In May this year, the Bangalore-based historian Ramachandra Guha delivered a lecture in Delhi on “The rise and fall of the bilingual intellectual”, lamenting the demise in modern India of writers, thinkers and activists who were active in more than one language.
The occasion was the birth centenary of B.S. Kesavan, the Mysore-born scholar who spoke Kannada, Tamil, English and a smattering of Hindi and Bengali, and became the first Indian director of the National Library.
The latest issue of the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) runs the full text of the lecture in Guha (who like Kesavan’s son Mukul Kesavan, but unlike their Kannada-speaking multilingual fathers, are largely bilingual), in which he talks of the multilinguality in bygone Mysore :
“In the inter-War period, no Indian town better expressed this multilinguality than the town where B.S. Kesavan spent some of his best years, Mysore. Among the town’s residents then were the Kannada poet K.V. Puttappa (Kuvempu), who wrote political essays in English; the English novelist R.K. Narayan, who was equally fluent in Tamil and Kannada; and the journalist H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who thought and wrote in Kannada, but whose command of English was later put to good effect in the very many speeches he ghosted for successive prime ministers of India.
“A somewhat younger resident was A.K. Ramanujan, who later recalled that, growing up in Mysore, he had necessarily to become equally familiar with the language of the street (Kannada), the language of the kitchen (Tamil, spoken by his mother), and the language of the study upstairs (occupied by his father, who liked to converse in English). Ramanujan was an accomplished poet in both Kannada and English, and achieved undying fame for his translations into English of Kannada and Tamil folklore and folk poetrywork that was enabled, in the first instance, by his growing up in the multilingual intellectual universe of Mysore.
“Mysore was here representative of other towns in colonial India. The intellectual culture of Dharwad, Cochin, Allahabad, etc, was likewise bilingual, with writers and professors operating both in English and in the language of the locality or province. There was a cultural continuum that ran between qasba and mahanagar, between the smaller urban centres and the great cities of the presidencies.”
Read the full lecture: The rise and fall of the bilingual intellectual
Also read: Mallya gharana will never replace Kirana gharana
Where can we read Kuvempu’s Political Essays in English?
English na whiskey Kannadada kallu kudio naavu eradu bhaashelu bareetheevi. We may not be bilingual buddhejeevi donkeys, but certainly not one-language ponies. Nobody, buddhijeevi or otherwise, can afford to be monolingual in the New India.
By the way did Raamu Guha ever learn to speak Kannada or at least cultivate a passing acquaintance with it?
Am not sure how many languages a roadside passer-by in Bangalore East knows these days, with , undoubtedly, Tamil being spoken predominantly!. Tamil has become a monsrous medium engulfing kannada ,which is very ironic & appalling for die-hard Kannada hard-liners! It is Tamil,more than other languages, which is the harbinger element to push kannada to a dismal state, atleast in Bangalore East!
The true danger to Kannada are Kannadigas who for whatever reason don’t speak Kannada. A language survives only as long as it is needed. Bengaluru East has always been a Tamil and Urdu stronghold, lost to us forever.
Kannada is not threatened in rural areas.
Beautiful speech! Some of Kuvempu’s early writings in English are at Kuppali.
Early writings were uncontroversial literary works, right?
At least his political writings in Kannada came a bit later, AFAIK.
@PTL you are spot on! Many urban residents in India are bilingual/ multilingual by nature and this is not confined to the so called educated class alone. I cannot vouch for writers but certainly thinkers and activists do use multiple languages. So I am not sure if this argument is totally valid. Maybe the medium and the idiom the thinkers use nowadays are different (TV or online).
Kuvempu wrote about British rule, Indian caste system etc in English, when he was young. Kuvempu had a disliking for Kannada.
His relatives in Shimoga have/had some of his beatiful letters written in English during late 1920s and early 1930s.
A few years back there was a small seminar on Kuvempu’s unpublished letters and writings in Shimoga.
If I remember right didnt a British professor of his encourage him to switch to writing in kannada?
@ Yes, if I am right, his name is G H Cousins/Cosins. I think he is an Irish writer, not British.
He first started writing in English and brought out a collection named ‘Beginners Muse’. When he presented a copy to Irish poet James Cousens, then in Mysore, he appreciated the young poet’s efforts. However, he advised him to write in Kannada to reach the masses. That was a turning point (1921).
The story is that Kuvempu put together a slender volume of verses in English, entitled “A Beginner’s Verse.” The Brit in question is Edmond or J. M. Symonds who advised the future Rashtrakavi to write in Kannada. Hard to miss the ambiguity of his attitude to the quality of the poet’s work.
well, we are multi- tonguing all the time. At least the ones who love to hear the echoes of the local languages. Then comes English announcing – ‘this the life’ – considering knowledge of english leads to lucrative jobs, we need to step up jobs for those who speak the local variant of the language well. then what about reservations for those who speakreadwrite more than one language ?