Monday, April 20, 2015

Multilingual culture is under attack because of the way English became more a class than a language.’ In which eminent Kannada writer H.S. Shivaprakash puts English in its place

Professor H S Shivaprakash is one of the most noted writers working in Kannada today. A distinguished playwright, he won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1997, a couple of years after a horrid controversy clouded the withdrawal of his award-winning playMahachaitra, based on the life of the Kannada saint Basava, from the university syllabus, on the vague grounds that it portrayed the saint in unflattering light.

Shivaparakash won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his poetry in 2012. While his academic work has covered a breathtaking array of themes, from performance theory to Sanskrit drama and folk poetics, his influences have been drawn from philosophies as diverse as Kashmir Shaivism and Marxism. But it is difficult to pigeon-hole Shivaprakash into any one category.

His most recent book in English is his spiritual autobiography Everyday Yogi, which talks of his encounters with different gurus. I caught up with him at JNU, where he teaches, and here’s what he had to say about the hunt for the Rashtra Kavi from Karnataka, the recent controversy over Kannada, globalisation, nativism and his ideal linguistic policy for India:

Since December 2014, a high-powered committee formed by the Karnataka government is considering several poets for the title of ‘Rashtra Kavi. Do you want to tell us something about the idea behind having a ‘Rashtra Kavi’?

It is a kind of recognition for poets. It was first accorded to Kuvempu, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Kuvempu was the counterpart of Tagore; he was a colossal literary figure. So he was the first Rashtra Kavi.

He was given the title in 1958, wasn’t he?

Yes. After he passed away, this title was not given to anybody to for a long time. Then, in 2006, the poet G.S. Shivarudrappa was given the title. Incidentally, he had been Kuvempu’s student; in fact Kuvempu had supervised his PhD degree. And now I learn it is going to be given to another senior poet. In my opinion, Chandrashekhar Kambar is the most important senior poet and he should definitely be considered. But the government has its own proclivities, choices. As for myself, I’m completely indifferent to these things.

So, which poets are in consideration?

I don’t know. It’s a political decision.

You know, when you say ‘rashtra kavi’ – or maybe Im misunderstanding this – you mean national rather than ‘rajya kavi’?

But it is a deliberate usage. They are national poets, respected across India, not just in Karnataka. Kuvempu, for example, was never not a naive regionalist. He wrote a patriotic song on Karnataka, where he likens the state to the elder daughter, and Bharata is the mother. He talks about the contributions of ‘Shankara-Ramanuja-Basaveshwara-Vidyaranya…’ Shankara and Ramanuja are not from Karnataka. To their names, he adds Basaveshwara, who was very much from Karnataka, and Vidyaranya, who was also from Karnataka.

So what I’m saying is that many great literary figures of that period of the Indian Renaissance believed in the fact that each linguistic region had its own speciality. It was only later, due to consequences of uneven development, that this region-nation conflict arose. The later clamour for nativism was part of the same problem.

This is a very important point youre making. This is also a time when we’re witnessing the danger of regions creating narrow linguistic categories for themselves, and discriminating against “outsiders”. Weve seen this in the politics of Maharashtra. There is the whole controversy that erupted recently when Kannada was made compulsory in all schools across Karnataka. So that everyone who comes to Karnataka from elsewhere – because of Bangalore, Karnataka has probably become one of the most cosmopolitan states in India – effectively everyone would have to study Kannada. Though the Supreme Court struck down this petition – there is still a lot of debate going on around this subject. 

I think it’s quite reasonable. Again, let’s take the case of Kuvempu. Though his master’s degree was in Kannada, he used to write very powerfully in English. His Professor, a Britisher, who taught him in Mysore University, told him to write in his own language. According to Kuvempu, in Karnataka, Kannada should be given pride of place. He was not against Sanskrit. This is important – because Kuvempu was the first great Kannada writer to come from a non-Brahmin caste.

