GS Amur, Kannada literary critic who walked the path of intellectual honesty

ByGeeta Vasant

Published May 08, 2023 | 4:37 PM Updated May 08, 2023 | 10:41 PM

Amur with his wife

Dr GS Amur, with his deep academic acumen and singular insights, belongs to the first rank among those who contributed to the growth of Kannada literary criticism in the 20th century.

With his academic discipline, his restraint, his multi-faceted scholarship, his comparative ability and his talent for creating new critical frameworks, Amur expanded the scope of Kannada literary criticism.

His rare and immense capacity to analyse the Kannada sensibility within the canvas of a universal literary sensibility gave him a unique standing in the field of literary criticism. Kannada, English, Sanskrit, and Marathi — a deep and thorough knowledge of the literatures of these languages underpin his critical writings.

A young GS Amur

A middle-aged GS Amur (Kamat’s Potpourri)

It is impossible to write serious criticism of a literary work without a knowledge of the language’s literary tradition. The reason for this is that any linguistic tradition necessarily contains echoes of the culture within which it was formed. Amur’s writings exemplify his ability to discern the multiplicity of voices within a language.

Amur’s distinctive outlook was founded on intellectual courage

Consequently, Amur’s critique of a (literary) work is also a critique of a cultural context and milieu.

As much as a work is an independent creation in and of itself, so much is it a product of the culture that helped create it. A meritorious work, in particular, carries within itself the ability to indirectly create the literary standards for its time. In Amur’s writings, we see his ability to understand all nuances of this sort.

The distinctiveness of Amur’s writings is notable, especially since the creation of an individually distinct outlook is a matter of intellectual courage. His scholarly discipline and his commitment form the foundation of this courage. 

An objective critic who remained in the background

Amur receiving a prize

Amur receiving the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi’s Prize in Gadag (Supplied)

But nowhere in Amur’s critical writings does his individuality take precedence over the work itself. His work is always objective.

Despite being versed in all the literary and criticism theories of his time, Amur never looked at a work through the lens of this or that theory. Instead, he possessed the multidimensional perspective to identify the work’s inner essence.

Here is how DR Nagaraj, another important Kannada critic, describes Amur’s approach: “We see two types among literary critics. The first type showcases their talent in a manner that overshadows the original work. Such talent is constantly yearning to be seen as a creative talent. Walter Benjamin is of this type. The second type is more objective and rigorous. Remaining in the background, they use all their scholarship and intelligence to clearly and beautifully describe both the work and the literary tradition it is part of. Leavis is of this type. Prof. Amur is also an example of the second type.” (Page 13, Sweekruti, edited by GM Hegde)

This is an objectivity where the critic remains in the background and discusses the work as well as the various aspects of the literary tradition it is a part of.

This is a method that looks upon a work as a linguistic artifact and attempts to use a nuanced sensibility to study and understand the work in its entirety and as objectively as possible. This way, Amur’s method contains the post-modern sensibility that broadened criticism to make the critique of a culture a part of the critique of a work.

Also read: Govinda’s Pai ‘Golgotha’, an epic fragment on the last day of Christ

A critical sensibility influenced by both the traditional & modern

Amur receiving the Bendre prize

Amur (centre) receiving the Bendre Rashtreeya Prashasti from UR Ananthamurthy (left) and MM Kalburgi (right) (Supplied)

Amur’s was an intellect that constantly broadened itself through the medium of writing. “Amur’s criticism has developed a ripeness by combining the traditional sensibility gained from Sanskrit with the modern sensibility gained from English” is what Dr MM Kalburgi had to say about Amur. (Page 31, Sweekruti, edited by GM Hegde)

Amur’s creativity worked in the service of creating new standards of literary criticism. In his book, Arthaloka, Amur himself says that “the real problem lies in accepting (readymade) critical standards”.

Early in his career, Amur himself had to deal with Kannada criticism’s dependence on foreign theories and the problem of critical standards. Amur used his own creative ability to overcome this deficiency and create his own self-sufficient theoretical outlook, making him one of the few critics whose critical approach hinged on intellectual discussion.

