The village of Kanthapura is a traditional society based in oral culture: few of its inhabitants can read or write, and storytelling ceremonies are a crucial aspect of the town’s collective life. Oral tradition is a source of power in the village, for it allows Kanthapura’s residents to shape their understanding of history, consolidate their identity as a community around shared religious values, and organize politically against the repressive British colonial government. But Kanthapura’s oral traditions are threatened when writing intervenes as a competing source of power: wealthy landowners, the colonial government, and even the Gandhian congress exert their power through written orders from cities that most of Kanthapura’s inhabitants have never visited. Moorthy, the young Gandhian who leads Kanthapura’s campaign of nonviolent resistance against the colonial occupation, realizes that saving traditional culture requires fighting writing with writing. And the novel itself reflects Raja Rao’s desire to preserve oral tradition through the written word.
Traditional, oral forms of knowledge form core of Kanthapura’s collective life, as the townspeople congregate and participate collectively in politics through storytelling and religious discourse. At the beginning of the story, the village’s communal life is structured around the shared myth of the village’s goddess, Kenchamma, who supposedly fought a battle to protect it ages ago and left a hill near the city stained in blood. Religious discourses, including bhajan songs and elaborate theatrical performances called Harikathas, are the main motivations for the village to congregate as a community. And one of these Harikathas, by the famous visiting performer Jayaramchar, first introduces Gandhism in the book. During Jayaramchar’s story, the elderly Venkatalakshamma complains that he is talking “city-nonsense” rather than telling about traditional Hindu gods—she weeps because she sees new myths overtaking traditional ones. But oral discourse is actually Gandhism’s modus operandi: Moorthy becomes a Gandhian after his vision of the Mahatma giving a discourse. In this vision, Moorthy declares himself Gandhi’s slave—the Mahatma orders him to seek Truth and spread his message orally “among the dumb millions” in the villages (who presumably cannot read his writings). Throughout the rest of the novel’s first half, Moorthy persuades the townspeople to join his movement through bhajans and speeches about love, nonviolence, and independence.
In contrast to the oral traditions Moorthy uses to spread his message, written language is associated with Western imperial and economic power—it carries the force of the law from afar. Many of Kanthapura’s villagers are illiterate, so they cannot access the knowledge and power that written documents hold—instead, the wealthy and powerful manipulate such documents to oppress the villagers. Bhatta, the village’s moneylender and landowner, conducts most of his business through papers, including contracts that his borrowers must sign but which few of them can read. (This allows him to arbitrarily change the contracts later in the book, charging peasants extra interest because they support Gandhi.) He takes advantage of the fact that the villagers cannot understand written contracts—while he frequently makes informal agreements with farmers early on in the book, once he realizes that they are fighting against the government that protects him, he starts enforcing the written contracts and calling in debts. Later, the government justifies suppressing the village’s rebellion by presenting their written orders from the British Crown. Whereas oral traditions represent the village’s internal source of power, through which they assert their own identity and politics, written orders and contracts represent an external power, originating in cities and the colonial government, that oppresses the villagers in part because they cannot read the laws to which that government holds them.
But the power of writing also works for the villagers at times, and Moorthy expertly harnesses it to spread nonviolent rebellion. He is “always piling books and books” about Gandhi’s message in the Village Congress’s headquarters, and he later starts a newspaper that convinces many members of the literate brahmin caste to join his cause. One of his main political activities is teaching reading and writing to the illiterate pariahs (Hindus considered beneath the caste system) and coolies (indentured laborers at the Skeffington Coffee Estate). He also holds public readings, which unite written and oral traditions by offering illiterate villagers the revolutionary ideas that his books hold.
