is a myth-maker of modern times. Poet, playwright, folklorist and film
director, he brings alive the mystique and magic of folk. His recent works
explore the tussle between the myth and the modern.
Born in Ghodageri village in Belgaum district in Karnataka, Kambar’s writing is full of local flavour, written in a Kannada dialect spoken in north Karnataka. All his stories are set in an utopian village, Shivapura.
He has written 25 plays, 11 anthologies of poems, five novels, and several academic papers on folklore and folk theatre. For his work, Kambar has won the Jnanpith Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, and is a Padma Shri. The founder-vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi is currently president of the Sahitya Akademi.
He speaks about the difference between history and folklore, the blurred lines between history and myth in India, his writing as an expression of his beliefs and protest against what he doesn’t approve of.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
How did you get interested in folklore? Were you exposed to folklore and folk theatre while growing up?
Growing up, there were plenty of folk tales, folk songs, and folk theatre around me. Storytelling was a part of life. Performance, acting, or simply talking; everything was like storytelling. These are not separate—acting, storytelling and conversation are all rolled into one.
There were people who would turn any situation into a performance. When I was young, there was a man who used to read the newspaper and enact the news stories. Gandhi said this.... Jinnah said that... he would narrate these with dialogues that he created for both of them. This is prevalent even today.
So, I was into folklore since my childhood. Do you think folklore is only in villages, and not in the cities? No. Whatever we talk about, whatever we live in our day-to-day life, that is our folklore. Doesn’t America have folklore? Folklore is whatever people say, think and believe. Folklore is how the folk live.
Your style of writing is like you’re telling me a story. Where does this come from? Is it the style you heard stories in as a child?
When I’m speaking to you, I’m talking about my childhood, my adolescence, my whole life. My way of communication is, first of all, folklore. Because I’m human, I believe in everything and I live with them. Therefore, I never exclude things. When I talk, I talk about all my lived experiences.
Here, there is some difference between the city and the village. City has history. Village has memories, a large fund of memories, in fact. And, therefore, whatever I speak, I speak with all my memories. And I don’t have this concept of history that people in the cities have. That is the difference. This style of writing has come quite naturally (to me).
Folklore is whatever people say, think and believe. Folklore is how the folk live.
Is it only your memories or collective memory of the whole culture?
Yes, collective memory of so many generations, and my surroundings and my whole culture.
Why do you think cities don’t have memories?
Cities don’t have collective memories because they have histories. Since you have a concept of history, you believe whatever is written and recorded. We believe the word as well. Whatever word is said, we believe that. So, folklore is different.
Memories are creative; history is not. Please remember this. You tell a story to a girl. When she tells that story back to you, it’s different. When she’s talking to people her own age, it’s something else.
She tells it to her mother, it’s something else. It is the same memory but she creates different stories every time she narrates it. So, memories are creative, you see? History is not. In history, the closer you are to the written word, the better the communication.
All your stories are set in Shivapura. Is it a utopian place?
In Karimayi, I define Shivapura. There were four half-learned people. They know the alphabet—the English alphabet. They could identify the letter ‘S’. So, wherever there saw ‘S’ on the map of India, they would call it Shivapura. Every place beginning with an ‘S’ became Shivapura. So, Shivapura is found all over India; it is not only Shivapura of Belgaum district. For me, Shivapura is any village in the country. It is real, mythical and utopic. It is all of it. It does exist in every village mind. We have a village, a Shivapura, in all our hearts.
When you’re writing in folklore style, who are you speaking to?
Whoever has a village in his heart, just like me. We being Indians cannot help being both urban and rural. Don’t you think so? Are we totally Bengalurean? Is that possible? We carry thousands of memories with us. We cannot forget them. We live with them. And these memories keep our villages alive in us.
Do you think that’s true for the newer, younger generation as well?
The newer generation… this is complex. The world of technology has encompassed us from all sides. So many new gadgets have come; these mobile phones that keep getting upgraded all the time...tabs, computers, so many things. In our times we roamed around. We knew so much about our environment. We knew the wild animals and birds. We were lively and interactive. Our worlds were huge. Our parents emphasised greatly on concentration. They kept complaining how we couldn’t concentrate.
Now, the youngsters have great concentration. Only concentration, no life. This affects imagination. Technology is alienating them. They find it hard to form human bonds which came to us so easily. We never thought we were doing a great deed if we offered a stranger some food; it came naturally to us. The new generation lacks empathy. They don’t know names of trees or birds.
