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REQUIEM TO AN ERA

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By The extreme acts of Rajkumar?s fans, though disturbing, are perhaps the last expression of Kannada nationalism, writes Janaki Nair The author is professor of history, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
  • Published 25.04.06
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The death of Rajkumar in Bangalore signals the end of a long era of cinepolitics in southern India. The lone southern cinepolitician, following the deaths of M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao, Rajkumar?s end came ironically in the 50th anniversary year of the expanded state of Mysore, later called Karnataka.

In many ways, his own career paralleled the career of the state. In 1956, the official state was announced, the map redrawn. Rajkumar had no role in that exercise, but became central to the formation of the ?Kannada nation?. His presence served to fill the void between state and nation in ways that neither the litterateurs (such as Kuvempu or A Na Kru) nor the politicians (such as Kengal Hanumanthaiya or S. Nijalingappa) could accomplish. By moving out of the shadow of the Madras film industry, and bringing the production of Kannada films to the capital city of Bangalore, Rajkumar unwittingly became the figure around which the linguistic state was mobilized, the inaugural moment of a new and expanded phase of Kannada nationalism.

He remained distant, unlike his counterparts, from the hurly burly of legislative politics. He was a reluctant politician, going into ?disguise? when the pressure was on to contest against Indira Gandhi in the historic 1978 Chikmagalur election. His fan following had by this time become considerable, consisting of huge numbers of newly urbanized young men from all parts of Karnataka, who found in him the ideal, and let us note, lower caste, figure, to express their love of the Kannada country and language.

The strength of this fan following became clear during the Gokak agitation of 1982, when there was a statewide demand for the establishment of Kannada as the sole first language in schools. Rajkumar?s entry into that struggle made it an impressive, all-Karnataka affair, though there were signs that the intolerance towards minority languages, already expressed in the Sixties by the likes of Vatal Nagaraj and A Na Kru, would find a new and permanent footing in the Abhimanigala Sanghas.

The second time when Rajkumar directly entered the world of politics was in 1984, when the Ramakrishna Hegde government scrapped the Kannada exam for class IV government employees as a concession to Muslims. The two-day bandh proved far more expensive, and the chastened star retreated into the world of cinema. He was thrust into the political limelight once more by Veerappan?s audacious abduction. This time, the city of Bangalore experienced an explosion of anger by the fans? associations. For the first time, they forced respect for the premier cine icon on a somewhat bewildered population that had long ignored the local language or indeed any knowledge at all of the region and its history.

After 1982, the Rajkumar Abhimanigala Sanghas of Bangalore threw themselves enthusiastically into reterritorializing the city, setting up permanent markers of their right to the city with flag poles and insignia of Kannada Bhuvaneswari. Bangalore also, importantly, became the battleground for the claim on jobs for Kannadigas, or sons of the soil, and crucial gains were wrested in the city?s large public sector units. By this time, there was public acknowledgment of Kannada being a beleaguered language in the state capital. A muscular, and indeed, profoundly masculine, display of threat went a long way in achieving these goals. Vis-?-vis the state, as the recent bout of violence has shown, such threats can and do have effects. A less successful demand has recently been made for reservations for Kannadigas in the burgeoning private sector as well.

Rajkumar neither encouraged, blessed nor necessarily approved of the Abhimanigala Sangha activities. Neither did he entirely delink himself from this realm of politics. Thus they acquired a life of their own, providing a focus for new migrants in the city to maintain a notion of dignity and self-respect. Large cut-outs of Rajkumar may thus dominate the streets, but never was the hero to be seen in an advertisement or participating in an entertainment show for non-resident Kannadigas. Throughout the period of his captivity by Veerappan, fans kept his memory alive through a mixture of acts of penance (such as urulu seve, or rolling on the ground) and threats of violence (like the indefinite closure of cinemas). Meanwhile, in the forest, Rajkumar was engaged in bilingual dialogue with his captor. When he was released from captivity, he staged none of the drama that attended the return of MGR to Madras after his long treatment abroad. The balding, dhoti-clad cinestar purposefully shed his screen glamour.

Following his death, fans (these include several other Kannada groups that may not, strictly speaking, have been Abhimanigala Sanghas) once more enforced their grief on the capital, largely through the threat of violence. Following the experience of 2001, even the disinterested were quick to comply. Large numbers of shrines sprang up around posters of Rajkumar, and were eagerly worshipped or at least tolerated by those nearby. Above all, the state apparatus remained in a state of suspension, as if joining in the mass catharsis.

There was, above all, a sense of genuinely being orphaned, of sudden darkness at noon. For it is likely that the Kannada people will find no other hero of this stature to fill the void that has been created in the unique realm of cinepolitics. In Soviet Russia, China and Vietnam, the embalmed body of the hero long provided (and continues to provide, as in the case of Vietnam) an anchor in a world of bewildering change. The memory of Rajkumar is more brittle, precious to the millions who are confined to the contours of the linguistic state and who yearn to achieve the visibility of Tamil or Hindi on the national scene, and yet remaining unknown to the rest of India except when fans turn violent.

That is why there is something disingenuous about N.R. Narayana Murthy?s claim that he too is a Rajkumar fan (though a shocked and disappointed one). Disingenuous, since he disavows the very style of politics that marks the fandom of the Abhimanigala Sanghas. Neither is the immediate and somewhat defensive response of the chief minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy, to the violence of April 13 an acknowledgement of the political loss that Karnataka has suffered. By terming the violence ?incited?, Kumaraswamy is unable to rise above the parliamentary cretinism of which he is fully a part.

It is equally arrogant and politically shortsighted to exceptionalize the recent events, and view them as a dangerous or bizarre southern pathology, as much of the national press has done. That would be to trivialize what is clearly an important, if disturbing, realm of democratic politics today. The crisis engendered by Rajkumar?s death may well be a symptom of a larger crisis from which Kannada may never recover. It is difficult to predict what institutional form the region?s politics will take. But despite the gulf between them ?in tactics or goals ? Rajkumar and his fans shared a love of the Kannada language that is under siege within the formal boundaries of the state.