26/12/2014 7:47 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

I Have A Body, I Don't Have A Soul

Every dialect of a language is the essence of local culture. It is not just a medium of communication but a force that binds several cultural phenomena together and gives a strong sense of community and rootedness.

Ashoke Kumar Shetty

Last time when we visited our native village Chapparike nested in the foothills of Western Ghats in Karnataka, dad asked me, "Would you like to watch Yakshagana tonight at Khambadakone?" I instantly said "No". But in the very next moment, I was surprised by my instinctively quick answer in the negative. Did I think even for a split-second before saying no to my 75-year-old father whom I accompanied to Yakshagana countess number of times when I was his little boy?

There were days in my life when I used to go to Hanuman Temple in my village to learn Yakshagana every weekend. Yakshagana master Subbanna used to teach us the art of acting free of cost. I dreamt of becoming a famous Yakshagana artist myself one day. There were times when I used to sit under the starlit sky and watch Yakshagana whole night, enthralled by the performance of great artists whom I was determined to emulate. I used to return home in the wee hours in a sleepy state and bunk the classes next day. But now? I haven't watched a single Yakshagana performance, which I was so passionately part of in my younger days, in the last two decades! And it feels as if, thanks to my migration to a busier urban life and unending preoccupations, my mind is programmed not to even think of attending a Yakshagana event. Why such a change and what have I lost?

Famous artists performing in an Yakshagana event near Kundapur (Photo By: Ashoke Kumar Shetty).

Yakshagana is one of the country's most unique and adored folk arts very popular in coastal and malnad regions of Karnataka. Troupes of professional or amateur artists enact localised and folk versions of episodes mostly from Ramayana or Mahabharata for a whole night in open theatres or closed tents. The art is the symbol of rich cultural treasure of coastal Karnataka and is connected to the local dialect, beliefs, lifestyle and culture. While I was thinking about my automated response to my dad and my disassociation from Yakshagana for an unbelievably long time, another question propped up amidst a train of thoughts: 'Since how long have I not spoken Kundapur Kannada, my mother tongue?' Again several years!

Kundapur Kannada, or Kundagannada as it is called, is among 20 dialects of Kannada, one of South India's important Dravidian languages. Mysuru, Dharwad, Mangaluru regions in Karnataka have their own distinctive dialects. Havyaka Kannada is a prominent dialect of a community (Havyakas) in Shivamogga and Uttar Kannada (malnad) regions. Like in other languages, every dialect in our language also represents a particular geographical area or community and typifies the distinctive cultures associated with them.

My home itself is a good example for the co-existence of different Kannada dialects, covering almost half of the state under one roof. My father is from Kundapur and he still speaks Kundagannada. Mother is from Hassan and she speaks Mysuru Kannada. Wife is from Shivamogga and her language is malnad Kannada, whereas my niece and daughter speak typical Bengaluru Kannada, or the Kannada of the silicon city. I can easily switch between all dialects though. But what is striking is that every speaker of five different dialects at home thinks distinctly and has a different cultural disposition and lifestyle as apparent from his/her social behaviour too. It appears that my habit or ability to hop between places (my native place and place of work Bengaluru, frequent travel to different destinations for work reasons) and different dialects in Kannada has pushed me into a kind of no man's land, making me feel that I belong nowhere and have lost my roots. Is it just a feeling or something more?

Every dialect of a language is the essence of local culture. It is not just a medium of communication but a force that binds several cultural phenomena together and gives a strong sense of community and rootedness. Kundagannada is spoken by about half a million population in and around Kundapur taluk between the Arabian Sea in the west and Western Ghats in the east. This dialect is the linguistic backbone for many locally evolved artistic and cultural manifestations like Yakshagana, Daiva Aradhane, Kambala, Huli Vesha, not to mention beliefs that are uniquely prevalent in the region. I sometimes wonder about the number and diversity of art forms and cultural practices that could be supported by other dialects in different regions and among different communities in Karnataka. The state has more than six crore people and 65 per cent speak these 20 dialects natively. The rest are non-Kannadigas. Each one of these dialects is socially and culturally interwoven with the lives of the people who speak them. These dialects with all the diversity associated with them give an overall identity to what is called Karnataka. If this is the case with one language Kannada, how many socio-cultural manifestations are nurtured by 1,635 existing languages and dialects in India?

The mother tongue, the language we speak at home since the early stages of our lives, plays a very important role in building our character and moulding our outlook. It is like mother's milk that nurtures and strengthens the babies from inside for a lifetime. If I see the relegated status of my mother tongue today, I am concerned about its existence in the due course. Though many believe that the people who speak Kundapur Kannada have a strong socio-cultural bond with their community compared to their counterparts speaking other dialects, the juggernaut of English, global village phenomenon and migration to cities may one day crush my mother tongue. Though I have not spoken my dialect regularly for years, it always remains deep inside me. But my daughter cannot (and can never) speak it and she hasn't seen a single Yakshagana performance. This is not an isolated story of one family, but of my generation and the next generation too.

The people from my region are most literate folks in Karnataka and amazingly enterprising ones. Over the last decades, a large number of them ventured into cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru and even went abroad for business and professional reasons. They are the true members of the global village and are spread across the globe from San Jose to Sendai as entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, artists and in several other avatars. All of them are getting alienated from Kundapur Kannada which will one day join the list of extinct languages and dialects of the world. A culture and its manifestations will vanish and millions of characters will die. It is said that one language dies every 14 days. Nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favour other languages and dialects.

I am already feeling this prognostication coming true as a rootless feeling overcomes me very often. I feel I belong nowhere or I belong everywhere! I excelled in education, have an impressive career, a wonderful family, amazing friends, but culturally poor. I have a body but no soul. I can see millions of soulless bodies like me everywhere!