Finding Tata in Kuppalli

AMULYA HIREMATH
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WE ARE in Kuppalli, a small village nestled in Karnataka’s share of the Western Ghats. Oscillating between rain and sunshine, we trail a winding route through forest paths, alternating between our car and walking. At the other end of the clearing, is the childhood home of one of Kannada literature’s most consequential figures – Kuvempu.

 

Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa (1904-1994), better known by his penname Kuvempu, was a writer, poet, playwright and critic writing in Kannada. A stalwart of modern Kannada literature, he was the first recipient of the prestigious Jnanpith Award for Kannada in 1965 and in 1988 was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan. He is credited with writing the state anthem, “Jaya Bharata Jananiya Tanujate” and was conferred the title of ‘Rashtrakavi’ by the government of Karnataka in 1964. Kuvempu is still alive in this red-oxide-floored three-storey house, now a museum established by the Rashtrakavi Kuvempu Pratishtana, a trust dedicated to the poet. 

Long populated by devoted readers, Kavimane (poet’s house in Kannada) is a curated glimpse — a visual guidebook carefully streamlined to present the writer in a cottony softness — into the life of a poet whose work continues to resonate, his name recognisable for more than a thousand kilometres from where we stand. Everything from old trunks to the mantapa he got married in, from books to awards, sits neatly labelled in its designated place. Though he has been gone almost thirty years, Kuvempu’s popularity in Kannada literature never waned. People throng to this now-tourist spot. Filing into each little room in the house and filing out, we see his life reel in photos starting at his birth.

There in this gallery, I see a photograph of my grandfather.

 

He is smiling at a garlanded Kuvempu, standing among other friends before Udyaravi, Kuvempu’s house in Mysuru.

 

Mysuru, where my grandfather, Prabhushankara, found his home and life, and Kuvempu, and where I grew up. A two-storeyed house, twenty-nine steps to Tata’s house on the first floor. Tata’s room was simple – almost square, holding one desk, one single-sized cot, a wall of wardrobes, three chairs, a straightforward wooden one for himself and two cushioned cane chairs for visitors, and the highlight, a huge bookcase spanning the length of the wall behind his desk, the only artwork a ticking clock. I often found myself in this white-walled and mosaic-tiled house in the afternoon haze – playing pretend, listening to stories, making hand shadows against the slanting sun. Sleeping on his bed, toying with his purple transistor radio waiting for the Akashvani news to come on at six, I found it easy to see he was a reader, a writer – six black pens stood on his desk, next to the telephone that rang six times every hour.  

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Tata met Kuvempu, his professor and later his doctoral guide, in his student days, arriving in Mysuru from Chamarajanagara, his hometown an hour away from the city, to study Kannada. Kuvempu predominantly lived in Mysuru, where he later became the Vice Chancellor at the University of Mysore. Under Kuvempu’s tutelage, Tata would also go on to become a professor of Kannada, a writer and a critic, building a grounding friendship that would continue well into their later days. Their everyday visits now amuse me as anecdotes:

 

How, late one night Kuvempu rang up my grandfather, asking for my grandmother who was a doctor. Worried about his health, they drove to his place immediately, only to realise it was a false alarm – Kuvempu had been impatient about his latest poem and had sought the quickest way to summon him. 

 

How, when my mother and her sister, who got to play in Kuvempu’s house often, naively invited him to my mother’s birthday party, he and his wife promptly drove to their house to be in attendance, much to the shock of my grandparents who were unaware of the invitation. 

 

Kuvempu was no more by the time I was born but his mention in the household was nevertheless not infrequent. He came up with equal intensity at school and college – his writing makes it into Kannada textbooks at least once every other year. Once, I had approached Tata to decipher one of Kuvempu’s poems that had been prescribed to us. Tata was so proficient that I didn’t even have to complete the title for him to start reciting the poem. He started with excitement, going over the lines with emphasis. But we couldn’t get to the end of the poem. His dementia, which had started to set in by then, made him loop back to the beginning over and over again. It was a bittersweet moment, a cyclical act of learning and forgetting in the same breath. 

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As Tata’s absence in my life increased, it was language that inevitably brought him to me. I started finding him unexpectedly in my textbooks — in tenth grade, the story of Angulimala and Buddha written by him was prescribed to us, and in twelfth, his Kannada translation of Kahlil Gibran’s On Children — in stories recollected by teachers and professors, some of whom he had taught, in literary festivals and libraries, in the Kannada department at the University of Mysore, and most recently in Kuppalli, where though I was not expecting to see him, it was, of course, not a surprise.

 

The self-guided tour at Kuvempu’s house in Kuppalli takes you around the square courtyard in the middle, the house built in the characteristic style of the region, up and down steep wooden staircases that closely resemble ladders. Photographs line the walls in another room, ending with one of him in a helicopter ready to fly to Kuppalli from Mysuru. The simple two-toned house is no longer limited to a sanctorum designed to hold the memories of a poet in his childhood. It has grown to accommodate the people he has touched, who seek to come there to retrace what they found in his words.

 

Though my first introduction to language was through my mother tongue, I soon began to find my comfort in a foreign tongue. This was neither discouraged nor frowned upon, but rather honed — Tata always made it a point to take me to Sapna Book House once a set of holidays began after exams, and we would usually be found in the Enid Blyton section, right before he wandered off to the Kannada section to browse his old favourites or the newest titles, leaving me to find my picks for the month. It’s funny how growing up, language and literature was the least of our binding factors. I spent most of my time around him doing what children do best: playing, without a care in the world about what their grandfathers do or who they know.

 

Outside the house, the heat reverberates off the black backs of the rocks nearby as we walk to the spot where Kuvempu’s last fumes had flown. My father recalls being among the last people to depart the site along with my grandparents that day back in 1994. Kavi Shaila, a relatively recent addition to the hills framing his house, designed with tall monoliths resembling a modern Stonehenge, is a memorial dedicated to Kuvempu, and just a few steps away, he lies quietly breathing on, on a rock he famously sat on along with other litterateur friends, B. M. Srikantaiah and T. S. Venkannaiah, and engraved names. His son, Poornachandra Tejaswi, another famous Kannada writer, added his signature to the rock later. Here, the air holds light, but also carries our stillness and silence.

 

Tata is gone too now, and it took me three years to find words to fill the space he held for me. Kuppalli is three hundred kilometres from home, and there, in a frame with his friends, is a reminder of what should be a memory – his smile, the comfort of his presence. As dementia took over in Tata’s last stages, and memories with him crowded our own minds, they were the first to leave his. Words were the last strands out. Language like air, I realise, holds so much, compressing and expanding without rhythm, carrying us closer and farther in patterns that are hard to follow – here I was, standing at once by myself and in a house where I grew up, next to Tata. 

 Amulya is a writer and editor based in Mysuru, India. Interested in all things prose and poetry, she is currently studying her Master's in English at the University of Mysore. You can find more of her here.