It has been more than two decades since the demise of distinguished Kannada writer and pathbreaking journalist P Lankesh. When some important socio-cultural personality passes away even now, those who adored Lankesh still wonder about the distinct way in which he would have reacted to their death, considering his clinical understanding of society.
Yes. Something changed at the turn of the 21st century when Lankesh left this mortal world on 25 January 2000. But he is still a demi-god for hundreds of writers, journalists, and intellectuals of Karnataka.
Had he lived, Lankesh would have been 88 now. But never did Lankesh want his birthday to be celebrated. He was even opposed to his friends making his birthday an event to be remembered.
When Lankesh turned 50, he wrote Aivattara Setuveya Mele (On the bridge of 50s), an editorial piece in his Lankesh Patrike where he wrote about not celebrating birthdays.
Lankesh Patrike was a Kannada weekly that ran without advertisements, which shook governments, satirised politicians, and nurtured new writers such as Sara Abubakar and other intellectuals. He sustained it with aplomb all through.
In his weekly, P Lankesh also expressed his reservations about writing an autobiography. However, later he wrote Hulimavina Mara (The Sour Mango Tree), his autobiography.
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Wielded his pen unsparingly
Lankesh was a Lohiaite who taught English, wrote poetry, plays, and fiction. He also translated classic literature from around the world into Kannada, besides producing and directing films.
For him, writing was a question of life and death. He wielded his pen unsparingly on friends and foes alike when it came to the question of moral integrity.
Inspired by Lohia and more importantly, his touring of the whole state, Lankesh founded Pragathiranga, a political platform. It offered him first-hand exposure of the lives of the Kannada people, freeing his sensibility from the shackles of narrow modernism. But the platform didn’t work.
“In 1989, when the tabloid was thriving and avidly read across Karnataka, he launched Pragathiranga, a party with its moorings in socialism. It was a disaster. He wanted to be in the system to set things right but he was neither diplomatic nor canny,” observed his daughter Kavitha Lankesh, a renowned Kannada filmmaker, in an interview with Deccan Herald.
“I remember him making a minister wait for hours while he spoke to a farmer,” Kavitha recalled, describing her father as a “creatively restless soul”.
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Inspired by P Lankesh’s Avva
Noted scholar and cultural critic K Marulasiddappa considers Lankesh “one of the most important writers of Karnataka, who has contributed to almost all literary genres”.
With more than 40 literary works to his credit, Lankesh has had a very significant influence on at least two generations of Kannada writers. Despite his intellectual differences with Lankesh, a noted thinker and one of post-colonial India’s greatest intellectuals, DR Nagaraj, hailed him as a “genius of the 20th century”.
Writer Dr Nataraj Huliyar, who edited Dark Earth: A Lankesh Reader that includes selections from a rich variety of Lankesh’s writings and spans over 10,000 pages, observed: “Those who read his writings will be able to feel his energy and the spirit of life flowing through them.”
Nataraj Huliyar opted for Dark Earth as the title of his work, inspired by Lankesh’s Avva (Mother), which begins with the line, “My mother; A fertile dark earth”.
“In this compilation, readers will easily spot the central sensibility that binds all his writings,” wrote Nataraj.
Nataraj, who identified himself as a “devoted student” of Lankesh, unabashedly argued that he is the best prose writer of the 20th century.
“The post-Emergency era of the late 70s brought about a radical change in Lankesh’s outlook. The launch of his weekly [Lankesh Patrike] also signalled the third phase that his writing entered. Thereafter he stuck to writing prose for a decade and made it his preferred medium. He perhaps believed prose could best express what he had to say and used it to great effect in his weekly,” analysed Nataraj.
“His weekly, Lankesh Patrike, became the companion of the activists of the Dalit and farmers’ movements, but it never ceased to be critical of all people’s movements. No wonder his weekly was considered to be the conscience keeper of Karnataka,” he added.
The act of writing was central to his being, not only as the editor of Lankesh Patrike who had put out his edition week after week for 20 years.
“Admittedly, the line between his journalistic world and his creative universe was rather porous, allowing for movement from both sides. The twin strands of journalistic writing and creative writing continually intertwined, each animating the other,” noted Vanamala Vishwanath, renowned scholar and translator of centuries-old Kannada literary works into English. She also edited When Stone Melts and other stories, Lankesh’s short story collection.
