Karnad is most famous as a playwright. His plays, written in Kannada, have been widely translated into English and all major Indian languages. Karnad’s plays are written neither in English, in which he dreamed of earning international literary fame as a poet, nor in his mother tongue Konkani. Instead they are composed in his adopted language Kannada. When Karnad started writing plays, Kannada literature was highly influenced by the renaissance in Western literature. Writers would choose a subject which looked entirely alien to manifestation of native soil.Rajagopalachari’s version of the Mahabharat published in 1951, left a deep impact on him, and soon sometime in the mid 1950s, one day he experienced a rush of dialogues spoken by characters from the Mahabharata in his adopted language Kannada. “I could actually hear the dialogues being spoken into my ears…”I was just the scribe, ” said Karnad in a later interview. Eventually Yayati was published in 1961, he was 23 years old. It is based on the story of King Yayati, one of the ancestors of the Pandavas, who was cursed into premature old age by his father-in-law, Shukracharya, incensed by Yayati’s infidelity. Yayati in turn asks his sons to sacrifice their youth for him, and one of them agrees. It ridicules the ironies of life through characters in Mahabharata and became an instant success, immediately translated and staged in several other Indian languages.
In a situation like that Karnad found a new approach like drawing historical and mythological sources to tackle contemporary themes, and existentialist crisis of modern man, through his characters locked in psychological and philosophical conflicts. His next was Tughlaq (1964), his best loved play, about an idealist 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq, and allegory on the Nehruvian era which started with ambitious idealism and ended up in disillusionment . This established Karnad, now 26-years old, as one of the most promising playwrights in the country. It was stage by the National School of Drama Repertory under the direction of Ebrahim Alkazi, with the actor Manohar Singh, playing the visionary king who later becomes disillusioned and turns bitter, amidst the historic Purana Qila in Delhi. It was later staged in London by the National School of Drama for the Festival of India in 1982.
Hayavadana (1971) was based on a theme drawn from The Transposed Heads, a 1940 novella by Thomas Mann, which is originally found in Kathasaritsagara, herein he employed the folk theatre form of Yakshagana. A German version of the play, was directed by Vijaya Mehta as part of the repertoire of the Deutsches National Theatre, Weimar. Naga-Mandala (Play with Cobra, 1988) was based on a folk tale related to him by A. K. Ramanujam, brought him the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award for the Most Creative Work of 1989. It was directed by J. Garland Wright, as part of the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis. The theatre subsequently commissioned him to write the play, Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain). Though prior to it came Taledanda (Death by Beheading, 1990) which used the backdrop, the rise of Veerashaivism, a radical protest and reform movement in 12th century Karnataka to bring out current issues.
Karnad himself has translated all his plays into English.A large number of his Kannada plays have been translated by Dr. Bhargavi P Rao to Telugu. His play Agni Aur Varsha (The Fire and the Rain) was adapted into a Hindi film, Agni Varsha (2002).
Karnad made his acting as well as screenwriting debut in a Kannada movie, Samskara (1970), based on a novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy and directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. That movie won the first President’s Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. Over the years he had acted in a number Hindi and Kannada feature films, and worked with directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal In television, he played the role of Swami’s father in TV series Malgudi Days (1986-1987), based on R. K. Narayan’s books.
He made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), based on a Kannada novel by S.L. Bhairappa. It won him National Film Award for Best Direction along with B. V. Karanth, who co-directed the film. Later, Karnad directed several movies in Kannada and Hindi, including Godhuli (1977) and Utsav (1984). He has made number of documentaries, like one on the Kannada poet D. R. Bendre (1972), Kanaka-Purandara (English, 1988) on two medieval Bhakti poets of Karnataka, Kanaka Dasa and Purandara Dasa, and The Lamp in the Niche (English, 1989) on Sufism and the Bhakti movement. Many of his films and documentaries have won several national and international awards.
Some of his famous Kannada movies include Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, Ondanondu Kaladalli, Cheluvi and Kaadu. A recently acclaimed movie by Karnad is Kanooru Heggaditi, based on a novel by Kannada writer Kuvempu.
His Hindi movies include Nishaant (1975), Manthan (1976), Swami (1977) and Pukar (2000). He has acted in a number of Nagesh Kukunoor films, starting with Iqbal (2005) written by Vipul K Rawal, where his role of the ruthless cricket coach too got him critical acclaim. This was followed by Dor (2006), 8 x 10 Tasveer (2009), with lead actor Akshay Kumar and Aashayein (2010). A recently acclaimed movie by Karnad is Kanooru Heggaditi, based on a novel by Kannada writer Kuvempu.
He recently acted in the movie called He also acted in critically acclaimed Kannada gangster movie Aa Dinagalu.