On Monday morning, June 10, the acclaimed Kannada playwright and Jnanpith awardee, Girish Karnad, passed away. He was 81. Karnad’s passing marks an eclipsing tradition of literary multilingualism (the word literary is important here, in contrast to merely spoken multilingualism), a once robust tradition that has gone into decline since the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956, taking another hit after liberalisation in 1991. Indian intellectuals and literary figures are now primarily confined to English, and the literary Indian language of their upbringing—or even only one of the two.
Karnad belonged to a generation who grew up in a time when India’s literary and cultural traditions showed significantly more fluidity across linguistic lines, with its exponents showing a familiarity with cultural expressions across languages. Literary multilingualism was common among early modern intellectuals across India, often reinforced by an education in English as well. This allowed them to draw from a wide range of cultural influences, and meant that developments in one language could go on to influence writers in other languages.
Historian Ramachandra Guha writes about this phenomenon at length in his essay, “The Rise and Fall of the [Indian] Bilingual Intellectual”, using the term “linguidextrous” to describe their abilities.
Karnad’s multilingual heritage
Karnad himself was a native Konkani speaker who began his schooling at Marathi medium schools in what is now Maharashtra, before his family moved to Sirsi where he began learning Kannada instead. Even after the move, cultural life in Sirsi included Marathi, as it was then part of Bombay State. Just as Karnad acknowledges the influence of local (Kannada) Yakshagāna performances on him, he also talks about how (Marathi) Nāṭak Maṇḍali troupes stopping and performing at Sirsi played a similar role.
In Naḍedu Banda Dāri, a Kannada documentary on his life and work, Karnad talks about how his family was effectively bilingual in Marathi and Kannada, something he calls a “big advantage”, an advantage that let him watch and even in act in Marathi plays during college in Dharwad and in Bombay. This cultural connect was also what led Karnad to translate the Marathi plays of Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar into northern Karnataka Kannada instead of Mysore-Bangalore based Standard Kannada, deeming it a better fit on account of its relationship with Marathi. In an anecdote, Guha mentions witnessing Karnad editing the Marathi proof of his plays.
Such connections may seem unusual to us now, even outright strange, but it’s important to remember that participation in the literary tradition of a certain language was contingent on numerous factors—geography and education, for example—and was not limited to the rigid, fixed dimension of one’s mother tongue, or the language one’s family spoke at home. Karnad’s life and work is a great example of this, and it is by no means an isolated example either.
Linguistic cosmopolitanism In Kannada literary culture
In fact, Kannada literary culture in particular was traditionally marked by a very high degree of linguistic cosmopolitanism, with literary influences from other languages freely embraced. Three out of Kannada’s eight Jnanpith awardees, including Karnad, spoke a language other than Kannada at home.
This level of cosmopolitanism was especially pronounced in Kannada literature as compared to other traditions for a few important reasons.
One was the influence of other literary languages used in administration: Marathi in Bombay Karnataka (later replaced by Kannada, while Marathi still retained a strong presence), and Urdu in Hyderabad Karnataka were both widely used, and many intellectuals from these regions would have grown up with them in their cultural lives. Marathi medium schools and Marathi publications were common throughout Bombay Karnataka, for example, and Hyderabad State had a language policy that strongly favoured Urdu over other local languages.
In addition, what is now Karnataka is also home to large numbers of ethnic minorities, communities who speak languages other than Kannada at home. According to 2011 Census data, Karnataka had the smallest share of population speaking the state language among all South Indian states, at 66.5 per cent. These minorities, as one would expect, are mostly concentrated in the state’s border zones.
The presence of non-literary languages shouldn’t be overlooked either, as much of southwest Karnataka speaks Tulu, Byari, Konkani, and Kodava, among others. These languages are traditionally unwritten but possess robust oral traditions, especially Tulu.
Indeed, Alur Venkata Rao, a prominent Kannada nationalist and the chief intellectual force behind the Karnataka Ēkikaraṇa (unification) movement, even saw this multilingualism as an integral part of Karnataka’s character, declaring in a speech on Karnataka’s unification in 1956 that “Karnataka is a much broader entity than Kannada”. Rao was from Bombay Karnataka himself and read in Marathi in addition to his native Kannada.
Cultural influences from other languages on Kannada writers
One of Kannada’s most iconic modern poets (and Jnanpith awardee), Da Ra Bendre, spoke Marathi at home and grew up in Dharwad with literature in both Marathi and Kannada. His writing was rooted in a deep spiritual sensibility heavily influenced by Bhakti poetry, both in Marathi and Kannada. Bendre writes that an understanding of Marathi bhakti doctrine helped him understand its Kannada counterpart better. Bendre also wrote dramas, and the Marathi playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari was a major influence on his farces.