Vanamala observed: “Lankesh’s plays, including the translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone, transformed the very ethos of Kannada theatre. His short stories explored the human potential for good and evil with a radar-beam precision unknown in the history of Kannada short fiction. He combined the passion and intensity of Navya (modernist) writings with the stamina and variety of Navodaya (categorisation of writings of writers, who wrote earlier in the century).”
While a generation almost adored Lankesh, some of his contemporaries in the 60s criticised his plays.
For instance, Ha. Ma. Nayak, a scholar, academician, and linguist in his Kannada Literature; A Decade (published in 1967) wrote: “Lankesh has written two plays namely, T. Prasannana Grhasthashrama and Nanna Thangigondu Gandu Kodi. The extracts from reviews printed on the jackets of the books show that plenty of praise has been heaped on the plays. Judging the plays against this background, one feels disappointed and sad.”
“Some of the conversations in these plays go on in the night clubs and cocktail parties of New York and Paris, but certainly not in our society,” Ha. Ma. Nayak, who had other differences too with Lankesh, added.
Girish Karnad in Lankesh’s play
Born in Konagavalli, a small hamlet near Shivamogga, Palyada Lankeshappa, later Lankesh, did his early schooling in his village.
He studied up to the intermediate level in Shivamogga and then joined Central College in Bengaluru. He then taught in an intermediate college in Shivamogga for three years before moving to Bengaluru.
In 1966, he joined the faculty of English at Bengaluru University, where he taught metaphysical and modernist poetry. He resigned after teaching postgraduate students for 12 years.
In these years, he founded Prathima Natakaranga, a serious theatre troupe in 1972.
The performance of Lankesh’s translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex with another star playwright and actor Girish Karnad in the lead role created a history of sorts in Kannada theatre.
There were seven one-act plays and two full-length plays including theatre classics Sankranthi and Gunamukha, which continue to be a favourite of troupes. Interestingly all his plays except Gunamukha were written in this period. Lankesh also directed and occasionally acted in his plays.
Unlike his contemporaries such as Girish Karnad, who used history and myth or like UR Ananthamurthy, who works through a rigorous engagement with the intellectual, “Lankesh gives himself up entirely to an exploration of the here and now, against the touchstone of daily living, in order to say what he wants to”, observed Vanamala Vishwanath.
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National Award for Pallavi
He also directed four films in this period.
The first film was Pallavi, which won P Lankesh the National Award for Best Direction in 1977. Anuroopa, Khandavideko Maamsavideko, and Ellindalo Bandavaru are the rest.
Neeniruvudu Nijavadaru, a song Lankesh wrote for Anuroopa, was a youth anthem of the time, note film critics. Kempadavo, Kariyavvna Guditava, and Ellidde Illitanaka are some of the best songs whose lyrics he penned.
Kondajji Mohan, a social activist and presently a member of the Karnataka Legislative Council, was associated with Lankesh’s film Ellindalo Bandavaru.
He recalled the making of the film vividly: “I came in contact with Lankesh due to a strange coincidence. With the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu entering the cultural field and cinema helping the DMK to come to power in that state, the CPM too decided to venture into these fields. Jayapal Menon, an advocate from Kerala, was in charge of making the film. For being associated with the SFI, I was a natural choice for the post of managing director of Navashakti Films Private Limited in 1980. Menon was keen that Lankesh, who had made the national award-winning Pallavi, should direct the film.”
Bam and Gum, popular column in Kannada daily
It was at this juncture Lankesh was offered a chance to write a weekly column in Prajavani, a Kannada daily, on current political issues.
The column became popular because of the unique style of Lankesh, who referred to powerful Congress leaders S Bangarappa as “Bam” and R Gundu Rao as “Gum”.
But the Prajavani management abruptly stopped the column, because of pressure from the Congress government — especially from Bangarappa, who developed a family connection with the newspaper management.
Lankesh was bitter, and this became a trigger for him to launch his Lankesh Patrike, noted Mohan.
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It is not easy to portray the multifaceted literary genius of Lankesh in one frame.
