Chal­leng­ing the pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive

In­ter­view with Girish Kar­nad.

FrontLine - - HISTORY -

GIRISH KAR­NAD, the Jnan­pith award-win­ning play­wright, writer and ac­tor, talks about his new Kan­nada play, Rak­shasa Tan­gadi (Cross­ing to Hampi), the Bat­tle of Ta­likota that took place in 1565 be­tween the forces of the Vi­jayana­gara em­pire and an al­liance of the Dec­can Sul­tanates. Ex­cerpts from the in­ter­view:

Why did you feel the need to write a play on the Bat­tle of Ta­likota at this point?

When one looks at the his­tory of Kar­nataka in the last mil­len­nium, three events stand out not only for their im­por­tance for the re­gion, but for the im­pact they have had on the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural map of the whole of In­dia: the rev­o­lu­tion cre­ated by the Lin­gayat poet-philoso­phers un­der Basa­vanna and the Va­canakaras in the 12th cen­tury, the spec­tac­u­lar achieve­ments of the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire, and the reign of Tipu Sul­tan, which was the last as­ser­tion of na­tional pride against colo­nial on­slaught. All three ended cat­a­stroph­i­cally but left lega­cies that con­tinue to shape na­tional life and thought. I have al­ready dealt with Basava’s move­ment in Taledanda (1990) and Tipu Sul­tan in The Dreams of Tipu Sul­tan (1997). Here is my at­tempt to un­der­stand the third one, Vi­jayana­gara, which de­spite be­ing one of the most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary ed­i­fices of its age, col­lapsed overnight after a sin­gle bat­tle. These three events changed the cul­tural ethos of Kar­nataka. All three were po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural con­fronta­tions but they had a deep im­pact. They changed the think­ing in Kar­nataka.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter, “Aliya” Ramaraya, the re­gent of the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire, is fas­ci­nat­ing. Can you dis­cuss what drew you to him?

When I read [Richard M.] Ea­ton’s es­say on Ramaraya, I re­alised what a ter­rific Shake­spearean char­ac­ter he was. He was rul­ing the largest em­pire in In­dia at the time and he thinks that he is be­ing hated by that em­pire. At the same time, he is ob­sessed with some­thing that is not part of his em­pire, which is Kalyana. And this is where the writ­ings of Ea­ton are in­ter­est­ing be­cause he ar­gues that Ramaraya finds an­other lin­eage for him­self, which is the Chalukyas. Kalyana was out­side his king­dom in Bi­japur [Vijayapura] dis­trict, but he claimed that his fam­ily was from Kalyana and he was from the line of the Chalukyas. He had to have some show of lin­eage. There are se­vere con­tra­dic­tions in his char­ac­ter.

The crit­i­cal point is that the Vi­jayana­gara army was led by him. He was old when the bat­tle took place. He was known as “Aliya” be­cause Kr­ish­nade­varaya made him his sonin-law. He gave him his daugh­ter be­cause he was a brave and ca­pa­ble leader. He and his brothers dom­i­nated the army, but he was not al­lowed to be­come the ruler. The simhasana went to Sadashiva, a com­plete nin­com­poop.

Think of his wife Satyab­hama, Kr­ish­nade­varaya’s daugh­ter. She was a princess and mar­ried to this brave gen­eral yet she does not be­come the queen. In the same palace where her fa­ther was once king, she was only Aliya Ramaraya’s wife. Ramaraya re­mains a per­pet­ual ser­vant and she has no rights and re­mains only a princess. This is the

kind of thing that play­writ­ing helps you to an­a­lyse, which his­to­ri­ans don’t talk about.

Is your en­gage­ment with the his­tory of Kar­nataka com­plete with the pub­li­ca­tion of this play?

Yes, I think so. Ul­ti­mately, I’m not writ­ing his­tory, I’m writ­ing plays. I write about sub­jects that are in­ter­est­ing. I wrote on Basa­vanna at the time be­cause of the agi­ta­tion around the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Man­dal Com­mis­sion Re­port. I was com­mis­sioned by the BBC to write a play on In­dia’s In­de­pen­dence and I wrote the Tipu [Sul­tan] play.

What was the mo­ti­va­tion for this play?

For a long time, the pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive around the Bat­tle of Ta­likota wor­ried me. For, if it had been a fight be­tween Mus­lims and Hin­dus and the Sul­tans in­vaded Vi­jayana­gara, then the bat­tle should have taken place south of the river [Kr­ishna], but nei­ther Tangadagi nor Ta­likota are south of the river. They are north of the river, which means that the Vi­jay­na­gara army went north. Ea­ton an­swers this ques­tion; he says Aliya Ramaraya crossed [the river] be­cause he was ob­sessed with Kalyana. It was a fan­tasy. That is what makes it marvel­lous.

