IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Theme South Asian Literature


'Modernity' in Kannada Literature

Besides having the second oldest literature among the living languages of South Asia, Kannada has received the most prestigious all-India literary award, the Jnanpith Award, more times than any other language; but the rest of the world is very slow in according Kannada and Karnataka the recognition they are increasingly receiving in India. Karnataka is home of tradition yet its capital, Bangalore, is the capital of India's booming information technology industry. One can readily understand that while 20th-century Kannada authors continued writing in literary forms that are many centuries old, including verse epics, change had to make itself felt in this society, and that it could not fail to provide material for thought and literary creativity.


When one surveys Kannada literature since 1947, one cannot fail to notice that the world beyond Karnataka's borders scarcely plays a concrete role (except of course in the travelogue, which is a highly productive form in Kannada literature). Only a few authors who live elsewhere (e.g., novelists Yashwant Chittal and Vyasaraya Ballal in Mumbai) present narratives that are set outside Karnataka. India north of Karnataka tends to be mentioned with disdain or indifference, if it is mentioned at all, and the only northern personalities who figure in Kannada literature tend to be those who have acquired an almost mythic, all-Indian aura, like Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. Similarly, pan-Indian political developments receive hardly any attention, except for a dramatic interlude like Indira Gandhi's 'Emergency', which drew some poetic protest.

Modernity is thought of as 'Western' and is seen as either a welcome source of social and cultural change or as a threat to 'Indian culture' (see, for a detailed discussion, Zydenbos 1996)). 'Indianness' is practically always implicitly negatively defined: 'Westernness', its supposed opposite caricature, is 'modern', hence whatever is 'not modern' is 'Indian', and this is always the socio-cultural background of the author in Karnataka. As a result, Kannada authors re-evaluate their own backgrounds. The Pragatisila ('progressive') movement of the 1940s and early 1950s (of which the leading, stylistically refined exponent was Niranjana (1924-1992)) had a politically ideological (Marxist) background; but all later thinking on the subject of modernity focused on aspects of traditional Karnatakan culture and society that immediately affect the manner in which individuals treat each other in concrete, everyday life. The Navya ('modern') movement (which produced numerous leading writers like U.R. Anantha Murthy (1932-), Shantinath Desai (1929-1998), Yashwant Chittal (1928-) i.a.) derived a wealth of inspiration from European existentialist thought and produced stylistically beautiful works, often of great psychological subtlety, in which a probing investigation of the individual and the surrounding culture is given. At the same time there was the lone but remarkably popular voice of S.L. Bhyrappa (1934-), who aggressively asserted a modern religious-cum-nationalist 'Hindu' identity that is purely negative and reactionary in novels that inveigh against marriage outside one's caste, glorify the RSS, and so forth.

However, the Navya style of writing was found to be too individualistic and introspective for the various authors who are collectively called Navyottara or 'post-modern'. Most of these authors show concern about some form of social discrimination or the other, the injustice which they depict in their writings. Three groups in particular deserve special mention: (a) Muslim authors (such as Boluwar Mahamad Kunhi (1952-) and Sara Aboobacker (1937-)) have taken to writing in Kannada in quality and quantity as never before; (b) women writers, among whom Anupama Niranjana (1934-1991) and Vaidehi (1945-), have gained special prominence; (c) Bandaya ('revolt') and Dalita ('downtrodden') writers, who have paid special attention to depicting the evils of casteism in various ways; at present this may be considered the dominant trend in Kannada writing, and among the many authors in this category special mention may be made of critic and fiction writer Baragura Ramachandrappa (1946-) and the innovative prose stylist Devanura Mahadeva (1949-).

What unites all the post-Navya authors is that their demand for socio-cultural change stresses the importance of the individual rather than of the group ­ determined by caste, religion, or gender ­ into which the individual happens to have been born. This marks a clear break with traditional social thinking, in which collectivities were always emphasized at the expense of the individual. It is in this aspect of contemporary Kannada writing more than in any other that we see modernity make itself felt. Traditional categories which society imposes on people are questioned: women increasingly create new roles for themselves; persons from social groups that previously stood outside the literary process now make themselves heard. We may presume that this trend will continue until there has been a significant change towards a society where one has greater scope to give one's own form to one's own life ­ which can take quite some time in a society where the uncertainties of change chase the unconfident majority of people into the fortified structures of communal identities. *

­ Zydenbos, R.J.
The Calf Became An Orphan ­ A study in contemporary Kannada fiction
Pondicherry: Institut Français / École Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1996.

Robert J. Zydenbos is researcher of South Indian literature. He lives in Mysore, India.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Theme South Asian Literature