Prof KV Tirumalesh has passed on. A poet, linguist, and cultural critic and thinker in Kannada, Prof Tirumalesh was that rare breed of person — a versatile and original thinker.
Having read his work only sparsely, I cannot hope to do justice to his overall contribution to Kannada literature and culture. However, I believe his monograph on the Kannada poet DR Bendre, titled Bendreyavara Kaavya Shaili (The Style of Bendre’s Poetry), serves to illustrate his approach to literature and linguistic and cultural criticism.
In that essay, KV Tirumalesh uses his reading of Western literature and literary criticism to interrogate and situate Bendre and his sublime poetry not just in the Kannada or Indian context but in the context of world literature.
Deftly marrying his breadth of learning and his poet’s sensibility, Tirumalesh applies the insights of the French poet-theorists Valéry and Mallarme, the Czech literary theorist Mukarowsky, and the English poet-critic TS Eliot to bring a different and enriching perspective to the study of Bendre’s poetry and poetic technique.
It is an approach that allows Tirumalesh to make a wonderfully insightful statement like: “Rather than saying that Bendre used folk tradition in his poetry it seems to me more correct to say that Bendre wholly eschewed all manner of ‘purity’ in his poetry. In his poetry, we see the juxtaposition of the refined word with the rustic word, of the formal style with the desi style.”
Prof KV Tirumalesh’s ‘mental homeland’
An attraction, even yearning, for “foreign” experiences was perhaps at the heart of Tirumalesh’s creativity. In his acceptance speech (for lifetime achievement in Kannada literature) at the 2016 Bengaluru Literature Festival, he talked about travelling to England for a year, a country he had only read about in books; of later travelling to America for a period of two years; even later of teaching English in Yemen.
Recalling his time in these different countries, he talked about how these places had become part of what he called his “mental homeland”, a most piquant phrase.
It seems fair to conjecture that Hyderabad, the city he spent most of his later life in, and Kasaragod, where he was born and grew up, were also part of this “mental homeland” — as was every place he visited. (Having spent most of his life outside Karnataka, he was known in Kannada literary circles as somewhat of an “outsider”, not in the intellectual sense so much as the physical sense. Yet, this “outsider” position offered him a vantage denied to most other Kannada writers.)
And it was the creation of such a “mental homeland”, whose citizens were, first and foremost, “human beings like me”, that allowed him to create a literature in Kannada that encompassed the human experience while staying rooted in the millenia-long culture of the Kannada language.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, Tirumalesh wanted “the cultures of all lands to blow about [his] house as freely as possible”. Like Gandhiji, he too “refuse[d] to be blown off [his] feet by any.” In a time of increasing cultural homogenisation and linguistic flattening, such an attitude is what allowed him to speak with non-chauvinistic pride about the Kannada language and with prudence about its future in a rapidly globalising world.
No chest-thumping, but not a deracinated urban Kannadiga either
His essays Kannadada Munnade: Sawaalugalu mattu Awakaashagalu (The Progress of Kannada: Challenges and Possibilities), Desi Kannadadinda Vishwakannadakke (From a Native Kannada to a World Kannada), and Kannada Lipi Vichaara (The Matter of the Kannada Script) found in his book Samruddha Kannada (Prosperous Kannada) are models of objective, clear-eyed, and cautiously optimistic scholarship.
Not for Tirumalesh the chest-thumping of pro-Kannada groups or the neglectful pessimism of the deracinated urban Kannadiga. What he wanted, instead, was to find ways to preserve what was worth preserving in the language he loved.
How I got to know Tirumalesh uncle
But a man is not just his achievements. To me, Prof KVT was a warm, magnanimous, and gracious rasika-sahrudaya (appreciative kindred spirit) whose interest in and praise for my work gave me an almost-overwhelming sense of saarthakate (satisfying fulfilment), something for which I will always be grateful.
I got to know Tirumalesh uncle in May 2019, when I sent him an email telling him about my work as a translator of Bendre’s poetry.
I wrote that I had read his aforementioned essay on Bendre and hoped the translations would interest him. I added that I would be happy to hear what he thought of them.
To my immense surprise and gratification, I received a reply from him in a little over an hour! (It came as a surprise because of how few people from the literary world had been responsive to my reaching out.)
In his email, he thanked me for my “letter” and asked for some time to go through my work. But it was his next email, sent less than 48 hours later, that showed me he was the kind of person one has to be lucky to find in this world. Written despite his failing eyesight — a matter he himself mentioned and which only increased my gratitude to and respect for him — his gracious and generous compliments about my work would warm my heart and establish him as a true sahrudaya.
While I continued to keep in touch with Prof KVT, by email first and later by phone (in my emails and phone calls, I referred to him variously as Prof Tirumalesh, Tirumalesh uncle, KVT uncle, Dr Tirumalesh, and Tirumalesh awaru, a jumble he took with good humour), I never had the good fortune of meeting him in person for various reasons, including our residence in different cities, his fragile health, and the onset of Covid.
While I regret not ever meeting KVT uncle, I feel especially grateful and honoured that I was able to acknowledge him in and later send him a personalised copy of The Pollen Waits On Tiptoe, my recently released book of Bendre translations.
Over the years, a number of people have expressed their support and appreciation for my work, but only a handful of them have been truly instrumental in helping me believe what I was doing was worthy. Tirumalesh uncle was one of those few people and for that I cannot thank him enough.
This portion from the last email he sent me, on 3 November 2022, beautifully illustrates the kind of man he was.
Your book has reached here. It looks good.
Congrats! I hope that it will get the kudos it deserves.”
My pranaams to Tirumalesh uncle, a good, kind, and magnanimous man.
(Madhav Ajjampur is a writer and translator. He writes for several reasons, the most important being his wish to stay actively engaged with the world around him. His essays, poems, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including ‘The Hindu’, ‘EKL Review’, ‘Midway Journal’, ‘Kyoto Journal’, and ‘Modern Poetry in Translation’. ‘The Pollen Waits On Tiptoe’ is his first book)