A Star is Dead: Some Reflections on Kannada Culture

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Photo: PTI

By Niveditha K Prasad

As I write these words, it is Karnataka/Kannada Rajyostava. In Bengaluru, the city this author calls home, Rajyostava is not merely a government event that is observed by announcements of bland government schemes or tedious function. It is a public festival competing only with Independence Day in its fervour. The city is decked in red and yellow, auto rickshaws with the “Karnataka flag” fluttering drive by in a pageant. There are blood camps and distribution of free food at busy traffic junctions.

To any observer, the celebrations this year are marked distinct by the fresh addition of an eminent character to it – the late Kannada actor Puneeth Rajkumar. This is not an abrupt development and is instead the culmination of what began as a very public mourning of his death a year ago, almost coinciding with Rajyotsava. One might simply write it off as a kitschy display of grief by his fans, no doubt due to the actor’s early, unexpected death. One might even be inclined to tie this up with self-serving politicking. But there is something distinct in the late actor’s presence in cut-outs and flagpoles, a symptom of a greater struggle within the city.

Contested City 

The state of Karnataka, unlike other linguistically homogenous states, was established as a “composite” state, comprising multiple identities of Kannadigas, Kodavas, Tuluva, Marathis, Tamizhians, to name a few. However, its creation also marked a certain weaning away from other linguistic cultures, particularly the influence of Madras. Kannada, rendered marginal in the neighbouring Bombay and Madras, would now find home and come to occupy a central place in this new state. Even as the spectrum of Karnataka was broader, the state’s primary duties would be to Kannada. This is perhaps best exemplified in the consecration of cultural heroes (they are overwhelmingly men) in the “linguistic cosmos” of the State. These icons were a testament to the simultaneous accommodation of other identities while emphasising on Kannada – Da Ra Bendre was a Marathi, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar was from a Tamizh family, but both wrote predominantly in Kannada; Sir M Visvesvaraya was born in a Telugu family and yet, being closely associated with the Wodeyars, is very much a Kannada icon.

This strategy of accommodation and domination has not been without its discontents. Nowhere is this discontent more evident than in Bengaluru, a city where Kannada’s space is precarious (according to recent data, the language is spoken by less than 45% of the city’s population). That one finds bus stops and auto stands in old Bengaluru neighbourhoods plastered with boards depicting this intellectual tradition, flanked with doyens like Kempegowda, Kuvempu, Adiga, Bendre, Visvesvaraya and others, speaks to precisely this politics of claiming the city. Janaki Nair, in her book The Promise of the Metropolis, locates Bengaluru’s flagpoles and street corners to be a site of increasing Kannada activism, particularly during and after the Gokak Chaluvali in the 1980s (Nair, 280).

In the new millennia, this discontentment has only exaggerated. Bengaluru’s position as the “Silicon Valley” has enmeshed it in a flow of global capital where English takes precedent, leading to a further marginalisation of not just the Kannada language, but the culture as a whole. Kannada readership has dwindled over the years, especially in the city. The intellectual tradition that was earlier available as a resource of Kannada pride is no longer available to today’s Kannadigas. It is simply not the billboards in the city featuring those cultural icons of Kannada that have faded, but also the very lineage.

The ‘Prince’ of the First Family 

When Puneeth died a year ago, it seemed as if the entire city were mourning his death. Overnight, giant hoardings cropped up with shraddhanjalis and odes to him for being both a memorable child actor and one of the biggest stars in Sandalwood. A common form of public expression, one might have expected this to eventually fade out. But the remembrance here did not mellow, as pictures of him sprung up in restaurants, shops and markets. A friend narrates how his memorial has almost turned into a place of worship, with even arti puja being conducted. The hoardings have only got bigger, more resplendent in the colours of yellow and red. Outside Kanteerva Studios, a line of huge cutouts of the actor, with his father, have propped up to mark his death anniversary. He has ceased to be a movie star – he has become a feature of the city.

The question that arises is, why Puneeth? After all, this has not been the only death of a Kannada superstar in recent years – one recalls the death of Ambareesh and Vishnuvardhan. Why did not these actors, with large fan following in their own right, receive the same degree of adulation after their deaths? Even within Sandalwood, Puneeth’s place as a star was not undisputed; the space for the “mass heroes” has seen competition with other actors like Yash, Darshan, Sudeep and his own brother Shivrajkumar, with actors from the Tamil and Telugu film industry also holding the attention of Bengaluru’s cine-going audiences.

The answer is in his unique position as a scion of the Rajkumar family. Indeed, a common iconography in the city is now to represent him as a young boy sitting on his father’s lap or his recreation of Rajkumar in Kasturi Nivasa, complete with a dove perched on his shoulders. The actor Rajkumar occupied a central role in defining what it means to be a ‘good Kannadiga’, from driving the production of Kannada movies into Karnataka from Madras, to lending force to the Gokak Agitation. The region of the circulation of his movies defined the boundaries of the modern Karnataka state. To consecrate his son as a modern-day cultural icon is more than just a rush of nostalgia. It provides a powerful resource for referring to the Kannada movement in its most active period. It is a publicly visible articulation of an attempt to keep a culture alive by adding to its cosmos, a culture that many have written off as dead and obsolete. At the time Rajkumar’s death, the writer-journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju wrote that with his passing, the last of Karnataka’s cultural icons have also died. That need not be the case as the author sees it. In death too, life, albeit a cultural one, finds a way.

Bangalore/Bengaluru

A friend, new to the city, puzzled at the looming, peering banners asked, why are they doing this? Bangaloreans with a liberal bent of mind might have a similar tone of bemusement, if not disapproval at the “they”, the easily identifiable Kannadiga (mostly) men carrying this out. They might frown on these new developments as the revival of linguistic chauvinism or that it goes against the cosmopolitanism of the city. But there is a need to rethink this instinctive reaction to the Bengaluru side of the city. In Ooru and the World, U R Ananthamurthy writes of how many in Bangalore do not interact with Bengaluru, except when violence breaks out in their quarters due to some identity-related grievance. In contrast now, the public cherishment of Puneeth Rajkumar has been incredibly peaceful – consider the blood bank and the organ donation camps – and even creative (around 200 Kannada movies in the past year have paid tribute to Puneeth). It might be overwhelmingly Kannada but bears no explicit intolerance for the “other.” This new manner by which Bangaloreans interact with Bengaluru, through the visual representation of a beloved actor kept alive along streets and flyovers, is then perhaps a new way of knowing the city and its inexplicable, rooted cosmopolitanism.

References 

Janaki Nair, The Promise of the Metropolis (OUP 2005)
U R Ananthamurthy, ‘Ooru and the World’ in Multiple City: Writings on Bangalore (Penguin 2008)

Bio:
Niveditha K Prasad studies at NLSIU, Bengaluru.

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