Kanthapura By Raja Rao: Summary, Analysis and Solved Questions

Kanthapura is often known as a Gandhian novel, as it is a re-enacted story based on the revival of a small, sleepy village during the nationalist struggle for independence, spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi. What is reflected in the novel is that, in the aftermath of Gandhi’s non-violence and non-cooperation movements, such resurgences were actually taking place concurrently across India in thousands of Indian villages in the dynamic days of 1919-1930, when Gandhi transformed the entire country into a throbbing army of enduring and disciplined freedom fighters.

There were three basic aspects of the Gandhian movement- the political, the socio-economic and the religious, and Rao tactfully incorporates all these three aspects in the complex narratorial fabric of the novel. Kanthapura, thus, regenerates with vigour and fervour of a people whose spirit has been infused with Gandhian philosophy of freedom and self-dependence. Therefore,
Kanthapura exists not only as a political document but also as an intense work concentrating as much on the socio-economic progress and religious
as a struggle for freedom. This unit will enable you to critically appreciate the novel, Kanthapura which is often referred to as a post-independence
novel. Interestingly, it was written much before India gained independence, in the year 1938. But there is more to the novel that makes it a post-independence novel.

Summary of Kanthapura

The novel ‘Kanthapura’ one of the marvellous and the finest novels of the mid-twentieth century is the story of a small village Kanthapura with just 24 houses. It is divided into Brahmin quarters, artisan quarters and beyond these lie pariah quarters for the untouchable class. The people are all Hindus mostly of the orthodox traditional kind and are simple and straightforward living in a calm and quiet traditional life which has continued for thousands of years in such villages. The title of the novel in an appropriate because it gives the picture of the village of Kanthapura. Social life revolves around the festivals and the religious celebration and worship of the temple of Goddess Kenchamma, the patron Goddess of the village.

The peaceful and routine life of the villagers was suddenly disturbed when Moorthy-a young man of the village who had gone out for higher education came back with new ideas and problems. Moorthy is the chief protagonist of the novel. He had been attracted towards the political movement of Gandhiji.

He came back to the village and began to carry on propaganda for the congress movement, the programme laid down by Gandhiji. Hence forward, all his life belonged to the service of the country. Gandhiji told him to bring political consciousness to the people. He distributed the charkhas among
the people enrolled members for the congress and worked for the removal of untouchability. The whole village became a follower of the non-violent Satyagraha movement of Gandhiji.

The people of the village began to gather around him and the village became a follower of non-violent Satyagraha movement. He was such a firm believer in non-violence that he undertook a fast for three days and there was some violence at the Skeffington Coffee Estate which was managed by English. He tried to put into practice the Gandhian principles of truth, non-violence and even the love of the enemy. All his activities were based on these Gandhian principles. Moorthy is Gandhi’s man, the satyagraha, the leader of the non-violent movement in Kanthapura. There is at the other extreme, Bade Khan the policeman who the symbol of oppression, the soulless bureaucracy is made visibly repulsive. But the villagers are unafraid. Range Gowda Said, “You are our Gandhi.” The woman called Mahatma “the big mountain’’ and Moothy “the small mountain.’’ Moorthy’s movement attracted the attention of the authorities, he was arrested and was sent to prison for three months. In his absence, Range Gowda and a lady named Rangamma handled the situation.

After his release, the movement gathered speed Gandhiji launched the salt-satyagraha and Moorthy undertook a fast for three days in the temple of Kenchamma. After the arrest of Gandhiji, Moorthy actively started the Satyagraha against toddy shops and trees. The villagers proceeded to cut down the Toddy trees and policemen mercilessly beat them. Gandhiji advocated the non-payment of land-revenue and the villagers declared that they would not pay the taxes. The villagers were violently attacked but they remained peaceful and non-violent. The fields of the villagers were auctioned by the Government. The whole village was burnt down and many men and women were arrested. After these incidents, the villagers who were left behind migrated into the Mysore state and settled down in a place known as Kashipura.

It is hereafter one year and two months, the whole story is related by an old woman of Kanthapura to her neighbours at Kanchipuram. The name of this old woman is Acchakka also called Timmama. By this time, the satyagraha movement was suspended as there was a treaty of peace between Gandhiji and the viceroy lord Irwin in 1931.

Range Gowda was released from the prison. He visited Kanthapura and brought news that the whole village was broken down and mostly abandoned. But rich men from Bombay had built fine bungalows on the slopes of the hills. He concluded, ‘there is neither man nor mosquito in Kanthapura, for the men from Bombay have built houses on the Bebbar mound’ The last part of the novel gives a description of the deserted village Kanthapura.

