Karnataka, Kerala and the whole wide world

How do cultures flourish without losing their individual identities? Global tourism and tech is not the answer, says theatre guru K V Subbanna

I am in Kerala for the second time. This isn't very far from where I live. Before I can reach Karnataka's northernmost city of Bidar, I can reach Thiruvananthapuram. 

I may say that one horizon of my Kerala is illuminated by the brilliance of Acharya Sankara, who hails from your Kaladi. 

In those days, when India was going through many upheavals because of its rich diversity, it was Sankara who created a new centre of balance that did not reject diversity.

Kannada epic poetry makes frequent references to Kerala. Our poet Pampa of the 10th century praises himself as Keralaviti kati sutrarurajana. That is, he had the friendship of maidens from Kerala, Malaya and Andhra. 

I have not read the poetry of your first poet Ezhutachchan.

But I understand that he singlehandedly laid the foundation, in the 17th century, for the Malayalam community and state, much like our Kannada poets and artists had done three centuries before his time. 

By Ezhutachchan's time, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and the English had already entered India. 

The English reign was a time of great churning, and our cultural life had become a turbulent ocean.

Not losing their sense of direction, your kings Swati Tirunal and Ravi Varma created a harmonious blend of the East and the West in music and painting. These became models for the whole country; they became tradition makers. 

And when we talk of Malayalam literature, the list of writers is long. 

Although I have not read them all in detail, they appear to me like dear members of the family of Kannada writers. 

I had seen, and been overwhelmed by, Ramu Kariat's delightfully simple and touching film ‘Chemmeen’, produced before the New Wave was inaugurated in south Indian cinema.

Authentic elements of our ancient theatre live on, nurtured by your koothus, Kudiyattam, Krishnattam, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam and such other forms.

Also, Sanskrit learning and ayurveda have made Kerala a treasure house of ancient knowledge.

Kavalam Narayana Pannikar has attracted national attention by creating a new theatre from what he found relevant and fascinating in old theatre.

We cannot forget the breeze that comes from other lands and renews the old.  

They say the Christian faith came to your land the very century it was born. The Jewish faith had already entered your shores by then.

By the 5th and 6th centuries, the Arabs had set foot here. 

From then till now, several world faiths have come and settled in the cool shade of your land; they have gradually learnt to live and interact with one another. 

A place such as this, where the Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions blend harmoniously and live together, is rare in India. 

Muslims in most places in India, with the exception of Bengal, think of Urdu-Hindustani as their mother tongue. But your Muslims believe Malayalam is their mother tongue. 

When we look at your poets, writers, thinkers, politicians and social workers, we see a balance of various religions, castes, sub-castes, and as many women as men: perhaps this is difficult to find in other parts of India. 

This could explain how coalition governments came to be formed here for the first time in India. They worked well; and co-operative societies have thrived as well. 

I have never seen your EMS Namboodiripad, but I have read his writing in translation. 

You must have heard of our extraordinary socialist leader Gopala Gowda; you may also have read Avasthe, a novel by U R Ananthamurthy that explores a character like him. 

Alongside Gowda, I hold EMS dear to my heart. He is one of the best leaders of this country. 

Modern Kerala, influenced by spirituality and advaita on the one hand and the idea of egalitarianism on the other, has acquired the wisdom to stand in the place of a guru to the other states in India. 

When I think of modern Kerala, I see both Narayana Guru and Namboodiripad shining in  individual brilliance.

Jain families, which have settled in your Wayanad and whose home language is Kannada to this day, have been a bridge between you and us. 

Thirty years ago, I built a house. The workers who built it were from Kerala. 

Many of your craftsmen have come to Karnataka and made a name for themselves. 

Our Mookambike of Kollur is the favourite deity of several people in Kerala. Similarly, your god Anantasayana was the favourite of an old woman in our village. 

She knew nothing about where the temple was located or how to get there.

She would get someone to read the panchanga and tell her when the Anantasayana lamp festival was coming up. She would fast on that day and create the shrine in her heart.

With such practices, people have transcended physical boundaries and reached the shores of humanity.

In contrast, modern civilisation, which has grown in the West in recent centuries and has now come into our lives, seems to have set out with the stubborn conviction that human proximity can be achieved on the physical level alone.

We believe means of communication must grow and grow and make the entire globe a little village, hoping that then all of humanity will live in love and fraternity, like a village community.

It would become clear, if we looked back at the history of modern civilisation, that this is just an illusion. 

In Europe, where communication media grew at an amazing pace, two great wars were fought within just 25 years, and for the first time in world history.

Think of Meghadoota. Kalidasa's Yaksha, cursed, comes tumbling down from the heights of the Himalayas to the foot of Ramagiri in the Vindhyas. 