They don’t know about their surroundings. Everything, their whole life, is with this (points at his mobile phone). But, you can’t talk to the phone, you can’t humanly interact with it. You only have to receive what it offers. It’s one-way communication. And only engages your eyes. It limits your perception. How much will you gather only with one-dimensional perception?
Orality is an energy. What sounds are created! What stories are created! Such songs, the music! All is lost on this new generation.
You’ve compiled two volumes of Kannada folklore dictionary. What was the idea behind that?
Folklore comprises a lot of things. Beliefs, stories, and tales are there. Absurdity and jokes are also there. References to cultural and social practices are there. In the Sangya-Balya tale, why does Sangya go inside the shop while Balya sits outside? This dictionary will explain it. Since Sangya was a rich man, he went inside. Balya was a poor man so he waited outside. That was the practice in those days. The dictionary has such references.
For example, we’ve some customs here, some beliefs, some proverbs. With the dictionary, one can understand these things. In folktales, there are motifs. With motifs, we start stories and end stories. The dictionary of motifs itself is six volumes. Those interested in folklore can read it. It is only for readers, not for practitioners.
Orality is an energy. What sounds are created! What stories are created! Such songs, the music! All is lost on this new generation.
In Kannada folklore, we come across Jogti (devadasi) songs and shepherd’s songs...
No, no. You cannot divide it like that. All the people have their own songs, their material, their beliefs and their tales. In our village, we have shepherds and jogtis and people of all castes and occupations. Whatever we have heard, from anywhere, is folklore. In the village, everything and everybody is important and has a role in the lifecycle of the village.
Jogtis have songs about going to Yellamma. They have songs when there is an event in your family. They have songs for Mangalvaar (Tuesday) and Shukravaar (Friday) when they visit every house in the village. And when you harvest something from your fields, you give them a share because they live on it. The farmers, labourers, carpenters, all need jogtis. Everybody is given their share at harvest. Our lives are dependent on each other and the songs play a wonderful role in keeping the village together and lively. They play an important role in us living happily together.
You call your stories non-Brahmin folklore. Why?
Do you know what we say? If you want to kill folklore, start a school. If you start a school, folklore ceases to exist. Folklore is about orality; that is the mantra. Brahmin depends on the letter, written letter. He has his text—the Vedas, the Upanishads, etc. He doesn’t create stories. He doesn’t create proverbs or tales, nothing. There is very little interaction or none at all with folklore.
Brahmins have songs, too. But those songs are written. And they are learnt by rote and sung. Our songs are not memorised; they are passed on orally. In folktales, they sometimes extend the song, at other times, they shorten it. Each singer does something new, each time he sings it. At times, he changes it into something else altogether.
Have you seen Yakshagana? If you’re watching it with great interest, they extend a scene for ten minutes, and if you lack interest, they shorten it to two minutes and wrap up the performance quickly. You’re the one who decides how it will go. You’re creating the drama here. It doesn’t work with a sleeping audience; they have to be receptive. This is live; there is an interaction between audience and performer. In the West, they tell a story while the audience sits in the dark. He (the performer) doesn’t get to study the reaction of the audience. So, he reproduces whatever he has learnt and practised. That is all.
Why do you prefer to write in a colloquial dialect, and not in textbook Kannada?
The language has to be natural. When I’m telling you a tale, it has to be the way I speak to you in person. I’m sitting here talking to you. Why would I speak in a formal language? This is the style I follow in my stories.
What are we losing out on with loss of many dialects?
Loss of dialects goes on limiting the language. It loses creativity in such situations. If you leave it free, language has the ability to sprout, blossom and create. As you speak, you come up with new phrases and expressions. You create words. We mix Kannada and English and come up with new expressions. That is creation. You are creative and language has that power to create, too.
Language doesn’t have sight or touch. All of that has to be created. When the monster kidnaps the princess, you have to see it, right? You have to feel it. You have to believe it. All of this has to come from orality. So, it has to be very creative. The speech has to be creative. It is not a just a report; it cannot be. If it’s a report, it’s not a tale.
Your works are full of colloquial words, culture-specific references, and local mysticism. When they are translated into English, does a lot get lost?
Sometimes yes. When translated from one language into another, some of it does get lost.
How important were oral traditions in our culture?