That is why writers such as Nataraj Huliyar attempted to bring out Lankesh Reader and Inti Namaskaragalu (a creative narration on Lankesh and D R Nagaraj) and Vanamala Vishwanath edited When Stone Melts and other stories (Kallu Karaguva Samaya Mattu Itara Kathegalu) for Kendra Sahitya Akademy.
However, not writing about his best poems, plays, and short stories will be an injustice to his literary personality.
Avva, poignant picture of a woman
Avva by P Lankesh is one of the most loved and celebrated poems in Navya Kannada poetry. It has a sequel too, which was written 25 years later.
Noted poets Gopalakrishna Adiga, UR Ananthamurthy, and AK Ramanujan were bowled over by this poem. AK Ramanujan translated Avva into English.
Prof HS Komalesha in his blog noted: “Written as a warm tribute when he lost his mother, here you find Lankesh in his elemental best, be it in his creative zest or poetic craft. Beautifully written in a sincere, un-self-conscious tone, the poem offers a moving picture of an old peasant woman who cared a damn about other things in life to look after her kids, husband and household.”
“Being strong, natural, caring and quarrelling, here is the poignant picture of a woman who lived her life to its full and when time came left the world as quietly as the falling of a leaf from a tree. Only Lankesh can write it!” he added.
Sankranthi, impact of Basavanna’s revolution
The great revolution — religious, social, and political — led by Basavanna during the 12th century has been a source of permanent inspiration for several generations of Kannada writers and Lankesh is not an exception.
According to renowned literary critic GS Amur, Da. Ra. Bendre thought of writing a play on the last days of Basavanna, but the play did not progress beyond the title Taledanda, which was to be later appropriated by Girish Karnad for his own play.
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Karnad’s Taledanda was preceded by Lankesh’s Sankrathi (1973). Gandhian ideology with its probing questions regarding truth and ahimsa provided the intellectual context for Lankesh’s Sankranthi.
Sankranthi, as the title suggests, is about change that necessarily implies conflict. The strength of the play lies in its refusal to simplify the issues involved in the conflict — forces of establishment, forces of change, and caste.
Lankesh concentrates on the impact of the social revolution that Basavanna led on caste relations and its tragic results in human terms. Though Karnad too deals with caste relationships, in his play they are subordinated to the larger revolution itself.
Gunamukha, based on Nadir Shah
Gunamukha is another important play by Lankesh.
Gunamukha centres on Nadir Shah, the Persian conqueror, who invaded Delhi. Lankesh wrote this play when he was recovering from a serious illness.
“What fascinated me most in Nadir Shah’s life of conquer and loss was his curt attitude and illness; the way he bounced back even when events and the duality of a man pushed him to the utmost bottom, and the way truth and lies touch an ego-centric man,” wrote Lankesh in his preface to the play.
The play attempts to understand the sickness of the individual and its connection with the sickness of society. “The play surprised critics in 1992 who had thought Lankesh had lost his creative power and sharpness after taking to journalism,” Nataraj noted.
‘I may not live for long’
In his last days, Lankesh encountered many health-related issues.
During a conversation with DV Prahlad of Sanchaya literary magazine, Lankesh had said: “I may not live for a long time. Reality sank when I had a brain stroke. Had it been a little stronger, I would have gone. Later I lost sight in one of my eyes. However, life becomes very interesting now. I know my death is certain. I know there is no heaven or hell. That is why I wanted to live creatively and passionately in the remaining days.”
After losing sight in one of his eyes, being stubborn by nature, he was reading and writing with the help of the other eye.
In those days, he reminded one of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. By the time Borges’s vision had deteriorated dramatically, he could still function. He wrote intensely even after losing his eyesight.
Similar was the case with Lankesh. He could read a book and write a sharp review, even when tears trickled from one of his eyes. He wrote Gunamukha when ill and made his illness a metaphor while etching the character of Nadir Shah.
In no uncertain terms, it can be said that the void created by the death of P Lankesh, a creative personality with a compelling presence, has not been filled so far.
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(Muralidhara Khajane is a senior journalist, writer, and film critic. He is the author of ‘Random Reflections: A Kaleidoscopic Musings on Kannada Cinema’. These are the personal views of the author)