Kayyara Kinhanna Rai, the Kannada poet of Kasargod

On the occasion of Kayyara Kinhanna Rai’s birth anniversary, Muraleedhara Upadhya introduces us to the Tulunadu Kannada poet whose poetry and social activism were both heavily influenced by Gandhiji.

ByMuraleedhara Upadhya Hiriadka

Published Jun 08, 2023 | 12:26 PM Updated Jun 08, 2023 | 2:13 PM

Kayyara Kinhanna Rai on the cover of the book celebrating his turning 100

Kayyara Kinhanna Rai. A lot of people find it difficult it pronounce and spell this Kannada writer’s name. Kinhanna is a Tulu word that means ‘younger among the elder brothers’. Kayyara, who was born on this day in 1915, was a Kannada poet who lived a full life and was known for being an excellent teacher and a staunch Gandhian.

Kayyara Rai, an excellent performer of his and others’ poetry

Kayyara next to the 'Tulsi Katte' outside his house

Kayyara next to the ‘Tulsi Katte’ outside his house (Kannadiga World)

When I was a student at Udupi’s MGM College in the 1968-70 period, I had the opportunity to listen to Kayyara’s speeches and poetry recitations. 

Fifty years after I first listened to it, his manner of reciting his poem on Gandhiji, titled ‘ಹೇ ರಾಮಾ (Hey Rama)’ still remains a sweet memory. Kayyara was very good at reading out not only his poems but also the poems of other poets. He used to be able to enchant the audience with his readings.

A poet who encouraged young and upcoming poets

I am reminded of how, in 1971, when I was a student in Mangaluru, I read out my poem at a poetry session chaired by Kayyara and won his praise. In 1987, as preparation for writing a small book about Kayyara, I along with Balakrishna Shetty, had visited him in his house situated in Peradala in Kasargod. I was also present to listen to Kayyara when he presided over the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana (Kannada Literary Congress) of 1997, held in Mangaluru.

Read more: Aluru Venkata Rao, Kannada’s Kulapurohita

Kayyara, a Gandhian acquainted with several renowned litterateurs

Kayyara at 100

Kayyara at 100 (Muraleedhara Upadhy Hiriadka)

Kayyara is a town situated nearby the towns of Manjeshwara and Uppala. The son of Duggappa Rai and Deyakka, Kinhanna was born of 8 June 1915. Kayyara spent his growing-up days in the house that the joint family of Kallakali Shankara Alwa lived in. There were 50 people in the house.

Having done his SSLC from Mangalore’s Basel Mission high school, the young Kayyara graduated as an A Vidwan (Sanskrit/Kannada) from Nirchala’s ‘Samskrita Mahapathashala’. 

As a newspaper reporter in Mangalore, Kayyara made the acquaintance of litterateurs like Govinda Pai, Kademgodle Shankara Bhat, freddom fighters like S Kille, Hiriyadka Ramaraya Mallya, and journalists like Niranjana (Kulakunda Shivaram). When Gandhiji visited Udupi in 1934, Kayyara and his friends walked to Udupi to listen to Gandhiji’s speech.

A writer who melded linguistic competence and performance

Kayyara, who joined the Navajeevana high school in Peradala in 1944 as a Kannada lecturer, was a scholar in both Sanskrit and Kannada. There was, in him, a melding of what Noam Chomsky calls ‘linguistic competence’ and ‘linguistic performance’.

Another aspect of Rai’s personality included his interest in social work. Being a panchayat leader as well as the president of the local cooperative society was his way of getting involved.

A progressive nationalist who was inspired by Govinda Pai

Kayyara being feted

Kayyara being feted (Kannadiga World)

In Kayyara’s collection of stories, “Annadevaru Mattu Itara Kategalu (~ The Rice-God and Other Stories)”, we see Kayyara’s partiality for the progressive movement and his pride in India. 

His series of books on the literature of the Navodaya (new dawn) period holds an important place in the history of Karnataka’s education and served as textbooks for student in several grades. Inspired by the poetry and personality of Govinda Pai, Kayyara wrote three books about Pai.

He also translated works from Malayalam into Kannada, including “Malayalam Sahitya Charitre (History of Malayalam Literature)” by PK Parameshwaran and “Kumaran Asan Mooru Kavitegalu (Three Poems by Kumaran Asan)”. These works were published by the Central Sahitya Akademi.

Read more: Govinda Pai, modern Kannada’s first Rashtrakavi

Kayyara’s ambitious verse translations of selected Upanishats

Panchami: Aidu Upanishat Kaavyagalu (Panchami: Five Upanishat Poems)”, published in 1985, was perhaps Kayyara’s most ambitious work. In this work, Rai has created Kannada verse translations of the Upanishads. 

The five Upanishats that Rai chose to translate into Kannada were – 

the ‘Kaṭha Upanishat’ that is in the form of a dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama about the knowledge of the self; 

the ‘Eeshaavaasya Upanishat’ that is comprised of 18 sutras; 

the ‘Kēna Upanishat’ which is a discussion between a guru (teacher) and shishya (disciple) about the meaning of brahma vidya (supreme knowledge); 

the ‘Mundaka Upanishat’ which offers insights into the difference between vidya (knowledge) and avidya (ignorance);

the ‘Prashne Upanishat’, in which Pippala, the teacher, answers the questions of his students.

