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Kanthapura by Raja Rao : Book Review

Mabel Annie Chacko (India, 06/11/05)

 

Raja Rao's novel Kanthapura (1938) is the first major Indian novel in English. It is a fictional but realistic account of how the great majority of people in India lived their lives under British rule and how they responded to the ideas and ideals of Indian nationalism. The book has been considered by many to be the first classic modern Indian writing in English and is thought of as one of the best, if not the best, Gandhian novels in English.

Kanthapura - The Village:

'Kanthapura' portrays the participation of a small village of South India in the national struggle called for by Mahatma Gandhi. Imbued with nationalism, the villagers sacrifice all their material possessions in a triumph of the spirit, showing how in the Gandhian movement people shed their narrow prejudices and united in the common cause of the non-violent civil resistance to the British Raj.

This village is a microcosm of the traditional Indian society with its entrenched caste hierarchy. In Kanthapura there are Brahmin quarters, Sudra quarters and Pariah quarters. Despite stratification into castes, however, the villagers are mutually bound in various economic and social functions which maintain social harmony. The enduring quality of the Indian village is represented as ensuring an internal tenacity that resists external crises, its relationship to past contributing a sense of unity and continuity between the present and past generations. Kanthapura may appear isolated and removed from civilization, but it is compensated by an ever-enriching cycle of ceremonies, rituals, and festivals.

Rao depicts the regular involvement of the villagers in Sankara-Jayanthi, Kartik Purnima, Ganesh-Jayanthi, Dasara, and the Satyanarayana Puja with the intention of conveying a sense of the natural unity and cohesion of village society. Old Ramakrishnayya reads out the Sankara-Vijaya day after day and the villagers discuss Vedanta with him every afternoon. Religion, imparted through discourses and pujas (prayers), keeps alive in the natives a sense of the presence of God. Participation in a festival brings about the solidarity among them. The local deity Kenchamma protects the villagers "through famine and disease, death and despair". If the rains fail, you fall at her feet. Equally sacred is the river Himavathy which flows near Kanthapura.


The Strategic Setting of the Novel:

Rao's choice of this village setting is strategic in view of his Gandhian loyalties. Gandhi locates his politics in the villages of India where the majority of Indian's population resides. Rao maintains the sanctity of the village at an ideological level, but permits mobility and change to heighten the historical significance of the national struggle Gandhi conceptualized.

The time when the action of the novel is set is the 1920s and 1930s, the period when Mahatma Gandhi had become the pivotal figure in India's struggle for freedom. Rao treats the history of the freedom movement at the level of hostility between village folk and the British colonial authority at a time when colonialism had become intensely heavy-handed in its response to the Civil Disobedience Movement.

Kanthapura is an enchanting story of how the independence movement becomes a tragic reality in a tiny and secluded village in South India. The novel has the flavor of an epic as it emerges through the eyes of a delightful old woman who comments with wisdom and humor.


Telling of the Novel:

As far as the form and technique of the novel is concerned Rao makes a deliberate attempt to follow traditional Indian narrative technique and it is Indian sensibility that informs Kanthapura. In fact both the spirit and the narrative technique of Kanthapura are primarily those of the Indian Puranas, which may be described as a popular encyclopaedia of ancient and medieval Hinduism, religious, philosophical, historical and social. Rao at the outset describes his novel as a sthala-purana - legend of a place. The Puranas are a blend of narration, description, philosophical reflection, and religious teaching. The style is usually simple, flowing, and digressive.

Rao makes a highly innovative use of the English language to make it conform to the Kannada rhythm. In keeping with his theme in Kanthapura he experiments with language following the oral rhythms and narrative techniques of traditional models of writing. The emotional upheaval that shook Kanthapura is expressed by breaking the formal English syntax to suit the sudden changes of mood and sharp contrasts in tone. While the intuitive borrowing from language takes place at one level in the novel, at another interconnected level, "real" India is constructed by enshrining the novel in Gandhian ideology. It is a highly original style. The author's "Foreword" to the novel almost spells out the postcolonial cultural agenda:
The telling has not been easy. 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 though-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 intellectual make-up-like Sanskrit or Persian was before- but not of our emotional make-up. We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians.

Rao's novel is significant as a cultural tract which rewrites true history against the "inauthentic" historical accounts compiled by Europeans, and because it effects a cultural revival through the use of indigenous themes and motifs. Rao is also alive to the fact that religion has the potential to move people beyond dormancy - to display active political energy to the extent of sacrificing their lives. Kanthapura evokes a sense of community and freedom, construed as a spiritual quality which overcomes all bounds and crosses all barriers.