Rao’s novel also tries to unite both traditions in this way, overcoming the opposition between the oral traditions that hold the villagers’ identity and the written language that transmits information across geographical space but remains inaccessible to the illiterate. His novel is not a linear narrative in conventional literary prose but rather a meandering, colloquially-written story told by the elder brahmin woman Achakka, who speaks for the village as a whole in the collective “we.” In the foreword, Rao argues that the novel is itself a legendary history, or sthala-purana, of the village—in fact, it not only textualizes the history of Kanthapura but also of the innumerable small-scale struggles for independence that took place in villages across India from the 1920s through the 1940s. By writing down a fictional oral tradition, Rao’s book memorializes a history of resistance that has been erased from India’s landscape—both in the imaginary village of Kanthapura, which is ultimately bought out by wealthy landowners after its inhabitants burn it down, and in other sites of anticolonial resistance across the Indian subcontinent.
Oral Tradition, Writing, and Political Power ThemeTracker
Oral Tradition, Writing, and Political Power Quotes in Kanthapura
We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or American. Time alone will justify it.
We have neither punctuation nor the treacherous “ats” and “ons” to bother us—we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our story-telling. I have tried to follow it myself in this story.
Our village—I don’t think you have ever heard about it—Kanthapura is its name, and it is in the province of Kara. High on the Ghats it is, high up the steep mountains that face the cool Arabian seas, up the Malabar coast it is, up Mangalore and Puttur and many a centre of cardamom and coffee, rice and sugarcane. Roads, narrow, dusty, rut-covered roads, wind through the forests of teak and of jack, of sandal and of salt, and hanging over bellowing gorges and leaping over elephant-haunted valleys, they now turn to the left and now to the right and bring you through the Alambè and Champa and Mena and Kola passes into the great granaries of trade. There, on the blue waters, they say, our carted cardamoms and coffee get into the ships the Red-men bring, and, so they say, they go across the seven oceans into the countries where our rulers live.
Every fellow with Matric or Inter asks, “What dowry do you offer? How far will you finance my studies?—I want to have this degree and that degree.” Degrees. Degrees. Nothing but degrees or this Gandhi vagabondage. When there are boys like Moorthy, who should safely get married and settle down, they begin this Gandhi business.
“There is but one force in life and that is Truth, and there is but one love in life and that is the love of mankind, and there is but one God in life and that is the god of all.”
[Pariah Siddayya] tells you about the dasara havu that is so clever that he got into the Sahib’s drawer and lay there curled up, and how, the other day, when the sahib goes to the bathroom, a lamp in his hand, and opens the drawer to take out some soap, what does he see but our Maharaja, nice and clean and shining with his eyes glittering in the lamplight, and the Sahib, he closes the drawer as calmly as a prince; but by the time he is back with his pistol, our Maharaja has given him the slip. And the Sahib opens towel after towel to greet the Maharaja, but the Maharaja has gone on his nuptial ceremony and he will never be found.
We are out for action. A cock does not make a morning, nor a single man a revolution, but we’ll build a thousand-pillared temple, a temple more irm than any that hath yet been builded, and each one of you be ye pillars in it, and when the temple is built, stone by stone, and man by man, and the bell hung to the roof and the Eagle-tower shaped and planted, we shall invoke the Mother to reside with us in dream and in life. India then will live in a temple of our making.
He’ll never come again, He’ll never come again,
He’ll never come again, Moorthappa.
The God of death has sent for him,
Buffalo and rope and all,
They stole him from us, they lassoed him at night,
He’s gone, He’s gone, He’s gone, Moorthappa.
The whole world seems a jungle in battle, trees rumbling, lions roaring, jackals wailing, parrots piping, panthers screeching, monkeys jabbering, jeering, chatter-chattering, black monkeys and white monkeys and the long-tailed ones, and the flame of forest angry around us, and if Mother Earth had opened herself and said, “Come in, children,” we should have walked down the steps and the great rock would have closed itself upon us—and yet the sun was frying-hot.
“Vandé Mataram! Inquilab Zindabad! Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!”
It is the way of the masters that is wrong. And I have come to realize bit by bit, and bit by bit, when I was in prison, that as long as there will be iron gates and barbed wires round the Skeffington Coffee Estate, and city cars that can roll up the Bebbur Mound, and gas-lights and coolie cars, there will always be pariahs and poverty.