Kannada World, Indian Cosmos

A comprehensive presentation of modern Kannada literature in translation

01 May 2011
<em><strong>Sirigannada:Contemporary Kannada Writings</em></strong> <strong>Edited by Vivek Shanbhag</strong> TRANQUEBAR, 293 PAGES, Rs 295

SIRIGANNADA PRESENTS THE READER, especially the non-Kannada reader, with a wide range of Kannada writing that reflects the concerns, preoccupations and anxieties of writers and critics regarding contemporary Kannada culture. The anthology features short stories, extracts from plays and novels, a couple of poems, an autobiographical narrative and a few essays. What is of great interest is that the pieces in the volume represent the diverse traditions within Kannada culture and literature and, very importantly, also bring the reader face to face with the changes India has been undergoing during the past two decades, widely recognised as the phase of globalisation. In this sense, the anthology—through translation—captures the Kannada world as representative of the Indian cosmos.

The Kannada literary tradition moved into a modernist phase—called Navya in Kannada—more than 50 years ago. The Navya phase generated tremendous intellectual energy by closely interrogating long-held notions of tradition, culture, community life and individual choices. The enormous positive scepticism of the Navya writers continues to be one of the most outstanding features of Kannada literary and cultural traditions and—even after several decades—marks contemporary Kannada consciousness.

There followed a phase during which the specificity of the Dalit experience journeyed into a larger ideological terrain (inspired by Marxist ideas) that dealt with the oppression of all lower castes and marginalised sections of society. This phase is recognised as the Bandaya phase—meaning 'protest'. Bandaya literature is protest literature.

It is imperative to recognise that there also exists a continuous and uninterrupted flow of a feminist consciousness in the Kannada literary tradition. Though not clearly acknowledged by the dominant critical tradition, it was constantly evolving to become a literary force on its own terms, even demanding the construction of a full-fledged feminist theory.

All these echoes, resonances and voices are adequately represented in this volume. Most of the pieces here belong to the past two decades. The promising writers of the younger generation included in this book provide a contrast to the big names of the Navya period such as UR Ananthamurthy, Chandrashekhara Kambara, P Lankesh, KP Poornachandra Tejaswi and Girish Karnad.

Rather than present a chronological and linear account of the literary tradition, which is what the book does, it is far more useful to focus attention on the thematic patterns and ideological concerns that emerge from the works. A conceptual approach opens up to the reader the dualities, contradictions and paradoxes of a culture and a society in transition. The Navya writers argued that the experiences of the individuals and the communities they depicted were not merely consciously held positions that had to be 'stated' in a work of art. On the contrary, it was necessary for the writer to transmute ideas into experiences out of which such positions would emerge. In other words, works of art needed to 'enact' the dilemmas of human beings and not project them as 'objective ideas'.

Several tensions of the contemporary world find expression in these pieces—feudalism; patriarchy; mythical beliefs; the virtual reality of a globalised world; the turmoil of widows in a dehumanised traditional order; the historical location of a mythological world; the existential predicament of a Dalit; the manipulations of an opportunistic, smalltime politician's lackey; and the ideological and moral conflicts of a brutal, hegemonising nation-state.  The works articulate these issues through a wide range of imagery and by employing different kinds of metaphors and symbols only to highlight the complexities of our times. The overlapping of social situations, historical contexts and the reenactment of individual anguish and misery at different junctures point to the continuum in which individuals and communities confront their destinies.

In the short story 'Kamaroopi', UR Ananthamurthy portrays the wily moves of a smart operator in a world of petty politics, revealing its nexus with the worlds of commerce and trade, and underlining the nature of our amoral socio-political order. The manner in which nation-building takes place through an unholy alliance of corrupt politicians and the utterly faceless world of modern business is a telling comment on the nature of our nation-state and the moral bankruptcy of our civil society with its façade of dignity and honour.

P Lankesh in 'Classmate' and Kum Veerabhadrappa in 'The Handshake Episode' attempt to unravel the labyrinths of a decadent feudal order governed by a dehumanising caste system. Even as these short stories deal with the cruelties of the feudal world, they foreground the many subtle ways in which modernity makes its way into that world and weaves a pattern into the feudal fabric. The two stories depict the complex manner in which Indian feudalism undergoes a transformation and how individuals experience a metamorphosis, not through dramatic revolutions, but by means of subversive acts.

