How our buddhijeevis became one-tongue ponies

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

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