When King Lear wants to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, he doesn’t just name the places; he orders a map and shows which area belongs to whom. This implies that they believe in what they see; not in words. This is where it starts, the importance of eyes, the importance of seeing. In courts, they ask ‘show me where it’s written’; they ask for documents.
But in India, since the beginning, it has been about seeing. At the same time, our words carry value. If we say something, it’s enough. We don’t have to show the writing. In our tradition, the spoken word has as much weight as the written word. Only when the British courts came, the whole thing about showing proof and evidence started.
You stories switch between time frames—from myth to history to modern. In Shivana Dangura, God’s children come to the Earth to play, there is mention of the British and then events that happen in today’s India. How does this work?
Right! When you talk about history, you have past and present. And future also. So, you divide the time. We don’t do that; we don’t divide the time. Time is one. It’s continuous. Tirupati Thimmappa took a loan of 9 crores for his wedding. His devotees donate at the temple even today to repay his debt. When had he taken the loan? Today, in the present tense, we’re repaying it.
We don’t have past, present, future. Hanuman who comes in Ramayana also comes in Mahabharata. He also comes now to give us his blessings. In Ashwatthama’s case, there is no concept of death. He is immortal. So, for us, time is eternal and seamless. When the concept of history arrived here, time started to be considered in terms of past, present and future. It’s the western concept of time. That is why we are confused about time frames today.
Your initial years of writing were also the time when the Navya movement (a modernist school of writing) was at its peak in Kannada literature. Was your writing in contrast to that approach?
In theatre, the west has a concept of distance. Brecht (German playwright Bertolt Brecht) said “No no, you don’t know how to do it. If the audience is not distanced, the play wouldn’t work”. Whenever there was an emotional scene, he said it required a distancing-effect.
Immediately, our writers, and so many others were influenced by Brecht. If we spoke three sentences, at least twice, we would say “Brecht”. I said no to this. Our theatre already functions on the concept of distance. When you see a man misbehave with a woman on the road, as a gentleman what do you do? You intervene. But when Dushasana is humiliating Draupadi, you sit and watch. Why? The performers sing, make loud noises, and perform a fierce dance. All these songs and dance say to you “Sit! This is not life. This is drama”.
This way, they create distance. And with this concept of distance in place, the play continues. This is our traditional method of creating and maintaining distance—we have songs, dances, gestures, and many other methods for it. In the western concept, it is mostly done by dialogue. I asked “we have it in our theatre already, why do we need Brecht”. But they had all read western textbooks; they followed the western style.
Many of our writers were also influenced by the European modernist approach. How is their work different from yours?
What does literature need? Aristotle says catharsis. It’s a medical term for providing relief from pain. Somebody has a death in the family. We go and talk to him about the deceased. He is overcome with grief and breaks down. It’s an emotional release. This is catharsis. What do you find in literature? If such a story has occurred in your life, all the emotions come to you. The pain relieves. This is catharsis.
In our method, catharsis doesn’t exist. We tell stories. Why do we tell stories? For rasanubhava (to experience emotion). Somebody is telling us the Shakuntala-Dushyant story. The king meets an ashram girl in a jungle and they fall in love. I’m a lecturer. You’re a journalist. All the people listening to this story do different things in life. We dress differently and come from different environments. Everybody listens to the same narrative and creates different stories.
For me, Shakuntala is a girl from my neighbourhood. Dushyant is also my neighbour. I get involved in their story. When Dushyant forgets Shakuntala, I feel the sorrow. This is rasanubhava. It’s for this rasanubhava that we tell stories. We don’t make tragedy drama like they (westerners) do.
We’ve our own experiences to tell stories about, don’t we? Therefore, our major genre of literature is katha—storytelling. For them, it’s drama. It’s not the same. You were talking about Navya, which was essentially following their style. They adopted the European modernist approach. Gopalakrishna Adiga and U.R. Ananthamurthy were hugely influenced by it. What madness! Why do we have to follow the European approach? That’s not my style. Helatena Kela (Listen, I’ll tell you) was one of my early works. All I do is tell a story.
For us, what our elders said is enough. Our Vyasa, Valmiki and others have told stories. We’re continuing that. It’s just that I’m telling a modern story. My story didn’t exist in Valmiki’s time. It wasn’t there in Pampa’s time. Those stories were different. Why would I write about Shakuntala and Dushyant? Our issues are different. Today, I tell my story, your story. I’m telling these stories.
Is there a basic difference in the ways characters are developed in modernist and traditional styles?