The re­li­gious di­men­sion is be­ing per­pet­u­ated in pop­u­lar dis­course and I’ll tell you why. Be­cause most of the his­to­ri­ans are prej­u­diced. It is as sim­ple as that. The great his­to­rian [K.A. Ni­lakanta] Sas­tri also takes the same line. A tourist who came to Hampi two years after the bat­tle met some peo­ple and he said that Vi­jayana­gara lost be­cause there was be­trayal by Mus­lims. Now, that is quoted by ev­ery­one. Imag­ine a per­son who comes two years after [the bat­tle] in those days and talks to some per­son on the street and that is quoted as ev­i­dence. What is writ­ten by eye­wit­nesses is ig­nored. What does

this show? It shows prej­u­dice.

V.S. Naipaul says in “In­dia: A Wounded Civil­i­sa­tion” that Mus­lims de­stroyed Vi­jayana­gara.

You see, Naipaul is a great writer. But as a thinker, he is an ass. He had only read The For­got­ten Em­pire by Robert Sewell. On the ba­sis of it, he came up with his idea. He read that one book and de­cided it fit­ted with his the­ory of Mus­lims de­stroy­ing In­dia.

When you write on his­tor­i­cal themes what is the chal­lenge you face?

I love his­tory, I read his­tory, it ex­cites me. No one looked at Satyab­hama un­til I wrote this play. All the women crit­ics in Kar­nataka are thrilled with me. They think it is a fem­i­nist play be­cause the en­tire so­lu­tion is brought out by one per­son: Begum [wife of Hu­sain Nizam Shah I of Ahmed­na­gar]. The Begum tells Nizam Shah that they marry off their daugh­ters to the Sul­tans of Bi­japur and Gol­conda and make peace with them. Vi­jayana­gara is brought down by this sug­ges­tion of hers. His­tory doesn’t say that she said this, but if you’re mar­ry­ing off your daugh­ters she must have come into it. After Nizam Shah died, she ruled Ahmed­na­gar for many years—a very bright woman. On the one hand, you have Satyab­hama; what a hu­mil­i­at­ing life she must have lived. On the other, you have the Begum; she should ac­tu­ally get the credit for de­stroy­ing the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire. This kind of thing in a play makes peo­ple come alive. A play­wright thinks like that. That’s what ex­cites me.

What do you think of the study of his­tory now and its im­pact in pop­u­lar dis­course?

His­tory writ­ing is not only po­larised now but the right wing is white-wash­ing [his­tory]. A lot of it is pro­pa­ganda, and is be­ing done de­lib­er­ately. to­day, you will see that only those mon­u­ments be­long­ing to the Vaish­navites have been de­stroyed and are ‘dead’ now like the Vi­jaya Vit­tala tem­ple, whereas the ones that ven­er­ate Siva like the Viru­pak­sha tem­ple are thriv­ing.”

Gopala Kr­ishna Rao, a his­to­rian of the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire based in Ben­galuru, said: “...the sol­diers of the sul­tanates were in­ter­ested in loot­ing and [so] they plun­dered Hampi, not be­cause of any com­mu­nal feel­ing. The Bat­tle of Ta­likota took place as the sul­tans, who Ramaraya con­stantly took ad­van­tage of by play­ing one against the other, brought the sul­tans to­gether in a tem­po­rary al­liance.”

G.M. Kulka­rni writes after care­ful pe­rusal of a va­ri­ety of sources: “From the above pas­sages, it ap­pears that the unity was forged first, not be­cause all the four sul­tans ba­si­cally be­longed to the same re­li­gion, but be­cause the same was based on a com­mon fac­tor, viz., the fear of the

mil­i­tary might of Ram­raj. Each one was more than sure that in­di­vid­u­ally they were not ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing the blow suc­cess­fully to their com­mon en­emy....”

Other his­to­ri­ans of Vi­jayana­gar make the same ar­gu­ment. Bur­ton Stein, for in­stance, writes: “That was the con­stant grasp­ing about by great and small lords of the Dec­can for ad­van­tage through coali­tions and al­liances, a strat­egy which recog­nised no fron­tiers be­tween the Hindu king­dom and its sup­posed Mus­lim ad­ver­saries to the north” (Vi­jayana­gara, Bur­ton Stein, 1993). Va­sund­hara Fil­liozat, who re­lied a lot on epi­graph­i­cal sources in her un­der­stand­ing of Vi­jayana­gara his­tory, also does not sub­scribe to the view that a re­li­gious el­e­ment was re­spon­si­ble for the Bat­tle of Ta­likota. About Sewell, she says: “But, still Sewell’s wrong re­mark that the cap­i­tal was de­stroyed by Mus­lims has gone so deep in the minds of read­ers that it is dif­fi­cult to up­root it even to­day.”

