It is impossible to miss the large, floor-to-ceiling close-up shots of coy Indian brides and grooms on the restroom corridor walls at the Delhi international airport. Couples in Bengali, Kashmiri, Maharashtrian, Malayali, Punjabi and Tamil wedding finery are paired across the wall shared by the restrooms. It made me realise, yet again, that Kannadigas (and no doubt many other language communities in India) do not find a place in the cute and lazy visual schemes of national unity. In the national imagination, there are few images, sounds or smells that help create a recognisable presence of the Kannadigas.
Another instance was the national unity song, Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, telecast ad infinitum on DD in the late ’80s. The video strove to bring an authentic fit between the landscape, dress and personalities and the various Indian languages in the song’s lyrics. Decked in a Gujarati-style sari, Mallika Sarabhai sings a line in Gujarati, actress Revathi is draped in Kanjeevaram while being all ears to Balamuralikrishna singing a Tamil devotional song.
A couple in traditional Coorgi attire give visual support to the Kannada line in the song. In the absence of a ‘nationally recognisable’ Kannada dress, the video director settled for Coorgi since it’s unique to Karnataka. (The irony is Coorgis have their own language, some of them don’t even see themselves as Kannadigas.) While locally specific dresses exist across Karnataka, no single attire has come to be ethnicised as uniquely Kannadiga outside the state. The same goes for food. Udupi and Kamat restaurants will serve vegetarian food from southern Karnataka, places like Swagath in Delhi non-veg fare from coastal Mangalore. But what one might call Karnataka cuisine does not exist the way it does for Bengali, Kerala or Punjabi cuisine.
The unavailability of a codified image of how a Kannadiga speaks or acts will pose difficulties for any intrepid film director hoping to use a Kannadiga as the stock south Indian figure. How does one show a Kannadiga in Hindi or even Tamil and Telugu films? The missing resources for generic self-expression find positive summation in the Karnataka state tourism department’s motto: ‘One State, Many Worlds’.
Durable associations with Karnataka do exist outside: the pleasant climate and the hip IT sector of Bangalore, the mammoth corruption of the mining lobby, cricket stars like B.S. Chandrashekar and G.R. Vishwanath, music legends like Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi and Mallikarjun Mansur and, in highbrow circles, intellectual figures like M.N. Srinivas, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Girish Karnad. Standard views about what Kannadigas are like as a people however do not exist. For instance, there is no sense of a Kannadiga student on campuses at JNU, IITs, and IIMs.
Consider a few images: the enterprising Malayali with the great survival instinct; the Bengali who is tenacious about his language; the fun-loving, ostentatious Punjabi. Needless to add, these views are gross caricatures and will run up against exceptions all the time. But the stereotypes exist and their absence in the case of Kannadigas (and other communities as well) should be a source for intrigue. Community stereotypes thrive through jokes, gossip and anecdotes. Colloquial descriptive labels give them anchor: Mallus, Gultis, Gujjus and Bongs, to name a few, all evoking confident certitudes about those communities. These communities score high on migration rates within the country and abroad. Stereotypes of communities emerge when their styles of being and doing get noticed and talked about in ways that build and cohere in the minds of others. While these encounters can be social, or even simply textual, where people have views of others without ever having met them, what is clear is a community has to invite enough attention towards itself to generate standard impressions.
Historically, the Kannada speakers have not moved out much; the ones who did have not aided in the creation of generic impressions about themselves. (Communities from different parts of Karnataka, though, have robust stereotypes of each other!) When the Udupi restaurants in Bombay faced violent attacks from a nascent Shiv Sena in the 1960s, the latter thought they were striking at South Indians and Madrasis, and not Kannadigas.
While stereotypes justly set off alarm for their potential for stoking wicked fun, harm and even death, the lack of it presents a peculiar predicament. Being a vague, inchoate presence in a system of federated stereotypes can summon unease and a sense of failure. While anonymity can be a source of pleasure and freedom, invisibility conveys a lack of power for those who wish to mark their presence in India’s repertoire of sub-regional images. The non-arrival of a generic Kannada identity is also a triumph of its heterogeneous nature. None of Karnataka’s chief cultural zones, i.e. the old Mysore region, coastal Karnataka, Coorg, Mumbai-Karnataka, and Hyderabad-Karnataka, has been able to stand in for the Kannada community image. Amidst the unpredictable twists in a fast transforming India, a Kannadiga stereotype might yet emerge. At the moment, though, being an amorphous presence in the national imagination means a delicious freedom to me.
(The author is professor of sociology, Azim Premji University)