Literary Shelf

In Conversation with Basavaraj Naikar

Sarangi: Please tell us about your childhood…

Naikar:  My childhood was a strange mix of heaven and hell. As long as I was in my Primary School, the Practicing School at the Government Training College for Men I was looked after my grandmother, I enjoyed the heavenly bliss. Although I missed my parents there (as they lived in my native place, Naragund) I was carefree and lived the life of pure innocence. I can never forget my friends, the tall trees of sky jasmine, the aromatic flowers, the melodious music of nightingale, twitter of birds and a variety of birds, and the beauty of Nature and the classical beauty of the College buildings which were built in the British rule in India.

Sarangi:  How did you come to writing?

Naikar: In my childhood or boyhood I had not planned to be a writer. As I was trained in Hindustani classical vocal music by my beloved guru, Sri Dattubuwa Thakurdas and I had made conspicuous progress in it at that young age of ten to thirteen years, my father wanted me to be a great musician in later life. But the unexpected demise of my father in 1963, when I was only thirteen clamped great economic tragedy on our family. Hence our plans had to be changed. I had inevitably drop the idea of choosing music as a career although music is my first love and philosophy is my second love and literature was chosen by me for my livelihood. When I completed my SSLC and joined the prestigious Karnatak Arts College, I used to hear a lot about the earstwhile Principal of the College, Dr. V.K.Gokak. Naturally I chose Dr. V.K.Gokak as my role model. But when I joined the Karnatak University, Dharwad for my M.A, I toyed with the idea of becoming a Milton critic like B. Rajan.

During my M.A. days I had written my first short story entitled, “Fulfilment” but I had not shown it to anyone lest they should laugh at me. When I was a student of M.A, I had an occasion of bringing Dr. Mulk Raj Anand from the Airport of Belgaum to Dharwad and had a golden chance of talking with him. I was amazed by his humanism and great affection for me and he answered all my questions although I irritated him with some embarrassing questions. Within two or three days I had achieved a good rapport with him. I had found almost fatherly affection in him. When he asked me what I want to do or achieve in life, I replied that I would like to be a writer. He encouraged me start my writing career with my autobiography. Although I had not completed my autobiography yet, I have been writing a number of stories, novellas, novels and plays, which are being published gradually.

As I joined the Post-Graduate Centre of Karnatak University newly started at Gulbarga as a Lecturer, I struggled hard to earn my Ph.D. on a difficult topic, “Epic Affirmation in Shakespeare’s Last Plays” under the guidance of a more difficult Supervisor, Professor T.R. Rajasekharaiah while staying at the most difficult place, i.e. non-academic and non-literary backward place. It was during that time that I decided to become a creative writer, especially a novelist, a short story writer and a dramatist. I knew that I could not become a poet, because I was too intellectual to be toying with images and metaphors. I was more interested in ideas and discursive writing and philosophy and other sciences like anthropology and psychology and occult sciences than in merely descriptive writings. I began to write short stories in English even when I was struggling with my Ph.D. The moment I completed the Doctorate Degree, I heaved a sigh of relief and took to creative writing very seriously.

Sarangi: Did your academic training help you as a writer?

Naikar: Definitely, yes. Our critical evaluation of others’ literary works like fiction and drama would teach us how to write similar works with similar or dissimilar themes. Creative writing also involves a lot of critical evaluation in the process of selection of raw material, rejection of irrelevant elements, pruning and achieving a sort of balance and sense of proportion which goes under the name of form. In this way our academic training helps us indirectly and subconsciously.

Sarangi: What are your major works? You seem to be at the best when you deal with historical subject.  Why is it so?

Naikar:  My two historical novels and three novellas (The Sun Behind the Cloud, The Queen of Kittur and Rayanna the Patriot and Other Novellas) are very important to me because I believe that writing historical works is certainly more difficult that writing contemporary works about contemporary themes. I had to do research, field work and conduct interviews and study the relevant documents for two decades to write these historical works. Indians are notorious for their lack of historical sense. They do not keep records, or preserve them, if available, and are not systematic in the presentation of their memories and do not follow the chronological method of recording the events. They are more bothered about the mythical and so called universal things/themes/ideas than about particular, contingent and historical things, persons and events. They do not have a historiography worth the name. In this context writing historical works like novels, novellas, short stories and plays is really a difficult job. Only those who have practiced this art know the troubles and tortures of these adventures. If you examine the world literature, you will realize how small in quantity historical literature is in comparison with contemporary literature.

I have also written some stories about contemporary themes. But I consider my historical works as more important and challenging than the works of contemporary themes.
Sarangi: Who are the writers, who influenced you during the formative years?

