The idea of Karnataka

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U.R. Ananthamurthy is a distinguished Kannada writer and public intellectual. After getting his doctoral degree at the University of Birmingham, he worked as Professor of English at Mysore University. His extensive publications include novels, short stories, poetry and essays in literary and cultural criticism. The Jnanapith Award was conferred on him in 1994 and the Padma Bhushan in 1998. His major works include the novels, Samskara, Bharatipura, Avasthe and Bhava. Presented below are extracts from a conversation with Chandan Gowda.


CG: Is there an idea of Karnataka?

URA: Yes, we have evolved it over a thousand years. Kavirajamarga,1 a work of poetics, refers to the land from Cauvery to Godavari where Kannada is spoken as Kannada desha. It is probably one of the earliest instances of defining a land in terms of a language spoken by a people.

In Mysore state, there was a reluctance to become Karnataka. There was a political fear that Lingayats would outnumber every other caste in a unified Karnataka. Also, the maharaja and his dewans had tried to give Mysore a distinct identity as a modern state. The reluctance was everywhere but in two people: Kuvempu2 and Gopala Gowda,3 both Vokkaligas. Most Vokkaligas I knew were against the idea of forming a unified Karnataka state. They were even reluctant to change the name of Mysore. The state of Karnataka came about because Kengal Hanumanthaiah,4 another Vokkaliga, accepted it.

When we were young and fighting for Karnataka’s unification, Kuvempu had written a famous poem. He was then a teacher in Maharaja’s College, Mysore. Since he was a government servant, the college principal sent him a memo that he shouldn’t speak on political questions about Karnataka. Kuvempu wrote a poem that spoke about a unified Karnataka whose ministerial cabinet included the ancient poets – Pampa, Ranna, Harihara, Shadakshari, and Muddanna.5 It was the writer’s dream to have Karnataka in that sense.

As writers we wanted all our languages to be national languages. We didn’t think of a world market where the presence of many languages is seen not as a richness of culture but a problem. For Narayana Murthy it is a problem, but for Kuvempu it was a blessing. Our idea of the nation was very different; we didn’t accept the European idea of the nation. If Karnataka is not also a centre of a nation, then there is no nation. The nation is multi-centred. Therefore, Tamil Nadu is a reality, Maharashtra is a reality. India is a federal country. When I say that Karnataka exists, I mean that a federal state exists. (We have to decentralize power for the sake of administration too). We have several centres of power in Karnataka, but there is still a Karnataka, in the sense that there was an idea of India in spite of there being many warring states. It isn’t correct to say that the British created India. Karnataka is also an idea.


You’ve said we’ve been evolving for over a thousand years. If you had to abstract a few features that characterize Kannada society, what would they be?

Tolerance of the others’ points of view is like gold, says the author of Kavirajamarga. There is room for different points of view. That’s one very great feature of Karnataka which has evolved over a thousand years. It was also there in Pampa and Kumaravyasa.6

Pampa tries to equate his king, who was Hindu, to Arjuna and writes the Mahabharata with Arjuna as the hero – but in the end, it is not Arjuna, but Karna, who gets all his love. After Karna comes to know he is not a Sutaputra7 and that he is one of the Pandavas, he could have got a kingdom. But Karna says, ‘No, I’ll fight for the Kauravas.’ This moves me. Then there is Bahubali, a Jaina. He fights with his elder brother over a kingdom and wins – suddenly, there is vairagya (abandonment of worldly desire) and he says, ‘I don’t want your kingdom.’ He gives it up. So, certain values – these are spiritual values – have been nurtured from the beginning.

Actually, in Kannada, as also in many other languages, the word for prosperity is subiksha – a condition where alms are available. Who do we give alms to? Not to beggars, but to wandering vairaagis who brought medicine, knowledge, and news of other states. They depended on the bhiksha of the people – if alms were available for such people, those states were said to be prosperous.


What else stands out as distinct Kannada value orientations?

