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My rediscovery of Krishnadevaraya

The songs, stories, sport and symbols of childhood go a long way in determining who you think you are, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 14:07 IST
Samar Halarnkar

When I was a boy growing up in the Deccan, there was a song I sang. It was a song of tradition, valour and loyalty to my adopted land, Karnataka. I still sing it; so often that even my wife, a Sindhi, can sing these verses:

Namma nadu Kannada
Namma hesaru Kannada
Namma rashtra Kannada
Namma nadu Kannada
Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Vijayanagara rajya da…

Our land belongs to Kannada, our name is Kannada, our nation is Kannada, land of the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and of the Vijayanagar empire….

The songs, stories, sport and symbols of childhood go a long way in determining who you think you are. So despite the acute discomfort my adopted homeland forces on me by its seemingly inexorable slide to becoming the BJP’s second successful second Hindu rashtra after Gujarat, I would still say I am a Kannadiga.

It’s not hard to see how song and pop culture bereft of real knowledge create the ultranationalism sweeping the world today. In Turkey, an otherwise vibrant, exciting democracy, it’s a crime to criticise the nation. Ask the Nobel Prize-
winning writer Orhan Pamuk who went on trial for “insulting Turkishness”. Pamuk once said that football in Turkey was “a machine to produce nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarian thinking”.

In Mumbai, the only city in India that plays the national anthem before a movie, try sitting down while the Jana Gana Mana is playing. Last month, some young men who did not stand were forced out of a suburban cinema hall.

Pamuk says defeats, not victories, promote truly secure and lasting nationalism. But I’m sure we didn’t think that way in our frantic search for scapegoats when the boys in blue were knocked out of the T20 world last month.

How then can we ensure our children do not become goons who substitute the absence of history and true values with fraudulent — and ignorant — nationalism? I think a good way to start is by tuning them into their history, culture and lavishing them with knowledge, the greatest weapon against violent idiocy.

Let me make a confession. I may scorn the ignorance that drives ultranationalism, but for all the ingrained feeling of fidelity to the soil of Karnataka and my disdain of the ignorant, I have never really known what the Vijayanagar empire was really about.

I got some glimpses when last year I read medieval accounts of travellers who talk of visiting Vijayanagar and its glorious capital Hampi, where as a boy I gamboled through its ghostly stone ruins, years before it became a world heritage site.

But my true reintroduction to Vijayanagar and the exploits of its most famous king, Krishnadevaraya, came last week — at Delhi airport. On impulse, I bought a stack of Amar Chitra Kathas, those wonderful comics that taught so many of us our history.

Yet, I did not know that in 1509, a pair of goat’s eyes helped Krishnadevaraya escape death. Krishnadevaraya’s brother, Vira Narasimha, was the king. Anxious that his son ascend the throne and believing death was at hand, Narasimha asked a loyal minister to put his younger brother to death and prove it by bringing him his eyes. The horrified old minister had a goat slaughtered instead and brought its eyes to Narasimha, after asking Krishnadevaraya to go into hiding.

Could this be true?

I don’t know.

As we get older and history gets younger, Amar Chitra Katha now has comics on people who lived in our era, or close to it. Yet, I’ve been learning so much that I never knew — and I have more than a passing interest in some of these illustrious men.

I did not know J.R.D. Tata found it hard to think in English (or Gujarati). He thought in French because that was his medium of instruction at school.

I regard Bangalore my home town, and I do know that Jamsetji Tata (his cousin was JRD’s father) built the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). It’s still called the Tata institute by many, but I did not know, that Jamsetji Tata — the founder of Jamshedpur, Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, the Tata Cancer Institute — never attached his name to it. I did not know the IISc.
opened its gate in 1909, five years after he died. I did not know of the great battle Jamsetji fought with the viceroy, Lord Curzon, to get it going.

So, I started fact checking.

I dug out a book by Rusi Lala, a gentleman I know. For 18 years Lala was the director of the Dorabji Tata (Jamsetji’s son, I was reminded by Amar Chitra Katha) Trust, the premier trust of the house of Tatas. Lala wrote a book called For the Love of India: The Life and Times of Jamsetji Tata. Everything in the comic is accurate. Then, I found one of the Amar Chitra Katha’s sources: Lala’s book. The other source: a 1925 book on Jamsetji by F.R. Harris, a lecturer in history at the London School of Economics.

Clearly, Amar Chitra Katha does its homework. As I write this, I am told the comics are now part of prescribed reading at the Shri Ram School, Delhi.

If you really want your acquaint your child with true nationalism, you know where to start.