Ki. Ram. Nagaraj brought alive through his dynamic speech the dormant written word. This unusual scholar, a blend of several schools of thought, was a puranic in the true spirit
Most writers in the early phase of modern Kannada literature were not pre-occupied with either literary criticism or evaluating their contemporaries. They were of course critical of the past, but were not critical of their contemporaries. There was some amount of evaluation — that is they chose works that caught their attention and historically assessed them. It was a period of fertile imagination and major writers such as Masti, Kuvempu, Bendre, Sriranga and many others wrote very differently from each other. Despite their diverse styles and worldviews, they all acted together to create a tradition that one could call the Modern Phase of Kannada Literature.
After Independence, there was disillusionment towards the élan that the great writers of the first phase had in their creative endeavour. Gopalakrishna Adiga, who pioneered the later phase, deemed it important to discriminate and resist sentimentality which flourished among the lesser writers of the first phase. This was also a period when important critics emerged – Keertinath Kurthukoti, an important voice in this period, was a great commentator of the past as well as the present, and made distinctions of major and minor writers. Shankar Mokashi Punekar, Kurthukoti's contemporary, was intellectually modern, but emotionally resisted the desire to differentiate between major and minor writers. Ki. Ram. Nagaraj, who passed away last week, figured in the next phase of critics; he had internalised perspectives of both Kurthukoti and Punekar. He could enthusiastically talk about a contemporary writer as well as classical writers such as Pampa and Kumaravyasa. He never used criticism to merely historically account for the importance of any writer, but took delight in celebrating the use of Kannada language. He was vastly read in modern European literary critical theory, but never talked about it for its own sake. Anything he read illumined for him some Kannada writer or the other. And thus his response went on increasing in its intensity and complexity. In other words, the creative text was primary for him and critical theory, which did offer him assistance, was secondary.
For people like me, Ki. Ram. was a phenomenon because of his vast memory of Kannada poetry. How many times he has surprised me by connecting a modern Kannada writer with someone in the past! This was never an abstraction, but something Ki. Ram. achieved by actually citing passages. When one heard him, it felt like thousand years of Kannada poetry were available to him as if they were all his contemporaries. Ki. Ram. did not write much, but talked a lot. Many a time it almost felt as if he were possessed. Often, he used to be surprised at the ideas that occurred to him. Thus he was in the modern sense a great teacher and in the old, traditional sense a great puranic. He combined the two everyday in his life and always seemed drunk on poetry.
Another critic who also had great memory for Kannada poetry and could at once talk delightfully to large audiences as well as private gatherings was Kurtukoti. The difference between him and Ki. Ram. was this: Kurthukoti had clear, well, settled ideas about what he admired, but Ki. Ram responded differently in different contexts. In his great oral imagination, no text was complete in itself and settled. Every reading of his was a new reading.
There is no other contemporary of mine who has inspired as many young writers as Ki. Ram. did. He sowed seeds in all kinds of soil and many I must say, sprouted. Almost every new writer I know wanted Ki. Ram. to read what he or she wrote. Ki. Ram. had no ideological partisanship as far as young, new writers were concerned. He treated them all as potential developers of the Kannada language. I must also mention here that the Dalit Kannada writing took a new turn under Ki. Ram's influence and moved more towards the great spiritual heritage that the lower castes in Karnataka had created in the past. Therefore, one never felt that Ki. Ram had a hallowed tradition of the elitist kind. His sense of generous receptivity to every aspect of Kannada literary writing, made him a true puranic.
It is said that Socrates never wrote but only spoke. Poet Tee. Nam. Shri once defined speech and writing with a metaphor. He said, when snow falls it is tender like silk cotton, as it reaches the earth it becomes slippery and gets solidified. Soon, this becomes ice. Hence, spoken word is like snow, and the written text like hardened ice. If written text has to redeem itself, it has to acquire the quality of spoken word. Ki. Ram. through his speech brought the written word alive. His words were bright, shining, tentative, and very intense. It is very significant that he died after speaking about a poet whom he admired, Bendre. In fact, as serendipity would have it, that is the way he wanted to die. He has left behind a vast number of young admirers who were growing in his fertile imagination.
Keywords: Ki. Ram. Nagaraj