“There is no village in Inida, however mean, that had not a rich sthalapurana, or legendary history, of its own. Some god or godlike hero has passed by the village – Rama might have rested under this papal tree, Sita might have dried her clothes, after her bath, on this yellow stone, or the Mahatma himself, on one of his many pilgrimages through the country, might have slept in this hut, the low one, by the village gate. In this way the past mingles with the present, and the gods mingle with men to make the repertory of your grandmother always bright…”Author’s Foreword, Kanthapura, Raja Rao
Kanthapura is a 1938 novel by the wonderful, most eloquent writer, Raja Rao – one of the finest amongst the Indian English novelists.
The novel shares the ‘Katha’ (traditional Indian style of storytelling) of a South Indian village, Kanthapura, that rises in tune with the Gandhian movement, imbuing everyone with the colours of Swaraj.
Achakka, an elderly lady, narrates this story as if she is telling a folk epic; passionately she shares, and you dare not disturb her, for she once lived in Kanthapura, high on the Ghats, high up the red hills, where Kenchamma, the goddess, reigns and blesses them all.
Achakka tells before anyone asks the reason behind the red earth – it is all blood that was shed in the battle between Kenchamma and a demon; Kenchamma won.
Goddess benign and bounteous,
Mother of earth, blood of life,
Goddess benign and bounteous.”
“One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language. I use the word ‘alien’, yet English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectuall make-up – like Sanskrit and Persian was before – but not of our emotional make-up.”Author’s Foreword, Kanthapura, Raja Rao
Writing in the Indianised English Raja Rao’s Kanthapura moves in a serpentine style, meandering boldly to present the Indian thought.
From Achakka, the narrator, to Moorthy the Satyagrahi, to the two widows – Rangamma, the wise, and Ratna, the defiant who was married at 10, to Ramakrishnayya, Patel Range Gowda, Bhatta, the Sahib, Bade Khan, Seenu, the Pariahs, Potters, Weavers, Coolies, children, cattle and strays, together they weave this sthalapurana tying it not to a time and place, yet speaking of a true era.
“There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on. And our paths are paths interminable. The Mahabharata has 214,778 verses and the Ramayana 48,000. The puranas are endless and innumerable. We have neither punctuation nor the treacherous ‘ats’ and ‘ons’ to bother us – we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our storytelling…”Author’s Foreword, Kanthapura, Raja Rao
Flowing like a river, the story of Kanthapura, whether consumed mid-way or at any given point, continues to be powerful, calm and vibrant.
The distinctive style/ form of the story is the protagonist as it very straightforwardly propels the story, colouring all the plots, characters, twists and turns, monologues and prayers, speeches and rebukes, songs, celebrations and sufferings alike.
The form glues the novel’s world beautifully, heartily – not one cardamom plant or the fragrant sandalwood forest or the moon eyed gods and goddesses are unaware of what Moorthy discussed with Rangamma and Patel Range Gowda in the secret Congress meeting and what the whispering hearts shared, and what the sari-clad, bare feet, hands-busy-cooking offered their families and the deities.
Everyone and everything moves ahead together like twigs, leaves and swans in a river.
Even the readers become an essential part of this ‘sthalapurana’ because sooner or later they sit down in a humble gathering to tell the others about a tiny village named Kanthapura.