History & Culture

Beyond the limits of literary

On the occasion of Kannada Rajyotsava, a study of the complex and varied notions of Kannadaness and Kannada identity in the modern period shows that mainstream Kannada intellectual tradition has steered clear of exclusionist and chauvinistic tendencies

The author of Kavirajamarga (850 C.E) not only drew the contours (boundaries) of Kannada Nādu, but also delineated the nature of the Kannada speaking people. They are such connoisseurs of poetry that without much reading, they have a skilled understanding of it. For Pampa, the archetypal poet of the Kannada tradition Kannadigas were a community given to sacrifice (renunciation) but also to sensual pleasures, to letters, songs and music, living amidst the aromas of a bountiful nature. These cultural memories have held sway over the Kannada imaginary, and have also set up a tradition which has oscillated between the construction of an essentialist Kannada identity and Kannadaness and the mindboggling diversities which continuously challenge such a construction.

Beyond the limits of literary

Identities, especially cultural and linguistic, are Janus faced providing on the one hand coherence, continuity and the glue which can hold together diverse groups each with a distinctive cultural and political history. On the other hand, it can also lead to the invention of the ‘others’ who have to be excluded or seen as the antithesis of one’s identity. A study of the complex and varied notions of Kannadaness and Kannada identity in the modern period shows that mainstream Kannada intellectual tradition has steered clear of exclusionist and chauvinistic tendencies. As the late D.R. Nagaraj pointed out there have been two paradigms of the imagined Kannada identity. One is the liberal, assimilationist and self-confident model which does not need the ‘other’ to define itself. The other ‘anxiety ridden’ model is constantly haunted by the threat of the others to Kannada and Kannada identity. The latter has influenced many Kannada organisations in the public sphere and at times led to violent protests against people of other linguistic states. However, the major Kannada thinkers have rarely subscribed to such restrictive notions of Kannada identity. D.R Nagaraj rightly sees in Alur Venkatarao’s “Karnatakatwada Vikasa” (1957, The Evolution of Karnatakaness), the elucidation of the liberal assimilationist paradigm of Kannadaness.

What should be of great interest to cultural historians is that Alur Venkatarao and the writers of the Navodaya (Kannada Renaissance from late 19th century to about 1940), constructed a liberal and inclusive idea of Kannadaness when Kannada nādu (land) did not exist and Kannada speaking people were scattered over 29 fragments. Kannada was neither the language of administration nor a prestige language and Kannadigas were relegated to the status of second class citizens.

One would expect in such historical circumstances the emergence of a belligerent aggressive notion of Kannada identity. Instead what evolved in the nearly six decade long Karnataka unification movement was a liberal linguistic identity which was always seen as merging with national, Indian identity. The state anthem composed by Kuvempu describes Karnataka as the daughter of mother India. Alur Venkatarao also makes a subtle distinction between Karnataka and Kannada which laid the foundation of the political philosophical tradition which sees Karnataka as larger than Kannada, and Kannadaness as an identity anyone can choose irrespective of his/her first language.

Such multiple ontologies are inevitable, given the long and lived history of pluralism in Karnataka. Kannadaness and Kannada identity are in no way opposed to one’s identity as a first language speaker of Tulu, Beary or a Havyaka dialect. Nor do they try to homogenise the immense diversities of dialects, food styles, lifestyles and local cultures, which constitute Kannada and Karnataka. Such a liberal, pluralist construction of Kannada identity was necessitated by the fact that the greatest of Kannada writers in the Navodaya period themselves lived multilingual lives. For example Bendre’s mother tongue was Marathi, Masti and D.V.G spoke Tamil and Aluru Venkatarao had close links with Marathi and Maharashtra. The other important fact is that Karnataka has been and continues to be a loosely knit federation of many local cultures. Its present status as a modern linguistic state within the federation called India does not affect this primary nature. In retrospect, the successful creation of Karnataka was a massive exercise in ‘welding together many parts’.