He was not against English either. He said, “If I didn’t learn English, I would still be working as a coolie in the field of some Brahmin village accountant.” But he held the view that English is only a passport to the rest of the world. In Karnataka, Kannada should be most important. Because Kannada is a very rich language – it is at least 500 years older that English. When England had no “English » writers, we already had a great literary tradition.

Do you want to give us a brief timeline of this?

Kaviraja Marga, the first extant literary work in Kannada, is a work on poetics. It is a kind of free translation of Dandin and Bhamaha’s works on poetics, Kavyadarsha andKavyalankara respectively. In poetics, Dandin exemplifies the southern style, and Bhamaha, the northern style. Sanskrit, by the end of the first millennium, had become the most widely used trans-regional language. And according to Sheldon Pollock, Kaviraja Marga exemplifies how a regional culture should receive a trans-regional culture. On an equal footing.

Now, in the age of globalisation and its challenges, how should regions respond to global culture? They should do it without an inferiority complex, and not by shutting themselves away from the wider world. Kaviraja Marga establishes this balance between nativism and transregional influences in a creative manner.

So you are saying, in a deeper sense, that Kaviraja Marga embodies the spirit of balance that even modern Indians should stand for? 

Yes, exactly. The harmony between marga and desi, between the trans-regional language and the regional language. Up to the 5th century CE, in the south, chen-Damil was the trans-regional language. The poets from Goa, from present-day Kasergod, from Mysore, used to write in Tamil. It was not the regional Tamil, mind you. chen-Damil – the best of Tamil. A new literary language was evolved for trans-regional communication.

In North India, some people say Sanskrit was a spoken language; some say, Sanskrit was a regional language. The fact is something else. Sanskrit was created for trans-regional communication across the Indo-Aryan region, from the regional Prakrit.

There was one kind of Prakrit spoken in what is roughly the north-eastern part of Bharatvarsha. It is the language of the Buddhist texts: Pali. Pali is not the name of the language, mind you, it is the name of the texts, the scriptures. The Buddha spoke the Prakrit that was prevalent in what is now Bihar and the eastern part of UP. That became Pali. The Jain scriptures are written in another dialect of Prakrit. Maharashtra had a different kind of Prakrit. In Kalidasa, in Vikramorvashiyam, the entire fifth act is written in this Maharashtri Prakrit. So different regions had different Prakrits.

And they co-existed.

Yes. Sanskrit was evolved as a common language, a link language, yes, but not just a link language. It was the language of intellect, of creativity, a trans-regional purveyor of ideas.

It is interesting how now there are so many arguments that swirl around the linguistic issue. What is so spectacular about India is that we have not, at some point, privileged one language over the others. As has happened in every other largely mono-lingual nation-state, whether China or France – or even America. All the Prakrits had co-existed, along with Sanskrit. So, as it were, plurality…

I hate this word plurality. Plurality and pluralism, to my mind, are buzzwords of the hegemonic globalising powers. Plurality means different languages and cultures can exist alongside each other, but the Indian example has been different. These languages which have different identities can mingle, coalesce, and become a language that reconciles all of them. For example, the language of the Chariyageetas is the basis of three NE languages – Oriya, Bengali, Assamese. This is a kind of apabhramsha.

Later, these developed into independent languages. One language blossoms into several languages. Or several languages evolve something more inclusive – like Hindi. Or Urdu. Hindustani. In Nagaland, because each dialect is different they have evolved Nagamese – a mixture of local Naga dialects and Assamese. Now, this is our tradition. Though it is a cliché, I would like to use this Nehruvian phrase for us: unity in diversity. Much better than pluralism to explain the Indian situation.

In fact, even the Marxist historian D D Kosambi uses this phrase in the context of Indian culture. Arnold Toynbee in his lecture Indias Contribution to World Peace, and Octavio Paz in his Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture also talk about the uniqueness of the example that India has set for the rest of the world. “Unity in Diversity”.

