Chandrasekhar Kambar on our sense of history

The Kannada poet, playwright and novelist Dr Chandrasekhar Kambar has bagged the nation’s most coveted literary honour, the Jnanpith Award, for 2009, becoming the eighth Kannadiga, the most for any Indian language, to be so decorated.

The former UN diplomat turned politician, Shashi Tharoor, wrote about meeting Kambar at a kavi sammelan in New York in 2003:

“One intervention that I found particularly striking was that of the Kannada poet, playwright and film-maker Kambar, who argued that the Indian cultural sensibility was marked by its non-linear notion of time: ‘Time is not a controlled sequence of events in our minds, but an amalgamation of all events, past to present’.

“Against the Western notion of “history”, Kambar posited a view of “many ages and many worlds”, including the mythic, constituting the Indian sense of present reality. Krishna’s lesson to Arjuna on the Kurukshetra battlefield, Kambar argued, is not remote for us; that is why the frenzied mobs in Ayodhya cannot be persuaded by those (like me) who want them to leave the past alone. (The intellectual who says to the Bajrang Dal thug, “leave the past where it is”, is confronted by the Hindu sage who replies, “the past is here”.)

“Kambar went on to challenge the notion that the ‘lack of historical consciousness is a shortcoming’, and declared that it was only an intellectual surrender to the British that led Indians to ‘consider living outside history an insult’.

“We imitated the West in creating museums to house the relics of our past, whereas traditionally we had lived with our past in our daily present. This British notion of history forced us, Kambar said, to see our own literature through a distorted perspective.

“We are obsessed with the ‘original’ nature of historic texts and with the need to separate them from later interpolations. Instead of swallowing the Western notion of the integrity of a text and its sole author, we ought to celebrate the way in which Indians continually told and retold the Mahabharata, adding to it and modifying it. It is a matter of pride, Kambar declared, ‘that an entire country has collectively created the epic over a period of 10,000 years’.

The other seven literary heavyweights who have bagged the Jnanpith are Kuvempu, K. Shivarama Karanth, Da Ra Bendre, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, V.K. Gokak, Girish Karnad and U.R. Anantha Murthy .

Photograph: Playwright Dr Chandrashekara Kambara, who has bagged the Jnanpith Award, being greeted by his wife Satyabhama at their residence in Bangalore on Monday (Karnataka Photo News)

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