In 1992, on the birth anniversary of the legendary Kannada writer Kuvempu (1904-1994), the Rashtrakavi Kuvempu Pratishthana or Trust (RKP) was founded at his birthplace to nourish his legacy. In his inaugural address, the then chief minister of Karnataka, S. Bangarappa, suggested that the writer’s home in Kuppalli in Shimoga be developed in the same manner as Shakespeare’s home in England. After Kuvempu passed away, his son, Poornachandra Tejasvi, a major Kannada writer himself who passed away in 2007, proved a creative force behind the efforts to nourish his legacy, even as he stayed outside the RKP.
The RKP maintains the memorial site with care. It has turned Kuvempu’s home in Kuppalli into an attractive museum with a photo gallery. It organises an annual workshop on the occasion of the writer’s birth anniversary. It has also built an auditorium where various performance and seminar activities are hosted through the year. The memorial attracts over a lakh visitors every year. It collaborates with universities and other institutions outside Karnataka to introduce Kuvempu’s work to non-local audiences. Such an initiative helps deepen conversations across regional worlds within India. The Trust also publishes and sells the complete works of Kuvempu at an affordable price; it runs a mobile van service to make his books available across the state; it has co-produced an 81-volume audio book containing recitations of, and commentaries on, his epic poem, Sri Ramayana Darshanam. A modest annual grant (Rs 12 lakh) by the state government, revenue from book and entrance ticket sales and dedicated effort by the trustees help make these activities happen.
The first major Shudra writer in modern Karnataka, Kuvempu’s depiction of Vokkaliga society brought in a new political and aesthetic sensibility to Kannada literature. Other than Sri Ramayana Darshanam, his literary output includes two celebrated novels, an autobiography, collections of poems, plays, short stories and literary criticism, translations and biographies. He won the Jnanpith Award in 1967. Inspired by the neo-Vedanta of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo, Kuvempu considered the Vedas and the Upanishads as India’s common spiritual heritage and not texts of Brahminical orthodoxy. The shaping of the non-Brahmin imagination in Karnataka has therefore taken a distinct form. Kuvempu passionately advocated the importance of Kannada for education and public deliberation in the state. His love for Kannada and his ideals of equality have endeared him to Kannada society. The state government adopted a poem of his as the state song (nada geethe) during the writer’s centenary celebrations in 2004.
A famous poem of Kuvempu, Aniketana, asks that our consciousness not be bounded by the identities of caste, religion, gender, and even language, since they lessen our experience in the world. He wished that we aspire to become vishvamanava (universal human). In keeping with that ideal, Tejasvi and his artist friend, K.T. Shivaprasad, looked outside India to find a design for Kuvempu’s memorial. Large, rectangular blocks of rock have helped embody a design from Latin America to be built at Kavishaila, a hillock near Kuppalli, where Kuvempu found poetic inspiration.
Now, a grant by a donor has allowed the RKP to institute the Kuvempu Award, which offers Rs 5 lakh annually to writers in Indian languages (Namwar Singh, the Hindi writer, won it this year; K. Satchidanandan got it last year). Novel kinds of archiving is necessary to keep alive a writer’s work. Kuvempu exhorted us to unshackle our understanding from ritual conventions, social identities and other constraints of time and space. Such a moral demand should open up space for imagining many ways of making his legacy matter.
(The author is professor of sociology, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.)