Every culture finds ways of spreading its fragrance beyond its immediate environs. The mobility of cultural resources has marked many aspects of our social existence as much in the past as in the present. Such mobility has always been a source of knowing other cultures and reformulating one’s own ‘window to the world’. Translation is one of the means of cultural transfer. At times, translation takes on multiple roles and follows a more assertive path of self-representation, which is what it is doing in India. Translators from diverse languages are taking it upon themselves to showcase the rich literary traditions of the past as well as the impressive works in the present. Kannada, with a continuous multilingual literary history for more than a millennium, as many other South Asian traditions, has much to offer to the world, because only a fraction of this rich literature in multiple genres is known to the non-Kannada world. Added to this is the ignorance and prejudice that prevails. For instance, E.P. Rice wrote in his book A History of Kannada Literature, way back in 1921, “I am afraid it must be confessed that Kanarese writers, highly skillful though they are in the manipulation of their language, and very pleasing to listen to in the original, have as yet contributed extremely little to the stock of the world’s knowledge and inspiration [...]. There is little of original and imperishable thought on the question of perennial interest to man [...]. Hence a lack of that which stimulates hope and inspires to great enterprises.”
Kannada translators have in the recent past given glimpses of the great treasure of ancient and modern Kannada literature. This includes representative extracts from the first millennium (C.N. Ramachandran and B.A. Vivek Rai), oral epics (C.N. Ramachandran and Padma Sharma), the Vachana literature of the early second millennium (A.K. Ramanujan, H.S. Shivaprakash, O.L. Nagabhushan Swamy, Manu Devadevan and Vinaya Chaitanya) and complete texts of some old Kannada classics (Raghavanka’s The Life of Harischandra by Vanamala Vishvanath and Srivijaya’s Kavirajamargam by RVS Sundaram and Deven M. Patel), apart from the modern era (Sirigannada by Vivek Shanbhag). These translations are the proverbial tip of the iceberg as Kannada has many more literary gems from the ancient, medieval and modern periods. In what has been translated into English, there are many omissions.
Kannada Literature–From the Eleventh Century through the Nineteenth Century: A Reader fills that vacuum as it covers the second millennium broadly and presents works in diverse literary genres written between 11th and 19th centuries. It suggests an alternative model of history for Kannada literature, one that shakes off the colonial framework to find a more authentic way of perceiving the Kannada literary traditions. The editors have deployed genre-based classification.
The second millennium is perhaps the period during which many modern Indian languages emerged creating a strong body of literary culture and performance practices. This is the period, more than the first millennium, when modern Indian languages laid the foundations on which recent traditions are built. The decline of the ‘classical’ literary traditions, such as Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali, and the emergence of regional languages to literary preeminence was complete during this period. Before the advent of printing influenced modern Indian languages, this was the period of their enrichment. The second millennium also a remarkable period of creativity and experimentation in Kannada literature. The Reader, therefore, is a fine introduction to pre-colonial Kannada literature.
One of the noteworthy aspects of the work is the way it conceives of literary history. Arguing that “nearly eight centuries of culture and literature were subjected not only to disregard but also to disrepute by a religion-based periodization, a colonial approximation called Medieval Age equals Dark Age…”, the editors altogether do not use religious affiliation as the classificatory matrix and organise the book around literary genres. In fact, they don’t even use chronological or political categories of classification. Within four generic traditions of vachana, narrative, lyrical and performance, the Reader presents the best remembered specimens of Kannada literary culture.
Although the vachana—a form of rhythmic writing—tradition has received substantial attention in terms of translation and research, many other literary practices of this period have largely been ignored. The editors point out that there was always “a need for a Reader for the Second Period, which identified the traits and traditions of that period and introduced them with suitable samples to the non-Kannada reader”. In addition to offering a rich range of specimens of this era, the editors provide many novel insights into the study of Kannada literature, which may be of interest to scholars in the field. The editors have worked with a keen sense of not only Kannada literature but also the history of Kannada-speaking regions. Kannada literature during this period was rich and diverse, articulated in many genres and distinct forms.
There are four sections in the book. The first section, on the vachana tradition, provides historical and literary insights into this major tradition. Works of five prominent practitioners of vachana—Jedara Dasimaiah, Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi, Vachana Bhandari Shantarasa and Allamaprabhu—are offered along with selections from Shunya Sampadane, a key text belonging to this tradition. The second is on the narrative tradition, which begins with a valuable introductory note and provides representative literary texts of this genre from the period, including such classics as Pushpa Ragale, Harschandra Kavya, Karnata Bharatha Kathamanjari, Prabhulingaleele, Ramadhanya Charite, Battaleshwara Ramayana, Jaimini Bharata, Bharatesha Vaibhava, Mudramanjusha and Ramashwamedham. Reading these extracts in felicitous translations is a great delight. The third section focuses on the lyrical tradition, covering the Dasa and the Tatvapada literary traditions and includes representative works of Sripada Raya, Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa, Nijaguna Shivayogi, Muppina Shadakshari, Sarvajna, Madivalappa of Kadakola, Shishunala Shariff and Sarpabhushana Shivayogi, among others. Section four, focusing on texts from the tradition of performance usually neglected, shows the comprehensiveness of this collection. Here, the editors introduce us to representative texts of Yakshagana, Sri Krishna Parijata, Malemadeshwara Kavya, Mitravinda Govinda and Sangya Balya. The editors have also provided useful information about the social history of the world of Kannada literature in the appendices. The introduction to each section, like the main ‘Introduction’, does much more than provide information. It critically evaluates existing frameworks to understand these traditions and offers its own.
This book is a marvellous effort by the editors who have accomplished several things. They provide the non-Kannada reader a very fine introduction to pre-colonial second millennium literature in Kannada, offer a fresh perspective on the study of the history of Kannada literature, expand the notion of the history of Kannada literature by including representative texts from the written, oral and performance traditions and facilitate an enjoyable reading through translation, easy to read and understand. One cannot help but wish that these translators undertake more translations from Kannada. The Reader is no doubt an excellent introduction to pre-colonial Kannada literature for all non-Kannada readers, and one might add, even to Kannada readers.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Showcasing the Best Traditions")
(Kamalakar Bhat is professor and head of post graduate dept of Ahmednagar College, Maharashtra)