Choice, culture, and creativity: Review of ‘The Essential U.R. Ananthamurthy’

This anthology makes Ananthamurthy seem more like a remote legend but misses his everyday intellectual presence, eccentricity, and idiosyncrasies.

Published : Aug 10, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

U.R. Ananthamurthy in his Bengaluru home in December 2009.

U.R. Ananthamurthy in his Bengaluru home in December 2009. | Photo Credit: K. GOPINATHAN

I first met U.R Ananthamurthy at the Delhi airport. I expected him to be in his predictable pyjama-kurta ensemble, but he was standing at ease in his three-piece suit. I smiled wickedly, my message was clear. He simply said, “One has to dress for the occasion, I am returning from a board meeting at the CSDS [Centre for the Study of Developing Societies].” He suddenly became more serious and said “Many on the board wanted to dismiss you, I want you to be careful.” He then smiled impishly and waved as he moved to the plane.

The Essential U.R. Ananthamurthy
Edited by N. Manu Chakravarthy & Chandan Gowda
Aleph Book Company, 2023
Pages: 298
Price: Rs. 899

We became friends in later years. My friendship with Ananthamurthy was helped by the two scholars who edited this book, Chandan Gowda and Manu Chakravarthy. The latter was an everyday listener, a testing board for Ananthamurthy’s ideas, and the former, who had translated Ananthamurthy’s work, was a leading authority on Visvesveraya. Gowda also edited my book on democracy, creating a more nuanced text that was both expert and professional.

Reading this anthology, one felt nostalgia at the start, remembering Ananthamurthy at the agraharam and reliving his encounters with Ram Manohar Lohia and D.H. Lawrence. Yet one sensed that what was emerging was a standard textbook Ananthamurthy, composed of vintage slices of his writing. I felt disappointed that the two editors had added little from the informal world of their experiences. Both were knowledgeable about the man, but their insights had not reached the introduction. Ananthamurthy seemed more like a remote legend and even like a commemorative stamp.

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One missed the everyday intellectual presence, the gossip of ideas the man wove around himself. Suddenly I had a brainwave, I thought I would argue about Ananthamurthy with the two editors. It was the best acknowledgement of what they taught me. I even felt that Ananthamurthy with his sense of humour would preside impishly over the conversation, answering a question with a story. One needed more about the eccentricity and the idiosyncrasies of the man. I felt that such an experiment could convey the pedagogic power of the book and bring out all three characters in a different way.

Both Gowda and Chakravarthy captured the socialist imagination of the author and how it wove into literature, but beyond a socialist realism, which added to the aridity of language. Both talked about the pragmatic way in which the author talked to politicians, trying to bring out new and surprising unities. Both would tell me anecdotes about his encounters with ordinary people, capturing a poetics of the everyday. I wish some of these stories and perspectives had crept into the narrative.

Cover of The Essential U.R. Ananthamurthy

Cover of The Essential U.R. Ananthamurthy | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Ananthamurthy had a dramatic way of stating problems. He claimed his intellectual choices lay in an improbable blend of D.H. Lawrence and Ram Manohar Lohia. Lawrence was located in his preoccupations in the body, and Lohia was immersed in the local, and both used language to unravel their answers. Ananthamurthy’s reflections are a classic choreography of choice, but choice to him was a multidimensional world. His sense of choice was not merely personal, but a grammar of options that the imagination of a culture offered. Creativity eventually read the logic of grammar, in creative ways.

Between choice, culture and creativity, Ananthamurthy unfolded a dramatic world. He wanted to articulate the power of self-doubt in an era where ideologies created a corset of certainties. He wanted to show how radicalism often became dull and fundamentalist. He wanted to sketch how culture as theatre created a multiplicity of possibilities. A Ramayana with three hundred options was an everyday expectation for intellectuals like Ananthamurthy .

He shows how the intellectual caught between the traditional and the colonial has to create a repertoire of the unexpected around self-doubt, dialogue, translation and invention. He constructed a range of fascinating archetypical selves around exemplars. He created an epic of self-examination through a pilgrimage of the other. He courageously demonstrated that the best of the West was inadequate to grasp the indigenous self. A peasant might have ideas that a Russel could not think of, yet one must know enough to anticipate the magic of each. Ananthamurthy displayed distance, doubt, era and exaggeration in a subtle way, showing that culture is only a collection of thought experiment. For him creativity was not a singular word, it emerged as a balance between originality and tradition, dialogue and translation; one explored them all to create a balance between swadeshi and swaraj.

  • Shiv Visvanathan reviews The Essential U.R. Ananthamurthy published by Aleph Book Company and edited by N. Manu Chakravarthy and Chandan Gowda.
  • Shiv Visvanathan says the editors have done a professional job of presenting vintage slices of U.R. Ananthamurthy but their personal insights about the writer have not reached the introduction.
  • He says that between choice, culture, and creativity, Ananthamurthy unfolded a dramatic world and wanted to articulate the power of self-doubt in an era where ideologies created a corset of certainties.

