When Krishna leaves Gokula

Essay by K V Subbanna 

Subbanna is most famous for founding the Ninasam theatre training institute in Heggodu, a little village in central Karnataka. Less known but equally important is his work as a writer and literary critic. He is a Magsaysay awardee.
What you read here is a translation of his essay on migration, Gokula Nirgamana. The original appeared in the Kannada literary magazine Maatu Kate

Amazing how enthusiastic we young boys were when India gained independence! Our enthusiasm persisted despite the Hindu-Muslim hostilities, the partition, and even the Mahatma's assassination.

There was talk that the Hirebhaskara dam was too small. The second phase of the Jog hydro-electric project was being planned. The government was conducting a survey. For many years we heard rumours that our lands, homes and villages would be submerged once the new dam was completed.

Our village wasn't; the backwaters stopped 3 km away. Our elders sighed in relief, but we were disappointed. We felt we hadn't been fortunate enough to offer our little village to Nehru, the leader who had vowed to build dams and such other "temples of modern India".

That was 50 years ago, and the story has taken its own tortuous course. Its details have become apparent to each of us in a different way. I offer a small example. Ten generators produce electricity at the Sharavati plant. One or two are usually shut down for maintenance, and about seven or eight work at a time. All the power generated from one of these is supplied to an aluminum factory. This has been the practice since the beginning. Our government extended this favour to a Maharashtra company, presumably out of gratitude that it had decided to open an industry in Karnataka. The government even supplied power to it at a concession (initially at just 4 paise a unit.

The company opened its factory in Belgaum and took our government's permission, for "technical reasons", to run its office from Kolhapur. Through this "technique", the Maharashtra government collected sales tax on power generated in Karnataka. It was a long time before we realised what was happening. Profit is the only currency industry recognises. The path of industry is falsehood and deceit.

The dams destroyed our lands, groves, forests, streams, hills, houses, even our people's lives. Many who received had compensation for submerged land spent all their money looking for land elsewhere, and ended up as beggars. The electricity -- generated after large-scale destruction and at huge cost -- came to be used only to widen the chasm between the rich and the poor. The pot-bellies of the marketplace Bakasuras grew fatter.

This story was repeated all over Karnataka, and India. Our natural resources and treasures are draining away. An obvious example is our black granite, which is going in a steady stream to Japan and America.

As children and later, my friends and I tried to grow with the support of the Ninasam theatre group. We were over-zealous in the initial years. In the second phase, our hollow aspirations gave way and our activities came to a standstill. We began afresh in the 1960s, concentrating mainly on children. We had realised that it was difficult to work for long periods with grown-ups. We needed actors, and they were hard to come by. We decided to train our children to be actors.

Another problem arose. Children left the village as soon as it was time for higher education. The intelligent ones left the village for good and settled in the big cities. The girls used to go away as soon as they got married. Gradually they too began to go looking for jobs.

Irreparable loss
Over the last 10 years, I have toured Karnataka extensively, visited communities big and small, and chatted with people. They face the same problem everywhere. Intelligent children leave the village and go away. The community is weakened, impoverished. We lose our natural resources, but the greater tragedy is that we lose our children.

I ask people about it. "It is true," they say sadly. I believe there was a similar situation in Europe after World War II. The war had killed all the strong young men. The towns were full of children, women and old people. Brings to mind the lame boy in the pied piper story... Memories remain, but ghost memories. No one to share them with. I see old people, sighing and looking with dim eyes into the sunset as they think of their lost children, their darling little ones.

We are scared and confused. We blame the government, the politicians and our education system. We blame everything, and wring our hands in despair. We forget we sow the seeds of this tragedy. A child only has to sling a bag over his shoulder to go to school to learn the alphabet, and we begin to argue what to make him --  a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or an IAS officer. We draw lines on the map and direct our children's future to the metropolises of England and America.

The fascination for such jobs was not unknown 50 years ago, when I was a boy. But that was a different age, a different world, a different life. I have seen that world with my own eyes, but it has changed so much I can't believe it existed once.

Cut-off monsoon world
Kuvempu says a village in the Malnad region means just a house. That was almost how it was in Teerthahalli. A village meant two or three houses, or a dozen at the most. Arecanut groves, high walls in the backyard, and dense forest adjoining it. The farmlands were small cultivated patches flanked by thick forest. It rained six months in a year, including three when the downpour didn't stop at all. The nearest town was Sagar, 10 miles away. We had to walk to get there. Or we could go in a bullock cart, but only during the non-monsoon months.

For the first six weeks of the monsoons, the home and its frontyard made up a secluded world. If you sat by a lamp or campfire, you were a world unto yourself. Two songs my mother sang on lonely monsoon nights haunted me. One was a tragic ballad, Puttanagi.