Acceptance of plurality is another. This was true at all times except during the vacana8 period, when the Veerashaivas were after one God. It was a great period but it was an exception because Basava and other Veerashaivas had the passion for one God. The Veerashaiva movement produced excellent poetry but it couldn’t remain like that for a long time because the Veershaivas also became Hindus. Now, quite a few Veerashaivas I know have become devotees of Tirupati. Basava could never have understood a Veerashaiva becoming a devotee of Tirupati, doing vrathas and temple worship etc. As a movement, it stands out in the intensity of its concept of one God. Actually, if you are a bhakta, you have to pass through certain stages and one of the stages is a kind of extremism.


Many vacanas speak of the value of accepting difference.

Yes, that’s at the social level. At the ethical level, they were not extremists. But at the level of realizing bhakti and realizing God, they thought it should be ishta linga (Shiva).


Acceptance of difference and pluralism: what else do you cherish about Karnataka?

Subbanna9 has noted that Kannada has many features of sweekara (acceptance). Its alphabet has 52 letters although they are not all necessary to speak Kannada. It has extra letters, which allows for other languages to enter Kannada. Hence, we borrowed from English, from Persian. Kannada, at one stage, said ‘What else is left in Sanskrit?’ It had taken from Sanskrit whatever it had to take. Kavirajamarga adapted the marga of Dandin and Bhamaha to suit Kannada’s desi. Many English poets have influenced modern Kannada poets, just as many Sanskrit poets had influenced the early Kannada poets – but all of our poets went beyond their influence. Pampa, for instance, thinks he has even gone beyond Kalidasa. We had English and the existentialist writers in our own time. But, Karnataka produced in my time writers of their own strength. The capacity to borrow and still not lose one’s identity: there is no crisis here, no anxiety. There is no anxiety of influence in Kannada.


You noted that Karnataka was one of the many centres of India. You would then like to see Karnataka’s distinctness within its belonging to a larger Indian civilization?

I’m with Kuvempu there: ‘Hail the Daughter of Bharata/Hail Mother Karnataka.’10


Kuvempu’s son, Tejasvi,11 quarrelled with you in the ’70s that only a Vedic mind could comfortably talk about Karnataka as a part of India. Since such a question still lingers, could you say something on this?

I have a Vedic mind (laughs). Because the Vedic dharma is a great compromise between extremes, you know. It isn’t fashionable to say this. But, the Vedic dharma triumphed because it could take in Buddhism, Jainism, and later on, Christianity. The Arya Samaj imbibed Christianity. The great Narayana Guru imbibed the method of the prayer from the Church. It’s on the whole a Vedic mainstream. I’m not afraid to own it up. But what I hate most in the Vedic dharma is the caste system – not so much the caste system, but untouchability. I can even understand the caste system as an arrangement with some pluses for the lower castes and some minuses for the upper castes. Of course, it doesn’t work ideally in practice.


What might you risk losing by looking at Karnataka through a Vedic mind? Aren’t there things you will be unable to accommodate within this imagination?

The Vedic mind is ostensibly Vedic when it accepts the caste system. I’m a Vedic mind in the sense that Kuvempu was a Vedic mind. His greatest inspiration was the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Upanishads. There is a Vedic mind that can be redefined as something dependent on these texts. Like Gandhi was. He again drew from all of them. This isn’t a simple matter, because the Vedic mind is a combination of the sramana and the Vedic traditions. A stream of the sramana has been in it from the Upanishadic times. The sramanas are described in an Upanishad as wanderers with dishevelled hair and red eyes, who believed in karma, and were keen on tapasya (penance). The Vedic mind was more tantric: it wanted to gain more strength through yagna and so on. Those who understand the Vedic mind in that kind of manner do not brush it aside. I don’t brush it aside. It is one of the components of the idea of India.

I have always felt that because of the nature of Indian spirituality in the past, Islam, even with its intense idea of one God, got transformed in India. It produced the great Sufis. Islam in Islamic countries is not as rich as in India: in architecture, in painting, in music. And even in the concept of God, it was much more evolved. Why? Because it had to live with another major religion. This is what Ramu12 believed and I share that belief completely with him. Even Christianity got changed in India. If you go to Kerala, you see how rich its Christianity is.


You have used the metaphors of ragi13 and rice to explain that Karnataka has evolved through a tension between the dominant and dominated cultural forces. How do you see this dynamic playing out in Kannada literature today?

