U.R. Ananthamurthy taught English literature at the University of Mysore for several years. His teaching methodology had charmed an infinite number of students. Ananthamurthy, who had returned from England, used to sit on a high table at the Maharaja’s college discussing literary theories of the West. The novelty of his presentation would mesmerise young students who came from rural backgrounds and small towns. His teaching methodology was not something that one could deal with in the traditional way; the mind had to be prepared differently for his class, and this is something that teachers all over the State, who were at one time his students, often remember about him.
One cannot forget that under the modern garb of the England-returned Ananthamurthy, there was the novel, Samskara . He had written from Birmingham the story of a Brahmin colony of Doorvasapura, located in the surroundings of Teerthahalli. That was how Ananthamurthy was; when in India he would discuss the West; and while in the West he prepared himself to write a novel like Bharathipura . If A.K. Ramanujan was trying to present India and its regional cultures to the Western world, Ananthamurthy was introducing western literary models to the Kannada world. One must not gloss over the fact that an edifice had already been built in Kannada by Shivaram Karanth and Kuvempu on which Ananthamurthy could build his modern thought.
Kuvempu had set his Malegalalli Madumagalu in Ananthamurthy’s environs, speaking in great detail about farmers and the lower classes. In the realism mode, he lays out in great detail the life of the Dalit communities that was filled with God, ghostly spirits, ritual and how the upper class landlords exercised complete control over them. Shivaram Karanth was no different. He roamed the 32 villages around Puttur and wrote the story of Choma who was the victim of Zamindari system. Karanth who travelled extensively wrote the essay, “Namma Alateyannu Meeralarada Devaru”, in which he talks about how God is cast into our limited thought framework, and we seldom allow him to exceed. If Kuvempu put everything into a mythical-philosophical structure, Karanth went three steps ahead – he did not venture close to Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Upanishads or the Bhagavadgita. Karanth, the writer who tried to grapple with the multiple truths of Indian consciousness was more important to Ananthamurthy, than Kuvempu. “Even in his old age, it is unusual that an Indian writer has not lost his analytical abilities to emotions. Karanth, who speaks the truth that he sees is truly a great literary figure,” Ananthamurthy used to say.
Ananthamurthy took forward the thought processes of Kuvempu and Karanth. The rampant commercialisation and classism one can today see at Shreeshaila’s Adavimalleshwara, Dharamasthala’s Annappa Bhoota, and other such places became the subject of Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura . Jagannatha wants to demystify the piece of black stone through the touch of the Dalits, but the fear that they carry exalts this piece of stone to the holy saligrama. What Karanth and Kuvempu saw through the prism of realism, Ananthamurthy saw philosophically, through images and metaphors.
Like he saw the fossilised practises of ancient India through a piece of black stone, “Bettale Pooje Yaake Koodadu?” (Why not worship in the nude?) was another dynamic question that he addressed. He brought to focus the nude worship practise in Chandragutti, discussed it with certain limitations, and yet, gave it a new dimension. He cited the example of Akkamahadevi who walked to Kalyana naked. “Instead of perceiving the nude worship of women in Chandragutti as protest, why can’t it be seen as an attempt to break free from the shackles of the mind?” he had asked. Along with the Devadasi and Basavi practise, he discussed Ananda’s story Naanu Konda Hudugi . As psychologists say that these are not things that a society can shed overnight, Ananthamurthy also felt that through radical interventions these rituals can only gain strength. He was of the belief that social transformations took their own course and time.
Worshipping a saligrama is fine, but touching it is something that instils fear. So it is with nude worship. Matters of faith are rarely uni-dimensional. It can be seen as protest by a community of women. It is also that time when they can choose a man of their choice. On this day, unmarried women, widows, wives of dead soldiers consummate their relationships with a man of their choice and bear children. These children are given a legitimate stamp by the priest of the temple. This is a prevalent practise in different parts of Karnataka, in fact, Karanth names several communities that indulge in this practise. This is something that was accepted by the traditional society. This practise, was jointly sanctioned by the traditional and the power centres of society. In Indian pagan society, nude worship and niyoga were as valid and sacred as marriage for a woman.
Ananthamurthy has discussed these practises in the light of the Chandragutti incident. However, it is more complicated than that. Yet, a mind like Ananthamurthy’s which was trained in Sanskrit, Halegannada, western literary theories was equally interested in a folk practise like nude worship, and this one must attribute to his plural outlook. This is evident on reading his autobiography Suragi . Ananthamurthy was someone who kept refining his own thoughts. “I have always remained a democratic socialist. When cultural questions come up, I get into a dilemma,” he used to say, articulating his own contradictory views. Constantly trying to correct and refine himself, even as he understood his limitations, Ananthamurthy expanded the Kannada horizon.
Translated by Deepa Ganesh