KANNADA is ailing.
It has speakers, of course—nearly 50m of them, mostly in southwestern India. It’s the official language of the state of Karnataka, where active film, television, and music industries broadcast Kannada voices to millions of people.
Writers have written in Kannada for nearly 1,500 years, producing a body of literature that includes a complex grammar written in 850. Kannada was the administrative language of some of the subcontinent’s most powerful kingdoms.
There are Kannada newspapers and books published constantly. And writers in Kannada, an officially designated “classical language” (referring to its age), have achieved some measure of national prominence.
Still, not all is rosy. The demographic balance in Karnataka’s capital Bangalore, now the third-largest city in India, is rapidly changing. Hindi and English are ascending as Bangalore aspires to national and international prominence. Immigrants to the city often decline to learn Kannada. Though primary public education is (by law) conducted in Kannada, the masses in Bangalore’s many private schools learn in Hindi and English. And although a cohort of 50m Kannada voices would be formidable in most of the world—fewer than thirty languages exceed it in native speakers—this group is a mere droplet in India’s teeming sea of people.
But G Venkatasubbiah, a Kannada lexicographer, doesn’t despair. Mr Venkatasubbiah, popularly known as Professor GV, is a familiar face in Karnataka. He edited the first modern Kannada dictionary—a 9,000-page, 8-volume series—and wrote several dozen other books and articles. His newspaper column Igo Kannada (“This Is Kannada”), which ran for 18 years, was compiled into a bestselling sociolinguistic chronicle of the language. (He is also your correspondent’s great-uncle; a copy of Mr Venkatasubbiah’s friendly orange Kannada-English dictionary is never far away.) Still spry at 100 and ubiquitous at cultural events, Professor GV is, to many, a grandfather figure to the Kannada language.
To hear him tell it, Kannada is threatened, but the situation is not grave. “Our modern literature is full of life. And Kannada has an ancient literature of great quality—especially epics and poetry. We are not going anywhere,” he said. But if Kannada’s favored position in Bangalore is at risk, he says, the state government is to blame. Most politicians in Karnataka speak Kannada as a first language, but their advocacy efforts are limp. In contrast, the state government in Tamil Nadu is ferociously supportive of Tamil-language initiatives.
Mr Venkatasubbiah believes Kannada can be promoted alongside, and not to the exclusion of, languages like Hindi and English. He suggests that the government should strengthen primary education language requirements and sponsor more programs that instill in Kannada-speakers a sense of pride in their language. One example of a rare success: the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana, a major literature conference, was held in Bangalore last year. Mr Venkatasubbiah was host and the events were well-attended. But even though the conference has occurred annually since 1915, it was last in Bangalore in 1970. This was an unfortunate hiatus. The city’s linguistic makeup has changed dramatically since 1970, and a high-profile cultural conference like the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana taking place during such a formative period could have reenergized Kannada learning and writing. For other possible language initiatives, states like Kerala provide models. Kerala has the highest rate of literacy in India: nearly everyone in the state knows how to read the official language, Malayalam. This is partially due to the state government’s strict educational requirements.
When my father’s family moved to Karnataka over a century ago, they had no choice but to learn Kannada. It’s now hard to imagine newer immigrants feeling the same pressure. In some ways, Kannadigas have begun to lose control of their largest city. A telling example: seven years ago, Kannadigas largely supported changing the spelling of Bangalore to Bengalūru, in line with its original pronunciation. But wary national commentators warned that such a provincial name would undermine Bangalore’s global ambitions. The decision was postponed. (No word yet on the irreparable damage that Bengali, Marathi, and Tamil speakers have wrought on Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai.)
Amidst such circumstances, Karnataka may risk recreating the conditions that led to the rise of Shiv Sena, a militant group, in neighbouring Maharashtra. Shiv Sena began as a violent protest movement founded by Marathi-speaking people who believed that other languages were gaining too much ground in a Marathi state. Like Karnataka, Maharashtra has an outsized center—Mumbai—where Hindi and English are dominant. Like Mumbai, Bangalore attracts immigrants from all over the country, many of whom will never learn the city’s native language. There are warning signs in Karnataka: monolingual English displays are sometimes vandalised or destroyed, with kannaḍada drōhi, “traitor to Kannada”, graffitied across the mess.
Part of the problem may be that Bangalore, like Mumbai, has a dubious claim to cultural capital of the state. (In Maharashtra, that title goes to Pune.) Bangalore is the indisputable center of activity in southwestern India, but Mysore (pictured), the second city of Karnataka, was only recently the sole cultural and political locus in the region. Prior to that, Hampi (now in ruins) was the capital of a powerful Kannada-speaking empire. Bangalore is not a Delhi or a Kolkata or a Hyderabad, old cities with old cultural institutions. Modern Bangalore, founded relatively recently, grew around a British military post. Many prominent Kannada figures like Mr Venkatasubbiah now call Bangalore home, but theirs is a reluctant migration. Mysore is loudly Kannada; Bangalore is simply loud. Without the sort of endemic pride associated with the ancient, perhaps initiating Kannada pride from Bangalore was always going to be a difficult task.
Mr Venkatasubbiah recognises that his world is changing. But he is not motivated by the sort of aggrieved conservatism that characterises so many older linguistic commentators. He knows better: language changes. So even while he documents the influx of Hindi and English into the Kannada of his fellow Bangaloreans, he doesn’t despair. “This trend isn’t of any evil consequence. Hindi and English borrowings have already been assimilated, welcomed into the local tongue,” he wrote in an email.
Yet he isn’t complacent. “Bangalore is changing. Hindi, Urdu, English, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, and Marwari are the languages heard on our streets,” he said. His is, ideally, a Kannada city. “The multilingual quality of our Bangalore can be a great advantage, but no scheme would ever be complete without Kannada. If nothing is done, I am afraid that Kannada will be pushed back into second place here.” Courtesy: THE ECONOMIST