A truly modern sensibility is at work in the fiction of Ananthamurthy and Lankesh, which is manifested differently in KP Poornachandra Tejaswi's story, 'An Indentured Spirit'. Adopting a comical mode, Tejaswi contrasts the rational, sceptical attitude of a modern protagonist with the myths and superstitions that prevail in a rural landscape. Tejaswi does not create a simplistic opposition between the two. Instead, in the story, myths and superstitions are used by a crafty old Harijan, Maara, to hoodwink gullible villagers for his own gains. The story—through a distinct modern consciousness—unfolds all the strategies of survival of a so-called primitive and backward world, in no way inferior to those of the modern world. In this, Tejasvi differs from the other Navya writers who were more concerned with urban themes.

The Kannada literary sensibility, in spite of a predominant rational consciousness, has juxtaposed aspects of modernity with several elements of a mythological world. Chandrashekhara Kambara and Girish Karnad are two writers who use myths in an extremely creative manner, historicising them with great sophistication. The fine relationship between myth and history finds full expression in the excerpts from Kambara's Shikara Soorya and Girish Karnad's Agni mattu Male (Fire and the Rain). The Kannada literary tradition offers a mythopoeic imagination that compels us to question the dominant epistemological constructs of Western sociology, anthropology and history.

KP Poornachandra Tejaswi portrays the strategies of survival adopted by a so-called primitive and backward world.

THE INTERIOR SPACES OF WOMEN have always been a major presence in the writings of the modernists. The existential agony that women undergo, their traumatic experiences and their quiet resolve and resilience have long captured the imagination of writers. What is significant is that depicting the woman's predicament has not been the sole prerogative of women writers. Many male writers too have, with remarkable sensitivity and empathy, dealt with the inner world of women. Even though literary critics have overlooked works by and about women in Kannada literature, writers have in fact tended to highlight the female protagonist. Vasudhendra in 'Take Vajee also to Play with you, Please', Sunanda Prakash Kadame in 'Imprints of Little Feet' and Vivek Shanbhag in 'Reason' take us into the different realms of women's experiences—especially of widows who carry all kinds of psychological and social burdens without hope of freeing themselves from their despair and loneliness. These writers construct images and metaphors which add to the rich tradition of capturing social realities through metaphorical means—something the Kannada literary tradition has constantly nurtured.

These three short stories are not mere expressions of pathos and victimhood. In fact, they show readers the unseen and unexplored power of a woman who draws all strength and vitality from her own inner resources. Kadame, in particular, makes it possible for an old woman to transcend the anguish of the present by allowing her to imagine and experience the innocence of childhood without any melodrama or sentimentality. The construction of nostalgia by Kadame is a strong retort to many who believe only in realistic representations and frown upon nostalgia as indulgence.

Vaidehi, the best-known among the women writers of Karnataka, in her story 'Going by Tables and Chairs' blends the literal and the symbolic to create a fascinating story of the world of patriarchs, matriarchs and the emerging consciousness of a younger generation of girls who, through innocent and playful means, challenge patriarchal constructs and try to shape a distinct identity. Vaidehi endearingly narrates the gradual emergence of the new woman.

The narratives about women—by male and female writers—compel the reader to give women's writing greater attention and respect and to even build specific theoretical positions minus patronising attitudes. This collection forces one to shed the concessive gestures often employed when evaluating women's writing in Kannada.

