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One of the best-known faces of Kannada theatre, noted actor, author, filmmaker and activist, Girish Karnad, 81, passed away today (Monday, June 10) at 6.30 a.m. in a Bengaluru hospital after a prolonged illness.

Born on May 19, 1938, in Mumbai (then Bombay Presidency), Karnadwas awarded the Padma Shri in 1974, the Padma Bhushan in 1992, and the highest national award for literature, the Jnanpith Award in 1998.

Karnataka declared a public holiday on Monday and a three-day mourning to pay respect to the artist.

“It will be a holiday today for one day for all government offices, schools and colleges due to the sudden demise of Jnanpith awardee Girish Karnad. He will be cremated with state honours and there will be three days of mourning. It is also clarified that this is in accordance with the steps taken by the government when Jnanpith award winners have previously passed away,” said a press statement from Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy.

Karnad was known for his seminal plays mixing history, folk tales and mythology.

Karnadwrote his first play, an instant hit, Yayati in his early 20s when he was a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford University. His later plays Hayavadana, Nagamandala, Bali and The Fire And the Rainworks, along with his works and debates with BV Karanth, another playwright, defined the shape and form of Kannada theatre, a medium that was once powerful enough to influence political discourse in Karnataka.

Later, when cinema started having an impact across the country, he made a transition to movies, making his acting and screenwriting debut in Kannada movie “Samskara” in 1970.

He acted in both Kannada and Hindi films, was a filmmaker and wrote screenplays, winning multiple awards for his work at the state and central level. A legendary figure, he was also briefly director of the Film and Television Institute in Pune and director of the Nehru Centre in London.

Karnadwas also a fearless political activist. He challenged traditions and hierarchy and privilege.

A fearless social and political activist, Girish Karnad used his literary skills and, in later years, his popularity, as a platform to fight religious fundamentalism and defend freedom of expression. Despite receiving numerous death threats, he never backed down from expressing his views.

When journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was allegedly killed by Hindu extremists in 2017, Karnad came out on the streets in protest, despite being on a breathing tube due to prolonged illness. The police later said Karnad was also on the hit list of the murderous gang who killed Lankesh.

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In April, he was among some 200 writers from across the country who put out an open letter against the “politics of hate”.

In September last year, he was charged for holding a placard that read “Me Too Urban Naxal” at an event to mark one year of journalist GauriLankesh’s murder. He had protested against the house arrest of five activists who were accused of links with Maoists.

In 2015 he joined a group of activists protesting the beef ban in Maharashtra. That same year, he received death threats for his comment that the Bengaluru airport should be named after 18th century ruler Tipu Sultan, a much-debated figure in history.

His son has conveyed that there should no flowers, wreaths and VIP visitors to his father’s funeral, reported NDTV. He has also ruled out a procession.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to the actor-playwright on Twitter. “His works will continue being popular in the years to come,” PM Modi wrote. “Girish Karnad will be remembered for his versatile acting across all mediums. He also spoke passionately on causes dear to him. His works will continue being popular in the years to come. Saddened by his demise. May his soul rest in peace,” tweeted PM Modi.

The President of India Ram Nath Kovind also paid his respects on Twitter, writing that “our cultural world is poorer today”.“Sad to hear of the passing of Girish Karnad, writer, actor and doyen of Indian theatre. Our cultural world is poorer today. My condolences to his family and to the many who followed his work #PresidentKovind”

“Playwright, actor, institution-builder and patriot, Girish Karnad was a colossus. It was a privilege to have known him, a far greater privilege to have seen his plays and read his work…,” tweeted writer and historian Ramachandra Guha on Karnad’s demise.

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