Moorthy was also released from the jail but he did not return to the Village. He had become dissatisfied even with the movement started by Gandhiji with the idea of getting swaraj His views in politics had undergone a change. He says “And yet, what is the goal? Independence? Swaraj? Is there not Swaraj in our States, and is there not misery and corruption and cruelty there? Oh no, Ratna, it is the way of the masters that is wrong. And I have come to realize bit by bit, and bit by bit, when I was in prison, that as long as there will be iron gates and barbed wires around the Skeffington Coffee Estate, and city cars that can roll up the Bebbur mound, and gaslights and coolie cars, there will always be Pariahs and poverty. Ratna things must change. Jawaharlal will change it….he, too, is for non-violence and he, too, is a Satyagrahi, but he says in Swaraj there shall be neither the rich nor the poor. And he calls himself an “equal-distributionist’’, and I am with him and his men.’’Raja Rao making Moorthy posit his faith in the political philosophy of socialism. He had become a follower of young Jawaharlal Nehru who advocated the equal distribution of wealth and power in the country. He held that even independence would be of little use so long as there were rich coffee estate owners or other exploiters of the labour. There must be a society in which the distinction between the rich and the poor would be wiped out. In such a state, there would be no masters exploiting and ruling over the servants as the masters of the Coffee Estate did in the case of the servants. All people would have equal rights and advantages in life. Moorthy had decided to devote his life to the pursuit of this ideal. This is the last we see and read about Moorthy. Moorthy went to Bombay to take part in the youth league movement of which Jawaharlal Nehru was the leader.

Kanthapuar describes the influence of Gandhian ideals on a remote South Indian village during the years of Indian Independence movement. It shows the impact of Gandhi’s ideals on the Indian population. Moorthy, the protagonist of the novel, is it the spokesman of Gandhi and one of the young persons inspired by Gandhi to fight for the independence movement. There is an influence of Gandhi’s ideals on him and he became Gandhi’s man in the beginning. He wore homespun khadi, discarded foreign clothes, follows passive resistance and non-violence and fought against untouchability. He is a mouthpiece and practioner of Gandhian ideologies and spread the Gandhian values of non-violence, elimination of untouchability and love for all into his village. But in the end, Moorthy left Gandhi and join Jawaharlal Nehru.

Raja Rao explains certain ideas which he had in his mind while writing this novel and describes the incidents which happened in it during the early years of Satyagraha movement started by Gandhiji in 1930. Raja Rao’s involvement in the nationalistic movement is reflected in this novel. The novel gives the picture of the barbarism of the British rules in dealing with the non-violent agitation of the freedom fighters. Raja Rao has given the time of action in the novel around Gandhi’s Dandi March and it ends with Gandhi’s truce with the then British viceroy of India. He did not give the complete picture of Gandhi’s struggle for freedom.

The theme of Kanthapura may be summed up as ‘Gandhi and our Village’. Though the narrative style makes the book more a Gandhi Purana than a piece of mere fiction. Kanthapura follows the oral tradition of Indian Sthala-Purana. The story is narrated in flashback by Achakka. The style of Raja Rao in Kanthapura combines the flexible expression of English languages with the fast tempo of Indian speech in a very pleasant manner. It provides delight to the Indian readers because of those of simple yet beautiful English prose.

Kanthapura Raja Rao Analysis

This story shows the birth of new ideas in old India. The reasons against reform, which in the Gandhian sense is a change of soul and not merely a caste or social feature, are strongly put forward by reactionaries who point to the chaos, corruption, and ignorance of the pre-British rule. As the old government man put it, the British came to protect the dharma or the duty. Playing on the raw fear of the people, the anti-nationalists claim that change would lead to the inevitable exploitation of the caste and of the great ancestral traditions.

While this novel does not have the profound philosophic essence of The Serpent and the Rope (1960), Rao’s most influential novel, it is definitely didactic in that it glorifies the concept of revolt. It is shocking, in fact, that the author was not imprisoned for his beliefs.

Raja Rao’s Kanthapura sets out some of the motifs of postcolonialism. Raja Rao criticises the simple position that the discourse of colonialism formed the notion of the inherent dominance of the colonising race and that this was internalised by the colonised. In the second piece on the novel, I point to
how the novel problematizes viewing colonial modernity as having had a liberating impact on Indian society. Let me take this reading further.

