Two friends recently praised me for my ‘bravery’: one when I suggested that the Congress should look beyond the dynasty; another when I called Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri stooges of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. In truth, both were rather ordinary and obvious things to say, requiring neither special knowledge nor exceptional courage. Far braver was the claim that I made some years ago in the columns of The Telegraph, to the effect that a certain Kota Shivaram Karanth was arguably as great an Indian as Rabindranath Tagore.
Karanth had as many careers as Tagore — a theme I shall return to — and was equally charismatic in person. When the Bard of Bengal visited China in 1924, the Peking and Tientsin Times wrote: “In his physical appearance — his tall spare form, his ample gray hair and beard, his olive complexion, his almost Semitic features; in his carriage — slow, deliberate, dignified, in his voice, look and manners — gentle, sweet, dreamy and withal spiritual; in his dress — long flowing robe, skull cap, Chinese shoes (the one jarring element of his Western pince-nez excepted); in all these things is fulfilled our traditional conception of the oriental seer and patriarch.”
The physical persona of Shivaram Karanth likewise exuded character—and charisma. Tagore liked to sit with a circle of worshippers around him; Karanth preferred to speak standing. He was of medium height, beautifully proportioned, and always erect. At least in the years I saw and heard him, Karanth wore white; a white dhoti and white kurta, spotless and superbly starched. The hair was white too, and brushed back; and there was also a trim white moustache. Karanth could give speeches in more languages than Tagore; he could hold a note as well as him; and he could dance too.
I met Shivaram Karanth twice. Once in 1989, in his home in the village of Saligrama; a second time, five years later, in the town of Ranibennur, at an environmental meeting where he and I were both speakers. I also saw him once in Bangalore, when he had come to inaugurate a scientific convention. But I knew him far better through his work. I had witnessed, at first hand, his influence on the environmental movement in Karnataka and beyond. I do not know Kannada, but had read, in translation, some of his best novels (such as Choma’s Drum and The Woman of Basrur), his autobiography Ten Faces of a Crazy Mind, as well as critical studies about his writing.
The most emphatic evidence of Karanth’s greatness, however, came in conversations about him. Visiting that extraordinary hub of Kannada culture, Heggodu, I learnt how its actors and directors had been inspired by Karanth (appropriately, the auditorium was named after him). In Bangalore, the novelist U.R. Anantha Murthy and the actor-playwright Girish Karnad told me of his transformative influence on Kannada literature. In New Delhi, the learned and wise critic H.Y. Sharada Prasad explained how Karanth helped revive and modernize the dance-drama known as Yakshagana. Activists told me of Karanth’s role in initiating the movement to save the Western Ghats; educators about his work in popular science. Younger film-makers, essayists, poets and short-story writers all indicated a profound debt to his work.
At the time of Shivaram Karanth’s death in 1997, I had a very clear idea of his genius, which I celebrated in a series of columns written at the time. Recently, however, I have begun thinking of Karanth again. A friend gifted me a wooden bust of him; painted black, it reminded me, nonetheless, of the magnificent white-haired man in his shining white clothes. Meanwhile, in the course of some other research, I came across two articles on Karanth that I had not previously seen. These were published in a weekly magazine (now defunct) called MysIndia.
On October 10, 1962, Karanth turned 60. A few weeks later, in its issue of December 2, 1962, MysIndia printed an article entitled “Shivaram Karanth comes to town”. Karanth had brought his Yakshagana troupe for a performance in Bangalore. At a press conference, he was introduced with the sobriquet, suprasiddha (of which an English translation could be “greatly venerated”). Karanth remarked that the use of that dread term made him feel like a “superceded one”.
A reporter then asked Karanth about the various Akademies — Sahitya, Sangeet Natak, Lalit Kala — set up by the Union government. He replied, “Close them.” Asked to expand on this laconic statement, Karanth said that the State should keep away from literary or artistic matters. “The way committees are packed with favourites,” he remarked, “the way committee members unblushingly vote awards for themselves, well, it is sickening. The State should mind its own affairs.” Karanth also felt that the State should keep out of educational pedagogy. “The idea that patriotism could be instilled in the mind of children through textbooks,” he said, “was fraught with danger.” The colossus then recalled his early experiences as an editor. The contributions that came his way “were mostly unprintable; sometimes there arrived a few which were worthy to print. Alas, they later turned out to be stolen goods.”
Writing about the press conference for MysIndia was a critic named C.H. Prahlada Rao. To call Karanth an “institution”, he wrote, “would be to be guilty of a cliché. Karanth is an epitome of many lives, each rich and beautiful… Kannadigas are yet to realize the epic proportions of Karanth’s one man show, not in one field but in many.”
Three months later, MysIndia carried an anonymous review of a 60th birthday tribute to Karanth containing essays in Kannada and in English. One contribution focused on Karanth’s precocious environmentalism. The writer, D.B. Kulkarni, said (in the reviewer’s translation), “Karanth seems to converse with birds and flowers in their language of silence. The forest exercises an irresistible fascination on him.” Born and raised in the shadow of the Western Ghats, Karanth was “a child of unending greenery”, who “complains that he cannot bear the scorching sun of Bijapur and Bellary.” Next only to Karanth’s love of nature, was his love of children: “For him they are flowers and fruits. You can win him over to any cause in the name of children.”
Another contributor to this birthday bouquet was Karanth’s friend and translator, H.Y. Sharada Prasad. The roots of his genius, argued Sharada Prasad, lay in “timely escape from university education [which] saved him from scholasticism and received theory”. Thereafter, Karanth “protected himself from the temptation of growing respectable, which would have prevented him from seeing and saying all he has done without caring for what he is thought of”.
These appreciations were published when Shivarama Karanth turned 60, the age when government servants retire and good Hindus retreat to the forest. When I met Karanth 30 years later, however, he had still not allowed himself to be superceded. He remained extremely active, travelling around Karnataka in an Ambassador car (naturally, coloured white), writing and speaking on literary, scientific and social matters. At one of his many 90th birthday celebrations (these took place, in staggered form, in every district in Karnataka), Karanth even put on his dancing attire and performed.
I am now middle-aged, when one begins to judge one’s insignificant life in the context of the remarkable lives one has studied or read about. And thus, with every passing year, the conviction grows that a fruitful way to reckon with Rabindranath Tagore’s genius is to view him as the Bengali Karanth.