Chandan Gowda (CG): A stereotype of the Kannadigas – as a people with an inferiority complex, and lacking in pride in their language – has been around for some time. A few literary figures also share this view. How do you see this predicament?
UR Ananthamurthy (URA): I see this as unfortunate because I would like all Kannada people to be as proud of Kannada as Bengalis are proud of Bengali, as Tamilians are proud of Tamil, because in these days when languages are disappearing, Kannada may be taken over by something else.
Languages disappear quickly in this world because of globalisation and the spread of English. Not only Indian languages, even European languages are facing this danger. And so, some effort has to be made to keep your languages intact, because when a language goes, you lose a lot. Tamil has a great, ancient literature, Kannada too has a great, ancient literature. Kannada has a very vibrant modern literature. Kannada has a vibrant theatre.
Kannada should get more prominence in our lives than it does. But no parent wants to send their child to a Kannada school. That could happen anywhere; I’ve heard that it has begun to happen in Bengal. I was surprised.
CG: You have been interested in the issue of morality – how literature is an important bearer of morality. If you were to identify the chief sources of contemporary Kannada morality, what would they be?
URA: We have a very rich source in Kannada. Kannada can produce a Bertrand Russell, anyone in the social sciences, a philosopher of eminence. The Kannada language is good enough for any such attempt today. That is because of some people who have worked in Kannada, in our own times. I’m very proud of the great prose that has been given to me by my predecessors. So, we have produced that kind of an ability, and there is some kind of a Kannada morality in that.
If a child has to get early education in Kannada, there are the great hymns of the dasas that tell you simple moral truths. There are the great twelfth-century Vachanakaras. During the Mandal controversy, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were on fire. Karnataka was not. Why? Because the Vachana movement taught us that caste is an illusion. Hence, the great Vachana poets had made us ready for reservation. You can’t say that of the Hindi heartland.
I’m very nervous that there will come a time when our boys in Thirthahalli will not have read Kuvempu but will have read Jane Austen as a textbook. That may happen in Malnad. That may happen in Dharwar, where they don’t know Bendre but know songs in Hindi and other languages. That may happen because of the influence of the outside world. And we must have some ability to fight it.
This ability comes from two sources. One, if you are a writer, you must do your best writing, your best poetry, your best drama in Kannada. And, second, people should accept it. The second fight is different from the first. The fight to make Kannada acceptable is more cultural. And hence, all universities must strive for it, all Kannada departments have to strive for it.
Long ago, Krishnaraja Wadiyar had this vision when Mysore University was started. Great professors went all over Mysore state talking about their subjects. I remember somebody coming to Thirthahalli when I was young and talking about Darwin in Kannada. And that was one of the ways in which Kannada was empowered during the maharaja’s time. When Kengal Hanumanthaiah became the chief minister of the state, one of the first things he did was to make Kumaravyasa’s Bharata available for two rupees.
We have been very lucky that way. Some of our chief ministers identified themselves with Kannada. We should use English wherever it is absolutely necessary but Kannada should be the official language, and a villager should be able to come to Bangalore and get things done.
I thought of the renaming of Bangalore as an act in that direction. At a public meeting, I said in a little comic spirit, “You should change the name of the town to Bengaluru. That’s how the people call it. Only because the British couldn’t say ‘Bengaluru’, they changed the name.” By learning to say Bengaluru, people will know at least one Kannada word.
There is also something excessive in me. I know that Bangalore exists when you go to the cantonment area. Malleshwaram is Bengaluru but the cantonment is Bangalore. There are several variations of Bangalore. I know that’s the reality. But whatever be the reality, you try to give some power to the people of the state. That is democracy. And hence, Karnataka has to now evolve itself in a democratic manner.
CG: You have used the metaphors of ragi and rice, sthavara and jangama, marga and desi, to understand how Kannada culture has evolved through a constant interplay between the dominant and the dominated at various levels – Sanskrit Kannada, high caste, low caste, the folk and the mainstream. I want you to say a bit more on this because you have talked about these issues for a long time.
URA: Yes, I’ve talked about this for a long time. I have developed it in my way of thinking. It was there in Pampa. He talks about marga which is Sanskrit, desi which is the indigenous. He says that if you write in Kannada, with the proper mixture of marga and desi, you produce a great style. That is true even today. When I write, the marga and desi have to come together. This concerns style and content. And the other metaphors are about ideas.
Kanakadasa’s story about ragi and rice is a great story. Rice and ragi come into conflict. Rice says, “You are just dark and you are useless. Nobody uses you for a mantric purpose. Only rice is used.” And ragi takes the complaint to Rama. Rama puts them both in a prison and asks them to come to him after a few days. And then Rama says, “I have now proved who is better. Rice has already become mouldy in prison. But ragi is still fresh.”
In this story, Kanakadasa makes the underdog higher than the dominant. That Kannada produced this story is very important for me. Some say that a version of this story exists in Sanskrit. If that is true, we took it from there and were the first to make it very important in our folk stories.
And the sthavara and jangama relation goes through the entire Vachana literature. The poet Basava says, “Sthavarakke alivuntu, jangamakke alivilla.” It is a great statement. Sthavara is something which is very strongly built. Jangama is something that moves. It was Basava who said, “A dead rabbit can at least be eaten, but a dead king is worthless.” So much contempt for kingship, for rule, for the establishment, was there in that whole movement.
Excerpted with permission from A Life In The World: UR Ananthamurthy in conversation with Chandan Gowda, HarperCollins India.