Remembering M.M. Kalburgi

Posted by sepoy on December 20, 2015 · 21 mins read

Panel on Kalburgi

The following are remarks given at a panel "Policing Knowledge: M.M. Kalburgi, vacana poetry, and writers' revolts in India" on Dec 7, 2015 at NYU|Tisch. The organizer Nosheen Ali has graciously agreed to sharing her remarks alongside the panelist Harita Koya. Thank you as well to the other panelists Tilottama Tharoor (NYU) and Ali Mir (William Paterson University).

Nosheen Ali:

To contextualize the panel, I'll share some thoughts on Professor Kalburgi, on this moment in India, and on the nature of vacana poetry.

Professor Kalburgi was 77 years old when he was shot dead this August. At this ripe age, he had just finished supervising and translating an eight volume history of the literature of the Adil Shahis, the Shia Muslim rulers of Bijapur, into Kannada. “Prolific” feels like an inadequate term for his contributions. Kalburgi wrote more than 100 books and over 400 articles. He researched and wrote tirelessly, reprimanding one of his students for attending too many conferences, and guided her instead to write more and more. He also mentored his students to consider their research not as “their work” but as a “duty towards one's own language”, as a “service.”

It has been noted that Professor Kalburgi was assassinated because he ridiculed idol worship last year, and this “hurt local religious sentiments”. Indeed, the entire debate is often framed as one between the rationalists and the right-wing. Now, as we'll see, challenging idol worship is the cornerstone of bhakti vacana poetry in Karnataka since as far back as the 11th century; these vacanas are the founding spiritual poetry that people read and recite in Karnataka which is dominated by the Lingayat community and Kalburgi was himself part of this community.

Importantly, the first death threat that Professor Kalburgi received was in 1989 in response to his scholarship which raised questions about normative Hindu and Lingayat religious history. Now precisely what was problematic about his research was the radical ways in which it highlighted the life of women poets and perspectives in the religious-- literary history of Bhakti movements in South India. This was 25 years ago. Kalburgi's ongoing project at the time of his murder was related-- it asked: why were no Kannada women writers known between the 12th and the 16th century, whereas prior to that period, there was a remarkable flourishing with than 33 women poets from across social class and caste involved in writing vacana poetry and they were critical to this spiritual-intellectual movement?

I highlight this continuity of concern because Kalburgi is routinely defined as a person who has been murdered because he is a rationalist, but I think that perhaps this misses a key point. The questions that centrally troubled him-- and troubled others about him-- were about recovering the voices of women, very much in the vein of postcolonial scholarship. Hence Kalburgi also posed a problem because he was a revisionist historian, and an eminently feminist one. In effect, he was unraveling the gendered censorship that is central to History and Religion. What is controversial, then, is gendered.

After the murder of Professor Kalburgi, there is a raging public debate in India today on “a climate of intolerance and bigotry.” More than thirty writers returned their awards in protest against the Sahitya Academy's refusal to condemn Kalburgi's murder. This debate now includes artists, film stars, writers, scientists and industrialists, and was propelled also by the lynching of a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, in Delhi on the pretext of beef-eating. Hence, the question of “academic freedom” and “critical discourse” has become linked to the Muslim question in India, both connected because both have been threatened by an environment of hate and right-wing majoritarianism due to the coming to power of the Modi-led right-wing BJP government. Yet both these questions have distinct histories.

What is continuous and what is discontinuous about this moment? When did “outrage” and “confiscation of books” turn into open assassination? And in this atmosphere, what is the role of a writer in India today? I ask this question specifically because in the last few months of watching scholars and activists get murdered in India and Pakistan, I have often been told that writers write, academics write and that's all they should continue doing. This of course assumes that they have the freedom to write. If that freedom is under attack, what is the appropriate response? The returning of awards by several writers has often been dismissed in India and the diaspora as a politics of symbolism-- in effect denying solidarity towards writers who are raising their voices. These are being asked-- why didn't you raise your voice earlier? What about Kashmir? These are critical questions, and yet, are they used to begin a conversation or to end it? Are they used to mask one's own silence, by discrediting the speaking and acting voice of others?

