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Poet, nature lover and humanist
Kuvempu is one of the greatest literary figures of India and among the best of Kannada poets. On his centenary year, VEENA BHARATI describes Kuvempu’s humanism and love for nature that enriched his works.
The year was 1938 and the place Maharaja's College, Mysore. A first year student of B A Kannada Honours course, D Javare Gowda was looking forward to lectures by well known professors like Venkannayya, Teenamshree and Kuvempu. He was panick-stricken by his professor's question, if he had read the novels of Thomas Hardy and Leo Tolstoy, and wondered, why he discussed English literature in a Kannada class. He didn't know that Hardy's Return of the native in English was prescribed for Kannada honours students.
"Would it not have been better if you had simply read Hardy's work before the classes actually commenced?" the teacher asked him and explained the novel's first chapter. D Javare Gowda and others listened attentively as if they were learning from an audio-visual medium! After an hour of listening, the students were so impressed that they politely told him they would read the Kannada text and requested him for more lectures and analysis.
The professor who kept his students spell bound by his unimpeded analysis of Thomas Hardy's novel was none other than 'KUVEMPU'!
D Javare Gowda (DejaGou), well known litterateur and former vice-chancellor of Mysore University, recalls emotionally, "Kuvempu became my 'Guru' even before I actually became his student during my B A, Honours. My teacher Venkataramappa who was his classmate used to narrate to us the contents of Kuvempu's work on Shree Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda, which taught me the significance of a secular outlook. I had seen a photograph of Kuvempu in 'Prabuddha Karnataka', a publication from Maharaja's College, which I had framed. As I went on to read Kuvempu's other works, I became his admirer and worshipper!"
Kuvempu (Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa) was born on 29th of December 1904, at Kuppali in Teerthahalli District. As a primary school student at Teerthahalli, he loved Mother Nature. Even before entering high school at Hardwicke, Mysore, he had read Jaimini Bharata.
In his early college days, Kuvempu read the works of Wordsworth, Milton, Kelly, Tolstoy and Hardy, along with Vivekananda's selected lectures and Rabindra Nath Tagore's 'Geetanjali'. So fascinated was he by Robert Browning's Pied Piper of Hamlin that, he recreated it in Kannada as The Kindari jogi of Bommanahalli.
DejaGou who has recently written a book on the poet titled 'Soundarya Yogi Kuvempu', says, "In nature, Kuvempu used to search God's beauty and kindness.
He can be called the gifted child of Mother Nature or The Prakrutimata. The inspiration for the flow of his beautiful poems at such a younger age was definitely the serene nature of Malenadu, the hilly district of Teerthahalli and its surroundings.”
Kuvempu could understand the true philosophy reflected by Mother Nature's divine spectrum. Each of his poems on a flower or a tree mirrors a unique tenderness. DejaGou points at his first Kannada poem, 'Poovu' or 'The Flower' as the evidence.
Yele poove aalisuve
Naa ninna geeteyanu
Yele poove solisuve
Naa ninna preetiyanu!
(Amidst the early morning dew
Walking across the greenery
And in the evening that is scary
While taking a breath,
Oh flower, I listen to your Song
Oh flower, I defeat your love!)
Before Kuvempu wrote the poem, he had already written a Kannada couplet in his diary that meant "In me is the sky, in me lies the earth", conveying the message that one soul encompasses the entire world!
His passion for flowers is also revealed in the poem 'Ondu gulaabi hoovige' ['To a rose flower'] where the poet compares the rose to the lips of a cursed Apsara or the celestial nymph (who, presumably, would have been cursed to be a plant and her lips turning into roses!)
Kuvempu's exceptional imagination also describes the rose in this manner "when Manmatha kissed Rati, blood from her lips may have spilt on earth and blossomed into rose on the plant and kisses the viewer's eyes with its beauty now!”
"I visited Kuppali, Kuvempu's birth place along with the poet. In the evening, as we were both walking towards his house, Kuvempu asked me "are you listening to something unique?" I replied I didn't! He asked me to listen carefully. When I did so, I could hear the humming of bees. Kuvempu told me that the peculiar, contented humming might be due to the happiness which the bees would have felt after sucking the nectar from flowers! Kuvempu had such an intimate relationship with nature and its components!" DejaGou wrote in his book.
During his student days, Kuvempu was staying in a congested hotel room in the old Santhepet area of Mysore. When Shree Swami Siddeshwarananda of Ramakrishna Vidyashala visited him, he asked Kuvempu "Puttappa, how can a poet like you live in this dingy place?" Kuvempu showed the Champaka tree in the hotel's court yard and asked "what is wrong with the place? There is a beautiful champaka tree too!" His poem "Champak tree" (1928 - Sampigeya mara), may have been inspired by the tree!
