Shivapura, the mythical village of Chandrashekar Kambar’s imagination, appears for the first time in Helatena Kela — a long ballad he wrote in 1964. In the nearly six decades since, Kambar, now 80, has returned repeatedly to the village and its people in several of his works. Written at the height of the modernist Navya movement in Kannada literature, Helatena Kela was remarkable for being the outlier — for choosing to return to the folk tradition of north Karnataka, and to the collective memory of his community, to write a fable of post-colonial modernity.
Kambar is one of the most important contemporary Kannada writers, with staggering versatility — he is a poet and dramatist, as well as a filmmaker and musician. He was awarded the Jnanpith in 2010. In the recent English translation of his latest novel, Shiva’s Drum (Speaking Tiger), he depicts not a rural idyll, but a Shivapura in crisis — its waters polluted, and its land sold out to multinational greed.
In this interview at his home in Bengaluru, he talks about the origins of Shivapura, his belief in folklore and the new novel he is writing. Excerpts:
Could you tell me about your village? That is where it all started, didn’t it?
Shivapura is based on my real village, Ghodgeri in Belgaum district. It is a village where people live, love and die passionately. They are not people interested in progress, but they want to participate. They don’t want to live in a city. A city has history, it has no memories. My village has memories. Memory is very creative — it creates symbols, songs, rituals. Like that, its creativity came to me, the son of that village.
Were you the only writer in the family?
Yes. My family members were blacksmiths. My brothers’ sons, who now live there, are blacksmiths. We also have a little land, which we sow.
Our village is famous for theatre. We used to watch a lot of folk theatre, what we call sannata or doddata. Every day before school, I went to the forest to graze the cattle. My other siblings stayed back home or in the smithy to work. In the forest, my friends and I would pretend we were theatre players and enact those plays.
When did you know that you wanted to tell stories or become a writer?
If you are in a village, you will definitely tell stories. My village is near the river Ghataprabha; at the spot where the river bends. That part of the district is famous for murders. The best season for murders is June-July, the season of the rains. The river is overflowing and in spate. If you throw a corpse into the river, it will be washed away or the fish will nibble at its face and disfigure it. Unfortunately, these bodies would wash up near our village. The whole village would be agog. Who is the murdered man? Who killed the person? How was it done? The whole village became very creative as it came up with thousands of stories. In the morning, I would create a story and in the afternoon, someone would tell the same story to me (chuckles).
You lived through British rule, didn’t you?
My father was a freedom fighter, one of four in the village. He was a devotee of Gandhi. He wrote letters to Gandhi, some of them he got replies to.
I went to Belgaum for my higher education and the British had a lashkar there. I hated them from the first. We could not face them, they were so powerful. We were not governed by a king or a queen but bureaucrats. That bureaucracy had no face, it was dangerous because you did not know who your enemy was. We were afraid: when they came, our life cycle and beliefs changed drastically.
Our creative forces were stronger and more meaningful before the coming of the British. A poet or an artist addressed himself to the collective multitude of people. But colonialism turned this upside down.
How did you react to the Navya movement in Kannada literature?
I protested against the beliefs of the movement. I said I am not writing modern poetry, I will write in my language and my folklore. For me, it was like a freedom fight.
I was burning with anger when I wrote Helatena Kela. It is about a demon, who takes the form of a tiger and comes to Shivapura. It kills the chieftain (Gowda) and returns to the village by turning into the Gowda.
[For me, that is like the] British coming to India, which is when we were introduced to the concept of history. History separates the past from the present. It separated us and all our poets from the past. The East India Company introduced us to the concept of museums — we didn’t need them before that. They declared that the vidya you have in your language is false and we accepted that. All of this, which the movement ignored, I questioned.
You often speak of different conceptions of time in your work.
The British divide the past, present and future. We don’t. It is one continuum. We have the concept of chiranjeev. The Hanuman who appears in Ramayana also appears in Mahabharata. A woman in a folk song, for example, talks about her son and Krishna playing together. She doesn’t see Krishna as a god who accompanies the Pancha Pandavas, but as her child’s friend. Whatever we want our gods to be, we create it. Even our gods have no boundaries of time.
Was there criticism that what you wrote was folk and not literature?
The modern poets criticised it harshly. He is still a folk poet, they said dismissively. Once, Rammanohar Lohia had come to Sagar in Shimoga district, where I was working in a college. He heard me recite Helatena Kela. He liked it a lot. Here is a poet who opposes colonialism, he said. Until then, I didn’t know that I was doing such a thing. I was proud of myself.
Every poet starts with his personal experience which provides him with a mythology of images and symbols — that is the mother tongue of all the poets in the world. I believe my language of folklore is capable of expressing the most modern ideas. The people of Shivapura are not the audience of my work. My readers are in the city, probably because my poetry appeals to the villager living in the heart of a city dweller.
Tell me about your relationship with AK Ramanujan.
Ramanujan invited me to Chicago University in 1968. I was a lecturer there for two years. We had to teach one hour a week. He was the head of the department. So, we had plenty of time. We used to talk and talk and talk. He had liked Helatena Kela. He said you have done something good and original. I even presented a paper on folk theatre in Karnataka, where I argued that Brecht’s idea of ‘distancing element’ and the concept of ‘living theatre’ were already in our plays.
What did you talk about?
We shared stories. If Ramanajun told one story, I would tell an equivalent story. When he told me about the Narcissus myth, I told him about ours. In the Greek myth, Narcissus is a beautiful man who falls in love with his own reflection and dies. In an Indian folk tale, a beautiful prince marries a girl. But he goes to the river instead to look at himself. His corpse stared back at him. He pulled out the corpse, put it in his lap and ate it. When his belly was full, he would throw it into the water and go home. Our myth, unlike the Greek one, comments on the action as well. Those conversations helped me a lot. It confirmed my beliefs in Shivapura and folklore.
The Shivapura of Shiva’s Drum has a lot of anguish about how farmers’ lives have changed.
The British went away, but we adopted the economy they left us. Even now we have IAS officers ruling us. We could have made an economy where farmers are central. Instead, we keep saying progress and competition. That’s what the novel says is wrong.
Are you writing anything now?
I am writing a novel on Mahmud Gawan, the prime minister of the Bahamid Sultanate in Bidar. He was a fascinating man from Iran — a poet and an administrator. His interest in business brought him here, and he built an international university in Bidar. He fought for his king against the Vijayanagara rulers, and taught them the use of gunpowder for the first time. But he had many enemies and eventually their conspiracies led to the king ordering him to be killed.
Do you wish to go back to Ghodgeri?
Farmers have lost their faith in the earth. First, they treated the earth as mother, then as a wife, now they treat her as a prostitute. There are several problems of water and drought, all created by the government and the economy. No, I don’t think I want to return to the village. Bengaluru is now my home.