By: Ashok Vajpeyi
One of the most interesting and enriching things that happened to me was knowing, for nearly half a century, the outstanding Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, both as a major writer of our time and a close friend. He was always ready to join any struggle against the devaluation of literature and language, against the growing influence of and space for parochialism, religious bigotry and casteism, and against the marginalisation of the pluralistic idea of an India self-critical, open and dynamic, as embodied in Indian literature. For him, Indian modernity’s true strength and inspiration lay in the vision of Gandhi and Lohia. I remember him asserting eloquently in Stockholm, where we had gone for a series of seminars, that Gandhi offered a radical critique of the West and thought that not only was Western civilisation not good for India, it was not good for the West either. When we were working together to create a Tagore reader for a university, he was equally emphatic, true democrat that he was, that we have adequate space for Tagore’s critique of Gandhi’s nationalism as well. Drawing inspiration from Lohia, he looked critically at tradition while acknowledging its power and continuing relevance in our society.
He was a social activist and never failed to raise his voice on many issues of the day, and he resisted all attempts at the colonisation of literature by ideology, politics, globalisation, market economy etc. He believed deeply in the autonomy and freedom of literature. He held that literature, at all times, was a kind of satyagraha through which writers expressed and embodied the spirit of freedom, creativity and imagination. As the then president of the Sahitya Akademi, Ananthamurthy led it to reject the Haksar Committee’s recommendation that the Akademi’s president be appointed by the government, on the advice of a search committee, as is the case with two other similar institutions. The practice of the Sahitya Akademi electing its own president continues to this day largely because he reinforced it through his bold stand.
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Ananthamurthy’s Kannada writings speak of a self-critical but rooted modernism, with innovations and discoveries on both self and society. He firmly held, in his creative as well as his critical writings, that India is a civilisational enterprise that has survived millennia through its plurality of religions, languages, customs and cuisines. He emerged, in the face of the growing influence of English, as a powerful exponent of Indian languages. He was able to argue convincingly that literatures in the Indian languages were much more daring and innovative, deep-rooted and imaginative than the over-projected writing in English. He became the most articulate spokesman of Indian languages and literatures, both nationally and internationally. If Jansatta made the news of his death the banner story of the day, it was acknowledging that, though a Kannada writer, he has been an important presence in Hindi as well.
Both of us worried about two issues for a long time: first, the lack of a social security system for writers and artists; second, the lack of good translations of modern writings in Indian languages into foreign languages. We proposed setting up a national welfare fund for writers and artists, chiefly to provide financial assistance for medical purposes to persons in indigent circumstances, and an autonomous foundation, Indian Literature Abroad, for promoting the translation of Indian works into major languages of the world. The first proposal has been pending with the government for more than 15 years now. The second one was approved and a project, appropriately headed by Ananthamurthy, was started in the ministry of culture. It has recently been transferred to the Sahitya Akademi.
Though a liberal to the core, Ananthamurthy always felt that the idea of India could not be adequately understood without its religious plurality. We both agreed that spirituality should be liberated from the clutches of religion; the secular in India should champion spiritualism itself; writers and intellectuals must engage in a dialogue with religion. Once, when we were travelling to Mysore, he narrated a long conversation he had had with the head of a religious peeth that had aroused controversy. While he affirmed the importance of religions in the social-cultural life of India, he was always against their hegemonising literature. He also held that true secularism, which he rightly understood as “sarva dharma sambhav”, was practised and preserved by the illiterate and the poor in our country, and was shunned and undermined by the educated and the well-off.
A few months ago, during the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections, Ananthamurthy was invited, along with former Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed and me, to address a press conference. In spite of his indifferent health, he accepted and spoke forcefully against Narendra Modi and the BJP. His voice was of courage and conviction, of concern and conscience. It will remain intellectually and creatively present for a long time.
The writer has been a cultural adminstrator and is a Hindi poet and critic