Following the Swamiji's advice, Kuvempu later on became an inmate of Ramakrishna Ashrama in Mysore. After passing Kannada M A, in 1929, he became lecturer in Mysore University. The same year Swami Siddeshwarananda took him to Calcutta and got him 'mantra deeksha' from Swami Shivananda of Ramakrishna mutt, Calcutta. The lives of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda tremendously influenced Kuvempu's spiritual growth.
An ardent admirer of Gandhiji, he went all the way from Mysore to Belgaum and had the 'Darshan' of Gandhiji in 1924! "Studying Kuvempu's life, we notice Kaavya yoga, Soundarya yoga and Aadhyatma yoga becoming an integral part of his life from his teens. Kuvempu never visited temples, but believed in the presence of creator in each creature. In fact, whenever Kuvempu was not writing or teaching, he meditated. To him, worshipping nature was a path to attain Aadhyatma or The Supreme Soul," says DejaGou.
Dr Pradhan Gurudatta, visiting professor, 'Kuvempu Chair for Poetry' for this year, the year of Kuvempu's Centenary Celebrations, says: "Many don't know Kuvempu wrote poems in English as early as 1922, bringing out a collection of seven poems titled 'Beginner's muse'! In 1924, when Kuvempu got introduced to the Irish poet James Cousins through Dr M H Krishnamachar, he suggested to Kuvempu that he should write only in Kannada. Though he was initially disheartened by Cousin's advice, he later realised his full potential as a poet and a multi-faceted writer in the richness of Kannada."
Dr Gurudatta's Hindi translation of Kuvempu's 'Ramayana Darshanam' won the National award in 2000. He fondly recollects the hard work that went in to accurately translate Kuvempu's masterpiece: "I devoted ten years to translate this marvelous epic. It was a real challenge, as I myself rejected sample translations done by renowned writers. Though I was fortunate to receive Kuvempu's guidance in the beginning, I couldn't complete it and present the book to him in his life time."
As early as in 1964 Gurudatta wrote a book on "Urmila - A Comparative study" based on Kuvempu's description of Laxmana's wife in Ramayana Darshanam and Rabindranath Tagore's depiction of the character. According to Gurudatta, Kuvempu alone has exactly reflected upon the unsung heroine Urmila, describing her as a 'tapaswini' whose silent penance is tougher than Sita's journey through the forests.
When Kuvempu became the vice-chancellor of Mysore University, he had a few firsts to his credit. He was the first graduate from the University to have become the vice-chancellor and was also the first occupant of the post after the university attained autonomy. Kuvempu was also the first Kannada Panditha to raise to the post and shouldered the responsibility of showing directions to the new institution. "In fact, he was instrumental in setting up a post graduate centre in Mysore against all odds and named it 'Maanasa Gangotri'" proudly recall his students who are scholars in various subjects.
Narrates Dr Gurudatta in his book 'Kuvempu', written in Kannada, published by Nava Karnataka publications, "In Kuvempu's perception there exists mainly three life lines for any university. Bodhanaanga (the branch of teaching), Samshodhanaanga (the branch of research) and Prasaaraanga (the publication wing). Kuvempu believed the Prasaaraanga is significant as it caters to the common man. His vision and interest in prasaaraanga of Mysore University has made this wing world famous."
In his book, Dr. Gurduatta also describes the mastery which Kuvempu had achieved in English by quoting a couple of Stanzas written by Kuvempu in English, regretting over Timoor's invasion in India.
"It was a day of blackest deed
When Delhi streets of fame
Did glitter well by cursed greed
Of harsh Timoor the lame."
If Kuvempu's patriotism is transparent and clearly audible in the Kannada poems he has written during the freedom struggle in India, his 'love poems' reflect the respect and reverence he had for his wife Hemavathi. In one of his poems Kuvempu writes: "Standing at the doors of heaven, he explains all his worldly achievements to gain entry. The doors open only when he introduces himself as ‘It's me, Hemi's lover!’" After his wife's death in 1982, Kuvempu didn't write anything until his death 12 years later, it was as though his literary spirit and creativity also died with his wife.
The great poet who is unanimously acknowledged as 'the Jagada Kavi' (poet of the world), 'Yugada Kavi' (poet of this age), whose daily request to Kannadigas has been "wherever you may be, in whatever way you are, be a Kannadiga (or Kannada itself)!" is deservingly saluted by Bendre’s poem which means:
“Who would not bow in reverence to the poet of this age, to the poet of the world,
to the poet who offered salutations through his epic 'Sri Ramayana Darshanam' ?”