Amur’s late arrival on the Kannada scene

Amur came to Kannada very late. A professor of English, Amur worked in colleges in Kumta and Gadag, then at Dharwad’s Karnatak University, and then finally at the Marathwada University in Aurangabad, from where he retired. It was only after his retirement that he really became a critic in Kannada. His ability to take on seriously the many roles he was asked to play made him an excellent teacher.

His part in developing the English department at Marathwada University when he was the head of the department there is an example of this ability. Consequently, Amur also stands before us as an exemplary educator and organiser.

What we see in him primarily is the commitment to the creation of knowledge. His keen interest in the literatures and philosophies of both the west and the east give him a standing not only on the Kannada scene but on the world scene too.

Also read: Yashwant Chittal’s Digambara, his ‘writerly’ incomplete novel

Amur’s contribution to English criticism within India

Amur also used his critical acumen to assess Indian English writers. His critical writings about RK Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulkraj Anand, VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and others are noteworthy contributions.

Through English, he was also able to establish a relationship with writings in other Indian languages. The multilingual atmosphere that he lived in naturally expanded his critical sensibility.

A Fulbright fellow who did research at Yale University

Amur receiving a state award from SM Krishna

GS Amur receiving the Karnataka Rajya Prashasti from then-Karnataka CM, SM Krishna (Supplied)

A recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship, Amur visited the University of California at Santa Barbara and Yale University for research. A grant from the British Council also gave him the chance to visit England for research.

These opportunities allowed Amur to perform a comparative judgement of the work that was being done in the US and England. However, the lack of serious research and the prevalence of politics in India’s universities left him disillusioned and indignant.

But Amur was a self-made man who possessed a stubborn determination to overcome any sort of adversity he was confronted with, a quality that helped him become a successful teacher, education expert, and writer. Amur’s autobiography, ‘Neeramelana Gulle’ contains a detailed exposition of the emotional and intellectual challenges he faced in his career.

A long-time analyst of comedy in both Western & Indian literature

Dr Gururaj Shyamacharya Amur was born on 8 May 1925 in Bommanahalli in the Dharwad (now Haveri) district. He received his MA from Mumbai University and went on to do his PhD at Karnatak University, finishing it in 1961.

In 1972, he received a senior Fulbright fellowship to conduct post-doctoral research on TS Eliot. Amur’s PhD thesis, ‘The Concept of Comedy’ was published in 1963. The thesis examined in rich detail the various opinions and theories on comedy that had been published in the western poetic tradition.

Later, Amur would use his research as a foundation to write an essay titled ‘Bhaarateeya Kavya Meemaamseyalli Haasya (Comedy in Indian Poetics)’. Later still, he would use the methods and insights found in this essay to write a Kannada book titled ‘Comedy’, written for the Kannada Sahitya Akademi’s series of technical publications.

These writings together are a testament to Amur’s constant research and ever-expanding study of a subject of interest.

Receiving Bendre’s support for his work

Most of Amur’s critical works in Kannada were published after 1981. The only publications before that were the printed version of a lecture on Milton and the 1970 book, ‘Kritipareekshe’.

Da Ra Bendre, who wrote the foreword to ‘Kritipareekshe’, spoke of the “immense courage needed to perform such a ‘kritipareekshe’, i.e. analysis of a literary work”. Basically, Bendre was saying that a ‘kritipareekshe’ was not a mere expression of an opinion and in doing so, was recognising the boldness of Amur’s effort.

This ability to look with his critical sight and the originality to offer new insight into works that had previously undergone critical analysis was a trademark of Amur’s. His critical writings stand as proof of the importance of the critical revaluation of literary works.

Amur, who was deeply involved with criticism for some five decades, remained intellectually sharp until his early 90s.

Consequently, he was able to respond critically to writers of a new generation. Mahakavi Milton, Kritipareekshe, Samakaaleena Kathe Kaadambari, Kannada Kaadambareeya Belavanige, Arthaloka, Bhuvanada Bhaagya, Bendre Kaavyada Pratimaaloka, Vyavasaaya, Marulu Hejje, Kannada Kathana Saahitya: Kaadambari, Saatvika Patha are his critical works in Kannada.

