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Global thoughts in a local tongue

Kannada has won seven Jnanpith awards, highest for any language. What is it about Kannada literature that constantly calls for national attention? Renowned poet, H.S. VENKATESH MURTHY, shares his thoughts.


IN RECENT times, there has been much debate on Kannada's standing in the larger Indian literary scene. Kannada literature, in the past, was limited to Karnataka. But today, it has a wider accessibility, thanks to translations. Therefore, Kannada literature can now be compared with literatures of other languages. We also have organisations such as the Central Sahitya Academy and the National Book Trust working in this direction.

Most literary critics are of the opinion that Kannada literature is on par with the literature being produced in other Indian languages. Kannada poetry, one could even argue, has made greater progress than poetry in any other Indian language. We also have some great novels and plays in Kannada. Kannada novels not only have a national standing, but have drawn much international attention in recent times. One can note that Jnanpith award winning Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, rates Masti's Chikkaveera Rajendra on par with novels of international repute.

Gopalkrishna Adiga, Da.Ra. Bendre, and Kuvempu's works have been read the world over. And writers such as Ananthamurthy, Ramachandra Sharma, and D.R. Nagaraj can be called cultural ambassadors. Whenever they have gone out of the country, they have made efforts to popularise Kannada literature. The fact that we have received the highest number of Jnanpith awards bears testimony to the range and quality of Kannada literature. Not just that, Kannada writers are also recipients of prestigious national awards such as the Kabir Samman.


If Kannada occupies such an important position in the literary world, cinema is also responsible. Many Kannada films have been based on Kannada literary works, and this has helped draw the attention of the rest of the country towards Kannada literature.

Most literatures that have a global standing are constructed on a desi premise. Surely, literature which is firmly rooted in the local soil acquires a global standing. A salient feature of Kannada literature is that it has been able to retain its nativity. The Kannada spirit, culture, and way of life have been portrayed with great sensitivity in Kannada literature.

All our writers, since the time of Pampa (who wrote almost a thousand years ago), have had deep Kannada roots. Act locally, think globally, has been philosophy. So, Kannada literature is born here, in this soil. Also, when one talks of Kannada, it is not a singular tongue, but one with many dialects. For instance, Mysore Kannada, Hyderabad Kannada, Mangalore Kannada, Dharwad Kannada, and so on. Our writers have effectively captured in their literature the idiomatic expressions of these various Kannada dialects.

Owing to its 1000-year-history, the vigour of Pampa and the voice of Kumaravyasa are part of the language we speak today. There is a firm tradition behind us, and that is where our strength comes from. A writer, who does not have solid roots in a tradition, will not be able to produce good literature. As Eliot says, individual talent is enhanced because it is backed by tradition.

If one could call something the very life breath of Kannada, it is its subdued tone. There is nothing loud and noisy about it. This comes from the tolerant nature of the Kannadigas. Nrupathanga, in his Kavirajamarga, discussing the greatest values that a human being should cherish, rates tolerance for another's faith the highest. This, he says, is central to the Kannadiga's way of life, which is not true of most other cultures. Kannadigas have always been tolerant of other people, other cultures, and therefore, Kannada can be considered the cradle of various cultures.

Tracing the history of Kannada literature, one notices that our writers have always fought dominant literary traditions. For instance, we have always had quarrels with Sanskrit literature. A question that all our writers, beginning from Pampa right upto Adiga, have asked is about the kind of relationship a language needs to have with Sanskrit. The guiding principle of Pampa's poetry, for instance, was the confluence of marga (classical) and desi (local) theories. This not only becomes the confluence of Sanskrit and Kannada, but also of traditional and folk cultures. Therefore, it is not simply the question of language, but also of cultures. Even in the choice of words, this becomes an important question.

Another important factor is that Karnataka has always been the land of diverse cultures. None of our writers, who have set out to write in "pure" Kannada, have succeeded. Similarly, those who set out to write in chaste Sanskrit have also failed. For instance, Andaiah and Shadaksharaih vowed to write in Sanskrit, but failed to become popular. Poetry that became popular was that of Pampa, Kumaravyasa, Basavanna, and Purandaradasa. They are our role models, our ideals.

Today, the crisis is not in relation to Sanskrit, but in relation to English. The present day writers have no way out but to encounter English. This is a question faced by most of our major writers including Bendre, Kuvempu, and Adiga. For instance, Kuvempu tried to perceive English through his knowledge of Halegannada (old Kannada) and Sanskrit. Bendre encountered the English language with his strength in the folk idiom. Adiga was, no doubt, greatly influenced by Eliot, but what he produced was what one could call "pure Kannada crop".

Adiga even said that a writer has no fulfilment if his writing does not have the flavour of the Kannada soil. Eliot's Wasteland made a big impact on Adiga, but one can feel the pulse of Kannada in his poetry. It is this nativity that has given strength to Kannada literature. At this juncture, B.M. Srikantaiah also comes to my mind. In fact, one could call him a trendsetter. In the beginning of the 20th Century, he was the first to translate English poems into Kannada. Eventually, all of English romantic poets were translated into Kannada and so were Shakespeare's sonnets. This brought to Kannada literary models from various parts of the world. It is this tension, complexity that make Kannada literature so great.

Twentieth Century has been witness to a lot of writing in Kannada, marked by a distinct Kannadaness. Unlike the old literature that was based on Sanskrit mythologies, the modern literature brought to the forefront the story of a native Kannadiga. The "self" became the centre. Our writers began to write from their own experiences. "Aanu olidante paaduve," said Basavanna. "Ella kelali endu naanu haaduvudilla," said G.S. Shivarudrappa. Adiga called it "olabaalu". Bendre said: "Enna padenagirali, adara hadanashte needuvenu ninage." Poets like these brought to the Kannada literary world the language, pulse, and turmoil of this very soil. We started telling the story of the common man and stopped talking about kings. Isn't this a very democratic approach? Kanavi puts it thus: "Sooryara kaala mugiyitu,

Idu nakshatragala kaala."

Thus, the extraordinary stories of ordinary people became an important feature of our writing. We took forms from the English language, but we adapted them to our requirement. This probably can be considered the voice of Kannada. Kannada has a very distinct cultural identity and our writers have constantly engaged themselves in a philosophical search.

If Kannada literature is drawing national attention, it is because of the Kannadaness of it. This is what Kuvempu meant when he said: "Elladaru iru, entadaru iru, endendigu nee Kannadavaagiru".

(As told to DEEPA GANESH)

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