“A writer can only see everything from within and make the concrete experience glow into significance, that is if he is lucky,” said Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy, one of India’s major literary figures and public intellectuals, once during a conversation with renowned literary critic GS Amur.
“It is not a coincidence that almost all his novels focus on a small region around Thirthahalli in the Shivamogga district of Karnataka, and seek to recreate life seen and experienced firsthand from this vantage point,” noted Amur while discussing the Indian experience in Ananthamurthy’s novels.
A multi-faceted personality and one of the best writers in the country, UR Ananthamurthy has won acclaim from critics and fans alike.
Modern in his sensibilities and intellectual underpinnings in his literary works, he questioned many deeply held beliefs. Ananthamurthy’s political views were also strong and often landed him in unseemly situations and controversies.
He was the recipient of the country’s highest literary award Jnanpith and also received the Padma Bhushan. Ananthamurthy was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, which brought him to the attention of the western audience.
Pioneer of Navya movement in Kannada
His literary works are rooted firmly in the cultural context and questioned the established norms. In his lifetime, Ananthamurthy published five novels, one play, eight short-story collections, three collections of poetry, and eight more essays.
His works have been translated into Indian and European languages. He is considered one of the pioneers of the “Navya” (modern) movement in the Kannada literary world.
Ananthamurthy was 81 years old when left this mortal world on 22 August 2014. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his 90th birthday today, 21 December.
His demise was a loss on many counts. As a modern writer, he raised several existential questions through his creative works. He was a unique thinker who tried to understand the relationship between tradition and modernity in India from different angles.
“He was also an activist who fought insular interpretation of religion, fought for the preservation of the environment and promoted mother-tongue culture. A radical visionary and teacher, he tried his best to transform institutions of education and culture in the country,” observes K Satchidanandan, a renowned Indian writer, critic, and pioneer of modern poetry in Malayalam.
Samskara by UR Ananthamurthy
Ananthamurthy burst on the literary scene in 1965 with his controversial novel Samskara, which earned him the tag of a scathing critic of Brahminism, its superstitions, and hypocrisies.
Samskara (Funeral Rites) depicts a Brahmin agrahara, an exclusive orthodox settlement like the one in which the author himself grew up and confronted an intractable conundrum.
He wrote Samskara while doing his doctoral research in English literature at the University of Birmingham. The novel, whose ruthless portrayal of the decadent aspects of Brahmin society invited instant attention in Karnataka, remains his most widely discussed work.
Samskara affirms the necessity of a quest for truth outside existing moral frames, the value of individual scepticism in the face of community orthodoxy, and the sensual pleasures of the body, among others. The novel did upset conservative minds when published.
Ananthamurthy once recalled that Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, another Jnanpith recipient and Kannada writer told him that he had been unduly harsh on Brahmins.
Ananthamurthy has explained the inspiration for writing Samskara and how he started visualising the novel.
“The year was 1965, while in Oxford my tutor Malcolm Bradbury suggested, I should write on my experience of countries co-existing in India. That started me writing Samskara in Kannada. For me, it was an act of self-discovery.”
Ananthamurthy has written five novels and among them, Samskara is the best known. All have been translated into English.
It was AK Ramanujan, a noted poet, translator, folklorist, and philologist, a scholar of Indian literature and linguistics who translated Samksara into English.
The problem of leadership
One of the features common to Ananthamurthy’s first three novels, Samskara, Bharathipura, and Avasthe, is the problem of leadership, a crucial factor in the context of social stability and social transformation. His exploration of this problem reveals features that have pan-India validity.
In Samskara, Praneshacharya the protagonist is the natural leader of the small Brahmin community of the Agrahara by virtue of his scholastic achievements and rigorous practices of Sanatana Dharma, which includes taking care of a permanently invalid wife.
But he has an adversary in Naranappa, who willfully violates the Sanatana code of conduct and indulges in practices forbidden to Brahmins.
There is a crisis in the otherwise uneventful life of the community when Naranappa dies. Even Praneshacharya, in spite of his vast knowledge of the shastras, cannot decide whether Naranappa’s dead body deserves Brahminical death rites in view of his rejection of Brahminhood.
Divine guidance is sought, but it does not come. Through his chance encounters with Chandri, Naranappa’s mistress, who offers her body to him, Praneshacharya discovers the hollowness of the life he has been leading and decides to break away from it.
