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Kota Shivram Karanth was one of the giants of Indian literature. He was a novelist, playwright, essayist and much more. He was also an art historian, popularizer of science, actor, dancer, director, restorer of Yakshagana, educational pioneer, and environmentalist. He continued to be active till his death. The language in which Shivram Karanth wrote, Kannada, is the mother tongue of 45 million people and he has been a familiar name in every literate Kannada home for more than six decades.

Lettered and unlettered alike, especially the tribals and poor cultivators, regarded him as an unfailing friend in their fight against authority and a symbol of incorruptible rectitude. He won every kind of honour open to an author in India-- the awards and fellowships of the Sahitya Akademi, as well of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Jnanpith prize and the Tulsi Samman, honorary doctorates from a dozen universities and the Padma Bhushan from the President of India (which he returned during the Emergency). But he remained a rebel and an anti-establishment nonconformist. In his early years he had described himself as an "ass that kicked all round." With age the metaphor changes but his outlook remained that of a fighter. He was a lion that roared at every injustice.

Looking at his output one wonders whether a single individual could have produced so much even in a long lifetime. His work includes 42 novels, 31 plays, four collections of short stories, six books of essays and sketches, thirteen books on art, including a history of world art and an authoritative work on Chalukyan sculpture and architecture, a standard treatise on the Yakshagana, with which dramatic form his name is identified, a three volume book of knowledge for children, a four volume encyclopedia on science for grown ups, 240 books for children and neo-literates. sixteen translations, including one of Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us, six books of travel, a few biographies, an autobiography, which he calls Ten Faces of a Crazy Mind, and a book setting forth his philosophy of life. In addition compilation of his random articles and speeches numbering a couple of thousand are being published. So far eight of these anthologies have come out.

He had published two books of poems, the first a slender collection of national songs in 1923 and the second of poems written in Latin America when travelling with his Yakshagana troupe. But such is the state of inter-state literary commerce in India that only five of his novels have been translated into English although the number of translations into other Indian languages stands at 32. His treatise Yakshagana and his autobiography are available in English. So is the book in which he states his credo.

It is not by the volume of his output that Shivram Karanth is to be judged, however, but by its quality and the impact of his work and his personality in deepening an understanding of life. He is basically known as a novelist and it is on his novels that the reputation of his multi-faceted genius essentially rests.

His novels in their compelling narrative power, in the variety of characters situations, social conflicts and moral dilemmas presented, in their spontaneous fidelity to life, in the overall human empathy, Karanth's novels are reminiscent of those of Dickens and Balzac. What Ananthmurthy, a younger Kannada novelist has called the Karanthian authencity. They are also a great aid to social historians, for all the major problems and concerns of our national life during the last fifty years, all the experiences we have undergone, are reflected in these novels. They chronicle travails of landless labour and tribals, the injustices suffered by women and people of the disadvantaged castes, the changes that have occurred due to modernization and urbanization, the flowering of idealism that the Gandhian movement witnessed and the disillusionment and hypocrisy that followed, with the chance for making easy money that the World War, freedom and "democracy" provided.



There was great passion in his writing, and great passion and sarcasm, but there is also great restraint, even certain detachment. All his novels were written at an astonishing speed. The moving Chuma Dudi took only five days to write, and the thirty chapters of the ambitious masterpiece Marali Mannige which traces the life of a family over three generations, were written in thirty days.

This speed has led sometimes to structural lapses, to a neglect of technique, but the intensity and the absence of stylistic artifices and excursions add to the sense of integrity. That is what made the poet Gopalkrishna Adiga say that Karanth is the kind man of whom nothing petty can be said.

Karanth did not write to a set formula or to prepare any political statement. What he celebrates is the heroism of the unheroic, the infinite capacity of the meek to suffer and to forgive, and through their forgiveness, to mock at injustice. His characters like Choma, Mookajji, Nagaveni and Gopalayya stay in the mind because, in spite of their strong individuality, they represent common humanity. Then there is Karanth's extraordinary wealth of vocabulary-- always the measure of a great writer. He

seemed to know the name

of every object used in the land, of every plant and bird that grows or flies in the Karnataka coast and hills.

While Dr.Karanth had written at length on our artistic heritage, he rarely spoke of spiritual themes. If religious men appear in his books, it is rarely as models for emulation. He refused to run down the materialism of the West and paint the East as if it is a spiritual paradise. The yardsticks he used were wholly social and moral. This comes out very clearly in his book Life the Only Light in which he sets out his credo. What is striking in the book is the way he questions the very existence and utility of God.

Not that he was always an agnostic. In his own words, "During the early decades of my life I was an ardent devotee of Sri Ramkrishna Paramhansa and a practitioner of the Bhakti cult. I meditated over God. It was God in the form of Krishna and Rama. During such meditations, what flashed before my minds eye were the images of Rama and Krishna as painted by Ravi Varma and alternately the features of a boy actor in a Kannada theatre company who played the role of Krishna.

He is said to have said "If there is Maya (Illusion) in life, it is not in the sense of the philosophical illusion, but in the sense of ajneya, unknowable."

Karanth did not put on the airs of a sage. He sought no acolytes, built no institution. He was a loner. His loneliness became more marked after the death of his wife and that of a grown son. He prefered to live by himself in a village in South Kanara, not far from the village of his birth, Kota.