Shivarama Karanth : A Tribute -The King Elephant of the Southern Forests

The King Elephant of the southern forests roams no more. Shivarama Karanth is dead. He was a legend during his lifetime. He will remain one after death. His great novels, his work for the Yakshagana and his pioneering service to the conservation movement will be his monument.

Even in his ninety-sixth year he had not grown weary of life. His engagement and his quarrels with the world were as keen. He was a little slower on his feet than he had been at his peak but he moved around, spoke and wrote at a pace which would be the envy of a man 40 years younger.

Just a week before he suffered the heart attack that took him away, I had a letter from him in which he discussed plans to visit England next summer with his Yakshagana troupe. A couple of weeks earlier he had written to me analysing what was wrong with the adult literary programmes of the government and bemoaning the absence of interesting books for neo-literates. He was a profuse letter writer and his letters were brief and businesslike. He rarely referred to his health. The only occasions when there was emotion in his letters were when his wife passed away after a painful illness and his son died after an operation.

His last visit to Delhi was in April, when the English version of his book on Yakshagana was reissued. It will be difficult to forget the vigour with which he spoke on the occasion or the gusto with which he sang to demonstrate the musical patterns of that form of theatre. I also recall the spontaneous ease with which he played a three-year-old child, making faces, mimicking animals, cutting jokes and sending him into peals of laughter. He was a great benefactor of children. Successive generations of Kannada children have grown up on the poems and books he wrote specially for them.

He was a man of astounding creativity. His achievement prompted Suniti Kumar Chatterji, the savant, to remark many years ago that Karanth was next only to Rabindranath Tagore in the many sidedness of his genius. 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. Tagore was the quintessential poet. Karanth personified the best of prose values. But both were alike in the importance they attached to truth and reason.

Karanth made a mark as a novelist even in the thirties of this century with his novel chomana dudi, which is a starkly moving story of a landless labourer. Decades later it came to national notice as a prize-winning film. It is for a novel, again, that he won the Jnanpith award. The bulk of his fame rests on the three dozen novels he wrote. He also wrote scores of short stories and plays of daring originality, as well as books of essays, travel, criticism and art history besides encyclopaedias and books of popular science for children and adults.

Every major author creates a world of his own. Karanth’s novels, at least six of which will remain classics of Indian literature, are a grand achievement in their sweep, their intensity, the variety of characters and situations, their faithfulness to the environment and the emotion and experience they embody. He is a vivid and compelling story-teller. Everyone of his novels would make a gripping film. He writes mostly about people who fight an unequal fight against society, convention, and authority, people who are abandoned, betrayed, forgotten, deprived of economic and emotional nourishment but remain true to their integrity. He celebrates the heroism of the unknown and ordinary. He has extraordinary descriptive ability, but the surprise is that he undertakes no bravura performances. His language does not draw attention to itself. His style breathes effortlessly. It does not linger to admire its own dazzle. There are places where one wishes he had taken some time to polish his prose. In fact neglect of technique is the charge most commonly levelled against him.

Karanth’s key quality, as U.R. Anantha Murthy, president of the Sahitya Akademi, has said, is its authenticity. This authenticity is more than what is generally termed social realism. It is true that Karanth’s novels do provide material to the social historian to trace and illustrate the changes that have occurred in our country in the last 50 years. But his basic concern is something else. His focus is on people and their tussle with life. He deals with human problems from a point of view which is at once sympathetic, critical and detached. He does not manipulate his characters but lets them live out their lives. The very weakness of technique becomes an asset in that the life depicted appears so real and true.

Among the many tributes paid to Karanth after his death was one by the Prime Minister who said that his work exemplified Indian philosophy. It did anything but that. Evidently the person who drafted the statement for Mr. Gujral was unfamiliar with Karanth’s work. While Karanth wrote copiously on Indian life, landscape, sculpture, painting, the performing arts and other branches of culture, he was strangely unmoved by Indian philosophy, particularly religion. If he referred to dharma at all, it was in the sense of personal duty and not as a spiritual value. Most of the religious men portrayed by him are scamps, cheats or parasites. In his autobiography he gives a long account of why he became disillusioned with religion. Besides, he wrote a full-length book in defence of his agnostic outlook. His was a wisdom derived from observation and contemplation, not drawn from books and authorities. There are very few quotations from others in his work, either ancient sages or modern thinkers who have supplied the stock in trade of most of our intellectuals. He remained strangely uninfluenced by Marxism. He was a rugged individual, a selfmade man through and through.