In order to allow an easy interchange between the world of men and the world of gods, between contemporaneity and antiquity, Rao thus equips his story with a protagonist whose role it is to enthuse the villagers into joining the political cause of India's struggle for freedom without reservation.

The tension between these two often contradictory levels of writing - the mythic/poetic and the political/prosaic - is the defining characteristic of the novel. As will be seen, this tension is both a strength and a weakness to the narrative; on the one hand enhancing its sheer readability as a story, and on the other hand blurring readers' understanding of the realities of the Indian Independence struggle.


Moorthy and other Characters - Raja Rao's Tools in Telling:

He focuses on two individual leaders and their beliefs; the actual and the mythicized figure of Gandhi, and his transmutation into Moorthy, the saintly hero of the novel. As the movement reaches Kanthapura, young Moorthy, son of a Brahmin woman, Narasamma, takes up the responsibility of spreading Gandhi's message. He brings about cultural awakening among the villages by organizing harikathas ("tales of gods"). By a subtle subversion the harikatha is turned into an allegory of India's struggle for freedom wherein the Gandhian saga is inscribed. Moorthy visits the city, and returns a "Gandhi man". He has become a spokesman for Gandhi, by submitting to his attitudes and beliefs. The villagers describe him as "our own Gandhi", yet interestingly he never has an actual meeting with Gandhi. He has only seen him in a "vision" addressing a public meeting with himself pushing his way through the crowd and joining the band of volunteers and receiving inspiration by a touch of Gandhi's hand. This enables Rao to turn the historical moment into a visionary experience, and opens a space for the possibility of assumed politics.

Moorthy preaches and practices ahimsa (non-violent resistance), the hallmark of Gandhi's appeal to the public, and evokes an overwhelming response among the villagers who unite in common cause, ready to break the British laws, picket toddy shops, and fight against social evils like untouchability.

Moorthy has several sympathetic souls with him: Rangamma, the kind lady and a patron for harikatha celebrations, Ratna, the young widowed daughter of Kamalamma, Rangamma's sister, Patel Range Gowda, the revenue collector, and others. But there are also sceptics, like the foul mouthed Venkamma. His own mother is much concerned about Moorthys mixing with the low caste pariahs. Indeed, when someone spreads the rumour that the Swami - the priest; upholder of dharma - has threatened the villagers with excommunication if Moorthy continues to go around with the pariahs, Naraamma is terribly upset; she sobs and shivers and soon dies.

He has to resist orthodoxy at the social level, and at the political level he has to fight the British authority symbolized by the Skeffington Coffee Estate and the police inspector Bade Khan who is out to suppress any undercurrent of Gandhian movement in Kanthapura. Moorthy's efforts bear fruit and the village changes. Rao is careful to point out that the transformation occurs through a complex dynamism negotiated through tradition and change, as the village affiliates itself to wider nationalistic cause.

The British find their ally in Swami, who supports them as upholders of dharma and is rewarded with "twelve hundred acres of wet land" by the Government. Meanwhile Moorthy's message spreads far and wide and several private temples are thrown open to the untouchables.

Rao does not marginalize the role of women in the freedom movement and highlights their individual contributions. Rangamma and Ratna form women's volunteer groups, despite opposition from the orthodox. Moorthy and his volunteers closely monitor the Mahatma's Dandi march and enact their own satyagraha in Kanthapura. They picket toddy shops, and are joined by more volunteers from the city, and by the coolies from the Skeffington Coffee Estate. Their march is opposed by the police who beat them up mercilessly. The police tell them to be loyal to the British Government, but the people say they know only the Government of the Mahatma. Moorthy and several others are arrested. As a result of the police atrocities the entire village is desolate and, in the end, "there remains neither man nor mosquito in Kanthapura".


Conclusion:

Kanthapura has been described as the most satisfying of all modern Indian novels. Recognized as a major landmark in Indian fiction, it is the story of how the Gandhian struggle for Independence came to one small village in south India.

"There is more to Raja Rao's book than a morality tale. It is written in an elegant style verging on poetry; it has all the content of an ancient Indian classic, combined with a sharp satirical wit and a clear understanding of the present. The author's extensive notes (printed as an appendix) will prove invaluable to the general reader." - New York Times