Kannada has been in use as a literary language for more than fifteen centuries. The documentary evidence itself dates back to 450 A.D. (Halmidi Inscription) The production of literature of the written and oral varieties could easily date back to the beginning of the Christian era. Dr Sha. Settar has opined in his latest work, ‘Shangam Tamilagam mattu Kannada Naadu-Nudi' (2007) that some poems belonging to the celebrated Sangam literature in Tamil were written in an earlier version of Kannada. He proves that the regions where in these poems were written were ruled by some royal dynasties of Kannada. Naturally, this Kannada was not replete with Sanskrit words, as is the case even with the inscriptions dating from 450 A.D. This fact, points to a period when Kannada was relatively unaffected by Sanskrit and was much closer to its cognate Dravidian languages. Of course a lot of research needs to be undertaken involving a comparative study of these languages to arrive at conclusive evidences.

It is fallacious to arrive at any conclusion about the nature of the spoken languages based on literary texts. Actually the literary language of any period does not have a one to one relationship with the spoken language, let alone the dialects that are prevalent. Consequently one must think in terms of the stylistic options taken by the poets and the reasons there of. Literary language is more often than not a combination of the standard and the dialectic. In fact Srivijaya the author of ‘Kavirajamarga’ makes a disparaging remark about the dialects of Kannada and declares in an exaggerated manner that even the thousand tongued Adishesha will despair if asked to enumerate the various dialects of Kannada. His work tries to create a standard language that is built around the spoken variety in the region surrounded by Koppala, Pattadakallu, Badami and Mudgallu as those places are now known.

The literary Kannada of any age seems to be a dependent variable changing according to the nature of the implied reader as well as the stylistic choice made by the reader. Kannada poets who composed their works during the tenth and eleventh centuries used a language suffused with Sanskrit vocabulary and their poetic language was bound by the rules of prosody. These Champu epics were not recited but read by scholars in the royal courts and the lettered minority outside the courts. There was no need for any explicatory commentary. In short, Kannada literature had taken a turn away from its oral tradition. The literary language was ornate, stylized and highly erudite. This is not to deny its literary merits. A Champu work which alternated between prose and poetry offers many opportunities for stylistic experimentations. It depended on the ability of individual poets to create great poetry or to write in a dry and scholarly style. A contrastive study between Pampa and Ponna will prove my point. Sanskrit and the usage of compounded words and long winding sentences go together and Kannada had to succumb to these pressures quite often.

‘Vaddaradahane’ is unique for more than one reason. Firstly, it is in prose and secondly it uses a language which is relatively less affected by Sanskrit. Quite often one notices the influence of Prakrit and that of the Dravidian cutting across one another.

Twelfth century was a turning point not because there was a dramatic change in the spoken language of the people per se. Shivasharanas who never meant to create literature intended to reach the laymen in order to propagate their principles. The language was powerful yet lucid. The need to create a long narrative was not there. The lyrical outbursts were not bound by stringent rules of prosody either. A sparing use of Sanskrit was as much an ideological choice as a stylistic decision. Medieval Kannada (Nadugannada) was preferred because it could reach the masses. However even here a standard literary language was created and dialects were eschewed. Of course it is purely speculative to hazard a guess about the nature of the spoken language in the twelfth century.

Harihara is indisputably an important name in this regard. He was well versed in both styles as evidenced by ‘Girijaa Kalyaana’ and ‘ragales’. He chooses the stylized and sanskritized language for the former work and moves on to the spoken language when composing his ragales. Harihara comes closest to the spoken language of his times because his major ragales use prose and poetry in alternative chapters. They contain a lot of drama and conversational prose. This leads inevitably to the spoken variety. Secondly most of his protagonists hail from the working communities and they have to use a rustic style if not a rural-dialectical language. These characters speak differently but they do not use dialects either. Harihara’s contribution is important because he uses the language for narration, description, conversation and reflection with out any import from Sanskrit. This goes a long way in establishing the potential of Kannada as a literary language. Of course Pampa and others had achieved it earlier but with substantial help from Sanskrit.

Kannada never looked back after Harihara. No doubt Champu works were still being written for a limited readership but their days were gone. Raghavanka was the harbinger of the desi kavyas written using the Shatpadi meter and his works such as ‘Harishchandrakavya’ and ‘Siddaramacharite’ are perennial favorites. His style was a little more ornate than Harihara at least in their descriptive passages. Kumaravyasa continued this tradition with great success because he succeeded in using the language of the common man for the narrating a story of epic dimensions. The distant Mahabharata in Sanskrit becomes a part our cultural psyche because of Kumaravyasa’s Kannada. His case is unique because he must have been a bilingual with a close acquaintance of Marathi.

Haridasa tradition lead by Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa were similarly motivated as the shivasharanas. Many of their keertanas combined the lyrical and the descriptive with admirable success. Purandaradasa uses various registers including the one used by young children. The desi tradition was successfully carried forward by poets such as Chamarasa and Lakshmeesha quite competently.

Amidst all this one should not loose sight of the fact that most of our poets developed an individual style of their own in spite of some common elements. Pampa and Ranna offer a study in contrast even though both of them belong to the Champu traditon. Then again both of them differ from Nagachandra and Nagavarma. Similarly Basavanna, Allama and Akkamahadevi have unique styles. This is true of our Shatapadi poets also.

Gradually one notices the fading away of the medieval Kannada and the advent of ‘hosagannada’ (Modern Kannada). This period heralds the era of prose works for many purposes. Many knowledge based texts were now prone to use prose. The nature of literary language in the modern needs a separate study.

Yet another area that needs to be delineated is the literary language created by the folk literature. These works created for the illiterate communities had to adopt different strategies. They had to use the rural varieties of the geographical dialects and couch them in music. This makes folklore closer to the people and allows it to retain its uniqueness.

This brief survey is to be supplemented by scholarly treatises dealing with the topic.


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