Recent Kannada writing has also engaged with the new patterns of behaviour emerging in individual and community life during the past two decades. Even those individuals strongly rooted in their own local cultures find it compellingly necessary to reexamine their roots and identities when they move into the urban world—the metropolis—for professional reasons. The new awareness that the globalised world gives rise to in displaced individuals and the uncertainties and anxieties it creates in local cultures, which cannot escape its influence, make up the writing of the younger generation. In this anthology, KV Akshara in 'Story within a Story' (excerpted from his play Swayamvaraloka) and Jayant Kaikini in his story 'Tick Tock Buddy' deal with all these phenomena most vividly. The manner in which indigenous forms of life are dragged into alien lifestyles and the subtle ways in which individuals alter their feelings and attitudes towards personal relations and societal ties are captured graphically by these younger writers. In other words, 'hybridity' is what these writers are trying to capture as a concrete experience and not as a mere theoretical proposition. It is through the realms of experience and local cultures that hybridity emerges in the work of the new generation.

The Kannada literary world woke up to the sensation that Dalit writers created through an idiom that was quite unfamiliar to mainstream writers. In the 1970s, writers like Devanur Mahadeva and Siddalingaiah added an important dimension to the Dalit movement which, of course, was embedded in radical activism and engendered several controversies. Siddalingaiah's poetry collection Hole Maadigara Haadu shocked the settled mores of the literary world. He used swear words and terms of abuse that come from the distinct caste/class layers of society whose rage he was trying to articulate in his poetry. The idiom that Siddalingaiah used brought into the Kannada literary tradition a range of expression that was not, in conventional terms, 'literary' or 'poetic'—one could relate it with what 'Black Writing' had achieved in the West.

But over the decades, Dalit expression has evolved enough to move away from its initial phase of fury and aggression and finds its articulation through irony, humour, sarcasm and, more significantly, a deep, meditative, self-reflexive consciousness. The chapter extracted here from Siddalingaiah's autobiography Ooru Keri is illustrative of the fascinating transition Dalit literature has undergone over the decades.

Vaidehi blends the literal and the symbolic in her short story ‘Going by Tables and Chairs’.

Globalisation has created a great divide in perceptions and choices as far as fundamental economic issues are concerned. For the past three decades, India, as a nation-state and a sociocultural entity, has been debating the wisdom of pursing and executing certain notions of 'progress', 'development' and 'growth'. This has created an irreconcilable antagonism between various political groups and communities and each ideological position creates multiple counterpositions and oppositional stances. A firm commitment to justice and equality—coming from genuine socialist centres—has inevitably led to a fierce confrontation with those who believe in the powers of global economy and a centralised world economic order. These economic debates have also created many conflicts over ideas of language, intellectual excellence and cultural autonomy. The debates serve to highlight the deeply contradictory nature of the Indian sociocultural situation. In the essays 'Excellence, an Obsession' and 'The Kannada-English Combat', KV Subbanna and DR Nagaraj, respectively, attempt to come to terms with the acutely paradoxical quality of Indian cultural life and try to open up spaces of reconciliation. These two outstanding intellectuals of our times draw attention to how binary opposites can only enhance the contradictions and deepen the divisive forces at work in our context.

The anthology also includes poetry written by Pratibha Nandakumar, S Manjunath and HS Shivaprakash, all of whom have carved niches for themselves as important poets of contemporary Kannada literature. Nandakumar employs very personal, physical imagery in a daring manner and is recognised for her bold and uninhibited expression. Shivaprakash reinvents the religious and the mystical traditions and recontextualises them without privileging either the past or the present. S Manjunath is important for drawing from various philosophical traditions and shapes his poetic expression by looking upon the past with a contemporary outlook and a modern awareness. However, these poets ought to have been more adequately represented in the anthology.

Abdul Rasheed's story, 'Comrade and Umma' and the extract from Srinivas Vaidya's novel Crossing the Stream are pieces that contextualise—even though they are set in different historical periods—the emergence of centres of political power and authority and the insurrections they give rise to. The two pieces are pointers to the nature of political authority in our times.

Sirigannada is truly remarkable for the range and depth of experience of the entire culture that it tries to present to its readers. The editor, in his brief introduction, acknowledges the difficulties of preparing anthologies of this kind. Nevertheless, Sirigannada does succeed in opening up many of the conflicts, debates and anxieties of our contemporary world.

N Manu Chakravarthy teaches English at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels and has written books in English and Kannada on cinema, music and cultural theory.

Keywords: Kannada Navya Dalit KP Poornachandra Tejaswi Vaidehi anthology