Language Log

The man behind a 9,000-page, eight-volume Kannada dictionary that took 54 years to write

Professor G Venkatasubbiah, at a sprightly 104, is still the man for all Kannada-related linguistic crises.

A couple of years ago, when there was talk of politician ND Tiwari and the result of a certain DNA test, a Kannada newspaper reporting the story found itself unable to come up with a term for “biological son”. It did what writers, translators and students dealing with Kannada-related linguistic crises have done now for decades: it asked Professor G Venkatasubbiah, a man whose name has become synonymous with Kannada usage and lexicography. There wasn’t a precise equivalent, he said, and then went on to suggest a phrase the newspaper could use instead.

Now in his 104th year, GV – known by his initials as teachers often are – is a towering figure in the world of Kannada letters (and, as it happens, words). He’s had a distinguished working life as a college teacher and principal, as an editor, as a translator who has made works by Kabir, Shankaracharya, RL Stevenson and J Krishnamurthi available in Kannada, and as author of a large shelf’s worth of literary history and criticism. His monumental achievement though remains the stewardship of the 54-year-long project which brought into being the Kannada Sahitya Parishat’s Nighanu – an eight-volume, 9,000-page monolingual dictionary.

“It happened this way,” he began, at his austerely appointed home in south Bengaluru. Writers and researchers had long been feeling the need for an authoritative and comprehensive Kannada-Kannada dictionary when the matter came up for discussion in December 1941 at the annual meeting of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat. The Parishat, a non-profit that serves to promote Kannada, resolved to create such a dictionary. Their model was to be the Oxford English Dictionary, in part because the “historical principles” approach, where the evolution of word meanings is traced, was appropriate for a language as old as Kannada. Also because, GV said, “It was the best dictionary. It is still the best dictionary.”

GV and his classmates at Yuvaraja College in Mysore. Credit: srikanta-sastri.org/Wikimedia commons [Licensed under CC0]
GV and his classmates at Yuvaraja College in Mysore. Credit: srikanta-sastri.org/Wikimedia commons [Licensed under CC0]

The committee in charge was headed by Professor AR Krishnashastry, a scholar and polyglot who counted Pali, German and self-taught Bengali among his languages. After a couple of years of administrative preparation, a dictionary office came up at the Kannada Sahitya Parishat in early 1944.

“Unfortunately, no linguistic survey had been done in Kannada,” GV said. Words would have to be gathered from written sources. The editors identified 903 (later expanded to 1,750) works of literature from different periods – the 10th century Pampa and Ranna, the 15th century Kumaravyasa, the 17th century Lakshmisha. They chose works of contemporary stalwarts such as KV Puttappa, Shivaram Karanth and others, making sure that different parts of the state were represented: “We wanted to collect words from Udupi, from Raichur, from Mysore, from Madikeri.” Then, there were words from nearly 10,000 Kannada inscriptions dating from the 4th century to the 18th century, and of course, words from all previously existing Kannada dictionaries.

The editors wrote letters to scholars across the state asking for help. Seventy-three agreed to participate and were assigned books to trawl for words. One of them was GV, who would go on to become the chief editor of the dictionary.

Wordy arguments

The fundamental unit of dictionary composition in this case was the slip – an A5 piece of paper dedicated to a single word. A scholar created a slip when he or she encountered a word fit for inclusion, and wrote down quotations that used the word, the source text and period, and the word’s meaning. “A huge number, around 5 to 6 lakh slips, were collected,” said GV.

Each slip would eventually be discussed by the editorial committee in Bangalore to arrive at the word’s meanings and to choose examples of its use. “Supposing a word has three or four meanings, for each meaning three quotations were given, and in order of time. Say: 10th century, 11th century, and 13th century,” said GV.

These meetings seem to have had their share of wordy arguments. “In every meeting one or two words...” GV trailed off. He recounted that one of the editors, with an affinity for Persian-sounding words, had made a slip for khubhuki. “We discussed it for one hour,” said GV of their attempts to determine if it was a word at all. The quotation on the slip began with the proposed word, but when the editorial committee finally went back to the source, they saw that it read “aa khubhuki” which in Kannada could mean “that khubhuki”, but from the context it looked like the break had been introduced during typesetting. The word was aakhubhuki, a compound word for the feminine of rat-eater (it should be noted here that the source was a telling of the Panchatantra).

“They began to laugh,” said GV.

Then, there was chadurarasa, which GV argued could not be a word because chadura – clever or intelligent – could not be a rasa. After a discussion lasting three days, they concluded the word was a wrongly-printed chadurasa – four-sided – from a particularly sweet vachana that (roughly) goes: “A block of jaggery is square, but tell me what shape has sweetness?”