I thought it was somewhat incongruous that the great nonconformist who was anti-authority should have been given a “state funeral” with men in khaki taking possession of his body before it was consigned to flames. Can’t we devise some other ceremony to enable the people to pay their last homage to our great persons who might be unconnected with government? The Bangalore edition of the Times of India also said that vedic hymns and all-religion prayers were recited at the funeral. If true, what an end to the life of a forthright unbeliever!

He was an indefatigable propagator of the scientific outlook. Sixty years ago he wrote a book of knowledge for children so as to catch them young. When he followed it up in the late fifties with a four-volume encylopaedia of science for adults and approached the Union Education Ministry for help, he received a rebuff. Professor Humayun Kabir loftily told him that it was presumptuous for a person without a degree in science to seek to write on science. He was unimpressed by Karanth’s arguments that if scientists did not come forward to write in the mother-tongues, someone else would have to. The same story was repeated in his own region. In the thirties, Karanth had run a school to work out his educational ideas. He wrote a set of textbooks which were used all over the district for years until someone came along in the Karnataka education department who scrapped them. The argument was that Karanth had no degree in education and no degree in Kannada. How could they be sure that he knew the language well enough? Karanth went to court and won the case. He was a pugnacious litigant, as government and publishers knew to their cost. His belligerence has certainly helped the conservation movement. But even conservationists were not too comfortable with him for he cared more for human beings than for animals.

He had a strong, sensitive face. Over the years his jaws became more pronounced and his mane whiter. He caught instant attention in any group because of his striking countenance. He expressed himself forcefully in an assertive voice. He was a remarkable speaker in Kannada but he relied more on the force of ideas than on verbal pyrotechnics. It did not worry him that he could not achieve a comparable mastery over English.

He never felt the urge to live in a big city, as many celebrities have begun doing in our country. Even in his native district, South Kanara, he did not live in the major urban centres but in villages. Although he was a great traveller, and loved seeing other lands, home could be only between the blue Arabian Sea and the green hills of the Western Ghats. This rootedness gives special strength to his creative work.

I regard it as one of the great good turns that life has done to me that I enjoyed his friendship and his trust for 40 years. He did me the honour of staying as my guest during his visits to Delhi. It is said that to be an undemanding guest is the highest sign of culture. He travelled light; rarely did he bring more than one grip. He looked after himself. He ate little, and retired early. He did not expect to be waited upon or fussed over. He attuned himself to the rhythm of the household. He loved to be left alone. He had a great capacity for keeping company with himself. I often wondered how this dynamo of energy could sit perfectly still for hours together, not even touching the books he had kept together to go through.

In his choice of books the preference was for science. Next came painting. He did not seem to care much for belles lettres or books airing critical theories. I once asked him how he found time to write so much — and to read so widely. His answer was, “If one wants to do something, there is never any dearth of time. Why should we regard time as a master?” Another interviewer asked him if he burnt midnight oil. “Sunlight is good enough for me,” he shot back.

Conversation with him was a most enriching experience, because he was a vast treasure-house of memories and also because of the incisiveness of his intellect. One evening that will remain long with me was when he, Uma Shankar Joshi and Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, all Jnanpith laureates, spent two to three hours discussing indian literature.

Another memory comes to me. Some years ago, when Karanth was on a visit to Delhi, M.S. Subbulakshmi and her busband happened to drop in. Both Sadasivam and Karanth were then in their mid-eighties. The two got to talking. The question naturally arose who was older. Karanth said he was born in October 1902, upon which Sadasivam said, “I came into the world a month earlier. So you have to follow me.”

It so happened that they died within a month of each other.

H.Y. Sharada Prasad

This Article was published in the Asian Age, December 1997.

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