Earlier this week, BJP president Amit Shah said if Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had read Kuvempu — and especially his exhortation that Karnataka should be sarva janangada shantiya thota (a garden of peace for all people) — he would not have divided Kannadigas by recommending minority status for Lingayats (the followers of the 12th century radical poet Basavanna). Siddaramaiah responded by wondering why Shah had not read the next lines of the Kannada state anthem, composed by Kuvempu: “Hindu Chraista Musalmaana/Paarasika Jainara udyaana”, the poet’s wish for a garden that was home to all religions.
Kuppalli Venkatappa Puttappa (1904-94) or Kuvempu was born into a Vokkaliga family and raised in Kuppalli in western Karnataka’s Shimoga district. He was the first major Shudra writer in Kannada, who, through his plays, novels, poetry, essays — and indeed, the example of his life — shaped a powerful critique of the caste system and organised religion. He was a fierce advocate of jaati vinasha or the destruction of the caste system — “I had no belief in the rituals of Vedic Hinduism; instead, I abhorred it. I had hatred for the dictum of the Manu Shastra… that a Shudra should not study Sanskrit and that if he listens to anyone reciting it, molten lead should be poured into his ears,” he wrote.
Writer and critic Rajendra Chenni describes Kuvempu as “the first great public intellectual of modern Karnataka”. “In his poems”, Chenni said, “Kuvempu gave a call to leave temples, churches and masjids. He practised what he preached — he never visited a temple, and advised young Dalits and Shudras not to enter temples where they were humiliated.”
And yet, Kuvempu’s critique of Hinduism was more complex than the absolute rejection of religion that was preached by his older Tamil contemporary E V Ramasamy ‘Periyar’. “He (Kuvempu) was also a lover of Sanskrit, someone who was creatively engaged with the Vedas and Advaita philosophy,” says Chandan Gowda, professor of sociology at Bengaluru’s Azim Premji University.
Kuvempu saw tradition as a golden family heirloom that should not be thrown away because it is outdated, but which should be smelted and recast to a new form. In his retelling of the Ramayana, the Sri Ramayana Darshanam, Rama jumps into the flames with Sita when her chastity has to be proved to the people of Ayodhya. But it is the play Shoodra Tapaswi (1944), which best illustrates Kuvempu’s belief in the need to remould the past, even its toxic lineage. In the Ramayana’s Uttara Kanda, Shambooka, a man from a lower caste, sits in meditation — a violation of the tenets of the caste system. A Brahmin approaches Rama to complain that Shambooka’s transgression had led to his son’s death. While in the Valmiki Ramayana, Rama, duty-bound to follow his dharma, beheads the meditating ascetic, Kuvempu rewrites the story: Rama’s arrow salutes Shambooka, and aims for the Brahmin instead.
While modernity would come to Kannada poetry only with Gopalkrishna Adiga and the Navya movement, Kuvempu’s Kaanuru Heggadati (1936) and Malegalalli Madumagalu (1967) are regarded as the earliest and finest examples of the modern Kannada novel. “His depiction of the life of the Vokkaligas and other lower castes in Karnataka’s Malnad region (the thickly forested western and eastern faces of the Western Ghats) opened up a new world for Kannada literature. He also showed that such stories and lives could become the themes for such mega novels,” says novelist and playwright Vivek Shanbhag.
Some see Amit Shah’s visit to Kuppalli as a nod to Karnataka’s powerful Vokkaliga community. “But Kuvempu is not just a Vokkaliga writer. He belongs to all of us. And this appropriation by whichever party must be resisted,” says Shanbhag.
The BJP might also be too late in the game, says Gowda. Siddaramaiah, whose campaign has pitted Kannada pride and a rooted secularism against the BJP’s idea of Hindutva, has often invoked Kuvempu, along with Basava, as the double-helix of the Kannada cultural DNA. “This is the land of Basavanna and Kuvempu, who have sown the seeds of secularism that has grown into a huge tree,” the Chief Minister has said in several speeches. According to scholar K C Shiva Reddy, Kuvempu perceived Basava “as someone who tried to emancipate the masses with the light of knowledge and science, as a harbinger of solace to the deprived classes”.
To critics of the state government’s push for a Karnataka flag, he has pointed to the first line of the state anthem or naada geete, written by Kuvempu — “Jaya bharata jananiya tanujate” or “Victory to Karnataka, the daughter of India” — to spell out his idea of federalism. “When we speak about primacy to Kannada… or call for adoption of a state flag, we are contributing to the building of a strong India; for, a confident Indian nation is confident about the individuality of all her daughters.”
Kuvempu, however, was not always a great advocate of Kannada. As a young man, he thought it was too lowly a language for profound thoughts and great literature. But an encounter with the Irish poet James H Cousins, who rejected his poems written in English and told him that “no one can write the best poetry in a language that is not his own”, set him on a different course.
Kuvempu’s idea of the vishvamaanav, the universal human, is at odds with the identity politics that is the currency of contemporary elections. In his much-anthologised poem Aniketana, he called for the spirit to be “unhoused” and set free of all social markers, whether of caste or religion or nationality. For him, the individual was above the clan or community. He preached the equality of all human beings and rejected the wisdom of one book or religion. “No one”, he wrote, “should belong to any particular religion; on the contrary, everyone should belong to “his own” religion — the religion that he has personally discovered. This will mean that there will be as many religions as there are individuals in the world.”
Kuvempu was drawn to the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda, a fact underlined by Shah in his speeches. But, says Cheni, “He (Kuvempu) admired Vivekananda greatly, but as a mystic and monk who also criticised the caste system, Brahminical priesthood and obscurantism very powerfully. He did not see him as a Hindu or a Hindutva icon or mascot.”
To the vast majority of Kannadigas, Kuvempu is a living, breathing presence, “even if they have not read him”, says Shanbhag. A small booklet he wrote, Mantra Mangalaya, urged young men and women to opt for simple weddings, where a priest was not needed, no record was kept of auspicious moments, and which proclaimed the equality of the man and the woman. It has been embraced by generations of idealist couples. “Kuvempu represents the humanist, anti-caste, egalitarian intellectual tradition of Karnataka in its most powerful manifestation,” says Chenni.
That tradition is as good as the people who will defend it. When the Karnataka government declared Kuvempu’s poem as the state anthem in 2003, a swami of the Pejawar Matha, founded by the 14th century Dvaita philosopher Madhavacharya, objected. In the grand roll call of spiritual figures that Kuvempu invokes in the song, how could Madhavacharya not be present? Kuvempu’s son, the great writer Purnachandra Tejaswi, argued that it was intentional, as Madhavacharya had described Shudras as people consigned to an “eternal hell” — and time had not made his followers declare the caste system as invalid. A great uproar ensued, and eventually the state government relented, inserting his name into the song, against the wishes of Kuvempu’s son.