But let’s talk a little about the other debate which seems to be subsuming everything now. Writing in English as opposed to writing in the mother tongue. And here I mean Indian English, written by authors living and working in India. There are two poles –one which seems to emphasise the glamour and supremacy of English. The other, which is about a linguistic pride, a sort of moral high ground of the mother tongue. What is the position you would take on this? You have written poetry and drama in Kannada; your critical writing has been in English. And now youve publishedEveryday Yogi in English, a transcreation of your spiritual autobiography, originally written in Kannada. But you did not translate it, you re-wrote it. Youve translated Kannada vacanas into English. You have translated from Tamil and Urdu too. In addition to English, you speak many Indian languages – Bengali, Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi, in addition to Kannada and Tamil. So as an artist, my question to you is: what would your ideal linguistic policy in India be?

I think we should do everything to preserve our pluri-lingualism. Before the British, our linguistic traditions were also in dialogue with Persian and Arabic. Now the problem is that this multi-lingual culture is under attack. Not because of English, but because of the way English became more a class than a language. This is because of the vestiges of colonialism.

When I look at these TV channels, when I listen to the new generation of politicians, sports stars, movie stars, scientists, speak… they have become completely anglicized. And most of the people in urban areas are unable to have complete conversations in their own languages. So the area of the mother tongue is shrinking. In fact, C.P. Snow, in the context of England, spoke about this.

The Two Cultures?

The Culture of Humanities and the Culture of Sciences. We now see a similar thing in India, not humanities versus sciences but English in opposition to the other languages. In any case, the kind of English that is dominating mass media and urban cultures is not one of those creative Englishes anyway, which were being conceived by people like Raja Rao or R K Narayanan. Or even Arundhati Roy.

It is a kind of globalised English. It has no nuances. As a link language it is okay. But it has become the major means of communication for the younger generation. As though English has become the only window to the vast expanses of knowledge. But this can’t be right. Consider Japan. It is very advanced in science and technology, and very few people know English. In India we have created a situation where English is eating up the space of the other languages. At the same time, the heroes of nativism who want to keep English out, they are also…


Not realists. We need to bridge the divide between Indo-Aryan languages and Dravidian languages and Sino-Burmese languages, the tribal languages (like Santhali, Bhil etc.) So we may have to continue using English as a convenient link language – and that’s it. If a few people want to use English as a language of creative expression – that’s also okay.  But I would prefer to keep writing in my language, it has a longer history.

But what I am apprehensive about is that English has become the agent of hegemonic powers of globalisation. Are we going to lose our specific ways of thinking, of feeling? This is something to think about.

I agree with you. But it is important to consider the example of South Korea. They have made all their great strides in technology using Korean, all right, but they have completely adopted the late capitalism of the West, lock, stock and barrel. So it does not mean that by holding onto the mother tongue, one can necessarily resist globalisation. So we need to be conscious of forces shaping language too…

Yes, but language shapes content too. English, for example, is an I-centric language, a subject-centric language. Indian languages are, on the other hand, object-centric. If you look at literary criticism written in Germany in the inter-war years, if you take someone like Walter Benjamin, and his counterparts in England – the ways of the thinking are totally different. Even when Benjamin is translated into English, you can see he is not thinking like an English literary scholar.

Similarly, if you read George Lukacs, the Hungarian scholar, you can’t help but observe his completely different take. So language defines sensibility. In India, we had established these traditions over a long period of time. So they fought back too, against the coloniser’s language.

In Africa, there are different challenges. Most of the languages were oral. So they were catapulted into the writing of the coloniser’s language. It was a great tragedy. But what they did was also exceptional – they remapped the coloniser’s language. In Latin America, each country has a different kind of Spanish. We have not done that kind of restructuring of English. We have been shamelessly imitating the white man. Some individual writers may have done well, written experimentally. But this does not absolve the hegemonic imposition of English on different languages on India.
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