The fire of love awakens memories within him, and through it he becomes a citizen of the world, a lover of the world.

Doesn't Meghamarga, the route among the clouds — which he conjured up, and with the help of which he brilliantly created an India of the imagination—invigorate our minds 1,500 years after he wrote his play?

Buddha lived in a little province of the Sakya kingdom 2,500 years ago.

At that time, Magadha was trying to gobble up the smaller states in its vicinity, and planning to establish an overarching empire. 

Buddha was in favour of the little republics; he was, in all likelihood, opposed to imperial expansion. Yet he had created a universe for himself in his imagination and lived in it. 

On the one hand is the friendly view that we live  by breathing in the world and breathing out what is within us.

On the other is the belligerent view that we must attack everything different and bring it under our ownership. 

It is certainly impossible to achieve human bonding with such an attitude. 

Our artists, writers and thinkers are saying today, in enthusiasm and excitement, that the relations among our linguistic states, and between our languages, theatres and art forms, should grow at a faster pace.

They feel writers and artists should travel extensively in other states and improve their contacts, that works in our languages must be translated extensively, and that a huge battalion of translators should be trained in each state to take up huge projects. 

But I fear and suspect this excessive enthusiasm for fast, big-scale activity could have emerged from the intoxication brought about by modern civilisation. 

Look at our history of two thousand years. Our provinces have always had a healthy give and take in philosophy, language, poetry and the arts.

Rather, they have travelled across the subcontinent, and given and received. The techniques and styles of Ajanta Ellora are found again in Mamallapuram.

The uniqueness of the prosody and rhythm of south India find expert use in poet Jayadeva of the north. 

When the pundits of poetics were discussing dhawani in Kashmir, our poet who wrote Kavirajamarga was enthusiastically recording his views on it. 

The Kannada Sivasaranas lived like one family, but if you look at their roots, you find some who came from the Saiva sects of Tamil Nadu and Kashmir, as also from the tantric sects of middle India. 

Our religions have gone to the little communities in all nooks and corners of the country, confronted native beliefs, influenced them and been influenced by them. On the whole, no community in any corner of this country has remained untouched by other communities. 

You have just watched our troupe Ninasam's play Hosa Samsara (New family). 

The man who wrote it is our great poet Ambikatanayadatta (Da Ra Bendre). He strove to build a new Karnataka family—a new Karnataka of the imagination—by blending various epochs, religions, and castes; he was a true state builder. 

When we think we are creating a free, big highway, it soon gets transformed into an open road to the oppression of minority languages by the majority ones, to enslave, hegemonise and exploit. 

In the beginning of this century, when a similar — but less intense — zeal was seen, Hindi established its hegemony over many languages and dialects such as Rajasthani; Bengali established its authority over Assamese, Manipuri, Oriya and many other languages in the region. 

Our thinkers and writers denounce neo-colonialism, commercial invasion, consumer culture and environmental degradation in one voice. 

But like awestruck boys, they endorse, at another level, all the dangerous beliefs of modern civilisation that lie at the root of all this. Modern education has prepared our minds like that. 

You may feel I am ignoring the advances of human civilisation. That's because I am aware that the seeds of tragedy sown by modern civilisation in India, in Karnataka and Kerala. 

Last year (1996), the central Sahitya Akademi had organised a symposium in Bengaluru. 

Our chief minister J H Patel hosted a dinner at the Windsor Manor for writers who had arrived from all over India. 

Writers who came to the lounge soon started withering under the pressure of five-star etiquette, feeling more and more dwarfed, and thinking all this had to be endured as a matter of duty. 

There was total, hideous silence, but for some whispers and distant, false smiles. 

It was then that your M T Vasudevan Nair made his entry. As soon as he came into the lounge, he tied up his dhoti, pulled out a beedi from his pocket and lit it up. 

Saying "Hyalo" to everyone he sat comfortably on the edge of the elegant sofa, as though he were sitting on a plank at home. 

In a moment the unhealthy assembly returned to natural health and became a truly human meeting. 

The corpse-like burden of the arrogantly formal five-star culture had crashed to the ground and shattered into fragments.

(This is an extract from a speech given in Thrissur and Kottayam in Kerala in 1997. It was translated by S R Ramakrishna for Showtime.)

About Subbanna

K V SUBBANNA (1932-2005) set up Ninasam, now one of India’s most well-known theatre institutes, in 1948. It is located in the little village of Heggodu in Shivamogga district and produces plays it takes across the length and breadth of Karnataka. Inspired by the Lohiaite socialism of Shantaveri Gopala Gowda, Subbanna wrote plays and commented extensively on politics and culture. He was presented the Magsaysay award in 1991.

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