Monday, September 7, 2015

Chandan Gowda: The importance of Professor Kalburgi

The murder of Professor Kalburgi has meant the loss of a scholar who exemplified a grand research tradition which considered a knowledge of philology, history and literature as essential for  understanding society. (It is symptomatic of the superficiality of our times that his passing away was quickly seen, across national and international media, as the murder of a rationalist and an atheist- he was a devout Lingayat, in fact - at the hands of intolerant bigots).

Kalburgi had worked extensively on Lingayat philosophy, ancient Kannada literature, and the folklore of North Karnataka. His four volume collection titled Marga (The Way), bring together a rich range of essays in these areas. An understanding of contemporary Karnataka will be incomplete without an engagement with the issues raised here. I mention this not because historical issues are good to know but because many of them are still living issues and cannot be safely laid to rest as things of the
past. A discussion of medieval Karnataka society will not remain - as the hostile reception to Kalburgi in the past has shown - only a historical discussion. Medieval society, unlike in Europe, is a living presence here. We have the strange case of scholars of contemporary Indian society with little idea - let alone knowledge - of the cultural universe that lives outside the charmed circles of English scholarship.

During Kalburgi's tenure as the second vice-chancellor of the Kannada University at Hampi, according to one of his colleagues, he was keen on making up for the modernist intellectual bias of its faculty and get them to take the premodern literature and history seriously. He later edited the massive fifteen volume compilation of Vacanas published by the Kannada Book Authority. He had completed much of the work on compiling a selection of texts from the Adil Shahi period.

Kalburgi's work is testimony to the valuable scholarship that has emerged from the state universities in the country (He taught at Karnataka University, Dharwad). Much of this work has happened without the support of large research grants or the formidable library support of the kind found in libraries in western universities. The presence of serious scholars in non-metropolitan universities cannot be valued enough. Not only has it meant the decentralization of scholarly discussions, it has guarded against homogeneity in research concerns. Kalburgi's work also shows how state universities allowed enormous research freedom for scholars.

Kalburgi's work was controversial because it disturbed the stable official memories of Lingayat institutions. He discovered historical facts that provoked moral disbelief. For example, he would present facts to prove that Lingayats cannot be considered Hindus. Since his claims were supported by his formidable hold over the vacanas, such findings had angered many of the Lingayat mathas in the past, some of whom had stated that it was better that he died. In 1989, the anger of the established Lingayat orthodoxy was so great that they forced him to retract his claims that the father of Basavanna's nephew, Chenna Basavanna, was a lower caste man. Last year, the Hindu right wing attacked him viciously when he questioned the sanctity of idol worship in Hinduism.

What is remarkable is that only historians like Kalburgi or novelists have been able to elicit controversies that stir the moral equanimity of communities. Social scientists in India have not succeeded in doing this through their work. For all their care about data and method and analytical rigour, their scholarly outputs usually fail to engage the moral imagination of communities.

The unfortunate trend towards producing "useful" knowledge has meant a decline in institutional support for humanities research. These changing research priorities make us doubly grateful for intellectual contributions of scholars like Kalburgi whose work will remain a precious inheritance for anyone interested in the intellectual history of the state, and indeed of India.

As the news of Kalburgi's passing away spread, friends from outside the state enquired if any of his writings were available in English. None of his writings have been translated into English or, for that matter, any other language. Facts like these, one hopes, will cease to be routine. A possible tribute to the memory of Kalburgi would be to make his writings available to readers outside the state, and enable new conversations between scattered research communities in the country and abroad.

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