Aluru Venkata Rao, the Kulapurohita of Kannada

Hailed by Kannada speakers as the 'High Priest of the Kannada People', he was, without a doubt, the single-most important force responsible for the creation of a Kannada-speaking state within the Indian Union. A trip he took during the summer holidays before his law examination results were announced would change the trajectory of his life (and eventually Karnataka’s polity).

ByMadhav Ajjampur

Published Feb 25, 2023 | 8:00 AM Updated Feb 25, 2023 | 8:00 AM

Alur Venkata Rao (seated, second from right), the Kannada Kulapurohita, with family (Dr Deepak Alur, his grandson)

“Language is an emotion” is a statement familiar to many of us. Understood without frills, the statement’s import is this: The power of a language to unite people — especially people who are complete strangers to one another — is a power that no religion, holy book, vocation, political leader, or divine being possesses or, indeed, can ever possess.

It is this ‘emotion of language’ that was responsible for India’s division into linguistic territories shortly after Independence, a division that has enabled India to remain as one nation instead of splintering into numerous separate linguistic nation-states.

However, despite this ostensible territorial and political unity, it is worth recognising the many challenges facing India’s linguistic states at the moment, especially those that lie outside the “Hindi Belt”.

The most dire of these challenges, of course, is the intention of the present government to make Hindi the de facto link language of the country and its willingness to spend thousands of crores in the pursuit of this so-called “nationalistic” goal.

Related challenges include the falling of the total fertility rate (TFR) of the Southern states to below replacement levels and the constitutional non-recognition of the hundreds of smaller bhashas of the Indian subcontinent.

Also read: Hindi imposition, language protests in Karnataka then & now

Most important force behind a Kannada-speaking state

These knotty circumstances of today form the backdrop for this remembrance of Aluru Venkata Rao, who passed away on this day in 1964, 59 years ago.

Hailed by Kannada speakers as the Kannada Kulapurohita (High Priest of the Kannada People), Aluru was, without a doubt, the single-most-important force responsible for the creation of a Kannada-speaking state within the Indian Union.

Though the extent of his contributions to the cause demands a separate book (as does his long and eventful life), it is worth noting what Aluru Venkata Rao had to say about Karnatakatva or Karnataka-ness in his book titled Karnatakatvada Sootragalu (Aphoristic Observations about Karnataka-ness).

“Karnataka-ness is not simply a matter of patriotic pride; nor is it simply a matter of linguistic pride; nor is it simply a matter of historical pride. Instead, it is a pure feeling that includes all of these even as it supersedes them all.”

He elaborates on this statement in another one of his books, Karnatakatvada Vikasa (The Growth of Karnataka-ness): “A Karnataka-ness that is opposed to patriotism is no Karnataka-ness; a patriotism that is opposed to Karnataka-ness is no patriotism.”

Despite the changed circumstances around language and politics today, language activists of all stripes would do well to keep in mind these words of Aluru as they engage in their activism.

Also read: Moving towards genuine multilingualism

Classmate Veer Savarkar, Tilak, & others kindled fire of nationalism

Aluru Venkata Rao was born in Vijayapura (formerly Bijapur) on 12 July 1880, the son of Bhima Rao and Bhagirathibai.

On account of his father being a government servant, Aluru’s schooling took place in the towns of Navalgund, Gadag, Hanagal, and Dharwad. Though he matriculated in 1897, the plague did not allow Aluru to enter college immediately.

After a year or so spent devouring the books in his father’s library, Aluru, whose reading had inspired in him a desire to write, joined Fergusson College in Pune in 1899.

In college, he would meet several people who would kindle the fervour of nationalism in him. Among them were Veer Savarkar (who was his classmate), Senapati Bapat, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

Also read: Turbulence as BJP govt unveils Savarkar portrait in Suvarna Vidhana Soudha

A trip that changed the life of Aluru Venkata Rao

Aluru Venkata Rao from his student days (Dr Deepak Alur)

Aluru Venkata Rao from his student days (Dr Deepak Alur)

Influenced by the goings-on in college, Aluru Venkata Rao decided he would take the law examination and become a lawyer. He could then serve the nation in his capacity as a lawyer.