He lays down the burden of leadership, wanders about as a common man, and returns to the Agrahara with the resolve to lead a new life. The role that Praneshacharya plays in Samskara, though unsuccessfully, is that of the preserver of the traditional social order with its rigid code of caste distinctions and obligations.
Samskara the pathbreaking film
The novel Samskara was turned into a film that was considered pathbreaking in ushering in the new wave cinema movement in Kannada. It won the national film award in 1970.
The way it was transformed into a film itself is an interesting story in the cultural history of Kannada.
In the 1970s and 80s, Tikkavarappu Pattabhirama Reddy — an Indian film screenwriter, producer, director, social activist, poet, and writer known for his pioneering works in Telugu and Kannada cinema — had his home in a cosy corner of Bangalore’s St. Mark’s Road, the city’s intellectual epicentre.
It was Reddy’s rented house that became a hub of artists, writers, musicians, and public figures in the early 70s and it was here Gopala Gowda, a socialist hero of the 1960s, narrated to socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia the story of UR Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara. Listening to it, Pattabhirama Reddy resolved to make a movie out of it.
Samskara and ‘an unqualified Ananthamurthy…’
In another world in Dharwad, noted writer, literary critic, and one of the advisers for Manohara Granthamala, Kirtinath Kurtakoti, handed over the manuscript of Samskara to Girish Karnad.
Karnad’s plays Yayati and Tuglaq ushered in a new era in the Indian theatre scene. Karnad read the manuscript and could not sleep after finishing it.
“Samskara changed the perspective of Kannada living, which was known to me like an ever-changing sequence of colours of glass pieces in a kaleidoscope when turned,” recounted Karnad in his autobiography Aadaadata Ayushya.
“At that moment I felt that I should have written this novel. But someone, an unqualified Ananthamurthy had written that; I somehow wanted to own that in any one way or the other. It did not strike me how to do that. Because at that time, I did not have an interest in art. I watched good works of European filmmakers. When I returned to Bengaluru, the idea of making a film based on the novel started shaping slowly in my mind. Visual possibilities of the novel itself made the filming of Samskara inevitable.”
This is the genesis of Pattabhirama Reddy and Girish Karnad taking the initiative in making a film based on UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.
A film movement
The making of Samskara was viewed as a “movement” by a bunch of talents in the cultural spectrum of the time including Girish Karnad, who had already made his name as a playwright, SG Vasudev, a brilliant artist, and Rajiv Taranath, a disciple of Sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan.
Telugu poet Pattabhirama Reddy, his talented wife Snehalata Reddy, and filmmaker Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, besides consummate Australian cameraman Tom Cowan were also part of the experimental venture.
Karnad accepted the responsibility of writing the script. Though he offered to be associate director for the film, Pattabhi was keen on casting him as Praneshacharya. SG Vasudev got the role of art director for the film.
From scripting to selecting suitable artists for the characters in the film and finalising locations, besides essaying the character of Praneshacharya, Karnad was involved in the production of Samskara.
The film was shot completely in Vaikuntapura, a small village near Sringeri. Vaikuntapura was a perfect location for the visuals as it was tailor-made for Samskara
After watching the rushes, A K Ramanujan certified that the “film is good, sensitive perception of the novel got visual form”. After watching Samskara, Mrinal Sen praised it for its artistic excellence. Noted theatre practitioner Ebrahim Alkaji sent a telegram to Karnad praising both the direction and acting.
When the film was released in 1970, it faced problems with the censor board for its “explicit content”. There were protests by the Brahmin community.
There were talks of the censor board not allowing its screening. However, the tribunal that watched the film finally decided against banning it and permitted its release for public screening.
Later, Samskara won the President’s gold medal for the Best Feature Film at a time when Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi was in competition, besides securing various awards and getting screened at many film festivals across the globe.
Samskara got international recognition because of the translation of AK Ramanujan.
The work is still being discussed at various American Universities and there was a great demand for DVDs of the film at several universities. This might be the first film that is still breathing because of being a literary work.
“The film is a startling indictment of caste and priesthood — two things that traditional India holds most sacred. Pattabhirama Reddy, the director, condemns the malignancy of caste-ridden village society by constantly intercutting, throughout the film, to rats writhing their last in a plague epidemic that simultaneously strikes the Mysore village in which the action is set. Not surprisingly the Mysore Government tried to ban the film”.
This is what Darryl d’Monte of The Guardian wrote in a review published on 5 January 1973. This is testimony to the quality of Samskara the movie, which ushered in a new era of filmmaking in Kannada.
(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)