Articles and Reviews

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Critique of Modernity: Kannada Poetry -Part 1

     ‘Modernity,’ derived from Latin ‘modernus’ to mean ‘recent’ or ‘just now,’  is a slippery term; and unless we specify a particular field and particular context, it does not mean anything.  For instance, in the field of literature, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, and Bana; in religion, Buddhism, Advaita, the 12th-century Veerashaiva Movement, and Arya Samaj; in political system, absolute monarchy, empire-building, and democracy –all these can be viewed as ‘modern’ since they rebelled against the ideas and practices of their immediate past and set about exploring new paths.  

Even in the West, St. Augustine of the fifth century, Martin Luther of the 15th century; French Revolution, the civil war waged by Lincoln to end slavery, and Jefferson’s Bill of Rights; in literature, anybody from Euripides to Shakespeare and Virgil to Eliot – all these, from time to time, have been designated as ‘modern.’  In other words, terms like tradition and modernity come into existence only through ‘opposition’ to another term.  Defined thus, it does not designate any one particular period but only a set of values and practices as a reaction against another set of values and practices.  In short, no society or Idea or system is modern or traditional by itself; it depends upon what it revolts against, and its essential spirit is summed up by Kalidasa’s famous statement, “pur¹ªamity·va na s¹dhu sarvam” (‘only because something is old, it does not become acceptable’).

     However, during the colonial period and after independence, whenever the opposition of ‘tradition and modernity’ is discussed, ‘modernity’ has been defined as ‘Enlightenment Modernity’ –that is, modernity as defined by the 18th century and early 19th century British sociologists.  Defined thus, the term connotes
a) primacy of Reason and Rationality, b) empiricism, c) scientific knowledge as key to expanding all human knowledge, d) universalism, e) linear view of History, f) individualism, g) and tolerance.

     The fact that systems and ideologies are not transferred from one society to another totally and mechanically is too obvious to be belaboured.  Hence, what interests us is not how the British or the French defined modernity but how the Indian society  understood and accepted it. 

   When we view Kannada literature of the last century from this point of view, we become aware of a curious phenomenon: the values and institutions  which the rulers were proud of were not the ones that the Indians desired to get from the rulers.  Though, without any exception, all the Indian authors upheld English education during the colonial period and enthusiastically welcomed modernity, none of them seemed to be interested in the ‘modern institutions’ established by the British in India --Rule of Law, Parliamentary democracy,  Mono-theism, and such on which the British prided themselves.  Instead, author after author in all Indian languages, bemoaned lack of education for women, child-marriages, casteism and practice of untouchability, and cruel practices like Sati and treatment of widows.  That is to say, Indian writers and leaders re-defined modernity as ‘reformism’; in their view, to be modern was to treat men and women equally, to give education for all, and to give up caste-distinctions.  Unless we clearly understand this point that whatever it might have meant for the West, to Indians modernity was equated with social reform and English education was viewed as an instrument of such reform, we cannot understand the total and unqualified enthusiasm with which early 20th-century writers greeted modernity and British rule.      

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     Now, coming to the issue of modernity and Kannada poetry in the 20th century, we can discern, broadly,  three phases each of which was a reaction against the earlier poetry, both in form and content.  The first phase (1920-1950),  called Navodaya, had all the characteristics that we associate with Romanticism: egalitarian view of life, glorification of love and nature, and experimentation with different poetic forms the lyric being the most employed form.  The second phase (1950-1980), called Navya, was characterized by the qualities that we associate with modernist poetry: structure of precise and concrete images, concern for the individual, and a strong distrust of powerful social institutions.  The third phase (1980-2000), called ‘dalita-bandaya,’ was primarily poetry of revolt, especially against caste hierarchy, gender discrimination, and corrupt political institutions.  Of these three movements, each defined modernity differently and, consequently, responded to it differently.

     The first Navodaya movement understood modernity as social reform and the British rule as an instrument of such modernity; hence, it sang paeans of the British rule.  To take just two representative examples, B. M. Shreekanthaiah (popularly known as BMSri), the scholar-poet who inaugurated the ‘modern’ movement in Kannada poetry, eulogized British rule in these words:

       “In the end, I remembered the one who could be of help to my family;
          I remembered my loving sister, Britannia, the queen of the seas;
       She taught us the essence of all religions, she opened the gates for all knowledge;                                                                        
          She brought us closer to all other countries, and she looked after the welfare of all.”
                                                                           “The Words of Mother India”
     It was for this reason that he undertook the free translation of 19th-century British lyrics in Kannada; and, in this translation, he gave up the use of adiprasa or initial rhyme and traditional stanza forms, employed modern Kannada, and adopted free verse.  Hence, the influence this collection, English Geethegalu (1921) wielded on future Kannada poetry can be compared to that of Lyrical Ballads (1897), which heralded the beginning of the Romantic era in English.

    Most of the poets after BMSri, including Kuvempu, followed the model of BMSri in poetry; but, regarding his attitude toward English and colonial rule they had much to oppose.  Kuvempu, for instance, welcomes the new ideology coming from the West, but not the colonial rule.  He wants modernity only to destroy age-old superstitions and cruel practices rampant in Hindu society.  Hence his ‘mother India’ moans thus:

    “Surrounding me from all the sides, / They are standing with their swords lifted high. /
    But, they tell me that I don’t know / That I am really free./ What freedom is this?”
                                                                                    (“   Bharatamate”)  

 Whereas in one poem he gives a clarion call for the young men to break their shackles of idolatry and superstitions, “Give up and come out of temples, churches, and mosques, /And come and join me in rooting out poverty,” in another poem, he tells them:

