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The Kannada colossus


Shivarama Karanth ... had as many as 16 careers.

IN the summer of 1994, I was in the town of Ranibennur at the invitation of a local environmental group. They had just won a major award, and wished me to share in the celebrations. The road to the meeting hall was lined with banners that read: "To Celebrate the Indira Gandhi Parayavaran Puruskar and Dr. Shivarama Karanth's 90th Birthday". This was a happy juxtaposition, for Karanth had been a pioneer of environmentalism in South India, and had even been the first petitioner in a case the group in Ranibennur had filed in the Supreme Court, against a notorious polluting firm of the town.

The meeting was entertaining, not least because Karanth spoke. Afterwards we repaired to the travellers bungalow. There I got chatting with the great Kannada writer's chauffeur. With a historian's interest in dates, I asked him when his boss had turned 90. "Actually, sir," he replied, "he is almost 92." Then why are they celebrating the birthday now, I wondered. "Because they also need their chance," he said.

"They" were the people of Ranibennur, and "their chance" was the opportunity to pay tribute to a man who was more than a legend in his lifetime. It turned out that for the past two years the writer and his driver had been on the road. The white Ambassador that brought Karanth to Ranibennur had the previous fortnight taken him to Tumkur, for a meeting to "Celebrate the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana and Dr. Karanth's 90th Birthday". In Mysore, the birthday was clubbed with the opening of a new girls' school, in Gadag with the opening of a new science laboratory. Nowhere was the event celebrated by itself. That would have offended Karanth, and in any case it was easy enough to find an excuse provided by one of his many spheres of achievement. A new dance academy would do in one place, a film studio in another, a library in a third. One way or another, the people of every decent-sized hamlet in Karnataka found a way to honour their man.

A cat, it is said, has nine lives. Vishnu had 10 avataars. But Shivarama Karanth had as many as 16 careers. These were: nationalism, social reform, commerce, journalism, photography, acting, dance, painting, music, cinema, experiments in education, rural uplift, the popularisation of science (through a multi-volume encylopaedia designed and written wholly by himself), the writing of novels (as many as 45), the writing of plays (not less than 90), and environmentalism. This list is not necessarily exhaustive, and the man did not necessarily follow only one career at a time.

Shivarama Karanth was born on October 10, 1902, in the village of Kota in Dakshina Kannada district. His early life is described in his autobiography, Ten Faces of a Crazy Mind, skilfully translated into English by H.Y. Sharada Prasad. Ten Faces is as unorthodox as the man himself: unstructured, occasionally meandering, yet plush with epigrams and witty asides and philosophical insights. It is that altogether rare thing, a work of literary merit that is also a work of social history. But, like other autobiographies, this too was written to pre-empt a future biographer. As Karanth put it, "I do not desire to be killed by others' pens. I shall take my own life."

Karanth was contemptuous of the "vanity", the "tyranny", and the "narrowness" of his Brahmin upbringing. But he was lucky in his teachers. A middle school teacher taught him to do interesting things with his hands; to garden and to weave mats, for example. In high school, one teacher inculcated an appreciation of Yakshagana; another opened the library of Kannada literature to him.

In college Karanth became a "great consumer of political harangues". The non-co-operation movement inspired him to leave his degree halfway and take to the promotion of spinning, this at a time when "patriotism had not yet become a profitable industry". He worked in khadi and swadeshi for five years, till about 1927, by which time the "Nationalist Movement in our region was cold like stale porridge". Fortunately, Karanth <243>had already started writing <243>fiction-detective novels, to begin with — as well as plays.

While in his twenties, Karanth acquired the taste for very long walks through the southern countryside. He would walk through forests and swim across rivers, carrying little, sleeping in disused temples or peasants' homes. Some of these journeys were made for pleasure, others to educate himself about the culture, the ecology, and the artistic traditions of his land.

When he came to plan a children's encyclopaedia, in the 1930s, Karanth was dismayed by the "intellectual thinness" of the Kannada country. There was a way out: he would research and write the thing himself. His Bala Prapancha was followed by his science encyclopaedia. Then, provoked by a badly produced government book, he researched and wrote an illustrated history of architecture. All these works were to have an enduring impact. There were also other, relatively minor literary productions, among them a translation into Kannada of "Hamlet". His contributions to dance and fiction, by no means minor, I shall reserve for a later column.

Shivarama Karanth married late, when he was well past 30. In his memoirs he is reticent about telling us what first attracted his wife to him. We learn only that she was a gifted dancer, and from another caste. The lady was more forthright. Karanth, she recalled, was explaining to his troupe how to make costumes for the characters. As he began to cut colour paper in different shapes, Leela's eyes "observed the movement of his fingers. What speed! What skill! I stood there, completely lost, looking at his hands ... At that moment, I felt an intense desire to be near those hands ... What I yearned for, for the first time in my life, was to possess those artistic hands of Karanth".

The critic C.N. Ramachandran, who quotes these words, also quotes an appreciation of Leela Karanth by her second son, Ulhas. "It was our mother who shaped Karanth's life," remarks Ulhas: "She was the backbone of all his endeavours. She was also quite well-read, and she dedicated all of her talents to her husband. She took care of all household responsibilities. I remember now that mother also, like our father, was an atheist; and she used to read and explain Bertrand Russell for us."

Karanth's standing was not hindered by his appearance. In his later years, especially, he made for a striking figure, dressed in spotless white dhoti and kurta, with an impressive face framed by a silver mane combed backwards. He was charismatic, and it must be admitted, at times intimidating. As his associate L.S. Seshagiri Rao has written, he "could be brusque and withering", and, especially as he grew older, "impatient of criticism, and dogmatic".

Shivarama Karanth never took a degree, but the scale and originality of his literary achievement embarrassed no less than eight universities into awarding him honorary Ph.D's. But it is not merely the number that makes us comfortable with calling him "Dr.". We allow him a title that we must deny those other Indians who obtain it through bribery and coercion.

Ramachandra Guha is a full-time writer based in Bangalore.

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