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Bereft of barriers

Published : Mar 11, 2005 00:00 IST

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KANAKADASA was a poet-saint of the Haridasa Bhakti tradition of the mid-16th century. Though of `low' birth - Kanakadasa was a chieftain of the shepherd community - he became one of the most celebrated Bhakti poets of his time, forcing recognition from the Brahmin-dominated religious establishment for the literary and philosophical merit of his writings. His poetry - written in simple and spoken Kannada - reflects his belief that devotion to God lies beyond the artificial hierarchies imposed by caste, class and orthodoxy.

"Kanaka's writings touch on all aspects of truth and social reality," said K.R. Nagaraj, literary critic and the author of Kalajnani Kanaka (`Kanaka, the Visionary'), a play on the life of the poet-saint. "Kanaka's poetry is dense with rhyme, rhythm, metre and rich descriptions. He upholds social justice while addressing the issues of the time - caste and class differentiation and gender oppression, for example. Contrary to popular belief, he never confined himself to any one philosophical tradition - Advaita, Dwaita or Vishishtadvaita."

Kanadasa wrote several kirtanas (compositions) and four important works - Nalacharitre, Mohana Tarangini, Ramadhanyacharitre and Haribhaktisara. "Of these Ramadhanyacharitre, an allegory on the conflict between the high and low castes and classes, presented as an argument between two foodgrains, rice and ragi, is a most creative literary piece with a powerful social message," said Nagaraj.

In the work, rice represents the socially powerful, such as Brahmins, and ragi (millet) represents the working people. The two grains come before Rama to argue their case and establish their superiority. In the end Rama sends both of them to prison for six months. At the end of the period, rice has turned rotten while the hardy ragi survives, earning Rama's blessings. "Foodgrains are elevated into characters in this poem, and the differences between them become a metaphor for social differentiation," Nagaraj said.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 11, 2005.)

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