The blurb and Introduction to the book Growing Up Karanth has several distinguished historians, diplomats, industrialists eulogising the polyglot Shivarama Karanth (1902-1997) for the range of their cultural interests and achievements. The book is written by his three children, varied and distinguished professionals themselves (one a wildlife biologist, another a clinical psychologist, and the third an Odissi dancer). As it is a book written by children (who are now in their seventies), it is expectedly richer from the perspective of an intimate, affectionate portrait, rather than that of a comprehensive survey of a life and milieu.

In Karnataka, Karanth is revered as a writer of many genres – with an astonishing output of forty-five novels, thirty one plays, over two hundred books for children, nine autobiographical writings, thirteen books on fine arts, a Kannada dictionary, nearly twenty popular science books and so on. He won the coveted Jnanpith award in 1977. Beyond the written word, he engaged seriously with film and publishing, and his work with the performative art of Yakshagana is particularly noteworthy. It is this engagement with a totality of art-forms – and his indefatigable effort at publicising, publishing, “nationalising” it (taking it beyond Karnataka) that frequently lead to Karanth being compared to Rabindranath Tagore.

A personal sketch

A book written by his children, none of whom are primarily literary figures, clearly indicates what it cannot do – it is not a critical evaluation of his oeuvre. The charm of the book is rather in the personalised sketching of a life as it unfolded in a rich cultural niche of coastal India: Southern Karnataka has had a long, proud tradition of learning and art. Karanth’s life is emblematic of how distinct, different regions of India emerged from rich particular histories, and negotiated the advent of so many national and world events.

His personal and public life straddled the early inspiration of MK Gandhi, the moment of Independence, the emergence of linguistic states and regional pride, the manners in which traditional arts hosted new cultural movements (the realist novel, non-realist / fabulist Yakshagana), ideas of companionate love that went against arranged, caste-sanctioned marriage, and the over-arching question of tradition and modern citizenship. These debates have been a mainstay since the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

None of these negotiations had simple, predictable consequences. Karanth’s disillusionment with aspects of traditional ritualism took many years to fruition as he negotiated prickly questions of faith with his parents and many siblings, many of whom went on to have distinguished careers in politics, education, and entrepreneurship. Some of these siblings remained personally orthodox, even as they achieved success in the newer careers of engineering or law or politics.

Karanth learned gratefully from many mentors. As in many corners of India in the early decades of the twentieth century, there were rich debates, unlike the received static picture of simple nationalist revolt. Thus, even though attracted by Gandhi in the twenties and thirties, Karanth began to be slowly disenchanted with Gandhi’s financial and anti-industry policies, as well as his views on celibacy and education. Very little of mainstream anti-colonial politics would have helped Karanth navigate his difficulties with livelihood or marriage or fatherhood.

Karanth’s marriage to Leela Alva began on a high note of rebellious idealism. She was of a different caste – ritually lower, but politically more powerful. Further, she had grown up speaking Marathi, while the ancestral family spoke Tulu. And yet, in the spirit of the times, none of this background mattered. For they met when he was her dance teacher, and she noticed his “nimble fingers [cut out] foil, sticking them to create crowns, waistbands, armbands and such other costumes…I was mesmerised…I felt I had to possess those magical hands, forever”. She took the initiative in proposing marriage – it was a quintessentially modern romance for Mangalore in 1936. She continued to study after marriage and stayed in the school hostel.

Later, Leela helped him set up the fabled six-acre patch called Balavana with its menagerie of large animals (sambar, chital, blackbuck). Balavana was initially intended to be a home for orphans who were to be trained in the arts. It was located in a remote, rural wilderness – and again was modelled loosely on Tagore’s Shantiniketan. It had a similar utopian outlook, welcoming students, whether the destitute or the local cultural elites.

Karanth used to work in Mangalore and came home only on weekends. The book has some lovely photos of an uninhibited, youthful Leela striking a dance pose – in light of earlier centuries, this clearly was a time when women were emerging for the first time into public realms, and Leela held her own in the salons and theatre-productions that Balavana made possible. Karanth’s children remember the magic of those times – dance-drama all around, even as many guests sat eating under moonlight by a star-shaped lily pond.

This love story however grew darker. Leela starts experiencing manic and depressive spells, and this leads to great strains in the children’s’ upbringing. A clear break is marked when the Karanths lose their eldest son who was aged twenty-three. Now Balavana’s remote location – its distance from accessible psychiatric service – became an obstacle. Leela’s later years of unravelling are described movingly. Partly in distress at the situation, in the last quarter of his life, Karanth became involved with another woman – this created much controversy. And yet perhaps there is no particular reason to exalt the romance of youth over the emotional turbulence of someone in their seventies.

A rich, large life

Karanth is unusual in that all his life he stayed far from the great urban centres (Bangalore, Mysore, Dharwad) of what became the state of Karnataka. He continued to live in his beloved niche of the southern Western Ghats, looking down over the town and forest, chain-smoking his Charminar. And yet, he maintained strong links with the rest of the country – through travel, long drives and phone calls, through his printing press.

His numerous friends included the revered painter KK Hebbar who contributed paintings and line drawings for his books – the friendship lasted many decades. Other friendships and influences included important cultural figures such as KV Subbanna (theatre) and the litterateurs Ananthamurthy and Poornachandra Tejaswi. Thus, even while ensconced in a seemingly hyper-local milieu (Udupi-Mangalore-Puttue), Karanth helped flatten the world – even in the sixties he was translating Rachel Carson into Kannada, and thus bringing a deep ecological conscience into Kannada literature.

The key to enjoying such books that combine biography ad memoir is not to seek what it does not aspire to do. This book does not possess the detail of Akshaya Mukul’s recently released biography of Karanth’s contemporary Agyeya – and yet, both types of book enrich our understanding of towering literary personalities. If one reads – a tad against the hagiographic grain – one still manages to savour a life and milieu (personal, professional, ecological), lived large and bold, rich in human and artistic emotion, a true window into that long and formative twentieth century.

Growing Up Karanth, K Ullas Karanth, Malavika Kapur, and Kshama Rau, Westland Books.