KANNADA – Threatened At Home


ಬಾರಿಸು ಕನ್ನಡ ಡಿಂಡಿಮವ
ಓ ಕರ್ನಾಟಕ ಹೃದಯ ಶಿವ

KANNADA is ailing.

It has speakers, of course—nearly 50 million 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 50 million 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.

Can Kannada be saved? Mr Venkatasubbiah, the father of the modern Kannada dictionary and fondly known as Prof. GV 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. 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.

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. 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.

Bangalore is changing. Hindi, Urdu, English, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, and Marwari are the languages heard on our streets. The multilingual quality of our Bangalore can be a great advantage, but no scheme would ever be complete without Kannada. If nothing is done, the day is not far when Kannada will be pushed back into second place here


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