You tell me that. That a reader’s job. I’m just telling you a story. You decide.
So, don’t you consciously decide “this is how my character will develop or events will unfold because I’m not following the European approach”?
Yes, yes, I do. For example, take Samskara (by Ananthamurthy). A Brahmin who lives with a Dalit woman dies. Whether Brahmins should perform his last rites or not is the issue. There is endless discussion over this. So much introspection! In my style, when somebody dies, we don’t hold seminars. Cremate him and go to sleep; it’s done. This is not a matter for discussion, is it? In my story, such a discussion will never happen. Because such a thing doesn’t happen.
So, how does a Kambar story treat individualism?
In my stories, the community speaks. In theirs, the individual speaks. When you’re talking as an individual, you’re separated from the community. Here, community speaks, community decides, community settles disputes. So, after the modern poets came, for the first time in the history of Indian literature, the literature began to address the individual. We address the community. That’s the basic difference.
Yet we do recognise the concept of individuality. When we’re deciding the relationship between God and myself, only two of us exist. He talks to me and I talk to him. He doesn’t speak to the community neither do I address him that way. Love and relationships exist between individuals. But, this happens within the broad structure of the community.
How was your work viewed by Navya writers?
I never followed them. I did write a few poems following that style but stopped immediately and wrote Helatena Kela and Rishyashringa. This was in protest. They said “he’s a singer after all”. I said “Okay, I sing”. They began to talk in their poetry. I began to sing in mine. My poems are always in the form of songs. Still, I’ve explored more modern themes than them. Look at some of my narrative poems. For instance, I wrote a poem about Mao Zedong.
A poet has dreams but he doesn’t have power. Politicians have power but no dreams. Mao had both. He was a poet and head of a political party. And yet he couldn’t achieve everything. That was the sadness I felt. The so-called modern writers never felt it despite talking much about politics.
German writer Thomas Mann had said everything is politics and all these writers had decided they needed to speak about politics in their works. The modernists, including P. Lankesh and Ananthamurthy, used to talk about Lohia quite often. One day, Lohia came to my house in Sagara (in Shimoga district in Karnataka). The socialist leaders—Gopal Gowda, Thimmappa, Bangarappa and J.H. Patel—were all my friends.
When Lohia came, they said “here is a poem, come and listen to him”. I sang Helatena Kela. Lohia was thrilled. He went on to propagate my poem, my song. He said “He’s the only poet opposing the British mindset”. The others were all in praise of Eliot, Pound, etc. I spoke about India in our own traditional style. He liked it. After Lohia appreciated me, the modernists stopped speaking against me.
In my stories, the community speaks. In theirs, the individual speaks. When you’re talking as an individual, you’re separated from the community.
Which writer’s work has influenced you?
No particular writer. But folk poetry has greatly influenced and shaped up my work. Our folklore is very rich. I’ve heard or read, let’s say, over 2 lakh stories. All of them have influenced me.
You have been sometimes criticised of oversimplification in old versus new story. In your stories, old is always good and new is always bad. Is it because you’re nostalgic?
Probably, that’s what you find in my literature. I don’t see it that way. I think what they (other writers) say is artificial; it’s not useful in life. I think what I write should find some use in life. I can’t write just for their fancy. I’m very serious about my writing. I want to say something through my writing. And I’d say it whether somebody likes it or not. I believe in some values. To propagate those values, I write. I’ve something to say and that’s exactly what I’d say. I believe in certain things and I want to talk about them through my literature.
In Shivana Dangura, you say people in Tungavva’s stories are poor or rich, gods or demons, saints or villains, with no caste or genealogical identities. It’s all too simple. Do you do that in your stories where complications are overlooked and conflicts avoided?
In Shivana Dangura, I have undermined the caste system. Tungavva is a Dalit woman and raises Chambasa who is a Gowda. She believes in Yellamma while he doesn’t. I show how easily they solve that problem. In fact, the caste issue is not a problem for them. The problem is the modern man, Kuntirapa. And, it’s the community that resolves the problem.
But in that story you do touch upon caste—the protagonist is beaten up by other boys because he lives in the untouchable colony.
In some villages, it happens. It should not. But I want to emphasise that modern police are more cruel than people in our villages who discriminate based on caste. Also, untouchability is not the major issue in this story. The main theme is Kuntirapa’s cruelty. Why don’t you see that? And the girl who saves the village, bit by bit. These are the things I’d like to underline.