I would say Kuvempu, Pu. Thi. Na, Gokak, Adiga14 – all of them were mainstream writers. Somebody uses more Sanskrit, somebody less. Karnataka is evolving a mainstream Kannada from several Kannadas. Bendre wrote that our Kannada would become what many inner paths brought to it. I write in a mainstream Kannada. Even today, my kind of writing is challenged by somebody from the subordinate classes from a corner of Karnataka with a gift for writing and an experience different from mine. When they write, they create very rich literature. Hence, the ragi-rice conflict – not conflict, it is negotiation – is still there. The ragi-rice relation is not a dichotomous one, but a kind of enriching of each other.


You have often invoked the metaphor of jeernagni (digestive fire) to describe Kannada’s capacity to absorb elements from outside and make it its own. Do you feel the same confidence in Kannada’s capacity for jeernagni even now?

Yes, even now. It is happening in me. I write about world affairs. I can make metaphors not merely from Kannada experiences but from experiences from outside too. In my own time, D.R. Nagaraj tried to stretch Kannada into the other spheres. Before him, all our writers have tried to do this in some way or another.


Your essay, ‘Kannada’s Future’, expresses an anxiety that if a writer doesn’t engage with tradition, it might be difficult to create something living and of eternal value.

My worry is this. Yeats too had this worry: he wanted Irish writers to be European without ceasing to be Irish. The problem is always there. Do you become so Irish that you don’t remain a European or vice-versa? Being forever incomplete is a great idea. Subbanna has an anecdote involving Kalinga Rao’s15 poem, ‘Udayavaagali Namma Kannada Naadu (Let the Kannada Naadu Emerge).’ After Karnataka was formed, someone sang this poem as ‘Udayavaayithu Namma Kannada Nadu (The Kannada Nadu Has Emerged).’ Bendre16 stopped him, ‘You cannot say "emerged", it is always emerging.’ It is something that is forever being made. That is a creative writer’s stance.


In this process of openness, of open self-definition, is there anything you feel excited about as a welcome newness in the present?

I welcome those who question the modern world system in every country. For me, we are going to be truly fertilized if only we are open to a worldwide movement for a new world. There is resistance to the modern world system all over the world. The earth is heating up, that may be one reason. The other is the craving for a simple life. There are many movements all over the world, as you know – it’s there in America, in Europe, many ideas are being generated in painting, in music, in literature – we need to open ourselves to these and not to those theories that allowed Europe to dominate us. I don’t put Marxism in the list of things to be open to. I agree with Lohia that it is the last weapon of Europe against us. Because the kind of development it speaks of will make us semi-Europeans, who are always trying to ape the Europeans: it is a philosophy of catching up. We need something else. We have our Gandhi, we have our own Pampa – if we can take them and include the new thinkers in Europe, who are also disgusted with the modern world system and want to get out of it, then I think there is a continuity of the past in Kannada into the future.


When you suggested to the government that Bangalore be renamed Bengaluru, what did you have in mind?

I wanted to shock the people who had made Bangalore into a brand name. I wanted to fight the brand name. Its importance was seen in the fact that I faced opposition from everywhere in the world. People felt I was being narrow-minded. That indicated how cosmopolitan we have become. I’m not a fool to think that Bangalore will cease to exist if we change its name to Bengaluru. But it’s an indication of the direction where I would like us to go.


In the direction of the new world you just spoke of?

Yes. The new world: a certain resistance to development. We have failed, you know. Look at all the roads now. When they widen the roads, I say have a bicycle track. These are only ideas. But they don’t die; they might come back sometime.


Since you’ve singled out the acceptance of pluralism as a distinctive feature of Kannada culture, does the present BJP government worry you?

Very much. But they don’t worry me because of their Hindutva alone. They are as much slaves of development as are the others. They say they are trying to make Karnataka rich through mining. They are cutting trees to broaden the roads, to make the car owners feel good. Their idea of development is not very different from that of the other political parties. That worries me in all political parties.

