath. Pic/Amar Ramesh

"He wasn't very fond of Kalam. But I asked him to take a look at the script. After reading it, he said, 'I take my words back, even though, this is one aspect of his life,'" Viswanath recalls. Karnad wasn't aware of the former President's humble beginnings — that his father was a boatman and an Imam of a local mosque. Wings of Fire did remarkably well — KT ended up selling over five lakh copies in retail and it was translated into Hindi and Tamil as well. "The beautiful thing about Karnad was that you never had to agree with him. What made him different from others was that he was honest, not opportunistic," Parasuram shares.

In the 100-odd hours of his lifetime that Karnad might have shared with Parasuram, not once did he mention cinema. "That he happened to be in cinema was more of a 'by the way' matter. He always confessed that he was embarrassed to see himself on screen," the co-founder says. In a tribute to the legendary artiste, KT is offering two books — Birth of Krishna and Wings of Fire — for free streaming on their website till June 19. For, as Parasuram says, "Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave, but most don't know that. The best way to remember someone is through their works."

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