The Ambivalent Indian

UR Ananthamurthy’s contrarian wisdom

01 August 2016

IN NOVEMBER 2006, Bangalore was officially renamed Bengaluru following a movement spearheaded by the writer UR Ananthamurthy. He had argued for this as part of a wider project of “Kannadization,” by which, he wrote shortly afterwards,“I mean the ability to belong to the world at large even as one is rooted in one’s Kannadaness.” URA, as Ananthamurthy is locally and affectionately known, was shaking his fist at the new-millennium, tech-driven, glass-and-chrome Bangalore, whose shocking prosperity seemed to have inured it to local culture. How much the new name dented this indifference remains an open question. URA admitted it was “a symbolic step,” even while hoping it would lead to a collective change of heart. He was also involved in a long-running and potentially more far-reaching campaign to enhance the presence of Kannada in Karnataka’s school system—a change that has proved much harder to effect than replacing a city’s name. In every instance of public life in the state that hung on the question of where the local should stand in relation to the English-spewing juggernaut of globalisation, URA’s opinion was sought and widely broadcast.

URA’s stature as one of the grandest writers of our era derives from Samskara and Bharathipura, the radically outspoken novels he wrote at the beginning of his career, in the 1960s and 1970s. If those novels about inward-looking critics of inherited tradition had forever altered the landscape of Kannada literature, they also seemed to invest their author with the responsibility of asking what we should do when faced with the vulnerability of those very traditions. URA the writer was long familiar to readers in Karnataka, but he was more prominent in the national media as a loquacious public figure, who held positions such as the presidency of the Sahitya Akademi and chairmanship of the Film and Television Institute of India.

Living in Bangalore since the late 1990s, I first came to know URA as just this—a commentator on most leading issues of the day, a newspaper voice. He never became part of the political establishment, yet his tone could seem, to the new migrant, very similar, in its rhetoric and generalisations, with that of the state. It is only by setting his publicly aired views alongside those in his fiction and essays, as I started to do much later, that I discovered how complex and contrarian his project was. He wanted “Bangalore” to be pronounced the Kannada way even as his writings remind us that this is not an exclusively Kannada city. It is, and has been throughout its modern history, linguistically hybrid: the elite speak one language, maybe two, but a working-class person might know all the four major southern languages, along with some Urdu, Hindi and English. Theatres here screen films in Kannada, English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and more, though the showing of non-Kannada films has been contested in recent times.

Anjum Hasan Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan.