Excerpts from an interview with Bacheranianda Appanna Master, Kushalnagar, Kodagu
Profile: Bacharanianda Appanna, fondly known as Appanna Master, is a renowned writer in Kodagu. He has written several books about the history and culture of Kodagu. He is also an expert on ancient Kodava folklore. He was selected for the Kodagu Sahitya Kriti award in 2010. He is a teacher, a poet, a columnist and an orator. He has actively participated in the activities of the Kodava Sahitya Academy, Madikeri, and has won several awards in recognition for his contribution to Kodava literature and folklore. He has also collected and curated a large variety of Kodava artifacts, utensils, cradles, and agricultural implements from the ancient times.
Q. Being actively involved in teaching and writing about Kodagu, you have been a close observer of the changing scenario in Kodagu from a very long time now. How did you get interested in Kodava culture and history?
A. I was exposed to Kodagu’s ancient history and folklore from a very young age. My father had written the Kavery purana although he didn’t have the money to print it. He expired in 1934 when I was just a one year old boy. Although he was poor, he was very well educated. He resigned as a revenue officer. My mother hailed from a good family called Mannotira. She was educated by Apparanda family. She had already lost her eyesight when my father married her. In 1952, after I finished my tenth grade, we all sat down and copied down my father’s Kavery purana manuscript. That is how I got interested in such things. I used to mingle with elderly people during childhood. Earlier, people only used Kannada language for written communication. Kodavattakk was only used to communicate through speech. But I used to write letters in Kodavattakk during my high school days, and have continued writing in Kodavattakk even to this date.
Q. Appacha Kavi is well known as the father of Kodava theatre in Kodagu. How would you trace the story of his fame as Kodagu’s first poet- Adikavi?
I was a ardent disciple of the famous writer I.M. Muthanna of Kodagu. In my opinion, without I.M. Muthanna, Appacha Kavi’s name would probably have been lost in the pages of history. The story of Muthanna’s first encounter with Appacha is also a very interesting one. In 1942, when Muthanna was in Mangalore, he came across some printed papers lying around in the office of Sharada Press. These happened to be the second print of Haradas Appacha’s Subramanya Nataka. He was so amazed at the quality of the literature and the musical expertise in the book that he contacted Appacha Kavi whose health was already failing him to gain permission to print the play. He personally bore all the expenses and got it printed and published. Besides, he even conducted performances of Appacha’s plays all over Kodagu. Thus, without Muthanna, Appacha’s fame wouldn’t have been revived in such a glorious manner.
Q. In Kodagu now, Haradas Appacha Kavi is a household name. Can one confidently say that Appacha Kavi is the pioneering writer who brought such richness to the Kodava language?
A. Yes, we can rightly say that Appacha Kavi is the pioneer of Kodava language. However, it must be noted that he was not the first person to write in Kodavattakk. In 1902, before Appacha published his first works, Coravanda Appaiah wrote a book in Kannada titled, Kodava Kulachaaraadi Tattvojjeevi. There are passages in this book that are in Kodavattakk. In 1906, Appacha Kavi wrote the first play in Kodavattakk. It was Raghunatha Rao, a Brahmin from Bhagamandala who advised him to write in Kodavattakk and not in Kannada. Well aware of the literary and musical talents of Appacha, he assured him that it would definitely bring him unsurpassed fame. Appacha took the advice and immensely succeeded in his efforts. He is the unsurpassed master of the Kodava language, using all his talents to enrich the Kodavattakk vocabulary.
Q. There has not been a lot of studies conducted on the life and works of Appacha Kavi. Who were Appacha’s contemporaries closely associated with his works?
A. I.M. Muthanna, after publishing and performing his plays, took upon himself the arduous task of translating his plays into Kannada in an effort to popularize his works in Karnataka state. Muthanna, apart from being himself a prolific writer, was also a good actor and singer. He hailed from Appacha’s neighboring village, and although there was an age gap, they were more or less contemporaries. He translated and collated all his plays into one book. Muthanna also went on to write several books about Kodagu and its social structure. So, although the two weren’t exactly contemporaries in its true sense, the existing social fabric that is discussed by both were more or less same. Apart from Muthanna, one of my teachers, Kotera Muthanna who was a contemporary of Appacha, wrote Jagathigonde Kodagu, which describes Kodagu but does not have a lot of references to Appacha.
Q. Appacha stopped writing after the Kavery Nataka in 1918. Did he perform much after that? Are there any documentation of his performances?
A. Appacha was not a rich man. He was depending on patronage from well-to-do Kodavas to get his plays published. He was a playwright and playwriting alone wouldn’t bring in the income to support his large family. He had three sons and three daughters. In addition, in 1926, some miscreants set fire to his house reducing him to total penury. He lost everything that could earn him a living. He decided to stick to performing, the only thing that he was adept at. Thus he began performing Harikathes.
He once performed a Harikathe in Mangalore. Fascinated by his rendering, a renowned poet, Ullaal Mangesha Rao, published raving reviews of his performance in several papers, calling him the ‘Shakespeare of Kodagu’. In retrospect, we can rightfully say that he is truly the ‘Shakespeare of Kodagu’. The ease with which he has portrayed seriousness and comedy, the meaningful verses and the talent with which he makes the letters dance through alliteration as if to provide rhythm to the reader is absolutely fascinating! For example the Kembatti’s role has been given a comic yet grotesque color:
Aarend notiro Aarend notiro
Aaraar athhara chorena oothuva
The Kembatti man feasts on dead cows and men to satisfy his hunger. In the story, although his wife begs of him not to commit such a heinous crime, he pays no heed to her words. In the end, he happens to drink water from the Kavery, just before he is bitten by a snake and dies on the spot. Yama, the God of death, listens patiently to the complainants who insist that the degree of his crimes is so bad that he definitely cannot be permitted access to Heaven. Moreover, he does not deserve even Hell because the atrocity of his crimes is just unpardonable. However, Yama finds out that he had tasted the waters from the sacred Kavery River just before his death. This final act grants the Kembatti an unchallenged access to Heaven! Here, the story is not about the Kembatti or Yama. This section is written ONLY to highlight the sanctity and glory of the Kavery river and nothing else.
You will also notice some offensive language in his plays. For example, there is a poetic description of a woman, where he graphically describes her body.
Carrying a pot of water, looking this way and that, a good looking woman comes, look!
Eyes lined with black kohl, adorned in golden bordered sari, sparkling earrings and necklace
Why does she need all these?
Why does she need all these decorative jewellery?
Why does she need all the gold?
A thousand beautiful girls cannot hold a candle to the beauty of her feet
Her plait is so long
Her thighs, round and supple
Her waist, so small it fits in two palms
She sparkles like lightning!
I am the valiant one, she’s meant for me
O I desire to have her
I am in love with her!
Oh look at her beauty!
Oh look at her lips!
Will she scold me if I touch her?
I am afraid she might beat me
Let her punch me, if she will!
Such a beautiful darling she is!
Quietly I will go to her and ask for a medicine
Even if she goes away ignoring me
I will jump with my feet high
And won’t let her go until she accepts me!
The offensive language in these lines is natural because they are spoken through the character of a low class rustic man. He is quite capable of the act of touching a woman without her consent. It is but a common thing one would hear of during those days. At the same time, if a King or an important character said the same lines, it would have been very ungentlemanly. He is required to maintain his status as a king and not indulge in base activities. Thus the absolute beauty of Appacha’s talent is evident in his plays and stands unsurpassed.
Q. Appacha studied only up to 4th grade, yet his mastery over languages, especially the English language is quite commendable. Did Appacha have any association with the English?
A. When he was eight years old, he joined English classes. But in a few days, he was bedridden by a terrible illness that kept him in bed for close to three years. Thereafter, when he went back to school, his teacher ordered him to start again from the first alphabets ABCD. His master was a rude man. When he went back and told his folks about this, they got angry and made him join a Kannada school. Of course the Europeans in the country and their influence helped him pick up some English.
Q. Speaking about foreign influences, Appacha has used a lot of other languages in his plays, like Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu, etc. How do you think Appacha acquired the wealth of the knowledge of these languages?
A. Bishop Caldwell in his work Comparative Grammar explains the Pancha Dravida languages namely Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu, Telugu and Tamil. However, he mentions a small community of people found in the Maleyadri regions, the area between Kodagu and Kerala, who speak the Moola Dravida language, or the core Dravidian language. He was probably talking about Kodavas. But Kodava language was completely influenced by Tamil and Malayalam. People living in border areas were exposed to several wars that plagued these areas by invading forces. So they would escape to neighboring areas like Payyavur and Bythur in Kerala for respite from the wars. In fact, until 1790, Kodavas didn’t know how to write in Kannada, but they knew the Malayalam script pretty well. They would go to Kerala time and again for frequent mantra and tantra rituals, which were usually written in Malayalam. So, I wouldn’t say everyone, but a large majority of Kodavas were familiar with Malayalam script. Kannada was introduced by Doddaveeraraaja in 1790. Kodagu, during Appacha’s time had witnessed a lot of political upheavals and the presence of foreigners and other tongues from neighboring states was quite common. These are probably the reasons why Appacha was familiar with a lot of languages.
Q. It is common for writers to speak out or write about political and social changes during their times in order to reach out to the masses and help mould public opinion. Surprisingly, a writer of Appacha’s caliber deliberately chose not to participate in the freedom movement that was simmering in the country during his time. Why?
A. There is a general feeling that Kodavas weren’t really interested in the freedom movement. In fact, a majority of Kodavas, including I.M. Muthanna, were in favor of the British rule. A lot of Kodavas were holding high posts in the British Government and private enterprises. Some of these people were also Appacha’s patrons who helped him in getting his works published. This is probably why Appacha didn’t wield his pen to write about the freedom movement. In Kodagu too, only just a handful of people were dedicated to the freedom struggle, like Pandianda Belliappa, Paruvangada Kushalappa,Cheppudira Poonacha, Kollimaada Karumbaiah, Chekkera Monnaiah, Mallengada Chengappa, Dr. Nanjundeshwara and H.R. Krishnaiaha etc. Mallengada Chengappa was the first person to hoist the tri color in Madikeri, now the disctrict headquarters of Kodagu. Pandianda Belliappa started the ‘Kodagu’ newspaper in 1921 which is the first newspaper of Kodagu. All support and contribution to the freedom movement was essentially through the Kodagu newspaper.