You also made films based on your own stories. How different from writing was working with this medium?
I play with words. Words do magic here (points at his ears). But, films have magic on the eyes. In those days, it excited us in such a huge way. I was a poor fellow, living in Chicago where I was teaching. Even I was interested in filmmaking (laughs). I attended some classes. Girish (Karnad) and Lankesh were already making films. I thought why not me too.
I made four or five films. But I found the medium limited. Words have a power that sight doesn’t have. Eyes make you believe what you see. Words and sounds make you creative. When we hear a story, three of us imagine three different things whereas a film presents just one. That is make-believe.
How do they work well in theatre then?
Theatre has a wonderful power of audience engagement. Have you see Yakshagana? They use such clever speech. When the story opens, all sing in chorus— Ravana, Rama, and all others. When they sing, “Look here, Rama is coming. Rama is coming”, Rama himself sings as part of chorus. Then, Bhagavata asks him: “May I know who you are and why you have come to this gathering?”
Then, he takes a jump and says: “I’m Rama”. From that moment, he assumes the character of Rama and doesn’t join the chorus.
When Ravana explains why he has come to kidnap Sita, he goes on the whole night. Yet, the audience is never bored. This can happen only in theatre. The performance changes every time. Film makes it static. Theatre allows different interpretation every time. Theatre has that magic. That’s the fun.
Your works also borrow a lot from mythology. What do you think of blurring the line between myth and history?
Bande Nawaz (a sufi saint of the Chishti Order) had come to Gulbarga from Delhi. Once he got into an argument with Shivalingeshwara Swami over whose religion was greater. After 13 days of argument, they realised that each was saying what the other had said earlier in the argument. They decided that their religions taught the same thing—humanity.
They exchanged their clothes—Swami wore green and Bande Nawaz saffron. Today, 360 mathas across south India celebrate an annual festival over 13 days where the pontiff wears green. Tell me if this is based on myth or history. This is the only country where you can’t divide history and myth. That’s the richness of our culture and I’m proud of it.
But today, there are many fights on the basis of religion and caste.
It makes me very, very sad. In my village, we lived together in harmony. My close circle of friends included a Muslim and two Dalits. We went to school together and cattle grazing together. It hasn’t changed even today. I still have all my old friends. I can’t say this of the newer generation.
What do you think a writer’s role in the society is?
Expression is important. But I must also say what I think is good for society. That is my duty. And that is why I write.
Is protesting a writer’s responsibility too?
Some protest. I cannot do it; I don’t. I write. My writing is my protest against what I don’t like.
After the Kalburgi murder, some writers returned awards. How do you see that?
It is wrong. An award is a gesture of appreciation of the akademi. It’s to say that your writing is excellent; it is relevant; it’s good for our country. That’s the recognition that an award intends to bring. If you don’t like it, okay…
After Kalaburgi was murdered, we immediately organised meetings in eight cities. The academy did what was in its capacity. We strongly condemned the killing.
Do you think creative expression is being suppressed today?
The court has given a wonderful verdict (he is referring to the September 5 Supreme Court verdict dismissing the petition to ban Malayalam novel Meesha by S. Hareesh). Now, who is to stop anybody from expressing? Can any discussions on this reach a meaningful end? The more you discuss this, the more these issues come up. People should be able to express what they believe in. If you don’t like it, don’t follow it. Don’t read or watch what you don’t like. That is how it should be. That’s what the court also said. Who should tell you what you’re allowed to write? The court has ended this discussion.
But, Gauri Lankesh was killed for her views.
(Sighs) The court verdict is there. Let’s end it there.
You’ve often advocated school education in a child’s native language. Why is this important?
We’re doing a very foolish thing by running behind English. It’s very unfortunate that everybody wants to send their children to English medium schools. English or any other foreign language can never nurture the kind of creativity a child’s mother tongue does.
By blindly chasing our English medium dream, we’re making our children non-creative. If a child tells you a story in Kannada, she will be creative. In English, she would have just memorised it. If she recites it 20 times, it will be exactly the same every time. So, you have killed her creativity 20 times.
But does English level the playing field between rich and poor?
Just for the sake of that! You’re doing this just for food. Let LKG to SSLC education be in mother tongue or state language. Teach her any language after that; she will be able to learn.
Are you working on a book right now?
Of course. The thing is I don’t know to do anything else (laughs). I’m trying to work on a novel.