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Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021
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Re-Reading Karnataka

Has Kannada become a language that only receives knowledge? How does one end this lament?

Re-Reading Karnataka
Re-Reading Karnataka
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Few weeks ago, renowned Kannada linguist and writer K.V. Narayana, made a profound suggestion on the nature of knowledge as it exists in Kannada in one of his blog entries. One could call it an epistemological intervention. Since the World Kannada Conference is round the corner (three days from March 11), I think it would be extremely relevant to pick his idea up for discussion. 

There are three questions that he asks at the beginning and all of them have relevance for not just Kannada but any of the Indian languages. Replace 'Kannada' with say Tamil, Telugu, Odiya or Hindi and it still works. The queries are as follows:  

  1. What should be the nature of the knowledge that we receive through Kannada? 
  2. Should the knowledge that we receive through Kannada be similar to the one we derive from English? 
  3. Is there a need to also import the frameworks through which we receive knowledge, that is, should we also borrow the troughs in which knowledge is contained?

The fundamental distinction that Narayana makes is that there is something called 'our' knowledge and 'our' assessments, interpretations and storage devices for it and there is knowledge 'external' to our cultural situation. These questions seem extraordinary, there are attendant worries embedded in them, to which I'll come later, but then, they get thrown at us at a time when we are left pondering if there is anything potent that remains about the local or regional. That is, at a time when diverse ideas, thought processes, identities and worldviews appear to be coming under the rolling juggernaut of the global.

Narayana puts his questions in a historical context. He says in the past 50-odd years (since the integration of Karnataka) in the process of building the Kannada nation, we have conducted a massive exercise of offering knowledge through Kannada. We undertook enormous translation projects of social science and humanities texts to transfer the medium of knowledge from English to Kannada. Even as we did this, we did not integrate the various texts to understand the world around us. The volumes simply created an illusion that we were creating knowledge in our language. Students not only used Kannada to come to terms with the knowledge they were being imparted, but also used the language to reproduce what they had picked up. There is no doubt there have been some mature contributions over the decades, but after a long journey we feel nothing belongs to us. Despite all the knowledge we still seem to be wondering about the inadequacy that surrounds us. Why is this so?

Narayana tries to reason out this conundrum. He says that when we decided that we want all knowledge through Kannada, we surrendered the crucial option of choice, of picking and choosing what we want and, also, of whatever we sought to receive, we did not specify the framework through which we needed them. There was a gross indiscretion in the process of seeking, as well as transfer and as a result, he says, we have ended up in a messy situation: Kannada, inadvertently, has been reduced to a language that merely receives knowledge. This is his central point. By implication, he says the language has lost the confidence to generate or create knowledge. There appears to be a sudden realisation of our circumscribed existence. In the five decades our language has not grown, the usual process of flowering with time and interaction has been stunted because it has willingly reduced itself into an apparatus that receives but does not transmit. The one-way flow has been a flaw. Worse, it has also dawned on us that although our awareness has expanded, the knowledge we possess is not exactly ours. Now, can there be a graver paradox to deal with for the World Kannada Conference in Belgaum?

Not all is lost, Narayana assures us. He says a rescue operation can be launched by creating a special knowledge zone called 'Reading Karnataka' (Karnatakada Oodhu). The first step we need to take in this process is to integrate the various knowledge zones that remain scattered, independent and disconnected in the language. Even though we can't erase the borders between them, we should not create walls. Through this process, as it connects history, sociology, political science, anthropology, archaeology, art history, linguistics etc., we'll figure out the way Karnataka has been perceived and interpreted by these disciplines. As we peruse the material, we'll realise that the various disciplines have perceived and placed the land and its culture in a global framework. That there is hardly any difference between an insider's view and an outsider's take because the theoretical receptacles are the same or similar. They are indistinguishable and alien. The only difference is that the insider would have written his exegesis in the Kannada language.

Therefore, even though there already exists something called Karnataka Studies, it does not offer a true insight into our past, present and our future. What Narayana means is that the tracks do not lead us to a fruit orchard. So, following this crucial first step, the next one, of understanding everything with a new perspective and reconstructing knowledge that illuminates our existence, follows automatically. We'll be able to understand Karnataka through Kannada. In other words, we would have put in place a Kannada-way of looking at ourselves and the wider world. We would have to create our own new tools to interpret ourselves and establish a Kannada worldview. He admits that this is not an easy task, but argues that it is imperative that we make a beginning. Only when we do this will a static 'receiving language' like Kannada become a 'giving language,' a tongue that can impart knowledge.

To people who protest a split up between 'insider' and 'outsider' knowledge, he has a sharp retort. He says they have invested heavily in universal models that are in use now and believe that they would serve the needs of the society at all time to come. They are not aware that there are pressures constantly working within cultures to severely restrict the frameworks of learning or perceiving knowledge. When such pressures are pointed out they may say we shouldn't allow them to haunt us. It is an outcome of such indifference that cultures and languages have reached a stage where they simply parrot what others have already stated, Narayana says. If this has to change, we have to use frameworks that have an organic or symbiotic relationship with the knowledge that is created. 

In an earlier interview to a little magazine, Narayana clarifies the points that he is making here: "In our enthusiasm to ensure that all knowledge is made available in Kannada we opened our gates wide. Now, we little realise that the knowledge we possess is what got transferred from elsewhere and that we haven't created any of them ourselves. We seem to have expanded our understanding of things, but then we have lost the ability to think independently. Ram Manohar Lohia had once said that India had not produced an independent thinker after the fourth century. Shankaracharya was the last one. We have come to such a pass that if need to develop a process of thinking we borrow it from outside, we have lost confidence that a Kannada mind can create it independently. When we borrow we struggle to adapt to them to our circumstances and that in itself appears like a huge exercise. We should not only have a goal to create our own knowledge systems but we should also believe that it is very much possible." 

In the same interview Narayana makes a more general observation. He says that a sort of languor or fatigue has impeded the Indian mind. To think independently has taken a back seat. "It is like the state of Hanuman's mind in Ramayana just before he is to leap across the ocean. He thinks he is an insignificant small ape and may not be able undertake the venture. But luckily for Hanuman, there are others around to instil confidence in him, that he is very much competent to carry out the job. But sadly, there is nobody to do that to our languages and cultures. We have simply given up."

Finally, let me end by posing a few nagging questions about this indigenous enterprise of knowledge: In the world that we live is it really possible to segregate 'our' knowledge and 'their' knowledge? What kind of an exercise would this be and what kind of mindset would this require? Is it not embedded with an element of violence like in all reclamations, revivals and revisitations? Is there a more reconciliatory path that we should explore? How does one erase the power relationship that exists between the language that gives and the one that receives? How does one handle the economics and politics of it? Isn't it a better strategy to reverse the process, at least as a first step to achieve parity, where you flood the power language, in this case English, with elements and idioms that are local? Does this  whole exercise of marking territory not shrink our world and vistas, is it pragmatic at all when the human mind is now such an enormous interface of innumerable influences? It is easy to unleash this project, but how does one control its dynamics? Haven't we seen the havoc caused by chauvinistic groups? Wouldn't they derive legitimacy from this kind of a knowledge project? How does one infuse a good deal of magnanimity into this whole process? 

Narayana perhaps anticipates some of these questions. He says in his final paragraph of the blog entry: "As we get into an exercise like this there are people who'll accuse us of being frogs in the well. They may be correct, but while we express wonderment about the expanse of the ocean, we can't allow our ponds and lakes to go dry. They sustain us not the sea."

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