But, the BJP in particular worries me because they communalize every issue for short-term gains. For instance, the cow slaughter issue has worried me a lot.17 As long as the cow was an agricultural animal, it was used for ploughing, milk, fertilizers. A farmer with two acres and a bullock and a cart could lead a contented life. The introduction of tractors made the bullocks unimportant and the cow became merely a milk-giving machine. Such a cow is impossible to maintain when it ceases to give milk, and a farmer has to sell it. And now, you can be arrested if cow meat is found in your house and punished for seven years. If they have real courage, a Gandhian kind of courage, let them ban tractors and make the two acres of land and a bullock a viable proposition again, and give up the entire idea of using the new chemicals to grow more food. Let them give up the BT brinjal. The cow is valuable even in its old age for a Muslim agriculturist since its dung is more important for him than its meat. There is no need for an anti-cow slaughter legislation. Why does the BJP do it? They do it in order to create more criminals. It shows their stupidity and their cruelty. They are trying to make one community feel guilty. I am not going against Vedas or this or that when I say this – I think rationally.


How do you read the political situation in Karnataka today?

No political party in Karnataka today gives me hope that it will work for the ideals dear to me and my ancestors. Of all the parties, I might choose Congress only because it has a few sane people at the top and has a history. But even this I would do reluctantly. The other parties have lost their credibility. Elections have become so expensive that my first duty now is to question the democratic procedures. Parliamentary democracy has to be put under a scanner now. Our democracy is not working as democracy at all. There was a time when I felt very happy with Abdul Nazeer Sab18 and his Panchayat Raj policy. That was a golden time for me, just a few years ago. We implemented the reservation policy much more successfully than North India could. There was a bloodbath there but not here because we have the tradition of veerashaiva sharanas who spoke about the poor. We had a different kind of mindset. All that is being destroyed now.

Just today, I read that they are going to have a SEZ in Mangalore. Agricultural land is slowly being converted to industrial land – by the communists, by the congressmen, by the BJP. I oppose it; without much political hope. In a way, you will have to keep the dream alive, like the Buddha did. When all the tribes were destroyed, he tried to keep alive the tribal ideas in his own sangha. Similarly, we have to create pockets of the new world idea in small communities of intellectuals, writers, and thinkers. It isn’t a very happy state to be in.



1. Written in the late 9th Century, A.D., Kavirajamarga, a work of poetics, is considered the first literary work in Kannada. Its author is attributed to be Srivijaya.

2. Kuvempu (1904-2004): a major Kannada novelist and poet.

3. Gopala Gowda (1923-1972): an important socialist leader.

4. K. Hanumanthaiah: a major Congress leader and chief minister of Mysore state (1952-1956).

5. All of these are canonical figures of Kannada literature. Pampa and Ranna were both 10th century Jain poets. Harihara was a 12th century Veerashaiva poet. Shadakshari was a 16th century Veerashaiva poet and Muddana a 19th century poet. While Shadakshari and Muddanna were from the southern and coastal parts of Karnataka respectively, the other poets were from North Karnataka.

6. Kumaravyasa: the 16th century Kannada poet celebrated for his Karnata Bharata Kathamanjari, a rendering of Mahabharata.

7. Sutaputra: son born of a Brahmin mother and a Kshatriya father. Children from such a mixed parent background had a low caste status.

8. Vacanas: free verse poems composed by Veerashaiva saints. The vacana period refers to the period between the 10th and 12th centuries which saw the flourishing of Veerashaivism.

9. K.V. Subbanna (1932-2005): a major Kannada critic and playwright.

10. Lines from ‘Jaya hé Karnataka Maathé’, a poem written by Kuvempu in 1928. This poem was made the official state anthem in Karnataka in 2004.

11. Poornachandra Tejasvi (1938-2007): a major Kannada novelist and short story writer.

12. Ramachandra Gandhi, the philosopher (1937-2007).

13. Ragi: A dark coloured millet grown in the dry regions of South Karnataka.

14. Pu. Thi. Narasimhachar (1905-1998), V.K. Gokak (1909-1992) and Gopalakrishna Adiga (1918-1992) are major literary figures in modern Kannada.

15. P. Kalinga Rao (1914-1981): a popular singer-composer.

16. Da. Ra. Bendre (1896-1981): a major Kannada poet.

17. The BJP government in Karnataka got the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, 2010 passed in the state legislature on 19 March 2010. It is planning to present it in the Legislative Council soon. This bill makes the killing of cows, bulls and buffaloes severely punishable and a cognizable and non-bailable offence.

18. Abdul Nazeer Sab, Minister of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj in the Janata government in the 1980s.