Writers in Kannada have won seven Jnanpith awards, a record equalled only by one other language, Hindi. But then there are many more speakers of Hindi. And of the seven Kannada awardees three did not even grow up speaking that language. Thus D. R. Bendre’s mother tongue was Marathi. Masti Venkateswara Iyengar’s first language was Tamil. Girish Karnad spoke Konkani to his parents. And of the four authentically ‘Kannadiga’ winners, two, V. K. Gokak and U. R. Anantha Murty, were by profession teachers of English. Growing up on the West Coast, Shivarama Karanth most likely heard, and spoke, as much Tulu and Konkani as he did Kannada. Of all the Kannada Jnanpith winners, only the poet K. V. Puttappa (Kuvempu) spoke the language in the home, in the street, and in the classroom as well.
What is true of language is true of other spheres too. Such as cricket. Next only to Bombay, Karnataka has made the greatest contribution to Indian cricket in the modern era. And it has done so without being chauvinistic. Thus the Secretary of the Karnataka State Cricket Association is a Gujarati (Brijesh Patel). The captain of the state side is a Marathi speaker (Rahul Dravid). The chief selector, and till lately the manager, is a Dakhani-speaking Muslim (Syed Kirmani). Many of the finest cricketers produced by the state have been Tamils and Anglo-Indians. And unquestionably the greatest cricket coach of Karnataka was a Parsi, K. K. Tarapore, whose wards included Kirmani, Dravid, Sadanand Viswanath and Roger Binny. Never were these players treated as alien by the likes of Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, G. R. Viswanath, Kumble, and Srinath—the native-born cricketers of the state.
In the thirty years that I have followed Karnataka cricket, I have not known it to be tainted by even a whiff of parochialism. The dressing rooms of the Bombay and Tamil Nadu sides have been known to be cold to the ‘outsider’, to the cricketer who did not speak the local tongue. Not so the dressing room of the Karnataka cricket team.
Just as one does not have to be a Hindu to be a patriotic Indian, one does not have to be a speaker of Kannada to count as a honoured resident of Karnataka. Just as Indian nationalism, at its best, was never xenophobic, the best among the Kannadigas have been open to influences from outside. This is not to say that they are not proud of their own culture, lovingly elaborated over the centuries. In the west of the state was developed the still vibrant tradition of dance-drama known as Yakshagana. In the north of the state are some superb Hindu temples, as at Aihole and Pattadakal, some fine illustrations of Islamic architecture, such as the Gol Gumbaz at Bijapur, and, above all, the great medieval city of Hampi. The south of the state can boast of its jewels too, notably the Hoysala temples at Belur, Halebid, and (my own particular favourite) Somanathapur.
In the realms of art and architecture the state of Karnataka can comfortably hold its own. And in terms of natural beauty it is well endowed. It has a beautiful coastline, dense tropical forests, and a river (the Kaveri) that literally sings to you as it flows. But then other parts of India are lovely too. What marks out Karnataka is its culture of capaciousness, the ability, manifested down the ages, to harmoniously incorporate elements from other parts of India and the world.
Consider the village of Heggodu, in Shimoga district, the home of an extraordinary experiment in the creative arts. Years ago, a farmer from Heggodu named K. V. Subbnanna went to study in Mysore with the poet Kuvempu. After he graduated he returned home, and started a publishing house named Akshara, which came to publish the best Kannada writers. Next he started a theatre school, and a repertory company known as ‘Ninasam’. Then, with the aid of U. R. Anantha Murty, he conceived of an annual cultural workshop, consisting of two weeks of intensive discussion around film, drama, art, literature, and politics.
Held in October, now in its twentieth year, the Heggodu workshop is a remarkable exercise in the democratization of culture. Its participants, chosen through open competition, have included teachers and students, but also carpenters and bricklayers. They come to the village to see films by Ray and Goddard, and discuss books by Fukayama and Said, these introduced by a faculty of eminent critics. Every year the Ninasam repertory performs three plays. One is an original play in Kannada, another a Kannada translation of a play written in another Indian language, a third a translation of a play by a Western playwright. Thus one might see, on successive days, plays by P. Lankesh, Mohan Rakesh, and Anton Chekhov. After these plays are premiered in Heggodu, a bus takes the cast on a trip through the state. Ninasam stages about one hundred and fifty performances annually, in towns big and small, and in villages as well.
The work of Ninasam is only the most vivid illustration of the capacity of the Kannadiga to creatively link his mileu to the wider world. This open-ness is manifest in art, literature, music, and sport. And in the realm of commerce too. Thus the most successful software entrepreneur in Bangalore is a Gujarati Muslim, Azim Premji. He has made his money in Karnataka, and he has spent much of it in Karnataka, by contributing to philanthropic causes such as education and health. There is a lesson here for all of us, but perhaps especially for those who live in Azim Premji’s home state. It is this—chauvinism literally does not pay.
There is, however, one major blot on the Kannadiga reputation for inclusiveness: the anti-Tamil riots of 1991. These were sparked by a dispute over Kaveri waters, a dispute made more messy by the vulgar slanging match engaged in by the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka at the time. That conflict subsided, but the bitter taste it left behind has not entirely dissipated. It is noticeable that despite the large population of Tamils in Karnataka, there has of late been no Tamil in the State Cabinet, although there have been Ministers whose first language is Marathi, Malayalam, or Telugu.
A more melancholy residue of the Kaveri dispute is a statue of the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar, that lies shrouded under covers near Ulsoor Lake. It was completed years ago, but its proposed unveiling coincided with the riots of 1991. Since then, no Mayor of Bangalore or Chief Minister of Karnataka has dared give the go-ahead.
In recent weeks, there has been another unhappy exhibition of Kannada chauvinism—the decision by the State Government, made under pressure from local actors and producers, to delay the release of films made in languages other than Kannada by as many as seven weeks. Sixty theatres in Bangalore have shut down in protest. If the decision stands a challenge in court may be imminent. This partial ban on non-Kannada films is arguably an unfair trade practice; it is unquestionably a violation of the spirit of Indian federalism. One hopes the ban will be swiftly revoked. Like the veiling of Thiruvalluvar, it sits oddly with an otherwise robust culture of capaciousness.