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Sometimes they encountered a word whose meaning no one around seemed to know. One was beṭṭe, found in the work of KV Puttappa, generally regarded the greatest Kannada writer of the 20th century. “I wrote a letter to him,” said GV, asking “what is the meaning of this?” Puttappa replied saying that beṭṭe was a kind of fish. He added: “It is good to eat.” GV said, laughing, “To prick me – since I don’t eat.”

It took around 10 years to collect words and another three to arrange them in alphabetical order before the writing of the dictionary could begin in earnest.

GV’s initial training in lexicography came in the early years of the project. Professor Krishnashastry saw that he had a flair for the work and offered to teach him. At the time, GV was working as a lecturer at Vijaya College, Bangalore. They met on weekends and in the early mornings to study the Nighanṭu – a glossary of obscure words from Vedic Sanskrit – and the Nirukta, a 5th century BCE commentary on the Nighanṭu that deals in part with how to deduce the meanings of words from their roots.

How are these texts relevant to a Kannada dictionary modelled on the OED? “A lot of Sanskrit is necessary for developing a Kannada dictionary,” GV said. He explained that Kannada uses both Dravidian and Sanskrit words, and Kannada poets down the ages have been influenced by Sanskrit poetics, all of which make a grounding in the language and its etymology useful.

GV recalled Professor Krishnashastry telling him after work on the dictionary had begun: “This will not be finished during my lifetime. You are young. It is possible that it may be finished in your time.” Professor Krishnashastry died in 1968. The first volume of the dictionary was printed in 1970. The eighth and final volume appeared in 1995. GV participated in the creation of all eight volumes and was chief editor for six of them.

GV has put together other, somewhat specialised, dictionaries: an English to Kannada dictionary prepared with translators in mind, a dictionary of difficult words, a list of words used by the poet Muddanna, and a collection of foreign loan words in Kannada. He has also written widely on lexicography. For 15 years he wrote a column in the Kannada newspaper Prajavani where he answered questions from readers about word usage and meaning. The words that figured in these columns, along with his commentary, have been collected in three volumes that GV called a societal dictionary. Even now, he spends some time updating these books as new editions are released. Asked if he’s working on anything new, he said, “Now, I can’t write much. I read. I have a large library with some books which I have not read, want to read. I am 104 now, so I have to spend my time.”

Professor G Venkatasubbaiah being felicitated by LK Advani in Bengaluru in 2012. Credit: Credit: Rkkrupa/Wikimedia commons [Licensed under CC BY 1.0]
Professor G Venkatasubbaiah being felicitated by LK Advani in Bengaluru in 2012. Credit: Credit: Rkkrupa/Wikimedia commons [Licensed under CC BY 1.0]

A few days before our meeting he presided over the release of a collection of poems, and he read one of them out to me with evident relish, pausing to point out a worrying recent tendency among writers to elide vowels.

But languages keep changing, and it is a matter of concern to GV that the dictionary isn’t. Work on the dictionary stopped after the last volume was published in 1995. “It has never been updated,” said GV. “It is first-class work, but it requires revision and addition.” For decades now, GV has been advocating a linguistic survey of Kannada-speaking areas. This is because the dictionary at present only contains words from written sources, and not all Kannada speakers are represented in the language’s writing. Then, there is a constant exchange between Kannada and surrounding languages such as Tamil, Telugu and Marathi. “New words are being coined,” he said. “For example, these days they are using the word kirik.” The word evokes general roguery and its complications, similar to the Bambaiyya jhol, and is the last thing some of us would expect to hear from a centenarian Padmashree recipient, and not least because “it is not in our dictionary”. Nor for that matter is the phrase nettara nenu, meaning “blood relation” and proposed by GV in place of “biological son”.

For all the effort in recent decades that has gone into asserting Kannada identity – from resentful stone-hurling to lobbying for classical language status – there does not seem to be much concern for the most comprehensive store of Kannada words, the distillate of its long history and literature. The dictionary has not been digitised even, something that would make it easier to use as well as update. The work of two generations of scholars on the dictionary was made possible by a state government willing to fund the initiative. Now, GV said, “Politically, no one is interested.” His offers over the years to train a group of lexicographers to continue work on the dictionary have not been taken up. Occasionally there are assurances that the effort will be revived – most recently from the chief minister of Karnataka on GV’s hundredth birthday. But nothing has come of them. The dictionary has made it to a second, unrevised edition. GV said, “It may not be printed again. It becomes old.”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.