K.V. Subbanna, one of the finest thinkers of Karnataka died five years ago on July 16. He was one of the finest classical minds, recalls his dear friend of five decades, the renowned writer U.R. Ananthamurthy

Subbanna and I have been friends for 50 years. It always seemed important to me to understand how Subbanna's mind worked. As long as he lived, we called each other at least once a week and it invariably ended in an argument. When the late D.R. Nagaraj gave a talk about the 12th century mystic poet Allamaprabhu, both Subbanna and I became excited about this remarkable poet. But later, this is what Subbanna had to say: “Between Allama and Kalidasa, I choose Kalidasa.”

Subbanna was always slightly suspicious about things that sounded radical. It's probably because he had seen the danger of radical thought taken to an extreme. In Allama there is an element of such radicalism. Once we watched a Sophocles' play together. Subbanna had said, “Ananth, I don't like all this.” When you say ‘don't like' you are exercising a personal choice.

However, in Subbanna's mind there was room for everything. Else, it would have been impossible to build an institution like Ninasam. Subbanna had a classical mind and hence his personal choices were different. This is also why he had no faith in conflict. He was constantly in search for methods by which harmony could be achieved. It was by no means compromise; he called it negotiation.

When I spoke to him for the last time, I had said: “You are forever speaking of negotiation. When there is an intense conflict of ideas, the negotiations that emerge in the heat of that moment are very important.” Negotiation is the progress we make post conflict. In a conflict prior to negotiation, creative energies of both sides open up. Arguing like this I had further said threateningly, “if you are indifferent to the creative powers that take birth during a conflict, you will eventually lose interest in the creative process itself.” Such an exchange was possible only with Subbanna, for, in him, there was space for everything.

When we talk of culture today, we are referring to sensibility. There is a Tulu sensibility, a Kodava sensibility. In India, there are hundreds of sensibilities. To put it simply, we all live in a sensibility. But what contains all this is civilization. We writers shy away from speaking about civilisation because it's a much politicised concept. The Sangh Parivar has spoken so extensively about the Hindu civilisation that irrespective of what we say, we are in the danger of sounding like them. But Subbanna had no such problems. Bhartruhari, the great Sanskrit poet, was someone he meditated upon every day. He had his Kalidasa and Dhwanyaloka. Pampa was his favourite in Kannada.

***A classical mind can nurture desires of reconstructing the past. This can be very dangerous. But Subbanna's mind was not the conservative, classical mind. It was a liberal one. He was always engaged in rejuvenating the dreams and hopes of the past, not reconstructing it. One can visit the Vedas, Upanishads, Kalidasa, Bhasa, Quran, and any text in fact without being a revivalist.

Subbanna was a great revisionist. He was someone who showed us how one could go back to the past, revisit Bhasa, Kalidasa and Pampa and rework them in to the present. What about the great poet Pu. Ti. Narasimhachar whom we had forgotten in the fury of the Bandaya Movement? He unravelled the relevance of the poet in his reading of the poem, “Gokula Nirgamana”. Subbanna's attempt to understand the shifts urbanisation brought in rural life through Kalidasa is extremely significant. Kalidasa was not a writer of rural sensibilities; his creative world was replete with symbols of urban life. This is how Subbanna's reading of Kalidasa has to be understood.


It is imperative for us to be anxious about the present, however worrying about the future amounts to arrogance in my opinion. Subbanna shared similar views. Subbanna believed in viewing with generosity the transformations of the present and suppressing the arrogance that stemmed from an anxiety for the future. Hence many branded him as having a Brahminical mind. Subbanna knew this was not true. He would get furious about untouchability. But with his anger there was great humility as well. Once we got into a big argument about untouchability. Finally he said: “Untouchability has to go, true. But listen to my problem. First, they stood outside. I brought them into the courtyard. Will I be able to bring them into the house? Or not? This bothers me. So whenever I talk about untouchability I have to keep this in my mind.”

Subbanna never said anything that he did not mean.


I was lucky to have a friend like Subbanna. I could share with him all my anxieties and return to my normal state. It is hard to find another classical mind like Subbanna's. If balance is lost, such a mind easily turns into a dormant, conservative mind. But till his very end, Subbana retained his poise, and preserved his Indian mind in its very best sense.

(Excerpts from an essay, “Subbanna Emba Nija Bharatiya Manassu)

Translated by Deepa Ganesh