I'll let the panelists engage with some of these questions or leave them as they are-- and suggest that one way for us to begin the conversation is by engaging like Professor Kalburgi with poetic consciousness. Kalburgi was deeply committed to excavating the truths of Kannada literary and cultural history, and especially the vacana poetry of medieval bhakti saints.

Vacana means “utterance” or “spontaneous saying”, and these are short poetic compositions that may be both recited and sung. The vacanas refer to the tradition of Kannada verse that was authored by poet-saints in the Shiva-focused bhakti tradition that started in Karnataka in the 11th and 12th centuries. The vacanas were verses of protest and reform, and formed part of an intellectual-spiritual movement that produced more than 300 poets from all sections of society in less than half a century. The movement embodied a radical egalitarianism, in which the poet-saints spoke against caste, class and gender differences, and rejected Hindu rituals including temple worship-- in huge part because the temples were only open to high castes only.

Politics was central to vacana poets and their poetry. The poet who is often described as the founder-saint of the vacana poetry tradition as well as the Lingayat community is Basavana, who was born into a Brahmin family. But he was a radically anti-casteist philosopher, as well as a public servant. He introduced new public institutions such as “The hall of spiritual experience" where men and women from different backgrounds discussed spiritual as well as social concerns.

To quote some vacanas:

Our Cannayya, the untouchable, is my father
And our Kakkayaya, the tanner is my uncle;
See Cikkaya, is our grandfather,
and our Bommayya, the lute-player, is my elder brother.
So why do you not know me,
O Lord of the Meeting Rivers?

The boy of the servant in Cannayya's house
And the girl of the maid in Kakkayya's house -
They went both to the field to gather dung
And then they made love.
A child was born to them - that was me.
So may The Lord of the Meeting Rivers be my witness.
- Basavanna

I cannot imagine a more radical disavowal of an entire upper-caste system of power that is based on “Brahmin birth.” For a Brahmin to claim that low-caste and untouchable devotees are his relatives, and indeed his parents, is dismantling this caste hierarchy through the notion of a new kind of casteless family. For Basavanna and other vacana poets, the fundamental challenge to spiritual development was caste pride that separated humans into those of “high birth” and those of “low caste.”

The Vīraśaiva also abolished caste by living together in their spiritual community in Kalyana. In fact, Basavanna effected a marriage between a Dalit boy and a Brahmin girl-- an act that was considered utterly sacrilegious and which eventually led to his martyrdom.

The vacana saints thus lived by their poetry and died by their politics. Tragically, the story of Professor Kalburgi has come to mirror that of the poet-saints he studied. Dr. Asha Devi, Kalburgi's student, says well that Kalburgi was not just a researcher of vacana poetry, but a successor to the spirit of the vacana tradition. As one placard at a protest against Kalburgi's murder read: “Yesterday Basavanna”, “Today Kalburgi.”

Harita Koya

Bhakti poetry made up a large portion of the ambient music of my childhood. My parents would play recordings of keerthanas by Annamayya or works by other Telugu poets/composers; my parents' home was a fairly conservative Hindu, Indian-American household — my father played the suprabhatam in the early mornings; we did puja and ate vegetarian food every Saturday, etcetera etcetera. So for me, this poetry existed only as part of a universe of ritual and orthodoxy by which I was alternately attracted and repulsed. I didn't know what any of the songs meant, and nor did I particularly care: the poetry was scripture, the poets saints. It was religious music, simply.

So it was shocking to me when I eventually revisited the songs and poetry that I had grown up hearing, half-hearing, but this time to read the poetry. This second time, I thought of myself as student and reader, not the ambivalent inheritor of religion and rote ritual. I was simply curious, in search of textual and contextual meanings — and I was surprised and delighted by what I found. The radical attitudes espoused, the anti-authoritarian instincts… So much that seemed almost directly at odds with the structures and strictures of the environments I grew up in. Anti-caste sentiments, open eroticism. And often, a spirit of protest.

