The world of Raja Rao’s Kanthapura

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The world of Raja Rao’s Kanthapura

On the surface level, the novel ‘Kanthapura’ (1938) by Raja Rao recounts the rise of a Gandhian nationalist movement in a small South Indian village of the same name. The story is narrated by Achakka, an elder Brahmin woman with an all-encompassing knowledge about everyone in her village. She narrates the story in the style of a
sthala-purana, a traditional history of a village, its people, its gods, and local practices.
What is more intriguing about the novel is the charming world that it introduced the readers to. And it is not a world that is fictional or unrealistic. Rather it is one that we are all familiar with. Raja Rao relocated the events of the novel in a rural area. One might wonder why Rao did not select one of India’s cities, which were being ruled by the British. This could be because of the fact that villages had always formed India. Before India even came under British rule, the village had been the only existing form of a community.

‘Kanthapura’ begins with Achakka’s lengthy first sentence, which situates her village in the broader context of India and the British Empire as a whole. She does this from the viewpoint of someone traversing the landscape. The flood of place names she provides demonstrates her deep familiarity with the place and establishes her as an authority on her village.

Dominant castes like Brahmins are privileged to get the best region of the village, while lower castes such as Pariahs are marginalized. Despite this classist system, the village retains its long-cherished traditions of festivals in which all castes interact and the villagers are united.

The village is believed to be protected by a local deity named Kenchamma. She supposedly battled a demon “ages, ages ago” and has protected Kanthapura’s people ever since. The villagers frequently pray to her for help, perform ceremonies to honor her, and thank her for their good fortune. Kenchamma exemplifies the traditional religion that Kanthapura’s people gradually come to leave behind.

Nature plays a significant role among the population of the village because the mountains around the village and the river have always been present, even long before the first child was born in Kanthapura. All elements of nature have a strong power over the village.

In the novel, the protagonist Moorthy is a Brahmin. Everybody in the village calls him a ‘corner house Moorthy’ or ‘our Moorthy’. The villagers treat him as a ‘small mountain’ while Gandhi a ‘big mountain’. Moorthy goes about from door to door carrying the message of Gandhi even to the Pariah Quarter and made to know about the political, social, economic resurrections.

The British government accuses Moorthy of provoking the townspeople to inflict violence and arrests him. While Moorthy spends the next three months in prison, the women of Kanthapura take charge, forming a volunteer corps under Rangamma’s (major female character) leadership. Rangamma instills a sense of patriotism among the women by telling stories of notable women from Indian history. The novel ends with Moorthy and the town looking to the future and planning to continue their fight for independence.

Thus, ‘Kanthapura’ evokes a sense of community and freedom, construed as a spiritual quality that overcomes all bounds and crosses all barriers. In order to allow an easy interchange between the world of men and the world of gods, between contemporaneity and antiquity, Rao thus equips his story with a protagonist whose role it is to motivate the villagers into joining the political cause of India’s struggle for freedom without reservation.

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