Avishrant Anveshaka: Prof M M Kalburgi–A Tireless Researcher

On the morning of Aug 30, 2015, the town of Dharwad, a major educational and cultural centre of Karnataka was shocked out of its contented and cultured life, when one of its leading lights Prof M M Kalburgi, a renowned researcher into Kannada culture and a prolific writer was shot down at his residence. The tragic loss has shocked the entire literary world of Karnataka and thousands of Prof Kalburgi’s admirers and students. Speculation is rife on who might have ordered a gangland Mafiosi style hit on a 77 year old writer.

On the morning of Aug 30, 2015, the town of Dharwad, a major educational and cultural centre of Karnataka was shocked out of its contented and cultured life, when one of its leading lights Prof M M Kalburgi, a renowned researcher into Kannada culture and a prolific writer was shot down at his residence. The tragic loss has shocked the entire literary world of Karnataka and thousands of Prof Kalburgi’s admirers and students. Speculation is rife on who might have ordered a gangland Mafiosi style hit on a 77 year old writer.


The funeral was held near Karnatak University Campus, according to Lingayat burial traditions, not too far from the lecture halls where he once taught thousands of students for over three decades on the nuances of Kavirajamarga the 9th century Kannada classic on poetics or the correct way to read and interpret the works of Adikavi Pampa the great 10th century Jain Kannada poet or the radicalism in 12th Century Vachana literature of Basavanna and other Lingayat Sharanas of Karnataka.

Since then there have been a large number of demonstrations by thousands of students, literary figures, writers and democratic supporters not only all over Karnataka but also outside: in Delhi, Varnasi, Tiruvanthapuram etc.

Dharwad unlike other cities, does not count its IT billionaires or the Real Estate Rajas but it does proudly reel off the names of its Jnan Peeth and Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award winners; poets, novelists, playwrights, researchers and of course an incessant stream of top notch Hindustani musicians. Hence the shocked town and the rest of Karnataka hope that the supari style killers who came into his home acting as students– perhaps knowing that it was always an open house to researchers– and shot him in the head, in cold blood at close quarters, and those who hired them, would be caught soon by police investigators.

A very large demonstration and rally was held in Dharwad on Sept 14, where writers came from all over Karnataka and thousands gathered to condemn the murder and questioned the tardiness in catching the killers.

I was not his student in a formal sense but my parents being his neighbours and close friends afforded me an ease of entry into his warm friendship, whenever I visited Dharwad. He gladly shared his vast knowledge, his concerns and his flashes of new insights into the radicalism of 12th century Sharana Sahitya, which was our common ground. Every time I met him he would wave with great enthusiasm a bunch of new books that he had either written or edited. His energy was infectious. He was also an indefatigable organiser and motivator, who cajoled others into his numerous projects.

He was prolific. His four volumes of research papers; Marga I-IV and over 70 works including dozens of volumes of Vachana literature that were edited by him stand testimony to it. After a brilliant teaching career in Karnatak University Dharwad he became the Vice Chancellor of Kannada University at Hampi, where he once again showed his organising abilities. Post retirement he continued to write and edit profusely.

His recent output in the past five years alone is mind boggling. He edited and published the complete literary and journalistic works of Basavaraj Kattimani, a progressive writer from Belagavi (formerly Belgaum). He also edited and published several volumes of the great early 20th century researcher, F G Halakatti from Vijayapur (formerly Bijapur). He made a great gift to medieval historians by getting 12 volumes of world history written in Persian by a scribe in the 18th century Adilshahi court of Vijayapur (Bijapur), translated and published in Kannada.

He was now engaged in editing and publishing a volume of over 2500 selected vachana poems to be published in 20 different languages. His long introduction to the collection is a learned commentary on the essence of Lingayat sharana movement. He supervised and guided the translators in different languages by conducting several workshops for them all over India to convey the nuances of ancient Kannada (Halegannada), of which he was a master. As a result, in 2012, Kannada; Sanskrit; English; Urdu; Bengali; Hindi; Marathi; Telugu; Punjabi; Tamil editions were published by Basava Samiti.

A week before his heinous assassination he assured me that the remaining 10 language editions in Dogri, Maithili, Assami, Bodo, Gujarati, Malayalam, Konkani, Nepali, Odiya, Santhali, Kashmiri and Sindhi are also in the final stages and would be published in the last quarter of 2015. Translations into Mandarin, Japanese, French and Spanish were also on the cards.

He then pointed to me a heap of corrected proofs of over 20,000 vachanas in Kannada, which would be published in two slim volumes in literally Bible style with similar paper.

And all this after "retirement" !