Naikar: Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Mauppassant, Cervantes, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, D.H.Lawrence, Thoreau, Henry James, Hemingway, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Jawaharlal Nehru, M.K.Gandhi, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Malgonkar, Chaman Nahal and Khushwant Singh are my favourite writers whom I try to follow, not to imitate blindly. In Kannada Kuvempu, Sivaram Karanth, B.Puttaswamaiah, H.Tipperudraswamy, S.L.Bhyrappa, and TaRaSu are my favourite writers whom I try to follow, but not to imitate blindly.
Sarangi: Many of your stories follow the art of the oral tradition of storytelling. Is there any specific reason for embracing this art form?

Naikar: There is no specific reason except that I wish to capture the attention of the reader and therefore describe the things, persons and events as graphically as possible while conveying their inner psychology. Giving proper motivation to the characters is my main concern. I may have been influenced by the oral tradition of our country, but I am not conscious of it as a specific technique. My critics may examine this aspect more diligently than I can.

Sarangi: Why are you fascinated by Rani Chennamma, the second wife of Raja Mallasarja of Kittur?

Naikar: That is because I live geographically nearest to Kittur. In my childhood I used to read about her heroism in our school text books. I had also heard about Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. As I grew up into an academician and began to study colonial and post-colonial literature I began to see a pattern in these stories and to understand their struggles against the East India Company in a new light. Rani Laxmibai is widely known in India, but Rani Chennamma, who fought against the British thirty three years before Rani Laxmibai came on the scene, was not known to the North Indians. Apart from a popular Kannada film on her, there is no standard work of art on her. There are a few short biographical pieces and plays on her, but they do not present an authentic historical picture of her life and kingdom. Many times they give incomplete, fragmentary, anachronistic and even wrong information about Kittur kingdom. I, therefore, tried to rectify this misleading phenomenon and studied historical documents  and folk literature about this kingdom, made some fieldwork, interviewed some people connected with the kingdom, arranged the chaotic and anachronistic information into a cohesive and convincing picture of the rise and fall of Rani Chennamma against the colonial background. She is one of the finest examples of female heroism in the world and a role model to the modern feminists. That is why all the people of Karnataka including me admire and revere her to a great extent.

Sarangi: Your character Kanakadasa is unique creation. How did you conceive the character?

Naikar: When I was in my High school at Naragund, my native place, the Government of Karnataka celebrated the fourth centenary of Kanakadasa’s birth on a wide scale. At the same time a Kannada film entitled Bhakta Kanakadasa was released all over the State. Some of his excellent songs were made popular in Karnataka. I used to be deeply touched by Kanakadasa’s concern for the down-trodden people and the caste obsession of the upper caste people and his sterling spirituality. Some of his songs were on the tip of my tongue and I used to sing them frequently at home and in the public functions. I had been thinking of writing something about him for several years until I was able to accomplish it finally. My characterization of Kanakadasa is thus an expression of his inner spiritual struggle and accomplishment of vairagya or detachment. It emerged from my long cogitation about him for years together. I think I have done justice to his character.
Sarangi: Will you please tell us about the process of writing?
Naikar: Some writers go on writing by following the method of trial and error. I am surprised to know that they go on writing some piece again and again by frequently revising it. This happens because the writer is not clear in his mind about what he wants to write or convey in his writing. He does not have the proper perspective and lacks the language and technique to communicate it. My method provides a contrast to this experimental and groping in the dark method. I would first think comprehensively about some topic or theme for a long time until I discern a sort of pattern in it, however vague it might be. Then I read the relevant material to enrich the context and characterization before putting pen to paper. Once I prepare the first draft it is as good as the final draft except for the minor changes of a word here and a word there. I am not in a hurry to write some trash and get it published. This is the process of writing that I follow.
Sarangi: Can writing a novel be taught?
Naikar: Yes, the basics, I mean the technique of creative writing may be taught to young writers, who want to make a career of it. It helps them in their initial stage of writing. But later they may outgrow it by discovering their own methods, tricks and insights about writing. Some writers have become great without being tutored in the art of creative writing. The best living example is V.S.Naipaul. Teaching creative writing is like leading a horse to the reservoir where it may drink the water, but drinking itself cannot be taught.

Sarangi: What message you pass while you write?
Naikar: Literature does not teach the message directly. It presents an experience in such a way   that the sensitive reader may learn some lesson from it. As Northrop Frye says somewhere, it is the responsibility of the reader to learn some lesson or message from the work of art. It may be compared to a Markata Nyaya or Monkey Theory according to which it is the responsibility of the baby monkey to clasp the mother monkey and protect itself and prevent itself from falling down. Similarly it is the responsibility of the sensitive or cordial reader (sahridaya) to learn some lesson or message from the work of art which is hidden by the author there. My readers should draw their own message from my writing according to their sensibility and scholarship. I do not wish make my message explicit like in philosophy.
Sarangi: Who are important story writers from your part of Karnataka?

