Ki. Ram. Nagaraj, the distinguished Kannada scholar, is no more. However, not even death can silence the voice of this extraordinary human being who held sway over the cultural life of Karnataka for over four decades. He lives on in the thousands who thronged to listen to his passionate talks.
Kittane Rangappa Nagaraj, who was popular as Ki. Ram. in the literary community for well over four decades, had become a legend in his lifetime. The way events unfolded on his last day also seem the stuff of legends. Till about an hour before death could lay its icy hands on him, Ki. Ram. was making a passionate speech on his beloved poet Bendre. Just before his speech, Ki. Ram. declared that poetry is powerful therapy thanks to which he had regained his strength to make the speech, his poor health notwithstanding. But soon after his speech, poetry withdrew its magic, and death snatched him away. Till his last moment when he was being taken to different hospitals by his friends, he kept asserting that all was fine with him. The whole event on the evening of August 7, 2010 proved that poetry neither protects poets nor poetry lovers from the inescapable finality of death. Ki. Ram's last act is in itself a metaphor for the precariousness of poetry in the face of death.
Ki. Ram. was the first and last literary giant who exercised a profound influence on Kannada culture for more than forty years without becoming a writer himself. Exempting a couple of unusual plays which he wrote under enormous pressure from the late theatre activist and director C.G. Krishnaswamy, one translation of a short Bhasa play, a handful of critical essays and introductions to other people's works, he has written little else. He always described himself as belonging to the oral tradition. The great impact he had on all of us writers is not due to his small body of writings. It was through speaking and speaking alone did he communicate the incredible depth and range of his intellectual energy. There have been several great poets, but Ki. Ram. is the only literary scholar and critic to whom three generations of the best Kannada writers owe a deep debt of gratitude. He was never at the crest of any wave. But he had created it. Ki. Ram's influence on Kannada creativity was much more far reaching than that of two other great critical geniuses, Kirtinath Kurthukoti and D.R. Nagaraj, who have left behind a huge body of writing. Some time ago, Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock had bemoaned in a news paper article that though the great South Indian languages had produced an enormous body of invaluable writings in the pre-modern period, there were hardly any scholars who could read and interpret them. Pollock would not have said this had he met or interacted with Ki. Ram.
His memory was incredible. Ki. Ram could not only quote pages and pages from pre-modern literature — written, inscriptional or folk, he could also talk eloquently about different textual variants. His passion for the old notwithstanding, he never lost his way in the mists of antiquity. Ki. Ram's vantage point was always now. Like the speaker in one of Adiga's poems, Ki. Ram's ears were always waiting for a new explosion. When modernism challenged its immediate past, he became a great defender of the best writers of the period. At a time when the link with the past was severed, he was discovering modernist elements in classical and devotional literatures. For him tradition was never dead. Though his literary exposition was shaped by formalist modernism of his formative years, he was more than just a textual critic. Thanks to his deep understanding of widely different schools of literary theory and criticism, Indian and western, he had evolved his own hermeneutics. For him a poem by Pampa, Basavanna or Adiga was hieroglyphic into which he could read history, culture, politics or philosophy. To recall a small example, after reading Kumarvavyasa's phrase, arasu rakshasa during Emergency, he would exclaim: “Look, this is about our chief minister!” His passion for the word was inseparable from his passion for the world. His thirst for the new was not confined to the contemporary, because his innovative reading was able to discover the new in the old. Single-handedly, he effected a complete re-evaluation of our literary pasts. His list of classics was not readymade; he discovered them through his reading. For example, he introduced me to a neglected medieval classic, Nanjunda Kavi's “Kumararama Charite”. Another great contribution he made to our cultural self-apprehension was a radical re-reading of the emergence of Kannada modernity through the native modes of self-renewal. In the face of the ‘official' literary historical view that Kannada entered modernity through English influence, he argued that the great tatwapadakaras of 19th century were our first poets of modernity for, they were already responding to the angst of colonial experience. It was he who helped us discover a great poetic treasure hidden in the neglected works of giants like Shishunal Sharif, Kadakolu Madivalappa or Mylara Basavalinga. Kiram was the only scholar who would remind us that Kannada modernity was pluralistic.
An inspiring and impassionate teacher, he taught us to read the past and present through each other in a playful manner. If some of us who were very close to him for decades reconstruct the intense conversations with him in bus stands, bars, parks or on the street itself, it will snowball into a meta-literary text of enormous value not only to Kannada, but also to other literary cultures as well. Reading for Ki. Ram. was like a play, a performance. The way he would jump from text to text and then to contexts appeared eclectic and anarchic to his imperceptive critics. But Ki. Ram's seeming disorder was what Karl Marx would call ‘the disorder of an orderly mind'. It was for this reason that Ki. Ram's playfulness was also meaningful.
Ki. Ram. the man was no less interesting than Ki. Ram. the thinker. With his crumpled kurta- pyjamas, reeking of tobacco and alcohol most of the time, his restless gestures, his indifference to money, food or creature comforts, his compassion for others, he reminded us of an Avadhoota. But the object of his saintly search was not disembodied Truth, but creativity embodied in the word. He sought and celebrated creativity all around: in arts, ideas and mundane facts of life. Not even death can silence his irrepressible voice. It will live on through the life and works of his huge following including me, whom he has rewritten so many times.