Kannada lexicographer

G. Venkatasubbaiah: A centenarian’s life-long scholarly journey with the Kannada language as a lexicographer, grammarian, writer and editor

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Prof. G. Venkatasubbaiah, fondly called GV, at his residence in Bengaluru on January 15. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

GV in his study, in this 2012 picture. He is the oldest surviving lexicographer in the country. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

At a felicitation function organised by the Karnataka Kannada and Culture Department in Bengaluru on September 21, 2012. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

G. Venkatasubbaiah dedicated his life to the development of Kannada linguistics, lexicography and research studies. At 107, he continues his ardent association with the language.

THE address No. 58, 31st Cross, 7th Block, Jayanagar, Bengaluru, is like a shrine to Kannada wordsmiths and a symbol of intellectual and linguistic virtuosity, for this is where Ganjam Venkatasubbaiah, the grand old man of Kannada language, resides. If one happens to knock at the door of the traditional Mysore-style house at this address, chances are that the 107-year-old Venkatasubbaiah will personally open the door and greet the visitor with a broad smile. GV, as he is commonly known in literary circles, is the oldest surviving lexicographer in the country, truly a walking encyclopaedia of Kannada language and culture.

GV is a grammarian, writer, editor, lexicographer and critic. To the uninitiated, his prodigious contribution to Kannada letters would seem like the work of a team of scholars rather than that of a single individual. To his credit, GV has compiled 12 dictionaries, including three volumes of Igo Kannada (A Socio-Linguistic Dictionary of Kannada), edited over 24 literary works covering different forms of Kannada literature such as poetry, grammar and essays and has also translated into Kannada eight important works from other languages. He has also authored four seminal works on dictionary science in Kannada, edited over 60 books and published several papers. His massive corpus even includes children’s literature; he has authored four books in this genre.

“No other Indian language has a lexicographer and linguistic scholar of GV’s stature,” says the Kannada writer Siddalingaiah. GV humbly dismisses this accolade by saying, “nidiyarge nididarolar” (the old Kannada phrase means “there are greater people than even the best”).

Family of linguistic scholars

Born on August 23, 1913, GV secured his postgraduate degree in Kannada from Maharaja’s College, Mysore (now Mysuru), in 1937. His forefathers hailed from Mudagandur village in Mandya district. His lineage reveals that he comes from a long line of linguistic scholars. GV’s grandfather Narasimha Jois was a Sanskrit scholar and his father Ganjam Thimmannaiah was a scholar of both Kannada and Sanskrit. Thimmannaiah had taught at a high school. He is known for his interpretation of classics such as Kumaravyasa Bharata and Jaimini Bharata. Recalling his father’s contribution to Kannada language and literature, GV said the literary and cultural ambience in which he grew up might have inspired him to embrace Kannada.

Apart from scholarly pursuits, GV took a keen interest in sports. He was fond of playing carrom, chess, and table tennis and recalls that Prof. S. Radhakrishnan, who became the President of India, commended him for his excellence in academic and extracurricular activities. GV began his career as a teacher at a municipal school in Mandya. He later taught at the high school in Davanagere and at Maharaja’s College before joining the teaching faculty of Vijaya College in Bengaluru.

Kannada language and literature would have lost GV to journalism had Mohare Hanumantha Rao, the well-known editor of the prominent Kannada daily Samyukta Karnataka, accepted GV’s application for a job. GV would have perhaps become a journalist like P.V. Acharya, a noted Kannada scribe who was a writer and poet as well. (Acharya’s column Padartha Chintamani in the weekly Kannada magazine Kasturi explored the etymology and contextual meanings of words. He even served as the magazine’s editor.) Hanumantha Rao dissuaded GV from becoming a journalist citing his language as “textual” and difficult for readers of north Karnataka to understand. This was an important lesson for GV in his subsequent lexicographical work. “That was when I understood the need for the unification of Karnataka. While editing the Kannada dictionary I stressed the need for including words that were used in the functional language of north Karnataka in creating a common language that would bring the Kannada used in all parts of Karnataka together,” GV stated.

The Kannada dictionary

After his retirement from Vijaya College in 1973, he began to work on the mammoth task of publishing a Kannada-to-Kannada dictionary as its chief editor, a challenge he undertook since he was closely associated with the Kannada Sahitya Parishat. GV is proud of the stupendous work of producing a deeply researched Kannada dictionary.

Compiling a dictionary is not an easy job; it demands utmost discipline. The responsibility of the chief editor is difficult as he takes the final call on the words collected and arranged by subeditors. The first challenge is to select the words and arrange them in different categories. Often words have more than one meaning, and the meaning changes according to the context. So, the discipline set by lexicographers should be adhered to strictly without any compromise. At the same time, equal stress must be accorded to grammar and punctuation. There is no scope for imaginative or figurative writing and the slightest negligence will mar the effort. Thus, only those who have a flair for words could associate themselves with the work of compiling dictionaries.

Summarising the gargantuan effort in a few sentences, GV said: “I started work on the dictionary about five decades ago. At that time, over 90 people started collecting words, after which we organised them in alphabetical order. It took nearly a decade or so. We worked for nearly three decades to bring out the Kannada dictionary of eight volumes totalling 10,000 pages.” This dictionary, which to date is the standard Kannada dictionary, has also been rendered in Braille.