I joked with him that the name plate outside his house was a mistake. It said Vishrant Kulapati (Retired Vice Chancellor) and it should have read Avishrant (tireless) Kulapati instead !

His researches and speculations were bold and were often iconoclastic. He was a great admirer of Basavanna the 12th century sharana and founder of Lingayatism. The radicalism of Basavanna and his sharana colleagues inspired Prof Kalburgi to take on all those who claimed to be leaders and moral guides of Lingayats today but who would not stand the test of Basavanna’s radicalism. (Read his paper Basavanna and the Royal Treasury)

The 12th century sharana movement with Basavanna as the spearhead founded Lingayatism and in short stood for: complete dignity of labour; dismantling of caste discrimination; gender discrimination; temple worship and all meaningless rituals. It also gave a prominent egalitarian social twist for the first time to the older experiential Bhakti movement that had primarily advocated paths to individual spiritual salvation. It was not only inclusive towards all castes and communities but also put forward an egalitarian economic and social philosophy and not renunciation of the world for other worldly goals.
In today’s India very few would of course stand Basavanna’s test. This led Prof Kalburgi to not only take on casteist and conservative forces in general but also some powerful conservatives among Lingayats.

Conservatives found him polarising and some researchers disagreed with his speculations while admiring his scholarship but he posited that culture studies and historians have to perforce join the dots, speculate, interpret, interpolate, extrapolate and take leaps to make progress even if some of them later turn out to be wrong.

He would relish pursuing a new idea or an insight to bold conclusions. In our recent meet as usual he started sounding me out on a new idea which had struck him, "the barometer of radicalism and openness of any reform movement, even in a religious form, is the participation of women". He pointed out that the 12th Century Lingayat Sharana movement in Karnataka had over 35 women poets who freely expressed their thoughts in hundreds of Vachanas but their number dwindled soon after and a rare woman vachanakara showed up in the last 9 centuries.

He posited that once a movement becomes accepted by the state power and perhaps becomes an established religion, its radicalism dwindles too and women are once again consigned to a lower status. We discussed similar trends in Vedic culture, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. Later I came to know that one of the unfinished manuscripts left by him is an essay on the same topic.

I was struck by his fresh thinking when he gave me a paper where he had pointed out that Basavanna and the Lingayat’s clash with state power represented by the Kalachuri King Bijjala was perhaps not on the question of Sharanas’ Right to Conscience and the right to organise based on their beliefs. He pointed out, Bijjala largely remained neutral in Sharanas’ fight against orthodoxy and the caste system. However when Basavanna said that the treasury belonged to the people and not the King who was just a custodian of national wealth, then Bijjala felt threatened and undermined and hit back with violence on the Sharana movement. He quoted some vachanas to support his thesis. This was typical of his approach that some found iconoclastic while many found refreshing. We published excerpts of this paper in Ghadar Jari Hai. (see https://ghadar.org.in/?q=content/basavanna-and-royal-treasury)

I requested him many times to attempt a history of Lingayat movement; the setting in the 12th century when it was started by Basavanna; its later stultification and various ups and downs in the last 9 centuries. He would say with a twinkle in his eyes, "it would be too controversial".

While scholars did not disagree with his approach in principle and listened to him with interest, students lapped it up. Status quoists or those who feared his criticism however would adopt extra-academic methods like demonstrations and stone throwing outside his residence.

Shrill elements in the media would be all too happy at times to take his remarks out of context or even misquote him to create a controversy. For example a remark he had made about superstitions in a public meeting in Bengaluru which had been organised to discuss the draft Anti-superstition bill prepared by Karnataka Government last year, led to screaming headlines in some news papers leading to death threats and cowardly acts of vandalism at his residence.

But he carried on fearlessly and when I asked him last year about such threats he quoted me a vachana by Basavanna himself:

ನಾಳೆ ಬಪ್ಪುದು ನಮಗಿಂದೆ ಬರಲಿ,
ಇಂದು ಬಪ್ಪುದು ನಮಗೀಗಲೆ ಬರಲಿ,
ಇದಕಾರಂಜುವರು, ಇದಕಾರಳುಕುವರು
`ಜಾತಸ್ಯ ಮರಣಂ ಧ್ರುವಂ’ ಎಂದುದಾಗಿ
ನಮ್ಮ ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮದೇವರು ಬರೆದ ಬರೆಹವ ತಪ್ಪಿಸುವಡೆ

Let what could happen tomorrow come to us today,
Let what could happen today come to us here and now,
Who is afraid of this!
One that is born will also die
Neither Hari nor Brahma can override what my Koodala Sangama Deva has writ.

Perhaps a fitting epitaph for a tireless researcher. May he rest in peace.

by Shivanand Kanavi

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