The bravest act of my writing career — braver by far than attacking Arundhati Roy — was to suggest in the pages of this newspaper that a Kannada writer bore comparison with Rabindranath Tagore. I made the claim in 1995, and took care not to visit Calcutta for some time thereafter. But now that seven years have passed, I make so bold as to revive it. An excuse is at hand.
The man’s name was Shivarama Karanth, and he was born exactly a hundred years ago, on October 10, 1902. He was the pioneer of the modern Kannada novel, a noted playwright, a dancer and choreographer, an encyclopaediast, social reformer, patriot and educationist. The range of his achievements bears comparison with Tagore’s. So, more intriguingly, does the pattern of his life, and the choice of his particular passions. Consider the following:
As a boy, Shivarama Karanth’s “attitude to studies was one of disinterest”. He dropped out of college without taking a degree. As he put it, “I did not have to experience the indigestion of high marks.” His university, like Tagore’s, was the university of life.
Growing up, Karanth was unimpressed by orthodox Hinduism. His Brahmin background he early and decisively rejected. He was disenchanted by his visits to Kashi and Prayag, places he found crowded, dirty, and full of grasping priests and pandas. Notably, the one holy place which “gave satisfaction and was not culturally jarring was Dakshineshwar…I went to the Panchavati garden. That was the field of the Paramhansa’s spiritual exertions. My feelings for Nature and my reverence for the sage led me to find more peace there than I did at Brindavan”.
While turned off by faith and studies, Karanth was enchanted by the arts. He was gripped by the travelling theatre companies that came to his neck of rural Karnataka — these were the southern equivalents of the Bengali jatras. Like the poet, he taught himself music. The process of self-training Karanth later described with a characteristic wryness: “It was a fellow student who taught me to shriek, to shriek in some recognizable raga…There was an open space near our house called naribena (jackal field). I used to go there at dawn and late at night to do my screaming…Once a jackal came within ten yards of me and looked at me as if to throw a challenge. I am not joking; it did happen. To this day I feel that music-learners should find a place beyond the town limits.” Eventually, Karanth became quite accomplished, not merely as a singer, but also as a connoisseur and composer. His great work for Yakshagana, the traditional dance-drama of the west coast, was helped immeasurably by the musical skills and innovations he brought to it. Some of the most attractive and sensitively delineated characters in his fiction are musicians and music teachers.
Like Tagore, Karanth wrote as much for the young as for adults. Generations of Kannada schoolchildren grew up on primers written by him. And he took care to have these well illustrated: the painter he chose for the purpose being K.K. Hebbar, in his respect the exact Kannada equivalent of Nandalal Bose.
Like Tagore, again, Karanth was an environmentalist before the time of environmentalism. He, too, was made by the gorgeous landscapes in which he was reared. “I am in love with my region, and dote on its landscape,” he once wrote. “I could not understand why such a green stretch of land was made so grey in books of geography…The beach at Karwar would enslave anyone. The crowning glory of Malnad are the Jog Falls. I have not kept count of the number of times I have visited it. The gorge and the precipice are unfailingly alluring. I have sat, soaked, eaten and slept on the banks of the Sharavati, and romped on the sand. I have loved the violet-coloured moss on the boulders there.”
In the Fifties, Karanth worked for the plantation and preservation of trees and forests. In the Seventies and Eighties he launched campaigns against polluting industries, destructive dams, and the ultimate threat to human and natural life — the nuclear establishment.
But his ecological sensibilities also found their way into his fiction. The first pages of his superb novel of courtesan life, The Woman of Basrur (Kannada title: Mai Managala Suliyalli), speak of the landscape and of how man has made and unmade it. The town of Basrur had “reservoirs built by the pious of an earlier age. They are fed by the monsoon rains, but in summer they turn yellow — or green, when the moss shows through. And the stone steps around them are in disrepair, looking like the misshapen teeth of the aged”. The river that flowed down the hills and past the town had “palms growing in profusion for miles together on both banks, like unmarried girls lined up to welcome a bridal couple, swaying in the winds, unconscious of their own comeliness”.
Once a thriving port, trading to Portuguese Goa and beyond, the town was now a derelict place. “All the glory that remains in Basrur is the glory of green — the bright green of the tops of palms, the light green of paddy squares which stretch from the outskirts of the town up to the sea, the deep green of the patches of sweet-potato and chilli…, and the still deeper green of the copal trees which stand stately, looking down upon bush and thorn.”
The parallels between the lives continue. Karanth also experienced acute personal sorrow — the death of a beloved child, the suffering of his wife from depression. Karanth too accepted honours from the state and, in a moment of principled anger, returned them. Tagore gave back his knighthood after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. Fifty six years later, Karanth returned his Padma Bhushan in protest against the imposition of the Emergency. As he wrote to the president of India:
“In 1922, I like many others, joined Gandhiji in the Non-Cooperation Movement in order to serve my motherland. I felt I was doing my bit in fighting for the freedom of India.
We all felt happy when freedom came to India in 1947 and our land became a democracy. Its Constitution gave me joy. But it was not to last long. As years passed, the Fundamental Rights assured to the people were removed bit by bit, through amendments, negating the assurance given by the very leaders who took oaths to maintain them…
Today, at the age of 74, I hang my head in shame at the turn of events. I don’t believe that a single soul has a right to bypass human freedoms under any cloak.
Though for decades I have refrained from active politics, I feel impelled to protest against such indignities done to the people of India. As such, to calm my own conscience at least, I feel impelled to surrender the title to your Government.
May truth prevail over untruth.”
Both Tagore and Karanth travelled widely abroad and wrote about their experiences. (One had family money and generous patrons, the other did what he could with a “lean purse”.) Both were always experimenting with new ideas, new careers. All their geese did not turn out to be swans. Where Tagore failed or exceeded himself is for the Bengalis to say. But of Karanth it can be safely said that he was a lousy painter and a worse film-maker. He made what is possibly the first Kannada feature film, in the Thirties — fortunately perhaps, the cans of the film perished in a fire at the end of the shooting. Years later he made another feature. A younger Kannada writer who otherwise reveres Karanth and his works told me simply that it was a “horrible film — horrible”. Apparently, Karanth would shout “action”, and turn his eyes away from the shot. He would call “stop” when he felt the dialogue had run its course.
When, in the pages of this newspaper, I compared Tagore to Karanth, I though I was being novel. But then H. Y. Sharada Prasad alerted me to the fact that another writer had long ago made the same claim. As it happens, this writer was a Bengali, and a rather learned one — Suniti Kumar Chatterji. However, as Sharada Prasad points out, while the two men were alike in the many-sidedness of their genius, they differed in one respect. “There was a grandeur about both, but Tagore was the sage, a modern-day rishi, a man who gathered disciples around him and relished his title of Gurudev. Karanth remained a fierce individual, a lone tusker who sought no followers, built no sect or ism or institution, and spurned the role of a preceptor.”
Recalling his student years, Karanth wrote that his mind then was “full of Swadeshi, social reform and Shantiniketan”. Where the prescribed texts in college were the works of Kipling, he chose to read Tagore instead. He wrote to C.F. Andrews asking whether he should study in Santiniketan. Andrews encouraged him to go, but his father vetoed the idea, apparently on the grounds that Bengali Brahmins were so degraded that they even ate fish. A peculiar reason, but perhaps in the end we should be grateful that Karanth did not go to Bolpur. For he might have fallen fatally under the spell of Tagore, to become a faithful disciple instead of what he became unaided: his own man.