Born in 1904 in Chikmagalur, Karnataka, Kuvempu’s birth name is Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa. He is regarded as one of the greatest Kannada literary masters of the twentieth century. He was a champion of social equality and extensively voiced against caste discrimination, gender inequality, and superstitions, which he believed were taking society down the wrong path.
The Early Days
Kuvempu majored in Kannada at the Maharaja College of Mysore in 1929 and later joined as an academic lecturer at the same institution. Searching for a change, he took up the post of assistant professor at Central College, Bangalore. However, after a few years, he returned to Maharaja College and became its principal. Later in his career, he also achieved the rare feat of becoming the first graduate from Mysore University to become its Vice-Chancellor. He married in 1936, at the age of 32, and had four children.
Though he entered the literary field with an English language collection of poetry called the Beginner’s Muse, he later wrote majorly in Kannada because of his belief that he must contribute more to society through his native tongue rather than a foreign language. He was also a vocal supporter of the idea that children in Karnataka should be taught in Kannada rather than English. Such firm beliefs lead him to start the Institute of Kannada Studies at Mysore University.
Kuvempu’s Fame and Recognition
In 1930, he published his first Kannada language poetry collection called ‘Kolalu.’ But what made him famous was his version of the Ramayana titled ‘Sri Ramayana Darshanam.’ The book clinched him a Jnanpith award; the first ever given to a Kannada language author.
In Sri Ramayana Darshanam, he gave a new perspective on the central character of Lord Rama, making him a mouthpiece of his Universalist ideology of equality and justice. The most striking example of this characterization is during the trial of Sita when she returns to Ayodhya. While in the original Hindu epic written by Valmiki, Sita alone went through the fire to prove her innocence, in Kuvempu’s version, Lord Rama also joins her, thus giving a strong message of gender equality. Most literary critics consider Kuvempu’s version of the Ramayana as a modern revival of the Indian style of Mahakavya (Epic Poetry).
To recognize his contribution to Kannada literature, the state government awarded him two awards – Rashtrakavi in 1958 and Karnataka Ratna in 1992. The title of Rashtrakavi also made him only the second Kannada poet after M Govinda Pai to be honoured with the recognition. Kuvempu passed away in 1994 at the age of 89.
Published Works of Kuvempu
Kuvempu had an illustrious career during which he published numerous poems, plays, novels, essays, literary criticism etc. Some of his most famous works are given below.
- Kolalu, a collection of poems – 1929
- Kaanuru Heggadati, a novel – 1936
- Shoodra Tapaswi, a play – 1944
- Sri Ramayana Darshanam (in two volumes) – 1949 and 1957
In addition, he also wrote for a movie, ‘Kanooru Subbamma Heggaditi,’ which was directed by Girish Karnad. Considering his influence in Karnataka, the state government opened a university in his name, called the Kuvempu University, in 1987. Kuvempu continues to be adored by millions of people in Karnataka, and some of his revolutionary ideas, particularly those concerning social upliftment and equality, are still highly influential.