He felt that ideas had to be presented not as nostalgia of frozen options but as playful experiments for an unpredictable tomorrow. This way, no idea, he felt, would suffer from the rigor mortis of certainty. Doubt is central and the jugalbandi between doubt and creativity anticipates the excitement of a new life. Instead of contempt, creativity is the acknowledgement of multiple life forms. One witnesses this in his translation of Chinese poems. His experiments become a heuristic for confronting China today. China, he felt could be outthought by rereading China. For Ananthamurthy the cultural unconscious was a commons of a spectacular kind.

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The editors do a professional job presenting vintage slices from Samskara to Lohia (“The importance of being Ram Manohar Lohia”, a 1984 essay by Ananthamurthy). And yet these remain classic cuts. It is by criss-crossing these sections that the everyday creativity of doubt, dissent and alternatives is born. An Ananthamurthy without everyday gossip is barren. For example; one has little sense of his idea of gender and of women, both as characters in literature and as collaborators in real life. One needs to wrestle with him. Textbook slices by themselves are vintage stuff. What is life-giving is the creativity of everydayness; I wish there had been an oral history of conversations to add to this elegant collection which is distant and immaculate. To understand Ananthamurthy, one must engage in the everyday rituals of dialogue. They are a part of his everyday performance. For him language and literature become a search for the true and the aesthetic in every direction.

One senses his engagement with Lawrence and Lohia. Yet Ananthamurthy shows that an understanding that engaged with both had to be tacit. One could not recite a catechism of answers. He uses Lohia to probe private and public transformations. In that sense the noisy, raucous Lohia fades, and what one sees is an intellectual chewing into the politics of everyday life. Ananthamurthy shows that Lohia understood the creativity of religion in a way few Marxists and socialists did. This encounter with Lohia has tremendous implications for the present. He demonstrates that a similar meeting with Modi is impossible. Lohia sought a democracy of surprises, Modi created a behemoth of mediocrity; one fetishised the nation state, the other massaged the possibility of a civilisation.

A sequence from Ananthamurthy’s Samskara , adapted for the stage in Mysuru by the theatre institute Rangayana in July 2015 to mark 50 years of the novel’s publication.

A sequence from Ananthamurthy’s Samskara, adapted for the stage in Mysuru by the theatre institute Rangayana in July 2015 to mark 50 years of the novel’s publication. | Photo Credit: M.A. SRIRAM

To me the most successful part of the book is not Ananthamurthy the literary figure or the everyday political scientist. He was, I think, one of the most successful sociologists of knowledge, who warned that India was literally investing in mediocrity. He was as playful as Gandhi. He offered a theory of innovation, emerging out of the bhakti period where Sanskrit behaved with generosity, where Sanskritic ideas literally performed through the vernacular. He posited a twofold opposition between marga and desi. He then borrowed Gandhi’s ideas of swadeshi and swaraj, which allowed a reworking of the local linguistically and culturally. The locality, the vernacular and the neighbourhood appear through a different lens as swadeshi and swaraj went beyond the parochialism of the post-colonial. Ananthamurthy, like Tagore and Gandhi, was obsessed not with the nation state and its cognitive uniforms but with civilisational categories. The vernacular was never isolating. The model he often cited was that while a convent schoolgirl or a bureaucratic official spoke English and only English, the allegedly illiterate coolie spoke three or four languages, switching from one to the other contextually and intuitively. In fact, he loved citing mystical poems in Kannada, where the first line was in Kannada, the second in Telugu and the third in Tamil. He claimed what integrated them were the silences and tacit meanings.

Gowda and Chakravarty recognised the creative pluralism of Ananthamurthy. In fact, apart from the innumerable languages, he felt that there were two other languages that performed as metaphors, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as epics. His model of innovation was even more powerful because they included the presence of orality. Orality was not a dying medium but a literary form as a major presence. Orality was not colonial rote but an ecology of memory which adds to the creative power of the literary dream. Ananthamurthy showed that the power of Dalit literature stemmed from the underlying traditions of memory and orality.

His model of creativity was the Indian home. As a metaphor of Indian literature, the front yard was official and clerical, while the backyard was informal and gossipy. The front yard was for the affairs of the world, the backyard was for the adventures of the family. Front yard and backyard were gendered: the backyard was for the village woman, the backyard was the domain where recipes and relationships were dissected gleefully. This model of front yard and backyard was a collection of reciprocities and operated differently from the highway and the byway. Sanskrit and the bhashas had such a relationship. The model was a brilliant one, celebrating the fact that Ananthamurthy was not just a brilliant literary figure but an acute anthropologist. One needs to add the tacit Ananthamurthy to the more overt interpretations of the man. In that sense he is a futuristic heuristic whose ideas could rescue the country both from its majoritarianism and its impending mediocrity.

Shiv Visvanathan is a sociologist associated with the Compost Heap, a network of academics exploring alternative imaginations.

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