A household name wherever Kannada is read and spoken, Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa, familiar as Kuvempu, is the first Kannada writer to receive the prestigious Jnanapith award. The State government honoured him as “Rashtrakavi”. Even as we celebrate Kuvempu’s birthday today, here is an attempt to recall the episode that changed the course of his literary career.
A significant but lesser known aspect in the literary career of Kuvempu is the fact that he began writing poetry not in Kannada, but in English. Kuvempu had a great penchant to write poetry even as a small kid. But those poems were all in English, influenced by modern English poets. He was encouraged by teachers and friends as well. When he was in class 10, in 1922, he even published a 16-page anthology of collected poems in English. After this, he joined the Maharaja College in Mysuru, and continued to write English poetry.
While in college, as the poet himself recounted later, an unexpected incident occurred, that brought a metamorphosis in Kuvempu’s literary career. It was an Irish poet, James H Cousins, with whom Kuvempu had a chance meeting, who dissuaded him from writing in English and advised him to pursue poetic instincts in his mother tongue, Kannada. As a result, he switched from English to Kannada to express his poetical sensibilities. The incident heralded the birth of an unparalleled Kannada poet in him.
James was a multifaceted personality. He was an Irish writer, playwright, actor, literary critic, editor, educationalist, poet, and art critic. He was a great admirer of Indian art, culture and literature. In India, James had maintained several close friendships with many prominent personalities like Rabindranath Tagore and Rukmini Devi Arundale.
In 1924, James H Cousins visited the Maharaja College to deliver a lecture and the teachers there suggested that Puttappa meet James and seek his advise. Puttappa then gave him his collection of poems. James flipped through the papers, looked at Puttappa, who was clad in spotless khadi and spoke with a tone of displeasure. He straight away asked him how he could not be a nationalist in his language preference too. Puttappa recalls James’ words, “Have you written anything in your own language?”
Puttappa, who till then was receiving accolades from teachers and students for his English poems, felt disappointed to hear such a comment from James. He tried to defend the beauty of English and said that profound thoughts cannot be expressed in Kannada as in English.
He further said that the literary level of Kannada was low; its meter old and archaic, syntax and grammar poor, unlike English. James, having heard patiently what Puttappa had to say in defence of English, said that what he said of Kannada was not correct.
No language, he told, is capable, by itself. He then gave the example of Rabindranath Tagore, who he said, has elevated Bengali to a new level through his writings. James Cousins advised Puttappa to invent new meters, coin new adages and make experiments. He told him that if he could create epic literature, people from the west would translate it into their language like that of Tagore’s poetry. He told him with a firm voice that he cannot produce creative literature in English, which is an alien language to him.
Greatly upset, the young Kuvempu collected back his manuscript of poems from James, took leave and returned disappointed and angry. Though the advise left him upset and angry momentarily, he later saw reason and accepted the suggestion made with good reason and logic. From then on, Puttappa resolved to write in Kannada and as he himself admitted, it was a “historic event” in his life. Since then, Kuvempu, as a Kannada poet never looked back.