Naikar: Masti, Ashwattha, Kuvempu, Poornachandra Tejashwi, P Lankesh, Yashvant Chittal   and Ananthamurthy are some of the important short story writers in Kannada. Most of them happen to be novelists also.
Sarangi: Who are important critics on you?

Naikar: Dr. Christopher Rollason from England but living in France, Dr. Stephen Gill from Canada, Dr. Pier Paolo Piciucco from Italy, Dr. Jibesh Bhattacharya, Dr. S.G.Vaidya, Dr. Bhagabat Nayak, Dr. M.A. Jeyaraju, Dr. Satya Brit Singh, Dr. Alka Singh, Dr. Usha Bande, Dr. Asha Chaubey, Dr. Pashupati Jha, Dr. T.R.Ravichandra, Dr. Nagendra Prasad, Dr. Smita Jha, Dr. John Peter Joseph, Dr. O.P. Mathur, Dr. Sumati Shivakumar, Dr. R.S. Chulki, Dr. Santwana Haldar, Dr. Shyam Agrawallah, Dr. S. Kumaran and Dr. Pramod Ganganmale are some of the important critics on my works.
Sarangi: Do you write in Indian English?
Naikar: Yes, I believe that Indians should write an Indian brand of English and should not try to imitate the British, or American or Australian writers. Although they may write in English their sensibility should be deeply steeped in Indian philosophy, religion, language and culture. I think the convent products cannot write authentically about India and their sensibility is generally westernized and their English is neutral and colorless, correct but insipid. The Indian English writer should know more than two languages although he may choose to write only in one, i.e. English. His writing should be redolent of Indian imagery, outlook of life and point of view. He should be himself and unique. No British or American writer should be able to write like him. That is and should be his achievement.
Sarangi: When we read a story we bear in mind that the Perspective is the scene as viewed through the eyes/mind of the chosen character. How do you handle this in your stories?
Naikar: I think you are referring to the point of view technique popularized by Henry James. This happens to be a difficult and ingenious technique and demands a great deal of attention and alertness on the part of the reader. As for me, I do not wish to follow this technique. On the contrary I follow the omniscient method of narration. Indian writers, for whom English is a second language and not the mother tongue, technical experimentation is not possible now. It is a wonder that they write at all in English to articulate a sensibility that is not English but Indian. That has to be appreciated.
Sarangi: People say we are in the Asian century. What do you say?

Naikar: It is a good sign that Asia is going to have its distinct identity as different from the Oriental identity, because Asian identity will be more specific and a smaller cultural unit and helps us to understand the common pattern of thought that might emerge. There is a need to distinguish between the broader Oriental sensibility and the narrower Asian sensibility. It will help us to fight the demons like Westernization or Americanization. It will be part of post-colonial agenda, which is always welcome.
Sarangi: What will be the literary scenario in India in 2050 AD?
Naikar: As I visualize, the literary scenario in India in 2050 A.D. will be very bright because there are already signs of marvelous growth in our literary sensibility and achievements. With a greater number of enlightened and international publishers entering the Indian market and the probable encouragement by public and private institutes in the form of fat prizes and awards, the scene will change gradually and fast in future. This is not only my hope but also my wishful desire.
Sarangi: Do you have anxiety to transmit Indianness into a global code?
Naikar: I want to be an Indian writer in my sensibility and articulation, but I do not struggle hard to achieve it. I have my own point of view to look at the world and this point of view is naturally decided by the context in which I live. Since I live in a specific area, i.e. North Karnataka in South India, I wish to write about the life around me, which will be part of the larger Indian life. But I do not have any anxiety of transmitting it into the global code.
Sarangi: What change do you predict in Indian academic scenario?
Naikar: Indian academic life will grow quantitatively, but not qualitatively as our system is not conducive to originality of thought. We will produce more and more degree holders, but our scholars will not be able to compete with international scholars in any field (my concern is with literary criticism). They will go on learning Western theories like parrots without attempting a comparative study of religions, philosophies and literatures or trying to achieve something distinctly Indian, which will be noticed by the Western scholars. The future of Indian academic scenario is rather bleak according to me. Mere statistical increase in the number of institutes and graduates will not enhance the qualitative achievement. As you remember not even a single Indian University has been found in the top 200 Universities of the world. You know the reasons also.
Sarangi: Thank you! My wishes for  your creative metaphors that are food for thought to the readers in all cultures….


More by :  Prof. Jaydeep Sarangi

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Views: 3341      Comments: 1

Comment Extremely enriching interview.. thank you for introducing us to such a vital writer voicing the South Indian culture so passionately and with so much (especially historical) clarity !

Angana Dutta
25-Oct-2014 13:18 PM

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