The mind and metaphors of U.R. Ananthamurthy

He was among the rare and sensitive writers who could see through the contradiction of not thinking about man and his life in the world beyond the dharmasastras

Updated - April 21, 2016 04:47 am IST

Published - September 01, 2014 12:51 am IST

LITERARY ICON: The crisis of the Indian bhashas weighed heavily on him. Photo: M.A. Sriram

LITERARY ICON: The crisis of the Indian bhashas weighed heavily on him. Photo: M.A. Sriram

One of Ramchandra Gandhi’s quips was, yoU aRe (Ananthamurthy), emphasising his being in the world.

U.R. Ananthamurthy and Ramchandra Gandhi occupied contrary locations, one subscribing to dvaita (the view of soul and god as separate entities) and the other to advaita . Ananthamurthy’s reflection on Gandhi’s Svaraj: A journey with Tyeb Mehta’s Shantiniketan Triptych is as much about himself — the way his mind works and the metaphors he invokes.

He compares Gandhi’s writing to an illuminating arati to the gods in temples. The arati begins with the lighting of one lamp and slowly, many others are lit and circulated around the vigraha . Gradually the whole sculpture is illuminated and made visible for us in the light of the arati . More tongue-in-cheek, he describes Gandhi as a jangama (member of a wandering Saivite monastic order followed by the Lingayats) but with an attachment to his room and the India International Centre (IIC) who could never settle into any affiliation after he left Hyderabad’s Philosophy department that he had helped build in protest against the cutting of a tree dear to Sarojini Naidu by the university administration. “Nobody else in the world has written such a book on [the] art of painting. [The] book is a prolonged meditation, where the external painting meets the inner mind to become one, the advaita ,” Ananthamurthy pronounced. The dvaitin could undergo the mystic experience of non-dual being.

Both were opposed to caste. Ananthamurthy’s blog recorded the story of a group of intellectuals whom he hosted when he was vice-chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam. Gandhi had taken my mother, Francine Krishna, to the Guruvayur temple after she had expressed a desire to visit it. She was dressed in a sari and had kumkum (vermilion) on her forehead (and was married to a Hindu), but was not permitted entry on the grounds of being a non-Hindu. Gandhi protested, refused to enter the temple and returned with a Rishi Durvasa-like temper, Ananthamurthy wrote. In his blog (that has since disappeared from the net), Ananthamurthy mentions his participation in a march organised by Gandhi after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in which a group of participants were led by him singing Rabindranath Tagore’s “ Ekla cholo re ...” He was undeterred by the mocking passersby and on reaching Birla House, the site of Gandhi’s assassination, offered prayers. Some Tibetan monks later joined their meeting and offered prayers in their own style. Though the Tibetan way of praying may sound strange to some of us, the very strangeness moved us nevertheless, Ananthamurthy wrote. Some individuals addressed the group before they dispersed.

Reflections on caste Ananthamurthy reflected on caste on many occasions, and his novel, Samskara (1965), evokes the decadent world of a brahman agrahara (settlement), much of it drawing on his own experience of growing up in one. He belonged to the Madhva tradition, a Vaishnava sect that followed the 13th century philosopher, Madhvacharya. His name, Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy, as professor Arindam Chakrabarti reminded me, bears the signature of Udupi Sri Krishna — the presiding deity of Madhva Dvaita Vedanta.

Yet, his novel mocks norms of purity and pollution. Naranappa, the anti-brahmin Brahmin dies, and the question is who will perform his last rites as he has no son. Till this is done there can be “no worship, no bathing, no prayers, no food, nothing.” Naranappa had not only mocked at brahmin orthodoxy, but drank liquor, ate meat, caught sacred fish with his Muslim friends and rejected his wife, living instead with a sudra woman called Chandri. Answers are sought from Praneshacharya, the head of the village, who is the crown jewel of Vedic learning. He in turn seeks answers regarding pollution from the book of dharma and then pleads with Maruti, the chaste monkey-god, but gets no answer. He comes across Chandri in the forest and both discover each other erotically in their traumatised states, giving Praneshacharya an opportunity for self-transformation.

He decides to perform the last rites, but by then the plague is manifest on Naranappa’s body and Chandri has already asked a Muslim to cremate the body. The screenplay of the film “Samskara” (1970) was written by Girish Karnad who played Praneshacharya.

The novel Bharathipura (1973) is also about a village and the prejudices of reformist modernity. Jagannatha, the educated, rich zamindar’s son wants to transform his antiquated society, preparing the way for the advent of secular modernity. He teaches the Holeyaru Dalits, who work as scavengers, the French and Russian revolutions, then leads them into a temple from which they are prohibited to smash the stone image of the deity and rid themselves of their irrationality and thereby enter history. I can recall his powerful telling of the story of the Shaligram and how violent reformist iconoclasm can be, a metaphor for fundamentalisms everywhere. In a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi’s ahimsa and the significance of the Tibetan struggle for our times, Ananthamurthy reiterated the importance of Gandhi for the American, South African and Burmese struggles. The talk concluded with a story of his meeting (along with the writer Nirmal Verma) with the Dalai Lama, a figure whom he felt continued Gandhi’s practice of non-violence. During the meeting, an ant climbed up the clothing of the Tibetan spiritual leader. Even as he spoke to the visitors, he carefully picked up the ant in his hand and placed it on the floor. In his world there is also space for that ant, Ananthamurthy remarked.

He often came to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and was a dear friend to many of us, bringing with him to our workshops, the vachanas of Allama and Basava, the world of bhakti and the bhashas . The crisis of the Indian bhashas weighed heavily on him and he spoke on one occasion of how Kannada had been rendered to the domestic space in his lifetime. This year, in July, he was to attend a conference on Metaphysics and Politics hosted by the Backwaters Collective in Kochi, supported by the Narayana Guru Foundation, but could not make it. This is an annual event that he and Ashis Nandy have been promoting, which is a very special space for reflection on conceptions of ultimate truth without losing sight of the realities of politics and society.

I had initially circulated a note on Ananthamurthy to a group of friends. This is what Mukund Lath wrote:

“The story of Shankar and the Chandal is well known. Obviously, if atma is brahma, not only untouchability but any non-inclusive attitude toward man — towards living beings as such — makes no sense. But unfortunately Shankar’s atma-darshan is quite divorced from his ideas about how man should live, the institutions he should build. In these matters he falls back on the dharma of the Smritis. This is irrational. It is, in fact, contradictory to the spirit of his tattva-drsti . What is true of Shankar is true of many of our deepest spiritual thinkers, advaitis or dvaitis , who refused to follow the implications of their deepest understanding of man. Unlike Gandhi, they could not think about man and his life in the world, beyond the dharmasastras . Ananthamurthy was among those rare sensitive souls, poets, writers, who could not only see through the contradiction, but feel it in his very bones. With Ananthamurthy, this feeling, this sensitivity, could be seen in him also as a deep man of action. One could feel that his authority — his sense of true adhikara — was inspired by it. This is how I remember him.”

(Shail Mayaram is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)


>>The article, “The mind and metaphors of U.R. Ananthamurthy” (Sept. 1, 2014, Comment page) said that Girish Karnad played the role of Naranappa in the movie 'Samskara'. This is not correct. Girish Karnad played the role of Praneshacharya, the head of the village.

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