CUL­TURAL IN­TER­MIN­GLING

The no­tion that there was some kind of rigid “line of con­trol” that di­vided these two ar­eas is be­lied when we see the im­mense cul­tural in­ter­min­gling of in­flu­ences be­tween the Bah­ma­nis and their lega­tee king­doms and the Vi­jayana­gara Em­pire. While this is ev­i­dent in a num­ber of ar­eas, even a tourist will be able to dis­cern this in­flu­ence in the ar­chi­tec­ture at Hampi. No one can miss the Is­lamic in­flu­ence in the build­ings such as the Lotus Ma­hal or the Queen’s Bath in Hampi. The sig­nif­i­cant tombs in Kadi­ram­pura also at­test to the pres­ence of Mus­lim no­ble­men in Hampi. There is a mosque lo­cated in the “Mo­hammedan quar­ters” of Hampi apart from more ob­scure mon­u­ments such as the tomb of Ahmed Khan, a no­ble­man who built a trav­ellers’ lodge ded­i­cated to the reign­ing rule of Vi­jayana­gara. There are even the graves of Mus­lim holy men be­yond the tomb of Ahmed Khan (see Basav Bi­radar’s ar­ti­cle ti­tled “Why Hampi Has Sur­prises Up Its Sleeve”, Na­tional Geo­graphic Trav­eller In­dia, Au­gust 10, 2018).

C.S. Va­sude­van, a pro­fes­sor at the De­part­ment of An­cient His­tory and Ar­chae­ol­ogy, Kan­nada Uni­ver­sity, Hampi, said that sev­eral in­scrip­tions found in Hampi at­test to the ex­is­tence of an elite corps of Mus­lims who ded­i­cated mon­u­ments to the king. He trans­lated the in­scrip­tion on the plinth of the trav­ellers’ lodge (some say that this is a mosque) built by Ahmed Khan: “For the merit of King De­varaya, Ahmed Khan got this choul­try con­structed.”

Sim­i­larly, in Bi­japur (Vijayapura now), the largest sul­tanate, which be­came im­mensely pow­er­ful after the fall of Vi­jayana­gara, one can see the in­flu­ences of the Vi­jayana­gara ar­chi­tects in ma­jes­tic build­ings such as the Gol Gumbaz and the Ibrahim Rauza. “The first ma­jor build­ing to have been erected after the fall of Vi­jayana­gara in Bi­japur is the Jama Masjid whose pil­lars when looked at in iso­la­tion re­sem­ble those of tem­ples. The brack­ets that jut out from the roof and even the ma­jes­tic prayer niche of the mosque, the largest of its kind, has in­flu­ences of the skilled ar­ti­sans of Vi­jayana­gara,” said Ab­dul Ghani Imarat­wale, a his­to­rian and Per­sian scholar who teaches at the An­ju­man Arts, Sci­ence and Com­merce Col­lege in Vijayapura.

There was also no clear divi­sion be­tween the faiths of the sol­diers in the two armies. While the Vi­jayana­gara army had a con­sid­er­able num­ber of Mus­lims sol­diers within its ranks, par­tic­u­larly in the cav­alry and the ar­tillery, the sul­tanate armies re­lied on a num­ber of Maratha chief­tains to pro­vide foot sol­diers and cav­alry.

The story that the Bat­tle of Ta­likota was a re­li­gious war is per­pet­u­ated and con­ve­niently feeds into re­duc­tive right-wing his­tor­i­cal it­er­a­tions that en­sure that the oth­er­ing of the Mus­lim in con­tem­po­rary In­dia is com­plete. This right-wing his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­tory clearly fol­lows the colo­nial model whose in­ten­tion was to le­git­imise colo­nial­ism. Stein has writ­ten that the in­ten­tion of such par­ti­san his­to­ries was “...to make Bri­tish rule a ne­ces­sity and virtue”. The fragility of the “Mus­lim” al­liance can be gauged from the fact that it lasted for only a year after the bat­tle. The sul­tans fell out and an­other con­tentious era be­gan. The Dec­can kings would even­tu­ally be beaten by the last great Mughal em­peror, Au­rangzeb, to­wards the end of the 17th cen­tury, which brought the sul­tanate era to an end.

After the fall of Hampi, the ruins were left to na­ture un­til they were dis­cov­ered in the 19th cen­tury. Un­for­tu­nately, a modern-day vis­i­tor to Hampi will not find any sculp­ture or pic­ture of Ramaraya. But, strangely, there is a sculp­ture sup­pos­edly of Ramaraya’s head in the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum in Vijayapura. It was dis­cov­ered when a baoli (step­well) was cleaned in the city in the 18th cen­tury. While no his­to­rian of re­pute will con­firm that this is ac­tu­ally Ramaraya as the sign at the mu­seum says, vis­i­tors can­not miss this evoca­tive bust of a great man, whose haugh­ti­ness led to his down­fall and to the end of the one of the great­est em­pires of In­dia.

GIRISH KAR­NAD,BY VIKHAR AHMED SAY­EEDat his res­i­dence in Ben­galuru.

VIL­LAGERS IN RAKKASAGI be­lieve that this mosque was built by the en­camped sul­tanate armies dur­ing the Bat­tle of Ta­likota.

THE TOMB of an un­named Mus­lim saint in Hampi.

A VIEW OF THE PLAINS along the Kr­ishna river close to the vil­lages of Rakkasagi and Tangadagi where the Bat­tle of Ta­likota is sup­posed to have taken place.

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