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The living bard

Honour well-deserved

Jnanapith awardee Dr Chandrashekar Kambar is a towering personality in the field of Kannada literature. In his creative career of over half a century, he has always grown from work to work and constantly broken new ground, writes H S Shiva Prakash

man of letters Dr Chandrashekar Kambar.Kannada has made it again. For the eighth time, Kannada, a language with an unbroken literary history of over a thousand years, has bagged the prestigious Bharathiya Jnanpith Award. Kannada is now ahead of all other literatures when it comes to winning Jnanpith awards. Thirteen years ago, when another Kannada writer had got the same award, there were murmurs in Delhi. One leading Rajasthani writer was very irritated. “Better call it Kannadi Jnanpith rather than Bharatiya Jnanpith,” he said. Another Indian English writer grumbled that Jnanpith was ignoring the unsurpassed achievements of Indian English writers. However much critics bemoan it, Kannada language community has a good enough reason to celebrate the fact that Jnanpith Award has gone this time to Chandrashekar Kambar, one of the tallest living Kannada writers who attained national and international acclaim in spite of being deeply rooted in a very regional culture and idiom of North Karnataka.

There are many reasons why Kambar, now 74, deserves this most sought-after award. In fact, this award comes as a culmination of a series of awards and accolades he has received since 1958 when his literary voyage began with the publication of his first book of poems, Mugulu. In his creative career of over half a century, the sheer quantity of his creative output has been astounding as he has nine books of poems, 23 plays, five novels and a considerable body of discursive writing on areas like folklore, theatre and literature. His work is no less impressive for its quality and variety. Further, unlike most of his peers and seniors, he has always been growing from work to work and constantly breaking new ground. There is as much difference between the Kambar of his first most celebrated play, Jokumaraswami, and the author of his latest play, Shivarathri, as between, say, Shakespeare’s early work, Romeo and Juliet, and his last masterpiece, The Tempest. His early poetry, characterised by passionate intensity, has now matured into profound expression of a penetrating understanding of human condition.

The rich variety of his massive output notwithstanding, there is also a continuity of themes and concerns in his works. To facilitate this, he has created his own mythical space that becomes the backdrop of his images, characters and situations that he conjures up in work after work, genre after genre.


Shivapura is a country of mind, like Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg or Lorca’s Andalusia — a breeding ground of creative explorations. It is an imagined Utopia based on the memories of his native village Godageri in Belgaum District. Making this his base, he goes on dramatising how the tragic intervention of linear modernity ruptured the self-sufficient orders of the regional past. One cannot think of any other Kannada writer who has worked in as many genres, both literary and non-literary, as he has done, excepting greats of early modern Kannada literature like Kuvempu, Bendre or Shivaram Karanth. Of him, we can say what Dr Johnson said of Goldsmith: “He touched no form which he did not adorn.” When one considers the rich body of poetry, drama, fiction, cinema and music he has created, we see not only God’s plenty, but also nature’s variety.

Like late Shivaram Karanth, Kambar has fertilised diverse areas of culture. He has functioned efficiently in many important capacities. He has headed prestigious institutions, both at the state and central level, like the Karnataka Natak Academy and the National School of Drama. As the first vice-chancellor of Kannada University and its imaginative architect, he created a unique campus and an institutional structure in the hope of laying the foundation of what he called ‘Kannada knowledge’. He has played crucial roles in the capacity of an honourable member in the functioning of various institutions of national significance like Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi.
After his retirement, Kambar was nominated Member, Karnataka Legislative Council, to which he made significant contributions through his interventions. He has widely travelled the world over, east and west. Kambar, the educationist, the administrator and statesman has had a very busy public life in the midst of which he has found space and time to produce his enormous oeuvre. The writer and the artist in him has not let his public preoccupations  interfere with the purity of his creative medium.

In a situation where one had established masters like Kuvempu, Karanth, Bendre and great contemporaries like Lankesh and Tejaswi, it was not an easy task for Kambar to carve a niche for himself.

By the time his early masterpieces like Helatene Kela and Rishyasringa came out, it was abundantly clear that Kambar had a voice different from all the stalwarts of Kannada literature, past and present. While his peers and predecessors were looking at the heap of broken images that past had become, he looks at the modern world through the eye chastened by the wisdom of a rooted oral tradition. His well-known poems Mao Tse Tung, Gangamayi, Delhi the Cabaret Dancer are examples of this way of seeing.

His early works depict how the Utopian world of Shivapura gave in tragically to what Yeats would call ‘the ugly tide of the modern world.’ But all this does not amount to revivalism in Kambar. For the past he recreates is different from the upper-caste Utopias of Great Culture. Since his middle period represented by that remarkable book of poems, Bellimeenu, his vision became tempered by the healing power of all-embracing compassion which he calls ‘Shivalinga Tatwa’ in his Mahamayi. His recent epic narrative, Shikharasurya, an echo-chamber of multiple Kannada idioms of various traditions, is the confluence of all his earlier styles and explorations. Not tempted by the false dawns of socialism, fascism, liberalism or globalisation, he has produced a healing tale for our times drawing on the wisdom of ages. A living bard, Kambar still continues to open magic casements on to mysterious worlds of the possible without becoming blind to tribulations of the present in the multiplicity of idioms beyond the reach of any contemporary Kannada writer.

So, Bharatiya Jnanpith has honoured itself and Kannada creativity by honouring Kambar.

(The writer is director, The Tagore Centre, Embassy of India, Berlin)

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