When Kuvempu didn’t want to write in Kannada

In 1976, the English poet Dom Moraes met Dr K.V. Puttappa in his house Udayaravi in Vontikoppal, in a brief encounter which shows that Kuvempu wasn’t quite the rigid mascot of Kannada chauvinism his self-appointed spokesmen have turned him into.

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Dr K.V. Puttappa was at one time the Vice Chancellor of Mysore University, but this is not his main claim to distinction, since he is one of the generation of Kannada writers, like Bendre and Karanth, whose work is now being recognised all over the country. He is a stocky man with white hair.

We met him in his, quiet, comfortable house, and there he talked in a quiet and comfortable voice.

“My earliest poems,” he said, “while I was at college, were written in English, and influenced by the English romantic poets. They have now been collected, some at least, in a book called Alien Harp. I wrote in English until I met an Irish poet, James Cousins, who was living in Adyar. He came here on a lecture tour, read my poems, and told me, “Why don’t you write in your own language?” So I started to write in Kannada, even though I thought Cousins was wrong.”

His output, to date, includes some 20 volumes of Kannada verse, which I am incompetent to criticise, though an epic poem Ramayana Darshanam has won a national award. This work is being tanslated, Dr Puttappa said, into Hindi, English, and for some reason Sanskrit, a language I would have thought few people read nowadays.

However, Dr Puttappa seems very keen on Sanskrit: “Some of my lyrics have been translated into Sanskrit,” he told me, “and I have sent them to Sanskrit scholars in Japan, the USA, and Holland.” An audience of Sanskrit scholars would seem, to me, a somewhat limited audience, but Dr Puttappa seemed happy with it. “Because I had an intimate knowledge of English metre,” he said, “I was able to write sonnets in iambic pentameter in Kannada. I was the first poet to write sonnets in Kannada. Of course, others are now trying.”

During his time as Vice Chancellor of the University, betwen 1956 and 1960, he introduced Kannada as a teaching medium, and produced books of instruction in Kannada.

“Generally,” he said, “students are now far more intelligent and conscious of the world than they were in my day. The old frustrations are not there any more: the old values are not in favour. But now the better people want to emigrate. They go abroad and then they stay there. Suppose they had stayed here, what prospects would they have to earn well and live a better life? My own son and daughter are abroad: my son in Australia, my daughter in the USA.

“‘If we create a situation where they can stay here and prosper, as we may be able to since the Emergency, the better people will stay here.”

Shortly after this we left him in his quiet house, fenced in by photographs and awards, silent.

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Excerpted from The Open Eyes, a journey through Karnataka by Dom Moraes, illustrations by Mario Miranda. Published by the Government of Karnataka, 1976