It would be naive to argue that the process was seamless and unproblematic like a fairy tale. No. Alongside the idealistic notions of a unified Karnataka, there were also cold political calculations about the future power structure after unification. The historian S. Chandrashekar has analysed how the two dominant castes in Karnataka took opposite views on the unification. There were also vociferous demands that the progressive model state namely Mysore principality should not merge with Karnataka because the other poor backward provinces would be its constituents. However, despite these fault lines, Kannadaness and Kannada identity found increasing acceptance. The creative energy of the Navodaya created a vibrant atmosphere for celebrating Kannada identity. Discovering one’s Kannada identity was also to lay claim to the rich cultural, religious and artistic traditions of Karnataka. Characteristically, Alur Venkatarao’s journey to discover Kannadaness began at Hampi, the seat of the Kannada empire. Kannada literature of the period is strewn with nostalgic returns to the historical past (largely imagined) and also tragic sense of its loss. This is reflected in the historical romances of Galaganatha, which also subscribe to the communalized historiography in which the Muslim kings and marauders are the destroyers of Kannada culture of the past.

B.M. Shri. the doyen of Navodaya, and a self-styled modern individual, seeking to re-energise Kannada by drawing on English literature also shows his affiliation to such communalized historiography. He also did not see any contradiction in his advocacy of Karnataka under the patronage of British rule and loyalty to the Mysore king. B.M. Shri also inaugurated Kannada modernity by advocating a modern Kannada “accessible (even) to Shudras and women”, drawing its sustenance no longer from Sanskrit but from English.

As K. Raghavendra Rao argues, B.M. Shri can be seen as a member of the native elite educated class which was supporting a liberal democratic civil society, in which Kannada was not just a heritage of the past. It viewed Kannada identity as a contemporary phenomenon, D.V.G. also supported such a modern identity, though he himself drew on both the past traditions and western liberalism, paradoxically, DVG supported the demand for two states Mysore and Karnataka.

Beyond the limits of literary

Not much attention has been paid by literary scholars to the huge contribution of popular culture to the construction of Kannada identity. Popular fiction and popular films constructed, circulated and reinforced the notions of Kannadaness, Kannada history and the “Kannada” values of tolerance, urbanity and worship of the family. Rajkumar deserves to be considered a cultural institution giving life to the Kannada heroes of the past, the saints of Karnataka and the modern middleclass Kannada individual through powerful cinematic portrayals. The ‘chaste’ Kannada he spoke in the films is popularly equated to standard Kannada. In many mainstream films, Kannada and Kannadaness obtrusively and unobtrusively make their entry, without much justification. Popular film lyrics, including well-known Kannada poems have created a complex verbal texture for emotions attached to Kannadaness. Surprisingly, with respect to Kannada there seems to be a much freer commerce between the serious and popular literary domains.

A major link of this kind was provided by Kuvempu’s poetry which has Kannada and Kannadaness as its main theme. It is really amazing how Kuvempu has swayed the popular imagination with his poems on Kannada. However, his own poetic career began with poems in English until he was admonished by James Cousins to write in Kannada. He saw English as emancipatory for the Shudras, but then went on to describe English as a demoness and waged many battles for Kannada as medium of instruction. At a deeper level, his two great novels recreate the Kannada cosmos in all its richness.

In the post-Independence phase, Kannadaness has been scrutinised as a contested and conflictual site. Processes of modernisation and globalisation have created the perception of English as a threat to Kannada, a position contested by some dalit and other groups who see English as the language of power and social mobility. Kannada civil society often seems to be split over the issue of medium of instruction. U.R Ananthamurthy, Devanoor Mahadeva and others have argued that only a common school model can remove the inequalities which are behind the adversarial contest between Kannada and English. Urbanisation and diasporic movement of the youth have kindled fears that Kannada may become the language of the kitchen and the backyard (Ananthamurthy) to be spoken by the diasporic youth when they visit their homes like ‘Razakars’ on a holiday (Jayanth Kaikini). Most people in Karnataka see Bengaluru as the dystopia of Kannada where only migrant labourers speak Kannada outside the gated IT/BT communities. Globalisation and severe inequalities it brings, do create threats to Kannada, both real and imaginary. But it would wrong to ignore the creativity with which numerous groups of the new generation are discovering ways of discussing Kannada literary texts from contemporary perspectives. Young writers continue to explore the experiences of the rural small-town life-worlds they have left behind. Increasingly, Kannadaness is being experienced in diverse modes of cultural expression beyond the limits of literary. Kannadaness is being reinvented in innovative ways because the Kannada social worlds have changed more drastically and quietly than ever before.

Poornachandra Tejaswi had argued that in the present, Kannada cannot be saved by slogans but through digital technology which can make the Kannada world accessible to new generations. That it seems to happening is reason enough for hope.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 8:56:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/beyond-the-limits-of-literary/article29840849.ece

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