Kanthapura New Perspective in Indian English Literature

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Raja Rao’s Kanthapura: New English Literatures Perspective

By Dr. Shrikant Singh

Published in Ashvamegh Launch Issue, February 2015

India had a long history of literature in English before the present interest in post-colonial literatures but her writers were formerly considered minor trivial and provincial. Indian English novelists had the last touch with contemporary social reality. They lived in ivory towers built on the life of landed aristocracy of fairy tales or historical romances or religious scriptures. With the appearance of Gandhi on the Indian political centre-stage, the political life of India is recharge and Indian literary values reoriented.

With the publication of Raja Rao’s Kanthapura in 1938, Indian English fiction took a different and distinct turn. Kanthapura was a significant shift not only for what it said but also for the way it said. Only after mastering modernism and giving it local significance could the new literatures have joined the modern world (Encyclopaedia 1114). Therefore, Raja Rao in his Kanthapura, created a form of modernism – ironic, sceptical and innovative technique such as puranic texture and recurrent use of Hindu myths and legends which is Indian in subject – matter local language usage, local history, racial or national pride, political independence and demands for social justice are among the characteristics of the novel, as are concern with national mythology, with documenting local ways, usually in a realistic literary style.

It seems that Kanthapura is a unique novel of the time partly due to its highly innovative form n technique. Its form is unique because it is predominantly organic and natural – the characters, the event, the crisis, the glories of the Gandhian struggle and the desolation of the deserted village-the point where the novel ends – all seem to rise naturally in the Indian air from the soil just as wild flowers grow on a river bank. This organic quality of growth is one of the special features of Kanthapura as a novel, as a work of art. Moorthy, Range Gowda, Bhatta, Ratna, Subha Chetty, Rangamma, Venkamma and many other men and women seem to be rising from the soil of Kanthapura so naturally that they breathe life and activity into it and use words as natural tool of their feelings and innate desires. (Major Indian Novels, 36)

“Kanthapura is a novel of village life – a village in the far interior of Mysore in south India in the valleys of Himavathy….,” (C.D Narasimhaiah, 39) but it is no less true that Kanthapura is India in microcosm and that what happens in this village on the social, religions and political planes also happens in other villages (and cities) of India. Kanthapura is thus particular and general, specific and especial, highly individualistic as well as the universal in the creative writers cosmos. (Major Indian Novels, 23). The colonial conflict evident from the very first para “there on blue waters, they say, our carted cardamoms and coffee get into the ships the Red-men bring, and so they say, they go across the seven oceans into the countries where our rulers live,” (K:6) and an old man’s view that the British had  come to save our dharma “for hath not the lord said in the Gita, whensoever there is ignorance and corruption I come, for I, says Krishna, am the defender of dharma, and the British came to protect our dharma”(k-94) are representative conflict. Similarly the phenomena of caste-confusion, uprooting of craftsmen, winding gap between the height and the low and desolation of villages are common to all Indian villages.

Raja Rao quite successfully makes use of local style of English language. In fact, he creates an Indian variety of it and uses it with flexibility, ease and elegance. In Kanthapura, his form of  address, Bhattare from Bhatta, Moorthapa from Moorthy derived from original Kannad is indeed meaningful expression in English since it catches the original rhythm of Kannada speech. Many of Indian festivals such as Sankar-Jayanti, Harikatha, Bhajan etc. are expressed directly in the local language arouse their original emotions. These apart, the novel also uses some Indian phrase recurrently to evoke native ethos e.g. “To tell the truth,’ ‘he said this and that,’ ‘Going this way or that way, ‘ ‘For this reason and that reason’ (k:57), ‘if this government’s people were really sons of their father (k:99) etc.’ these are conscious expression of the novelist to enrich his Indian English language. It was the first conscious attempt to create an English dialect which could be adjusted to the Indian emotional make up to suit the Indian soil. He tries to create an Indian English, which could complete with Irish and American varieties of English. In the foreword of Kanthapura he says, “we have grown to look at the large world as part of us, our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will someday prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish and American. Time alone will justify it (k:5). To quote Salman Rushdie “what seems to be happening is that these people who were once colonized by the language are rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it- assisted by the English languages enormous flexibility as of size, they are carrying out  large territories for themselves within its frontiers. (Encyclopaedia). But it was Kanthapura which gives K Pathak first the strength to say, “but the question whether Indian English were really capable of using English for creative purposes is already a matter of the past. N case of many writers of new literatures kinds of language distinguish people and differentiate the local from the colonizer and alien. Kanthpura’s language does not travel that far yet by replacing the stiffness of approved standard English with more natural, personal form of speech fulfilled a literary need.

Kanthapura superbly documents local ways in a realistic literary style. When there was no water in the village for long, the villagers would ask goddess Kenchamma, “tell us, Kenchamma why do you seek to make our stomachs burn?” similarly when Moorthy saw a half sunk linga he said, “why not unearth it and wash it and consecrate it? .. and so the Sankar – Jayanthi  was started that very day.” (k:13) Rangamma was told by a lady “every fellow with Matric or inter asks, “what dowry do you offer? How far will you finance my studies? I want to have this degree and that degree.” (k:33) Bhattare informs Rangamma the way people think in the city: “the public temples are under the government …. And I shall let the pariahs in and which bastered of his father will say, No? … but really aunt we live in a strange age … do you know in the city they already have grown up girls, fit enough to be mothers of two or three children, going to the universities? And they talk to this boy and they boy; and what they do amongst themselves, heaven alone known. And one, too, I heard, went and married a Mohomedan. Really, aunt, that horrible! (k:33).

