PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes from Bangalore: In his classic Jnapaka Chitrashale, D.V. Gundappa (more popularly known to all as DVG) reports on the 1922 Kannada sahitya sammelana in Davanagere; M. Venkatakrishnaiah, also known as “Tataiah“, who was the doyen of Mysore journalism, presided over the session.
In those early years of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat, the sahitya sammelana used to be a modest affair. An advance party would go from Bangalore to the designated city and work with the local literary figures on the logistics.
So, in 1922, when a small advance party arrived in Davanagere, no arrangements had been made; even the venue hadn’t been decided. The advance party couldn’t buy groceries from the local stores nor could they get pots and pans to cook their own food.
The local community, it appeared, had decided to be non-cooperative, if not downright hostile.
There was quite likely some caste animus against a Brahmin-dominated Kannada Sahitya Parishat. While DVG hints at this, he never spells out the details. In any case, these details aren’t relevant for our story.
So, the advance party reported the matter to the office-bearers of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat.
Since the deputy commissioner, Chitradurga, couldn’t be contacted quickly enough, DVG went to meet with the then diwan, Albion Bannerjee. The Maharaja himself was the chief patron of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat and so assuring his visitors of government assistance, the diwan asked them to leave for Davanagere without any anxieties.
The next day DVG, Karpura Srinivasa Rao, Bellave Venkatanaranappa and others went to Davanagere and tried to negotiate with the prominent local leaders, but couldn’t make any headway. So they reluctantly wired their concerns to the diwan.
The next day, the DC arrived at the high school where all the visiting dignitaries were staying and ensured that the sahitya sammelana was conducted smoothly. While a section of Davanagere didn’t attend the sammelana, DVG reports, the organisers managed to get the pots and pans, as well as a venue.
I was reminded of this story on the eve of the 77th edition of the sahitya sammelana,which begins in Bangalore on Friday. It is no longer a modest affair. Vast amounts of money is mobilized from various sources, including the government.
Tens of thousands of people attend the event. Politicians and swamijis compete with each other to participate, often overshadowing the real heroes, the writers. Hundreds of booksellers set up stalls. Colleges are closed so that students and teachers can experience the festivities. And picking the president of the sahitya sammelana has become a big, somewhat political affair.
Let us also not forget the changed circumstances.
Cities compete to host the sahitya sammelana and rarely do we see caste groups or local communities boycotting the event. Local politicians, both of the political as well as literary and cultural variety, are keen to see themselves in the limelight.
Indeed, this annual event has become a big deal.
More importantly, the circumstances that motivated the organisers in the early decades of Kannada sahitya parishat have changed. Note that until 1956 Kannada speaking regions were administered by at least four major administrative entities—the presidencies of Bombay and Madras and then the kingdoms of Hyderabad and Mysore.
Except for Mysore, Kannada speakers were a minority in the other administrative regions, which meant Kannada wasn’t the language of the administration and rarely received the necessary state support. Consequently Kannada couldn’t develop as a language of administration, culture and literature.
As surprising as it may seem today, even the early discussions at the Kannada Sahitya Parishat were held in English. When B. M. Shri was invited to give a talk at one of the early parishat-sponsored events, he spoke in English on the great accomplishments of pre-modern Kannada literature.
I note this to point out the objective of the sahitya sammelana in the 1920s and 1930s was quite simply to organize likeminded litterateurs and activists, and to use the occasion to discuss the challenges confronting Kannada language, culture and people.
The office-bearers of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat opted to take the conference to different parts of the Kannada speaking regions and primarily celebrate Kannada, especially its literary accomplishments. That meant the Kannada writer was always the hero.
These early conventions were small enough to actually conduct useful discussions and hence there was a substantial intellectual dimension to these events. Equally important was a desire to build a sense of community among the participants, who would have come from different states and this was especially critical in the emergence of a Unification Movement.
Especially this latter goal was an important aspect of Kannada activism prior to the reorganization of linguistic states in 1956.
In the last 3-4 decades, the sahitya sammelana has evolved into more of a celebratory event. The last significant political interruption was during the height of the Bandaya literary movement in the late 1970s and since then ecstatic celebratory character of the sammelana has become more important.
Personally, I don’t see anything wrong in that.
The principal challenges that confronted Kannada have changed significantly. Be it the challenge of globalisation, or the marginalisation of Kannadiga in Karnataka itself and in the national arena or the slow progress of Kannada IT or most importantly, Kannada’s future as the language of education, administration and commerce—none of these are going to be discussed at and solved in a three-day event, even if we manage to find the right format and forums.
So, the main thrust of the critique articulated by many that the event doesn’t have a constructive dimension seems to be misplaced. I say don’t think about what doesn’t happen in these three days. Instead, consider what we need to do for 362 days and then we can spend these three days of the sahitya sammelana celebrating our achievements.
My reasoning is quite simple. When the Kannada Sahitya Parishat was established in 1915, Karnataka had no Universities, very few colleges and no other state institution that could do the work of Kannada.
Now, we have more than 20 universities, and thousands of colleges; the various academies, and other government institutions such as the Kannada book authority and Kannada development authority along with numerous civil society institutions function throughout the year.
While we may not be happy with their functioning and many of our problems remain unsolved, the entire burden of Kannada doesn’t fall on the sammelana itself. We must use the rest of the year to organize conferences and brainstorm on what we need to do.
Up until the 1950s, the sammelana was the only venue for such strategising but that no longer is the case. During the sammelana, if there has to be any speech-making, let that be to put forward the big picture and tell the Kannadigas what we need to do during the next year.
My hope is that such speeches wouldn’t be utilised to abuse our neighbors or lament globalisation but to put forward a constructive agenda. This could mean actually working on setting up sustainable Kannada schools, with rich curriculum and world-class facilities, instead of simply demanding that the government implement Kannada as the medium of instruction.
Or it could mean working on open source Kannada software projects.
Let this be the occasion when we, all of us, get to hear what our intellectuals and writers thought and figured out throughout the year.
Let this be a populist avenue where our writers and thinkers can have a wide audience.
Let this be an occasion for book exhibitions and cultural performances and poetry meets.
Thus, in my mind, the purpose of the sahitya sammelana seems to be something different, far simpler.
The sammelana offers a platform to highlight the cause of Kannada and bring attention to it. We could celebrate our accomplishments and articulate programmatically a vision for the future.
The sahitya sammelana also serves a different cultural and political purpose. As in the past, it puts the Kannada writer on a pedestal and celebrates him. Here the critics are right when they point out that politicians and swamijis have come to occupy the center stage. It would be perfectly all right to kick them out, and bring back the writer to the centre.
It would be extraordinary to have a 98 year-old Kannada grammarian address one-hundred thousand people in the heart of Bangalore. Such a privilege eludes the cosmopolitan Indian English writer, as Dr U. R. Anantha Murthy is fond of pointing out.
The English writer might get a huge advance and publicity in the English press but there is something spectacularly magical, and indeed culturally empowering about a writer demanding and holding the attention of sixty million Kannadigas and outlining his vision for their future. This is why our writers choose to write in Indian languages.
Let the celebrations begin
Photographs: A view of the main hall for the 77 all India Kannada sahitya sammelana at the National College Grounds, in Bangalore on Thursday (top); and Mysore pak being prepared for the participants at a kitchen at Kempegowda Nagar (Karnataka Photo News)