In an amusing anecdote, the Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy (also a Jnanpith awardee) recounts how he witnessed Bendre code-switching between Marathi and Kannada at home, and when he asked him about it, Bendre replied that he didn’t know he was switching between two languages in his speech until he was 12 or 13.
Some of the most interesting examples of this linguistic cosmopolitanism in Kannada literary culture are found in the southwestern periphery of Kannada’s geographical domain, in a region where Kannada isn’t even the most widely spoken mother tongue: the Tulu Nadu region, a highly multilingual cultural region defined both by its primarily Tulu speaking character and the usage of Standard Kannada as a written language by the region’s speakers of many tongues.
Many prominent authors from this region did not speak Kannada at home. But since the local written language was Standard Kannada, it was the language they were educated in. They went on to wholeheartedly contribute to the Kannada literary canon regardless, using local linguistic influences to enrich and color their Kannada writing. Works set in the region often feature words from local languages, sometimes even featuring entire folk songs or phrases in these languages. This was a trend that cut across linguistic background, in the Kannada writings of Tulu, Konkani, and Byari speakers.
Nor was this seen as a conflict of allegiances, so to speak. Tulu Nadu’s involvement in Kannada written culture is what bound local intellectuals to the cause of Kannada nationalism in the early 1900s, leading for calls for unification with the rest of the Kannada sphere, something that was finally achieved in 1956 (with the notable exception of northern Kasaragod district).
A notable Kannada writer from the region is Sarah Aboobacker from Kasaragod, a native Malayalam speaker known for being the first Muslim woman to write in Kannada, and the first to write from the perspective of one. In Aboobacker’s case, her choice of writing in Kannada was informed by the fact that she was educated in the language, since the northern half of modern Kasaragod district (north of the Chandragiri river) was traditionally located within Tulu Nadu.
In an autobiographical essay, A Muslim Girl Goes To School, Aboobacker talks about how and why she went to a Kannada medium school—the closest girls’ school to her house was on the Tulu side of the Chandragiri river and was therefore Kannada medium, as opposed to the Malayalam medium school her brothers went to on the other side. Getting an education was the objective, she writes, the medium of education was irrelevant.
Aboobacker didn’t speak any Kannada when she first joined the school. In her case, her choice of written language was informed by her education (in turn decided by geography), even as she continued to read in Malayalam at home. She would even go on to translate works of Malayalam literature into Kannada.
Language and nationalism
Kannada’s first rāṣtrakavi (national poet), Govinda Pai, was a native Konkani speaker from the Tulu-speaking town of Manjeshwara, south of Mangaluru. As the advent of nationalism in India linked literary traditions to nations (something that was to culminate in the reorganisation of India’s internal borders along linguistic lines in 1956), Pai saw himself as belonging to four “mothers”—his three languages, as well as Bhārata Janani, or Mother India. He wrote poems in praise of each one: Gōyacē Gīta (The Song of Goa, in Konkani), Tauḷava Māte (Mother Tulu), and Kannaḍigara Tāyi (The Mother of Kannadigas), and Bhārata Janani.
In other words, Pai saw himself as belonging to all four nations at the same time, with no inherent contradiction in this assertion. It is, of course, another matter altogether that such a nuanced, inclusive view of South Indian linguistic nationalism has since lost ground in the public sphere to a more muscular, homogenising version.
This tradition of multilingualism had significance beyond the sphere of literature as well. Some of the strongest early stirrings of nationalism in what is now Karnataka were felt in the Bombay Karnataka region, and this nationalist fervour owed much to the influence of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Marathi writings, widely read in the original by the region’s intellectuals (generally educated in Pune, Bombay, and Kolhapur). These nationalist ideas could be disseminated in the region so readily precisely because of this familiarity with Marathi writing, and by extension, its ideological currents.
The decline of literary multilingualism
In the post-Independence era however, especially in the post-liberalisation era, these linguistic equations have reoriented themselves along newer, less intersectional lines. The current linguistic market favors proficiency in English above all else, and literary multilingualism has been replaced by what is usually limited to formal reading proficiency in English and one’s own language, but more increasingly only one of the two.
In an essay, noted literary critic and translator of Telugu literature Velcheru Narayana Rao bemoans this shift away from literary multilingualism in Indian languages. He lays the blame for the decline of India’s multilingual literati squarely at the feet of linguistic nationalism—the “nationalist identification of languages with regional populations” as he puts it. Writers started taking pride in the supposed “purity” of their languages and traditions instead, ignoring histories of mutual borrowing and influence, he contends. He even goes so far as to argue that the concept of a mother tongue (mātr̥bhāṣā) was an alien concept to Indians before linguistic nationalism took root.
While it may be too late to turn back to our more multilingual literary heritage with “linguidextrous” intellectuals being the norm—given the way our current system is wired—it is important that we don’t forget this once key aspect of our literary history, the conditions that made it possible, and the linguistic and cultural cross-pollination it could produce.