Kayyara’s first poetry collection was ‘Shree Mukha’, published by Udupi’s ‘Kiriyara Prapancha’. The poem “Swagata (~Soliloquy)” from the collection is one of Kayyara’s most accomplished poems.

Kayyara’s ‘Aikyagaana’, a poem for his beloved country

Kayyara next to the 'Tulsi Katte' outside his house

Kayyara next to the ‘Tulsi Katte’ outside his house (Kannadiga World)

In 1949, Kayyara published his ‘Aikyagaana (Song of Unity)’, a collection of historical importance. The poems in the collection are filled with the sadness brought by the 1947 Partition of India. 

Aikyagaana’ was Rai’s response to the communalism of that time. The country’s partition meant the victory of communalism. Like Vedavyasa who saw the Mahabharata war unfold and was left alone in its wake, so too was Gandhi left alone in the wake of the Partition. As Rai saw it, a ‘Song of Unity’ was of tremendous importance to newly-independent India.

Here are a few lines from the poem, translated from the Kannada by A Narasimha Bhat.

“Unity is the only ‘Mantra’, freedom comes from unity,
May my nation float on the song of unity

Depressed people, Brahmins, Muslims and Christians
All are our people, may our hearts open like flowers
Our nation is our only life, proclaim so aloud,
Even mighty demons are no match to us, brave warriors we are”

The social and contemplative nature of Kayyara’s poetry

The poem ‘Rashtra Nata’ from Kayyara’s ‘Punarnava’ collection expresses his dissatisfaction about the politics and political climate of post-Independent India. In his poem, ‘Hey Rama’ (1969), he draws attention to the rise of financial inequality. No sooner does he see the troubles of the present than he runs to the past to seek refuge in Gandhiji (and his philosophy).

Koraga’ is an important people-facing poem by Kayyara. Koraga is the name of one of the most left-behind Dalit communities in Tulunadu. The poem uses irony for effect, as it contrasts the tolerance and broad-mindedness of the Indic tradition’s philosophy and the cruel reality of a society comprising higher and lower jaatis. 

Consequently, the poem becomes not just an accurate description of the Koraga community’s state but also a criticism of the stagnant nature of the jaati system.

Atithi (Guest)’ is a notable meditative poem by Kayyara. The protagonist of the poem, having lived a full life, is welcoming death. In the poem, death is a guest but it is also a visitor who arrives without giving notice of a date (tithi).

Read more: Anakru, Kannada activist and progressive novelist

Kayyara’s participation in the upliftment of Tulu and Tulu literature

Rai’s home language was Tulu. He would go on to join the Tulu Sahitya Movement (begun in the 1930s under the capable leadership of SU Paniyadi) in its second stage and write a number of poems and essays in Tulu.

In one of his essays, Kayyara says ‘Enna Tulunadu Bulipundu’ or ‘My Tulunadu is crying’ to describe the state of the Tulu people, contrasting their situation with the situation of the Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam people. 

Kayyara’s poetry, a ‘Sankritised’ poetry with a Gandhian concern

The Sanskrit-heavy Kannada of Kayyara’s poetic style is, in some ways, a process of Sanskritisation. Filled as he was with patriotic fervour and ideals, we see a movement away from Tulunadu’s ‘Little Tradition’ in Kayyara’s poetry.

One of the main concerns of Kayyara’s poetry was the importance of distinguishing between felicitious and infelicitous wisdom in relation to matters concerning the country. In an India where nationalism and regionalism, and religious tolerance and communalism are facing off against each other, Kayyara’s ‘Song of Unity’ remains relevant. Like Kayyara, crores of Indians still believe that several of Gandhi’s ideas are relevant today.

Kayyara, the ‘Rai’ of Kasargod’s legendary ‘Pai-Rai’ duo

Kayyara’s work outside the writing sphere is also noteworthy. During his lifetime, he worked to bring about political awareness among people, create communal harmony, and generally improve society. 

As a litterateur, Kayyara followed the “meditative path that is peculiar to the Karavali region of Karnataka. They have both passed on, but Pai and Rai remain as the names of the two legendary Kannada poets of Kasargod.

(This article is a translation by Madhav Ajjampur of an essay by Prof Muraleedhara Upadhya Hiriadka. Hiriadka was the former head of the Kannada division at Poornaprajna College, Udupi.

Prof Hiriadka has authored and edited a number of monographs on personalities including Kayyara Kinhanna Rai, Haji Abdulla Saheb, BV Karanth, MN Kamat, and Vaidehi. Among the awards he has received are the Inamdar Vimarsha Prashasti and Jnanadegula Prashasti. A former member of the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, he is the editor of the Govinda Pai Samshodhana Samputa. He maintains a Kannada blog. These are the personal views of the author.)