The novel’s problematizing capacity applies to anti-colonial nationalism. To discuss this, let us shift to another dimension of the novel. The advent of novel as a genre in India in the 19th century poses the question as to whether it is a derivative. Although there is a debate on this subject, the role of the novel in enabling the nation-state concept to take shape is a significant one. Benedict Anderson argued that the novel is partly the duty of society to think of itself as a nation. In support of this argument, novels written in the 19th century and beyond in India can be used. While in Kanthapura, the action is confined to the village itself, with none of the characters venturing too far out, yet the village is not insulated against the happenings in other places.

Indeed, stimulation for action is not local. The main events that form the focal points of the novel take place in reaction to events elsewhere – Lahore, Bengal, Gujarat, etc. The village community transitions from an independent identity to national identity. In one sense, Kanthapura chronicles the development of national identity in a remote village. This thematic is also reinforced by the way in which the village becomes a kind of microcosm of the country. The story appears to be mythicizing. For eg, the rapidity of Moorthy, the death of Ramakrishnayya, the receding of the flood, and the nationalist struggle itself are mythicized. The narrative takes recourse to the Vedantic and Purana texts and inserts nationalist struggle into them. For example, in a harikatha, Jayaramachar brings an allegory between Siva, Parvati and the country. Siva, three-eyed, stands for Swaraj. Later Rangamma, standing in as Vedanta’s commentator after her father’s death, reads the Puranas allegorically, reading hell as foreign reign, the soul as India, and so on. Shall we claim the country is erected hermeneutically?

The process of imagining a community – of imagining nationhood – also underlines the homogenising tendency of nationalism. The congress workers, who so vehemently are ‘swadeshi’ and give up anything foreign, unwittingly embrace the European model of the nation. This notion requires a nation-state to have a singular form. A nation is a community of people who have a common language etc. Thus in Kanthapura, Congressmen including Moorthy follow the same model of the nation-state. Sankaru epitomises this: his insistence on speaking Hindi even to his mother instead of the local language Kannada; his fanatic resistance to the use of English and so on. This conception of the nation informs that of everyone: e.g. the narrator visualises Moorthy {when in prison} to be wearing kurta pyjama instead of the dhoti. The Hindi teacher is not from any Hindi speaking region but a Malayali [Surya Menon]. Thus, the very conception of ‘Nation’, which is conceived after the European model of the nation-state, undermines the ‘Swadeshi’ spirit of nationalism. Any pure form of nationhood untouched by colonialism is seriously questioned.

Another problem arises when this novel is read as a record of a nation-in-the-making. It would seem to exemplify Jameson’s argument that third world literature is necessarily a national allegory. When we keep in mind that Benedict Anderson’s thesis about the emergence of the nation-state is a work on the emergence of nation-state in Europe, Jameson’s argument seems to put third-world literature in the past of European literature. This only re-enacts the familiar theme that comes across in the colonialist historiography of Indian nationalism: that Indian nationalism is a learning process as has been pointed out by Ranjit Guha (Subaltern Studies I). This particular view of nationalism characterises

Indian nationalism as a response to the stimulus of colonial administration. The view of the history of the colonised society as a march towards the teleological goal of becoming ultimately ‘Europe’ places them always at a past time in relation to the colonisers present time. The denial of coevalness of time is a necessity in the discourse of colonialism.

This view of India’s past being connected to Europe brings us to Dipesh Chakravarthy’s thesis that, as far as history is concerned, Europe remains the sovereign theoretical focus of all histories, including the one we call Indian (Provincialising Europe OUP, 2001). Moreover, as opposed to other narratives of self and culture, history is a meta-narrative that looks to the state/citizen as the ultimate construction of sociality. Other constructs of self and culture speak of an anti-historical consciousness. With modernity, history becomes a place where the struggle continues to take hold of other collocations of memory. In Kanthapura, the narrative represents, at the beginning, an ahistorical consciousness. The definition of the life of the village is the timeless continuum in the form of Sthalapurana. Or the Harikatha, in which nationalist figures become legendary. Whereas colonialism disrupts the community’s narratives and introduces ‘history.’

In as far as the shift in narrative technique, which becomes more linear while narrating the fight for freedom in Kanthapura, is concerned, history really begins with Europe in Kanthapura. This is most obviously demonstrated by the lack of the mythical tendency of the storey in the latter half, when the arrival of newspapers, novels and pamphlets subjected the first-person narrator to techniques of historicisation.