The theme of Kanthapura is the continuity of Indian tradition in a rural setting as well as the political resurgence of the nineteen thirties in rural India. Deeply rooted in age –old Indian tradition the rural folks are deeply stirred and activated by the movement for gaining India’s freedom from foreign rule. Thus the legendry history of representative Indian village is brought in close association with its newly gained political consciousness, its deep stirring caused by

Gandhi’s defiance of the British Imperial power and movement of non-violent, non-cooperation, an effective tool for gaining independence.

Meaning, in Kanthapura, emerges from the relationship between two world, the fictional worlds created by Raja Rao out of his experience and the real world. And our understanding of Kanthapura will depend upon our realization of this relationship. Kanthapura is a novel or realistic situations, of political resurgence, a work of realism in fiction. It is the image of real life, observed in a visionary state of mind. In Kanthapura a significant phase of history of contemporary India is given a sense of immortality, a characteristic of a great fiction.

Kanthapura Raja Rao adapts the age-old Indian art of storytelling to the modern experiments made by European novelists and unquestionably evinces a rare skill in the handling of the narrative technique (kk Patrhak 65). It is written from the point of view of “I” as witness. Achakka, a simple, old village woman is the witness narrator. The weaving of Puranic texture in Kanthapura served a definite purpose “just as there are endless and innumerable purans as, so there are endless episodes in Kanthapura.” (Chetan Karnani 41). An important aspect of Raja Rao’s narrative technique is the extensive use of symbols, myths and legends. The novelist employs them in all his writing, and through them he not only fully explores and communicates his vision of life, his theme but also gives a compact form to this book. The mythical-cum-symbolic design of this novel coupled with its political and social overtones prompts us to believe that the novelist was very serious about his business in commingling fact and fiction, reality and illusion, the concrete and abstract, and by doing so he added an additional punch and meaning to his utterances (Dwivedi 162). Here myth has been used to enlarge the functionality o fiction. In fact myths are symbolic representation of human soul and represent the deepest expression of collective human imagination of the locale and as a representative voice of the entire nation, the national myth of Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna, Ram-Ravana have been woven into the texture of Kanthapura. The narrator of the novel tells us that as soon  tells us that as soon as Gandhi was born, “the four wide walls began to shine like the kingdom of the sun and hardly was he in the cradle than he began to lisp the language of wisdom,” (k:17) and then the image of Lord Krishna swims before the narrator of the tale:

“you remember how Krishna, when he was a babe of four, had begun to fight against demons and had killed the serpent Kali, so too our Mahandas began to fight against the enemies of the country. (k17) Similarly, the myth of Rama – Ravana very aptly signifies a fierce battle between the forces of Good and those of the Evil. Thus in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura myths work into text as a symbolic mode of expression. There seems a tendency towards selective recreation of reality. In such writers who use myth and history purposively literature acquires simultaneity with the present (Myth and History 7). Kanthapura uses both to present India where the past mingles with the present, and the gods mingles with men. (KV) Religion is so enmeshed with Indian’s life that even politics has to be served in religious garbs. Jayaramachar while serving political end’s says “Shiva is he here – eyed; and Swarj too is three- eyed: self –purification, Hindu – Moslem unity, Khaddar. Then he talks of Damayanthi and Sakunthala …. Never had we heard Harikatha like this (K:16).”

Viewed from new English literatures’ perspective, Kanthapura is a breakthrough indo-Anglian novel in many senses of the term. It is modern in terms of usage of modern technique, local language, theme and locale. The words of Meenakshi Mukherjee present a very clear picture:

“The novel in the sense we understand it today is concerned with circumstantial reality with the concrete and particular that are influenced very largely by time and place. In this sense Kanthapura is a modern novel and its oral tradition of mythicizing etc. is a well-chosen technique.” It is new literature also in terms of its relationship to nationalism and nationalist movement, treatment of issues of national pride, rejection of colonial values, in documenting local ways in a realistic literary style and of course in the use of national mythology. Protest which has built into new literatures which reflect a concern with feminism, social change, social injustice, alienation, exile and decolonization are naturally absent because Kanthapura predates Indian post-independence writings. Yet underpinning of some of protest tendencies cannot be ruled out of it.

Works Cited:

  1. Coyal, Martin and Others. Encyclopaedia of Literature and Criticism. Gale Research Inc. New York: 1991.
  2. Pradhan, N. S. Major Indian Novels: An Evaluation. Arnold Heinemann. New Delhi: 1985.
  3. Rao, Raja. Kanthapura. Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi: 2001.
  4. Narasimhaiah, C. D. Raja Rao. Arnold Heinemann. New Delhi and London.
  5. Mukherjee, Meenakshi, “Myth as technique in Twice Born Fiction”, Heinemann, New Delhi: 1974.
  6. Jha, Rama, Gandhian Thought and Indo Anglian Novelists. Chanakya Publications, New Delhi: 1983.
  7. Pathak, R.S. Indian Fiction in English. Problems and Promises. Northern Books Centre, New Delhi.
  8. Dwivedi, A. N. Papers on Indian Writing in English. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. New Delhi.
  9. Rao, A. S. (ed) Myth and History in Contemporary Indian Novel in English. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi: 2000.

Introduction to the Author:

Dr. Shrikant Singh is the Head of English Department at Nava Nalanda Mahavihar, an international university in Nalanda. In addition, he is a course writer with I G N O U, New Delhi. His area of Interest includes public education through organizing seminars, workshops, debates and speeches on social, spiritual and interpersonal issues. His favourite area of interest is to explore the Interface between Buddhism and Literatures in English.

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