Kannada literature is one of the four dominant Dravidian languages in South India. The other three are Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. The Kannada language is a branch of the Dravidian family spoken in the Indian State of Karnataka and written in the Kannada script. It is usually divided into three linguistic phases—Old (450-1200), Middle (1200-1700) and Modern (1700-present). Some specific literary works surviving in rich manuscript traditions have been extending from the 9th century to the present.
The early period of Kannada literature can be feebly traced from the 5th century to the 12th century. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, writers were predominantly Jains and Lingayets. Jains were the earliest known cultivators of Kannada literature, which they dominated until the 12th century, although a few works by Lingayets from that period have survived. During the period between the 13th and 15th centuries, there was a decline in Jain writings and an increase in the number of works from the Lingayen tradition with an important change during the Bhakti (devotion) period. Kannada literature moved closer to the spoken and folk traditions, although some poets continued to use the ancient campus (an admixture of poem and prose in a literary work) form of writing as late as the 17th century. Though religious literature was prominent, literary genres including romance, fiction, erotica, satire, folk song, fables and parables were popular and more accessible to common people. The pace of change towards more modem literary style gained momentum in the early 19th century. The Kannada writers from this time were initially influenced by the modern literature of other languages, especially English. New genres such as short stories, novels, essays and literary criticism were embraced as Kannada prose moved toward modernisation.
The Rashtrakut Court marks the beginning of the classical period of writings in the Kannada literature under royal patronage and the end of the age of Sanskrit epics. The earliest existing prose piece in old Kannada is Vaddaradhane (Worship of Elders) in the 9th century by Shivakotiacharya. It contains 19 lengthy stories, some in the form of fables and parables. The works of Jain writers Adikabi Pampa, Sri Ponna and Ronna—collectively called the “three gems of Kannad literature”—heralded the age of classical Kannada in the 10th century. Pampa, who wrote Adipurana (941), is regarded as one of the greatest Kannada writers. Adipurana, written in Champu style, narrates the life history of the first Jain Tirthankar. Sri Ponna, patronised by King Krishna III, wrote Santipurana, a biography of the 16th Jain Tirthankar Santinatha. Although Sri Ponna borrowed significantly from Kalidasa’s earlier works, his Santipurana is considered an important Jain Purana.
The Chalukya Court helped considerable progress of Kannada literature under the patronage of the new overlords of the Deccan, the Western Chalukyas and their feudatories. Ronna was the court poet of the Western Chalukya Kings Tailapa II and Satyashraya. Ronna’s poetic writings reached their zenith with Sahasee Bhima Vijay (victory of the bold Bhima).
In the 14th century, there were major upheavals in the geopolitics of southern India with Muslim empires invading from the north. The Vijaynagara Empire stood as a bulwark against these invasions and created a golden age of Kannada literature. It led to the competition between the Vaishnava and Veerashaiva writers. Interaction between Kannada and Telugu literature, a trend which had begun in the earlier Hoysala period, increased. Translations of classics from Kannada to Telugu, and vice versa, became popular. Some well-known bilingual poets of this period were Bhima Kavi, Pidupatri Somanatha and Nilkanthacharya. This process of interaction between the two languages continued into the 19th century in the form of translations by bilingual writers.
With the decline of the Vijaynagar Empire, the Keladi Nayakas (1565- 1763) and the kingdom of Mysore (1565-1947) rose to power in the western and southern part of Karnataka. Production of literary texts covering various themes flourished in these courts. The Mysore court was adored by eminent writers who authored encyclopaedias, epics, and religious commentaries.
The development of modern Kannada literature can be traced to the early 19th century when the writers moved away from the old Champu form of prose toward prose renderings of Sanskrit epics and plays. Kempu Narayana’s Mudramanjusha is the first modern novel written in Kannada. There was a push towards original works in prose narratives during the late 19th century. At the dawn of the 20th century, B. M. Srikantaiah was regarded as the ‘Father of Modern Kannada Literature.’ While the first quarter of the 20th century was a period of experiment and innovation, the succeeding quarter was one of the creative achievements, which was called Navodaya. K. V. Puttappa was Kannada’s first Jnanpith awardee for his epic poem in blank verse (1949). Literary criticism also made significant progress in this period.
As the Navodaya period waxed, the Pragatishila (progressive) movement led by A. L. Krishna Rao gained momentum in the early 1940s. In the 1950s, even as the Pragatishila merged back into the Navodaya mainstream, a new modernist school of writing called Navya emerged. P. Lankesh and K. S. Nissan Ahmed is among the best-known later generation Navya poets. Outstanding playwrights from this period are Girish Karnad and P. Lankesh.
From the early 1970s, some writers began to write novels and stories that were anti-Navya. Mahadeva’s Marikondavaru (“Those who sold themselves’) and Mudala Seemeli (‘Murder in the Eastern Region’) are examples of this trend. Kannada writers have been presented with eight Jnanpith awards, fifty-six Sahitya Akademi awards and numerous other national and international awards over the last half of the 20th century.