Perhaps because I was a child when we moved to Dharwar in 1945, I had no sense of the turbulence and struggle of the freedom movement, much less the bloodbath that followed. For us children it was a magical time, a time of innocence and serenity, and I have checked this with my friends of the time who, like me, are now in their late seventies. I woke to the strains of Carnatic music wafting from the neighbour’s house, rushed to morning Mass to intone Gregorian chant and in later years to listen to Hindustani classical sung at Karnatak College by a niece of Gangubai Hangal. When I look back, I often think that the greatest gift in my life was my mother’s move to Dharwar. The town, then a part of Bombay Presidency, was well known as a centre for education, but the crucial factor was that the sale of alcohol was prohibited. The law was observed strictly, she had heard – she hoped this would contain her husband. She could not have known that the exposure to this quietly vibrant society would deepen the sensibilities of her seven children, nor that the Dharwar pedha would be a sort of Proustian Madeleine.
Most of us from Dharwar are often asked what makes it special, why has this small town been the cradle of so many renowned musicians, and writers. How is it that the musical tradition is alive and thriving there, as is Kannada literature. Perhaps the tradition has something to do with its location: almost a hill station, cool and green, situated en route to great kingdoms in the north and south, where artists found a home to rest on their journey. And some stayed on. “Perhaps it is the oxygen, if you went at a height you could only see trees. Maybe the oxygen level was good for vocal chords to develop, who knows,” said the late Vasant Karnad, violinist, music critic and brother of writer-actor-director Girish Karnad.
Centre of excellence
The population of Dharwar was unusual. Never an industrial town like Hubli, it developed as a centre of excellence for education catering to the needs of North Karnataka. The word “Dharwar” (Dharwad now) means a place of rest in a long travel; it could also mean a small habitation. For centuries, Dharwar acted as a gateway between the western mountains and the plains, and hence was a natural resting place for travellers. Seven hillocks, seven tanks, and seven villages constituted the old township. There seems to have been a natural connection between Goa and Dharwar, since in ancient times Dharwar was capital of Halasigenado, a region jointly ruled by the Kadamba king of Goa, Jayakeshi, and his queen Mailaladevi.
Dharwar’s importance as a trading centre did not diminish even during Mughal and Peshwa times. Royal musicians from the Mughal court at Agra and those from the courts of the Scindias of Gwalior were regularly invited to the court of Mysore. Dharwar was the place to rest, recover, sing all night and then move on. Stories are recounted with awe and a sense of participation in a special history: “Ustad Abdul Karim Khan was a frequent visitor. He would stay with his brother and taught his most famous disciple Sawai Gandharva, the legend who was guru to Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi and Basavaraj Rajguru.”
The layout of the modern town came with the British who were enticed by its natural beauty and pleasant climate. They developed it as a camp for hunting tigers in the thick forests surrounding the town. Later, as it became the district headquarters, it drew an educated class from various communities, including Goans, to Karnatak College, founded in 1917 and staffed by an elite class from the Indian Educational Service. Among them were two Goans, Prof. Francisco Correia Afonso and Prof. Armando Menezes, who retired as Principals in Dharwar. I was a student of Prof. Menezes during my Master’s degree, and he was the Principal when I began to lecture in Karnatak College soon after.
As a student of English literature with friends who studied Sanskrit and Kannada, I was drawn into the milieu of classical and Kannada literature not least because the head of the English department and Principal, VK Gokak, was a well-known Kannada poet, and our most charismatic teacher, Professor VM Inamdar, was a Kannada novelist. We had to rush to find a sitting place in a classroom that held over 150 students. Many more scrambled for standing room. They trooped in from their science labs only to listen to Inamdar read Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, affecting, compelling and unforgettable. There was KJ Shah, professor of philosophy, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge and rumoured to have been close to Iris Murdoch. We gatecrashed, none of us students of philosophy.
Literary Dharwar has not been slow to follow its musical tradition. The house of GB Joshi, the uncle of Bhimsen Joshi, was the centre of artistic activity. He was one of the most acclaimed Karnataka’s playwrights. But more importantly, he founded the iconic publishing house Manohar Grantha Mala, which was at the forefront during the evolution of Kannada Literature. Among my contemporaries, apart from Girish Karnad, there is Shashi Deshpande, a neighbour, whose father Adya Rangacharya, head of the department of Sanskrit was a renowned dramatist. Shashi and I used to walk to school in the shade of the tamarind trees, stepping in and out of gutters to find tamarind we could chew. To my great surprise and pleasure, Shrinivas Vaidya, a classmate in my English Honours class, has emerged as a writer after a lifetime spent as a banker. His essays and sketches set in the Dharwar of his youth narrate with humour and irony little incidents experienced, and his novel, which won the Sahitya Akademi award, recreates the social and political upheavals in a village between 1853 and 1947, as seen through the eyes of a village elder. Shrinivas wrote a long review of my book Goa: A Daughter’s Story for a Kannada readership.
I frequently return to Dharwar in memory and in conversation with family and friends. Travelling back to revisit one’s beloved sites can be heartbreaking. On a recent trip to deliver the Armando Menezes Memorial Lecture at the Karnatak University, my sister and I went to look for our house, in fact two houses. We could not find the one near the college until we asked a passerby who pointed out two tall structures. Behind them was our little bungalow. The entire garden where we had played, fought, laughed and swung in the shade of a fig tree had been built up. However, the other little cottage, just off the Hubli road, was intact, the garden glowing in the sun.
The crowd of mourners I saw at the funeral of Prof. MM Kalburgi gives me hope that the spirit of Dharwar, its music and the literature it inspires will continue to be sustained. As Girish Karnad , commented at the funeral, what has happened is not Kannada culture.
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