Kannada literary tradition always questioned the mainstream, says poet Mamta Sagar

Though she wanted to become a doctor like her mother in her early years, she was soon drawn into the world of literature, especially Kannada literature

Published - April 24, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Mamta Sagar

Mamta Sagar | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

On her birthday, January 19, Mamta Sagar received a phone call. The call brought her news that she thinks of as “the biggest gift” she has received: she was informed that she had been nominated for the World Literary Prize from the World Organization of Writers (WOW). “That was beautiful,” says the Bengaluru-based Kannada poet and activist.

Yet another gift came her way a couple of months later when she found out that she had actually won the award.  She still sounds incredulous about having won it. “When my name was announced, it took me a few seconds to realise that it had been called,” admits Sagar, who received the award in Abuja, Nigeria on April 6.  

Mamta Sagar at  World Literary Prize from the World Organization of Writers (WOW) in  Abuja, Nigeria.

Mamta Sagar at  World Literary Prize from the World Organization of Writers (WOW) in  Abuja, Nigeria. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

What makes the victory even sweeter, she says, is that the award was given in Nigeria, which shares a lot in common with India, particularly in the socio-political and gender realms. “The pain, happiness, belonging and community feeling…is so similar to what we go through,” says Sagar, who serves as the Head of Studies in the Creative Writing Programme, Media Arts and Sciences, at the Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.

She also admits to being thrilled that the Nigerian playwright and novelist, Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, was also honoured at the same event. “This has gone into history with Wole Soyinka,” she says, with a smile. “I am really proud and happy that as a Kannada writer, I was instrumental in bringing this big award to India and Karnataka.”

The gold medal she recieved at WOW.

The gold medal she recieved at WOW. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Falling in love with Kannada

Sagar grew up in the city of Sagara in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, over 350 km away from Bengaluru. As a young girl, she was somewhat dismissive of the Kannada language. “Like any privileged person, I studied in English medium and never considered Kannada as an important thing,” she says. “I was even a class leader who fined people ten paise when they spoke Kannada,” she recalls.

By high school, however, something changed in her. “I started relishing Kannada…fell in love with its musicality and politics,” says Sagar, who found herself being drawn to the work of writers like Vaidehi, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Shivaram Karanth and Kumvempu. There was one other aspect of Kannada writing that drew her to it. Like all Dravidian literature, it had always resisted Aryan influences, “which were always very patriarchal,” she says. 

This Kannada literary tradition, “which questioned the mainstream, whatever the mainstream was”, played a significant role in shaping her own political and literary leanings. According to her, Kannada poets like Pampa, Ranna and Kumara Vyasa had created versions of the epics in Kannada with bhakti as a motif. 

“For them villains were heroes and heroes became villains, giving a different perspective of the character altogether,” she says. Immersing herself in this tradition helped her understand the underlying politics of the mainstream: “how people can be misrepresented because of their colour, language, region.” 

Kannada Riyaz

Though she wanted to become a doctor like her mother in her early years, she was soon drawn into the world of literature and opted to major in journalism, psychology and English at the NMKRV College for Women in Jayanagar, Bengaluru. “I had already started writing by the 12th standard,” she says, recalling the first poem, which was about an intercommunal love affair, written when she was 16. 

At college, however, a major realisation dawned on her. “I could read English well, already. But if not trained in Kannada, I would not be able to (become a Kannada writer),” says Sagar, who surreptitiously changed her major to Kannada, without even discussing this decision with anyone at home. “I took time to practice, read and write Kannada,” she remembers, recalling loudly reciting Kannada poetry around the house to learn the language better. “For my poetry, to riyaz in Kannada was important. This is what I did.”

Today, she chooses to compose all her creative work in Kannada alone. She sees it as her way of challenging the linguistic hegemony of English. “We Indians and (people from) many other countries colonised by the British, tend to think through English,” she says. But she firmly believes that this is a big mistake. Giving up on your own language, she believes, means that you are not rooted and are disconnected from your immediate environment. “Every language has an innate musicality, and it is important for people to live in that language.”

Poetry and politics

Sagar’s writing is deeply political, tackling issues of human rights, marginalised communities, feminism, the politics of the female body, social justice and democracy, among others. “It is important to have your politics. The minute you write, it is political,” she says. 

This was not always so, however. “Feminism drew me into politics. Along with that, the whole Dalit movement was happening,” she points out. The whole notion of feminism as well as the Dalit movement put together taught her new lessons. “My generation grew up with that. That helped us to think beyond simply poetry. It gave us a perspective of politics within poetry,” she says. 

It got her to start questioning herself, forcing her to think about what she wanted to talk about. “As they say in feminism, the personal is political. That is what makes me write the way I write. My poetry is very personal as well as very political,” says Sagar, the author of four collections of poems, four plays, an anthology of published columns, a collection of critical essays in Kannada and English on gender, language, literature and culture and a book titled ‘Slovenian-Kannada Literature Interactions’ so far. 

Currently, she is working on another book of poetry, though she isn’t sure when it will come out. “I am a very slow writer, take a very long time. I believe that poetry happens in editing not writing,” she says, adding that she believes in chiselling down the words such that sound, meaning and context come together. She is also actively involved in numerous international translation projects, collaborating with poets worldwide to translate their poems into Kannada, while retaining the musicality of the original language. “It is a creative process. You don’t replicate the original, you recreate it anew,” says Sagar, who received the Bhasha Bharati Translation Award in 2019.

Members of  Adivasi Alemari, Dalit and Back Word Classes Forum, and Federation of Dalit Organisations took out a  Protest rally to save the Constitution, against NRC,  NPR and CAA  from Bengaluru City Railway station to  Freedom Park,  on 26 January 2020.

Members of Adivasi Alemari, Dalit and Back Word Classes Forum, and Federation of Dalit Organisations took out a Protest rally to save the Constitution, against NRC, NPR and CAA from Bengaluru City Railway station to Freedom Park, on 26 January 2020. | Photo Credit: SREENIVASA MURTHY V

As someone deeply passionate about using poetry to further community engagement and activism, she actively strives to take it into public space. Some of these initiatives include her writing poetryon the walls of metro stations, a music video of her poem For Gauri to mark the brutal murder of the journalist, Gauri Lankesh, and a Kannada translation of Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, which was recited at the anti-CAA protests in Bengaluru. “Sometimes, you can’t say things openly, you will be targeted,” she says. “Poetry is very powerful. It is a soft tool, but a sharp one that can cut through anything.” 

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