Impressed by Tilak’s Kesari, Aluru wanted to begin an influential paper of the same sort in Kannada. While in college, Aluru also undertook the promotion of Kannada by gathering the many Kannada-speaking students from North Karnataka and forming a Kannada group.

Graduating with a BA in 1903, Aluru began his preparation for the bar and took the examination in 1905.

Up until then, Aluru had been a proponent for the Kannada language’s cause and had done what he could to promote the language (it is worth remembering that much of what is today’s North Karnataka was then part of the Bombay Presidency and Marathi-dominated).

However, a trip he took during the summer holidays before the law examination results were announced would change the trajectory of his life (and eventually Karnataka’s polity).

Travelling through the areas of Navavrundavana, Anegondi, and Hampi, the sight of the ruins of Hampi would leave an indelible and lasting effect on Aluru’s mind.

Gatha vaibhava (A glorious past) for a glorious future

Here is Aluru Venkata Rao’s own description of the event: “Our Vijayanagara lay fallen in front of me, clearly and in all its sprawling vastness. That day’s sight sent an electric current through my mind. Like how electric lights help form a picture on a cinema screen, a beautiful image of Karnataka Devi [The Goddess of Karnataka] began to form in my heart. That sight brought on various waves of thought and stirred up my heart-ocean. That day was responsible for bringing about a revolution in my life.”

Also read: Hampi through the lens

That “electric current”, in conjunction with the language-based uprising of the Bengali people against the Bengal Partition of 1905, would galvanise Aluru. It would also lead him to write his magnum opus, ಕರ್ನಾಟಕ ಗತವೈಭವ or Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava (The Glory That Was Karnataka).

First published in 1912, Aluru’s book, in turn, awaken the Kannada people to their glorious heritage and galvanise them to work towards the creation of a united Karnataka.

The impact the book had on the people of Karnataka can hardly be overstated.

Here is what RS Mugali, well-known literary critic and writer had to say about Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava. “This is a compact work of epoch-changing magnitude. This work opened the eyes of the Kannada people. It kindled and stoked a fire in the Kannada heart. It helped open jaded and sleeping Kannada eyes; eyes that, on account of centuries of foreign rule, had lost all self-awareness. It gave them an expansive sight and a complete picture of both India and Karnataka.”

Even today, more than a century after its publication, the heroic style of the book makes for exciting reading.

What is more, not content to rest on past laurels, Aluru would follow up Gatha Vaibhava with two books on Karnatakatva, where he laid out the way for the Kannada people to use the glories of their past for the creation of a glorious future.

Also read: Leader of legendary integrity who played key role in Karnataka unification

The Karnataka unification movement

Aluru Venkata Rao with his granddaughter Kavita (Dr Deepak Alur)

Aluru Venkata Rao with his granddaughter Kavita (Dr Deepak Alur)

As important as the publication and popularity of his Gatha Vaibhava was, it would be wrong to view the work as anything more than a major milestone towards Aluru Venkata Rao’s ultimate goal: the unification of the scattered Kannada-speaking regions and the creation of a linguistic territory comprising them; in other words, the concretisation of his self-coined concept of Karnatakatva or Karnataka-ness.

While Aluru was not the first or only one to envision such a unification — several others, including ‘Deputy’ Channabasappa, RH Deshpande, Benegal Rama Rao, Siddappa Kambli, Muduveedu Krishnarao, Rangarao Diwakar, PG Halikatti, and Hardekar Manjappa also envisioned and worked for it — he would go on to become the movement’s most prominent and eloquent proponent.

The need of the hour, as Aluru said in his speeches made from the platform of the Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha, was to unite the Kannada provinces of the Madras and Bombay Presidencies with the Mysore Kingdom.

Having conceived of Karnatakatva, Aluru would devote his life to the service of that idea.