My small moment of discovery was not an extraordinary insight; it wasn't ground-breaking or revolutionary at all, what I found and realized. But on a very small scale, this was the spirit of Kalburgi's project, what he endeavored to do on a much larger level and to much wider impact — he sought, in essence, to draw out the vacanas from the shroud of religion in the name of a return to text and history.

Vacana poetry attained prominence in Kannada in the twelfth century, within the context of the VÄ«raÅ›aiva movement in modern-day Karnataka and parts of its neighboring states. The VÄ«raÅ›aiva movement was one of protest against religious orthodoxy and social hierarchy — its followers argued for and practiced a “personal” religion, one characterized by individual devotion to Åšiva, rather than a religion of ritual and superstition wherein worship was mediated by brahmin priests. They denied the system of purity and impurity underpinning Vedic ritual, as well as caste and gender hierarchies, and they actively proselytized.

Basavaṇṇa is often described as the founder of the movement and Allama Prabhu its great guru. Born in 1106 AD to Brahmin parents, the former devoted himself to Śiva-worship at age sixteen and spent most of his adult life in the capital city of Kalyāṇa, where devotees would come to see him. Eventually a Vīraśaiva community grew, centered in Kalyāṇa, a community with a radical philosophy and egalitarian ideals regarding caste, class, and sex. This served as a centre for the resident believers but also for traveling mendicants and visiting devotees. In the mid-twelfth century, the Viraśaivas were scattered from Kalyāṇa when a wedding arranged within the community between a Dalit boy and a Brahmin girl resulted in the Kalachuri king's sentencing their fathers and the bridegroom to death, sparking rioting and violence in the city.

The vacana was one of the VÄ«raÅ›aiva's primary genres-- a tool for proselytism, a vehicle of philosophical meaning. Vacana means “utterance, statement, discourse”-- and the poems themselves are in the form of short speeches, typically addressed to Siva by various names. Vacanas do not adhere to any formal metrical scheme, although they possess a certain musicality, a distinct prosody characteristic of folk and oral genres. The form itself marks a site of rebellion: a rejection of the formal metrical structures, ornate language, and tributes to patrons that characterized the court poetry being produced at the same time. Of the forceful quality of the vacanas, A.K. Ramanujan wrote in his introduction to Speaking of Åšiva, “Some of the incandescence of ViraÅ›aiva poetry is the white-heat of truth-seeing and truth-saying in a dark deluded world; their monotheism lashes out in an atmosphere of animism and polytheism.” (Ramanujan 27)

By the fifteenth century, the Viraśaivas had become an institution of their own. And the vacanas, meanwhile, were being organized into anthologies. As Ramanujan wrote in Speaking of Śiva:

Bhakti as anti-structure begins by denying and defying such an establishment [referring to the 'public religion' of Hinduism, the establishment constituted by great and little traditions combined]; but in course of time, the heretics are canonized; temples are erected to them, Sanskrit hagiographies are composed about them. Not only local legend and ritual, but an elaborate theology assimilating various 'great tradition' elements may grow around them. They become, in retrospect, founders of a new caste, and are defied in turn by new egalitarian movements. (Ramanujan 36)

And so the ViraÅ›aivas — also often referred to as “Lingayats” were consolidated into a caste of their own. Today, Lingayats comprise the largest caste group in the state of Karnataka and are deeply influential in state politics. In the Indian Constitution of 1950, “Lingayats” were listed as distinct from “Hindus,” but in the modern day, the Lingayat community has largely aligned itself with the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Within such a context, then, Kalburgi, himself a Lingayat, asserted at an event in Hubli this past May that the Lingayats were not in fact Hindus, calling attention to the circumstances within which the faith was founded — that is, as a rejection of the very tenets of Vedic religion. This drew a backlash from both Hindutva groups as well as the Lingayat establishment. In 2014, he criticized idol worship as “meaningless ritual.”