These works, which offered a fresh perspective of Kannada literature, contain examples of Amur’s study of the philosophy and application of the theories of literary criticism.

Outside of this, GS Amur also has the distinction of writing 15 books in English on American literature, Indian literature, and Kannada literature. Indeed, the Kannada people must be grateful to Amur for taking the initiative to present Kannada literature to the world.

Bhuvanada Bhagya, a classic, award-winning book on Bendre’s poetry, rich with fresh insights

Amur with URA

Amur receiving the Central Sahitya Akademi award from UR Ananthamurthy in Delhi (Supplied)

His Central Sahitya Akademi award-winning book ‘Bhuvanada Bhaagya’ has been recognised as a classic of Kannada literary criticism.

In this book, which examines the poetry (and other literature) created by Kannada’s foremost lyric poet, Da Ra Bendre, GS Amur’s analysis of Bendre’s poetry from the perspective of Kannada’s cultural tradition has yielded several important insights.

He makes it clear that the essence of Bendre’s poetry is best understood through an ‘internal’ approach rather than through ‘external’ parameters. His book ‘Ommukha’ that came later discusses the philosophy behind the vision found in Bendre’s poetry.

Amur’s constant engagement with Bendre’s poetry continued all the way to the end of his life. All those later writings have been collected and published by Dr GM Hegde as a book titled ‘Olagiruva Belaku’.

In Amur’s work, we see a constant preoccupation with the construction of a philosophical or rhetorical framework. This preoccupation reveals itself in his writing on the nature of the narrative and his interest in technical terminology.

Also read: A meditation on Bendre’s poetic sadhana

A Kannada mind with a universal outlook

His ‘Kadambari Swaroopa: Hosa Chintane’ offers valuable theoretical concepts needed for analysing the technique of narrative. His book “Kannada Kathanasaahitya: Kaadambari” remains a standard text to this day.

UR Ananthamurthy’s description in the foreword, “[In this book] we see a mind nourished by reading and distilling the world’s finest works working in and for the Kannada context,” is especially apt. Writing for the first time about several previously neglected works, Amur’s essays give readers a chance to engage in a spirited discussion about these works.

GS Amur also constantly engaged with the short story form in Kannada. His response to the relationship between life and literature in this form was singular.

His work as the editor of the book ‘Avala Kathegalu’ is a special contribution towards understanding the female perspective in narrative literature. His opinion that the literary standards created by men and the male perspective are insufficient to analyse women’s literature testifies to Amur’s progressive outlook and his desire to constantly expand the field of literary criticism.

In fact, Amur was the first critic to respond to Devanura Mahadeva’s ‘Dyaavanooru’ short story collection and to DR Nagaraj’s ‘Shaktishaaradeya Mela’, two groundbreaking Kannada works. This intellectual vitality, which allowed him to accept and grasp works filled with new energy and talent, is what made Amur a literary critic of the first rank.

As someone whose writings contained literary history, research, and a critical analysis all at once, Amur remained an important link in Kannada’s literary tradition of intellectual discussion. His was a vision gained through the collation and analysis of the many forms of literature, a vision he passed on to us in his writings.

Also read: Nanjangud Tirumalamba, one of modern Kannada literature’s earliest women writers

A gentle man of stern discipline

His autobiography, ‘Neeramelana Gulle’, gives us an understanding of the gentleness that permeated a personality of stern discipline. A man possessed of broad vision and beloved by his students, Amur had the capacity to absorb and present the essentials of a matter.

Like a rishi, he remained intensely focused until his very last days on his reading and writing. Having left his deep imprint on Kannada literary criticism, Amur left us in 2020, having created and trod a “path of intellectual honesty”.

(This article is a translation by Madhav Ajjampur of a Kannada essay by Dr Geeta Vasant. Dr Geeta is an associate professor in the Kannada department at Tumkur University. She is also a poet, a short story writer, and a popular columnist. Her interests include literary criticism, philosophy, and cultural and women studies.)