Poet, playwright and novelist, recipient of the 2010 Jnanapith Award Chandrashekara Kambaraa, interrogates modernity with myths, folk narratives and native theatrical forms

When Chandrashekara Kambaraa wrote his long narrative poem “Helatena Kela” (Listen, I will Tell you)in the early 1960s, he introduced, knowingly or unknowingly, some of the recurring themes which he would often return to in his later works. The poem which sings in praise of the traditional past and laments over the loss of innocence due to the onslaught of the modern forces clearly set the tone of his works that followed. Themes of tradition and modernity, crises of feudalism, native identities, colonialism, march of history, sex, loss of faith, the death of God and several related themes explored later in his plays, novels and poetry had found metaphorical expression in the narrative poem. “Helatena Kela” which could well be the central metaphor created by Kambara is located in Shivapura, an imaginary utopian village which continues to be a character, a metaphor and the locale in most of his works.

Kambara who has made Kannadigas proud by bringing the eighth Jnanapith award for Kannada is arguably among the best of the three greatest modern Kannada poets (the other two being D.R. Bendre and Gopalakrishna Adiga) and has trodden his own path deviating from both the stalwarts. His creative engagement with myths, folk narratives and native theatrical forms has helped him develop a distinct style and world view and makes him stand apart from his predecessors as well as his contemporaries. Though Kambara began as a Navya writer, he seems to have realised too soon that the Navya mode did not suit his sensibility. So he set out exploring the collective psyche of the community through native myths which were almost unexplored till then in modern Kannada literature. The non-Vaidika mythical world not only provided him the world view but also the rich texture, lyricism and the raw energy of the rural dialects. Though Kambara kept on journeying to the past like a ‘modern man in search of a soul', to borrow an insight from Carl Jung, the journey seldom refrained him from negotiating contemporary themes. In his poems on Mao Tse Tung or plays like “Jaisidanaika”, or “Harakeya Kuri” he has treated themes related to contemporary politics with a progressive outlook, albeit being naive at times.

Kambara's contribution as a playwright is quite significant not only to Kannada theatre but also to the Indian theatre in general as he achieved an excellent blend of the folk and the modern theatrical forms as Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate of Africa, did. In the 1970s, Kambara's plays “Jokumaraswamy” and “Sangya Balya” with their rich desi music, rituals and dance changed the course of the Kannada theatre, which until such time was restricted to the intelligentsia considering their high cerebral content. In tune with the times, Kambara also wrote absurd plays like “Narcissus”, but started exploring the possibilities of the native myths too soon as he stumbled upon the Kannada version of the Narcissus myth. In a chat with this writer some time ago, Kambara made a comparison of the Kannada myth and the Greek myth. In the Greek version, Narcissus, the king, falls in love with his own image and dies; while in the Kannada myth, the king sees his own corpse floating in a pond and drags it on to his lap and starts eating it. Narrating the myth, Kambara argued for the need for developing the native theories of myth, poetics and even methods of translation. This clearly indicates that “shudra nativism” is at the centre of Kambara's world view from which the whole gamut of his creative works and cultural theories have emerged. The native texture is also visible in films like “Kadukudure” and “Sangeetha”which Kambara directed, in the music he scored for his films, the songs which he has sung or in his poetry reading sessions.

Kambara's grand vision of Kannada literature and Karnataka Culture is truly reflected in the Kannada University, Hampi, which he built with great commitment being the founder vice-chancellor of the University. The architecture, the choice of the subjects that cover the diverse variety of culture and society of Karnataka, the scholars whom he drafted from different parts of the state and the Nadoja honorary award instead of the honorary doctorate which he introduced, clearly show that Kambara has quietly realised his Bahujan native vision which was evolved in his literary works for decades. And yet, one feels, only during his tenure as a Member of the Legislative Council, he could not do much in terms of expanding this vision as he himself later confessed, was disgusted with the hollowness of the discourse he was surrounded by.

A tireless experimentator, Kambara continues to write. Only recently, his latest play “Shivaratri” set in Shivapura was released in which the ups and downs of a failed revolution of the 12th Century Vachana era are examined from the point of view of a marginalised sex worker. Yet another indication that the Jnanapith award winner's creative fire is still vibrant and Shivapura continues to inspire its creator.