In the 1980s, Kalburgi was attacked by the Lingayat orthodoxy for writings in he examined the vachanas of Neelambika, Basava's second wife, and linked them to a myth in which Basava gave her away to a Jangama sanyasi upon supplication. Kalburgi argued that her vacanas suggested that she and Basava did indeed cease their conjugal relationship at that point. He also questioned the virgin birth theory of Channa Basavanna, who succeeded Basava, his uncle, as leader of the movement. Kalburgi received death threats and was eventually forced to apologize and retract his statements. At the time of his death, he had been working on a study which sought to examine the disappearance of women writers from the Kannada canon between the 12th and 16th centuries.

Kalburgi's work on vacanas and his statements about the modern practice of the Lingayats were an appeal, really, to return to the intents and philosophies of the founders of the Viraśaiva faith. But this, it seems, was too radical a call.

A few examples from vacana poetry:

(tr. Ramanujan, Speaking of Åšiva)

ಉಳ್ಳವರು ಶಿವಾಲಯವ ಮಾಡಿಹರು
ನಾನೇನ ಮಾಡುವೆ ಬಡವನಯ್ಯಾ
ಎನ್ನ ಕಾಲೀ ಕಂಬ ದೇಹವೇ ದೇಗುಲ
ಶಿರ ಹೊನ್ನ ಕಲಶವಯಾ್ಯ
ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮ ದೇವಾಕೇಳಯ್ಯಾ
ಸ್ಥಾವರಕ್ಕಳವುಂಟು ಜಂಗಮಕ್ಕಳಿವಿಲ್ಲ

The rich
will make temples for Åšiva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.
Listen, o lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

(tr. Ramanujan, Speaking of Åšiva)

ಮಡಕೆ ದೈವ ಮೊರ ದೈವ
ಬೀದಿಯ ಕಲ್ಲು ದೈವ ಕಾಣಿರೋ
ಹಣಿಗೆ ದೈವ ಬಿಲ್ಲನಾರಿ ದೈವ ಕಾಣಿರೋ
ಕೊಳಗ ದೈವ ಗಿಣ್ಣಿಲು ದೈವ ಕಾಣಿರೋ
ದೈವ ದೈವವೆಂದು ಕಾಲಿಡಲಿಂಬಿಲ್ಲ
ದೇವನೊಬ್ಬನೆ ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮದೇವ

The pot is a god. The winnowing
fan is a god. The stone in the
street is a god. The comb is a
god. The bowstring is also a
god. The bushel is a god and the
spouted cup is a god.
Gods, gods, there are so many
there's no place left
for a foot.
There is only
one god. He is our Lord
of the Meeting Rivers.


ಮೊಲೆ ಮುಡಿ ಬಂದರೆ ಹೆಣ್ಣೆಂಬರು
ಗಡ್ಡ ಮೀಸೆ ಬಂದರೆ ಗಂಡೆಂಬರು
ನಡುವೆ ಸುಳಿವಾತ್ಮನು
ಗಂಡೂ ಅಲ್ಲ ಹೆಣ್ಣೂ ಅಲ್ಲ ಕಾಣಾ ರಾಮನಾಥ
ದೇವರ ದಾಸಿಮಯ್ಯ

If they see
breasts and long hair coming
they call it woman,
if beard and whiskers
they call it man:
but, look, the self that hovers
in between
is neither man
nor woman
O Rāmanātha


ಎನ್ನ ನಾನರಿಯದಂದು ಮುನ್ನ ನೀನೆಲ್ಲಿರ್ದೆ ಹೇಳಯ್ಯ
ಚಿನ್ನದೊಳಗಣ ಬಣ್ಣದಂತೆ ಎನ್ನೊಳಗಿರ್ದೆಯಯ್ಯ
ಎನ್ನೊಳಗಿರ್ದು ಮೈದೋರದ ಭೇದವ
ನಿಮ್ಮಲ್ಲಿ ಕಂಡೆನು ಕಾಣಾ ಚೆನ್ನಮಲ್ಲಿಕಾರ್ಜುನ
When I didn't know myself
where were you?
Like the color in the gold,
you were in me.
I saw in you,
lord white as jasmine,
the paradox of your being
in me
without showing a limb.