Also read: Hardekar Manjappa, Karnataka’s own Gandhi

Aluru Venkata Rao the organiser: setting up Kannada Sahitya Parishat & more

Aluru Venkata Rao, who established the Kannada Sahitya Parishat, with his daughter Usha Huilgol (Dr Deepak Alur)

Aluru Venkata Rao with his daughter Usha Huilgol (Dr Deepak Alur)

Besides having a talent for writing, Aluru Venkata Rao was an incredibly resourceful organiser who put this skill to good use by starting or lending his support to a whole array of historically important initiatives.

These initiatives included:

the organisation of the first and second All-Karnataka Writers’ Conference in 1907 and 1908 in Dharwad;

the setting up of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat (The Kannada Literary Society) in 1915;

the setting up in 1916 of the Karnataka Ekikarana Sabhe (Karnataka Unification Assembly) to propagate the idea of Karnataka’s unification;

the starting of the ‘Bharata Library’ in Dharwad, a move that would provide the impetus for a library-creation movement throughout Karnataka;

the creation of the Karnataka Itihasa Samshodhana Mandala (The Council for the Historical Research of Karnataka);

the initiation of the Nada Habba (Festival of the Kannada Land);

the large-scale celebration, in December 1936, of the 600th anniversary of the founding of the Vijayanagara Empire;

and the establishment and editorship of such important Kannada journals as Jaya Karnataka, Karmaveera, Vagbhushana, and Kannadiga.

Also read: Father of library science and a workaholic

Literary nourisher who spent his last days away from public life

Happily, Aluru would be alive to see his efforts come to fruition on 1 November 1956, when Karnataka was unified into one entity (then called Mysore State and renamed Karnataka in 1973).

Fittingly, Aluru would travel to Hampi for the occasion, the place that had sent an “electric current” through him more than 50 years previously, to lead the festivities and pooja organised at the Virupaksha temple.

Virupaksha temple, Hampi, in December 2022

Virupaksha temple, Hampi, in December 2022 (Prasanna RS)

In his last years, Aluru would withdraw from public life.

Spiritually inclined from a young age, he would turn inwards and devote himself to more such pursuits, including the authoring of books on the philosophy of Shri Madhvacharya.

Although Aluru never considered himself a litterateur, he played an important role in the creation of Dharwad’s famous literary culture by nourishing and publishing the work of some of the greatest Kannada litterateurs and scholars of the 20th century, including Kannada’s varakavi (heaven-touched poet) DR Bendre, novelist, folklorist, and critic Betageri Krishnasharma, radically original Kannada linguist and cultural scholar Shamba Joshi, and world-class playwright and novelist Adya Rangacharya (better known by his pseudonym, Sriranga).

It seems fitting, therefore, to end this tribute by quoting DR Bendre on Aluru.

Calling Aluru Karnatakada Pranopasakaru (The Worshipper of Karnataka’s life-breath), Bendre would say: “Even now, Aluru is the only one among our senior Kannadigas who thinks wide-rangingly, with singular focus, unusual intelligence, and a constant attitude of examination about Karnataka’s well-being and [then] tries to put into practice this manner of thinking. Such is Aluru’s single-minded tapas; the matchless name he has made for himself is the fruit of this tapas.”

Also read: A poem’s second homecoming: Translation of DR Bendre’s works

Bibliography:

1. Saalu Deepagalu (1990), (expanded and revised edition, 2016), edited by GS Siddalingaiah and MH Krishnaiah; published by Karnataka Sahitya Academy, Bengaluru

2. Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava (revised edition, 1968) by Aluru Venkata Rao; published by Samaja Pustakalaya, Dharwad

3. Karnataka Kulapurohitaru (1981), chief editor: SS Malawad; published by Karnataka Kula Purohita Shatamanotsava Samiti, Dharwad

4. Nanna Jeevana Smritigalu (1974) by Aluru Venkata Rao; published by Manohara Granthamala, Dharwad

5. Karnatakatvada Vikasa (second edition, 1980) by Aluru Venkata Rao; published by Kannada Sahitya Parishat

(Madhav Ajjampur is a writer and translator. His essays, poems, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as ‘The Hindu’, ‘EKL Review’, ‘Midway Journal’, ‘Kyoto Journal’, and ‘Modern Poetry in Translation’. His first book, ‘The Pollen Waits On Tiptoe’, was published in 2022)