Following a request from the editor of the Kannada daily Prajavani, GV started writing a column called Igo Kannada, which ran for a significantly long period. The articles that appeared in the column have been compiled into three volumes. GV has also authored a dictionary of complex words (Klishta Pada), which was released when Karnataka celebrated 50 years of State formation. This pioneering work covers different language specifications, including derivation, punctuation, phonemes and morphological patterns of the Kannada language.

GV served as vice president of the Lexicographical Association of India for 17 years and as adviser to the multilingual dictionary project of the Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai. He was also appointed as a consultative committee member in the Telugu lexicon project initiated by the Telugu Academy of the Government of Andhra Pradesh.

Even at 100-plus, GV’s passion to soar high in the world of words is intact. “The wrong usage of words pains me. Basically, I expect meaning from a word, not anything else. Even God does not know the story of the word. In such a case, what is great about people like me?” he asks. It is significant that GV was responsive to modernity while shaping the structure of the eight-volume Kannada dictionary.

What inspired him to take up lexicography seriously? GV attributes his deep interest in linguistics to the inspiration of T.S. Venkanniah, T.N. Srikantaiah, D.L. Narasimhachar, A.R. Krishna Shastry and other teachers. GV says: “I was really fortunate to get teachers such as Krishna Shastry, who taught me about the Sanskrit-Vedic dictionary and Yaska’s Nirukta. [Yaska was a Sanskrit grammarian who preceded Panini and is traditionally identified as the author of Nirukta, the discipline of etymology within the Sanskrit grammatical tradition.] Observing my passion for words, one day Krishna Shastry asked me, ‘What is your aim? Given an option, what discipline of language will you choose?’ I told him about my interest in research, literary history and translation. He told me to take up the work of compiling a dictionary. Following his advice, I dedicated myself to the world of words,” GV said.

Rallapalli Ananta Krishna Sharma is another teacher who inspired GV. Krishna Sharma was an authority in Sanskrit, Telugu, Prakrit, Kannada literature and Carnatic classical music. GV says: “Probably none of his peers could claim this unique distinction of being competent in so many different subjects.” GV briefly taught at Maharaja’s College, where Krishna Sharma also taught at the time. “I used to enter my class after bowing before him,” said GV.

In recognition of his contribution to Kannada lexicography and language, GV has been honoured with 28 prominent awards. These include the Padma Shri by the Central government, the Bhasha Samman awarded by the Sahitya Akademi, the Pampa Award (the highest literary honour in Karnataka), the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award (the second highest civilian honour in Karnataka), and the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi Award. His alma mater, the University of Mysore, has honoured him with the Oldest Living Achiever and Alumnus Award.

Presiding over the 77th Akhila Bharata Kannada Sahitya Sammelana held in Bengaluru in 2011, GV had stressed the need to make Kannada the first language in schools in Karnataka and giving preference to those who studied in Kannada-medium schools in order to save the language from neglect. He also advocated making Kannada compulsory up to class X.

Disciplined life

GV turned 107 in August 2020. For a long time, his energy level remained undiminished even after he turned 100. Clearly for him, age is simply a number and one can safely assume that his creative pursuits have kept him fit. GV attributes his longevity to genetic factors and a disciplined life. “My father Thimmannaiah lived up to the age of 90 and my mother Subbamma breathed her last at the age of 107. The inheritance of these genetic traits along with the disciplined life that I have led from the time I was 20 might be the reason for my long life,” GV said.

His disciplined routine remained unchanged until recently. Even after he turned 100, GV maintained his routine. He would wake up at 4 a.m., have a cup of coffee with sugar, and go for a walk. This was followed by a discussion with friends on everything under the sun. GV would then read at least four Kannada and two English newspapers and later spend some time with his family members. GV followed a meal schedule. He had his meals on time: breakfast at 9 a.m. and lunch at half past 12. After lunch, he would rest till 5 p.m. and, on waking up, he would have a light snack and go to bed at 10 p.m. According to GV, it is his yearning for creativity and enthusiasm to learn new things that keeps his memory intact and his thoughts lucid. This strict routine changed slightly in recent years as GV is not as active as he used to be. Part of his time now is devoted to reading books that he had wanted to read. The task of writing has become arduous for him now and he chooses to dictate his statements. The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have slowed him down.

G.V. Arun, GV’s son and his long-time personal secretary, said: “Doctors observed that his responses have significantly slowed down. He is waking up later than usual and sleeping for longer time. We are not allowing people to visit him now because of his age. In the evening, he sits in a chair at the doorstep. Children playing on the street ask him from a distance, ‘Yen taata hegiddiri?’ (How are you grandfather?). He simply smiles at them in response.”

GV’s long life is an embodiment of the Kannada way of living. Be it in his sartorial choices or diction, he is steeped in the traditional Kannada culture, and through his long life, he has served as a representative of this tradition. He has journeyed with the language for more than 100 years. GV could have excelled as a poet, but he dedicated his life to the development of Kannada linguistics, lexicography and research studies. While recounting anecdotes from his long life, GV often scratches his head in his characteristic style before loquaciously describing events from the past that were important in sustaining the Kannada world of letters

GV does not agree with the assumption that the popularity of Kannada is declining. He observed that Kannada was the 26th most widely spoken language in the world. He was firm that the language was alive and kicking in the rural pockets of Karnataka. “One should not jump to the conclusion that Kannada is dying because of the dismal state of the language in Bengaluru,” he said.

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