This entire reading of the novel is reminiscent of the exchange between the coloniser and the colonised. The fascinating perspectives provided by the novel are about the enormous complexities and violence that have accompanied the advent of colonial modernity in India. With no subtlety, the novel illustrates the conspiracy between colonialism and Brahmanism.

The way in which Moorthy becomes an outcast in the Brahmin quarters with his fight against untouchability shows the conflict between Brahmanism and nationalism. For Brahmanism, the colonial ruler is not the enemy, but the anti-untouchable movement of Gandhi is. Collusion between Brahmanism and colonialism is indicated by an alliance between Bhatta, Bad Khan, a police officer, and the Sahib of the Estate. Swami, who is fighting a war against ‘caste pollution from this pariah company,’ sees British rulers as protectors of the ancient ways of Dharma. Swami receives a large amount from the government as Rajadakshina and is assured that he would receive moral and material support in his war against caste pollution.

Though this reading presents nationalism in conflict with Brahminism, there is something more fascinating about it if we push our reading a little further. Moorthy’s politics in the village mobilises people of all castes to fight against the settlers. In so doing, Moorthy radicalises his sociality by visiting the untouchable rooms, and even by offering milk to one of them. Interestingly, after that, he’s troubled by his behaviour and he’s taking a bath. While he does not change his sacred thread as he will have to do every day, he does take some Ganga water and we are told that he will do that every time he visits the pariahs.

His agenda seeks to assimilate the lower castes into the nationalist movement. This can also serve as a step towards containment. The discourse of nationalism, for example, encounters the discourse of religion at various stages in the book. Although Bhatta, Swami and their adherents (who also have material motivations such as Venkamma) oppose Gandhism in the name of religion, in Kanthapura, nationalists increasingly use religious discourse and practices and symbols for nationalist purposes. Religious energies are being used for the politicisation of the people.

But practices rituals and symbols that become instruments of nationalist mobilisation are predominantly Brahminic: arthi, puja, conches, bells, Vedanta, bhajan, etc. They may not involve, although their presence is prominent, the cultural practices of the lower castes.

Questions and Answers

Q. Name the three novels by Raja Rao.
Ans. Kanthapura (1938), The Serpent and the Rope (1960) and The Cat and Shakespeare (1965).

Q. Which was the significant historical movement of India in which Raja Rao had participated?
Ans. He had participated in the Quit India Movement of 1942.

Q. Which of the following is not a work of Raja Rao?

a. The Cat and Shakespeare

b. The Serpent and the Rope

c. Coolie

d. Kanthapura

Ans. (c) Coolie

Q. Who read out the Hindi Scripture as an allegory of India? What did he visualise?

Ans. Harikatha man (Jayaramachar) read out the Scripture as an allegory of India under foreign rule. He visualises India as Sita, Gandhi as Rama, and Ravana (the British) as fettered India under British rule.

Q. Name various quarters in the village of Kanthapura.

Ans. There are fixed demarcations between quarters- broadly, the Brahmin Quarter, the Potter Quarter, the Sudra Quarter, the Weaver Quarter, and the most pathetic one is the Pariah Quarter.

Q. What are the social causes for which Moortthy fights in the novel Kanthapura?
Ans. Moorthy fights for the cause of eradicating the caste system prevalent in the village, and against untouchability.

Q.Where do the people of Kanthapura village shift their homes at the end of the novel?
Ans. At the end of the novel, the people of Kanthapura settle in a nearby village, Kashipura, and people from Bombay come to occupy Kanthapura.

Q. What happens at the end of the novel Kanthapura?
Ans. The end of the novel sees the end of this village. There is an exodus of the survivors to Kashipura. The village rose as one man against foreign rule and was temporarily defeated. The village houses were destroyed

Q. Who is the only person who has returned to Kanthapura at the end?
Ans. Moorthy. Moorthy is a young Brahmin (high social caste in India) who has returned to his village Kanthapura. He is heavily inspired by the Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalist movement to liberate India. He is showered with love and respect by the people of Kanthapura, who decide to follow him unflinchingly.

Q. How can the theme of the novel Kanthapura be summed up?
Ans. Kanthapura is a place where the unity begins for freedom. The main theme of the novel is the freedom struggle.

Q. Who is the narrator of the story Kanthapura?
Ans. Kanthapura. Raja Rao’s first and best-known novel, Kanthapura (1938), is the story of a south Indian village named Kanthapura. The novel is narrated in the form of a Sthala Purana by an old woman of the village, Achakka.

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