     “ Throw out these hundreds of gods far, far away.”   It is in this spirit that he wrote scores of poems on farmers, manual workers, scavengers, and such neglected things as manure, and forced the readers to notice the marginalized sections of society.  ( In fact, one of his long poems is titled ‘The Unknown Hero.’)  In his plays, novels, and his epic Shree Ramayana Darshanam, he focused on hitherto marginalized characters like Manthara, Shabari, and Ahalya, and brought them to the centre-stage.  His poem, ‘Hosa Balina Geethe ‘ (‘The Song of New Life’)  not only advocates the essence of ‘modernity’ as conceived by him but it also mirrors the ethos of the whole society during that period; a few lines of it are given below:

          “ Equal share for all, equal life for all –
              This is what the voice of the New Age declares; listen.     
              O, you unfortunate men, groaning and backs bent
              Under the dead weight of poverty for ages, get up and stand erect.
              That you are weak, that you are lowly born,
               That it is all one’s inevitable fate –give up all this ignorance;
               Come together, all of you, shoulder to shoulder,
               And help the wheels of the age roll and bring in change.

     During the ‘navya’  or ‘modernist’ period, we find the poets attempting to walk on a razor’s edge: while, heavily influenced by Eliot and Auden, they usher in an imagist-dramatic-satirical form,  in content they vehemently oppose Westernization.  That is, they conceive of ‘modernity’ as institutions suppressing individuals, democracy as the oppression by brute majorities, and, in literature, Western models as marginalizing native traditions.  Gopalakrishna Adiga represents all these fears and self-contradictions.

     Just as English Geethegalu ushered in the Navodaya movement, Adiga’s Chande Maddale (1954) can be considered to have ushered in the Navya period.  Some of the finest poems of Adiga were written in this and the six collections that followed it.  Many of his poems, like ‘Himagiriya Kandara,’ ‘Bhumigeetha,’ ‘Bhuta,’ and ‘Shriramanavamiya Divasa’  analyse the tradition-modernity issue deeply and dramatise the poet’s ambivalences.  His poem ‘Prarthane’ (prayer), the manifesto of Adiga’s poetry, has this important line in it: ‘O, Lord! ... Protect me from the contagious European disease.’  The Kannada term ‘pharangi ( European) roga (disease)means both the venereal disease supposed to have been brought to India by the Europeans, and the disease of imitating or following the Europeans.   The most representative poem in this regard is ‘Bhuta.’

     The term ‘bhuta’ means both ‘past’ and ‘ghost’, and the poet exploits both the meanings of the term to discover what our relationship should be toward our past.   The poem begins with a powerful image of an old and dark  well containing stinking water, poisonous air, and all sorts of parasites; but in it, here and there, a thin gold vein all along the rock, is also to be seen.  The poem develops this image as a metaphor for India’s past, and then moves on to this resolution on the poet’s part:

            “At the time of digging, the soil is foetus form.
               Deeper and deeper thrust of the pickaxe
               might show us the shining golden or.
               Excavating it, smelting and purifying it,
               at least now we must learn
               to shape them into the images of our personal gods.”

Past, purified of its rotten elements, and moulded to suit present-day society – this seems to be the general attitude of Adiga and other Navya poets towards tradition.

     The poets of the next ‘Dalit-Bandaya’ Movement, in general, interpreted modernity along the lines of the early Navodaya poets –ie. English education, protest against discrimination on the basis of caste or class or gender, and revolt against corrupt political and religious systems.  In this movement, while poets like Siddalingayya and Malagatti focused on Dalit experience, Sarvamangala and M. L. Pushpa on gender discrimination, others such as Chandrashekhar Patil and Baraguru Ramachandrappa emphasized institutional tyranny.   To all these poets, English education was the means of modern ideas and of changing society.

     By the turn of the century, all influential literary-cultural movements appear to have exhausted themselves.  Dalit poets like Siddalingayya and Aravind Malagatti, and staunch feminist poets like M. L. Pushpa and Savita Nagabhushana, who were very active in the 80s and 90s of the last century as the angry young men and women, seem to have given up the single agenda of Dalit experience and/or gender difference.  Consequently, most poets seem to be seriously concerned only with one issue: fear of massive industrial and technological development, and survival of local languages and cultures vis-à-vis Globalisation.  In their view, this concept of development is Western and it has enslaved countries like India in a new form of colonialism –economic and technological colonialism.  Strongly reacting against such a trend, either they poignantly picture the death-throes of traditional Indian society with its ancient culture and literature or they are intent on exploring the contours of a utopian society which is markedly different from the American model.  This category includes, to mention only a few leading poets,  M. Veerappa Moily, Chandrashekhara Kambara, Ramachandra Deva and H. S. Shivaprakash.

     The most ambitious work characterized by the Utopian quest is the poet-novelist  Moily’s epic, Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam.  This stupendous work, divided into five volumes (in Kannada) and running into some 42,000 lines (2000-2005), undertakes ‘anveshanam’ or exploration of what constitutes ‘Ramarajya’ or ideal society.  In this work, the poet introduces scores of new characters and incidents and re-interprets many familiar incidents of Valmiki’s Ramayana from a modern point of view.  It is very interesting to see the way Moily introduces into the body of the ancient classic contemporary burning issues such as the Arya-anarya confrontation, exploitative mining in tribal areas, and need for universal education.

     More than all, what distinguishes Mahanveshanam is the lofty vision it unfolds for India in future – the vision of a secular nation of many voices, many cultures, and many peoples.  On one occasion, Rama declares that “ mono-cultural doctrine dumps us into a well of darkness.”  At the time of coronation, Rama unfolds before his subjects his vision of Ramarajya in these words: “ Ramarajya has no other creed and no other goal / but progress and upward evolution.”  In short, Moily collapses the past and the present in his work in such a way that his epic remains rooted in the Indian context and it transcends time and space.

Continued in Part 2

Dr. C.N. Ramachandran

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