The other began with these lines:

When rain drenches the earth,
lightning scares the night,
the lamp glows in a niche
beside the charming cowherd,
a happy thought comes to mind
and opens a hundred eyes.

I had seen Puttanagi in print, and knew it was by Kuvempu, the poet who hailed from our mountainous region. I always imagined the other song was born here from our soil, like the hills, forests, streams, the roar of wild beasts, and the grave silence that absorbs all these sounds. It was as familiar as the old brown cow in our cattleshed, and the sampige tree which blossomed every day. Later, in school, I learnt from my teacher Gorur Narasimhacharya that it was written by Pu Thi Narasimhachar of distant Melkote.

My teacher also read out to us his musical play Gokula Nirgamana, which extended my experience of that cherished song and immortalised it in drama. The Yakshagana theatre, which had filled our young minds with colourful pictures from the puranas, helped the play take a grand shape in my mind. Every monsoon, for 15 years since my high school days, I read the play like a sacred ritual. In the 1960s, I was drawn to modernist poetry and stopped reading Gokula Nirgamana as frequently.

I read it again on a recent hot afternoon. It showed up present-day conflicts against our experience of the past. The play, I felt, had evolved from the shored-up cultural memory of a modern poet.


Its story is from the familiar Bhagavata. A little community of cowherds lives in Gokula. The adventurous Krishna and Balarama, their cowherd friends, the milk maidens, the villagers --- they live in a world all their own. The action takes place one evening. Krishna plays the flute. The boys and girls, especially Radha who is attracted to him the most, are enchanted by its melody and rush to him. The elders are also attracted by his music, but are worried about the boys' mischief.

Akrura arrives in Gokula, on King Kamsa's orders, to take along Krishna and Balarama to Mathura for the next day's archery festival. In deference to Akrura's invitation and his friends' desire to see the big city, Krishna gets ready to leave. He flings the flute to the ground. The saddened Radha and the girls wish him victory and see him off. They pick up his flute and secure it inside a tree trunk where tender shoots are sprouting.

Tremulous preface
Puthina's foreword to the play is actually a letter he wrote to Chidambaram, his publisher. Its prose flutters like the soft, tremulous wings of the young butterfly that little girls are curious about but afraid to touch. He says: "We no longer hear Krishna's flute after he leaves Gokula. The call of his conch and the swish of his wheel-weapon are heard all over the country. The flute slips from his hand when he is an innocent yet, but returns time and again to haunt the minds of innocents like me."

There is something I am not sure I should say here, but I will say it out anyway.

In the 1950s, just three of four of us from Sagar lived in Mysore. There must have been 20 or 25 in Bangalore. There are several thousand now. I assume Bangalore is home to at least a thousand girls from our region. A friend has set up a factory in this city. He employs hundreds of our girls. I went to see his small-scale unit one evening. It was six. The factory stands at an intersection of small lanes in a congested area. The russet of the setting sun was merging with the darkness. The streetlights had come on. The working hours ended and five to six hundred girls walked out. As I stood watching ... how do I describe the scene? They were like half-burnt corpses, just risen from the pyre, walking towards us.

I have seen the same girls in our villages. They gather four days before a wedding and get busy. On the day of the wedding, they rise early, deck themselves up and bustle about on errands. They serve lunch to three or four rounds of guests and mop the floor after they have eaten. Once in a while they make sure their decking-up is intact. They sit down to eat at four or five in the evening. Their betel leaf-stained lips match the red of the setting sun as they laugh and chat.

I don't mean to dip my narrative in sentimentality. Our population has increased three- or four-fold in four or five decades. Our towns and farmlands can't grow at the same rate, can they? Perhaps some migration in search of employment was unavoidable. Our younger people may have felt inhibited by the unchanging ways of our little communities, and wished to migrate to the cities. The new Western civilisation beckoned them with its glitz, and they may have found it liberating. There was a real need for the dalits and the women to get out of the old, vicious and unchanging ways. They had to acquire what had been denied to them by the inhuman and unjust practices of the old communities. Migration to the cities was the only way out. This migration could have sparked off the twin processes of Westernisation and Sanskritisation that Dr M N Srinivas talks about.

As boys we too used to grumble about the society of the time. The Puttanagi song, which had impressed me as a child, had created for me a vivid picture of the selfishness, cruelty and violence within the green and dark-hued murkiness of the Malnad forests.

 Village boredom
The little community in Gokula wasn't troubled much by caste and class hostilities. Even so, the unchanging village, the same amusements, and the same games and songs must have bored the cowherd boys. They get ready to go to Mathura

Come along boys, let's go to Mathura
Let's go away from the old village
and visit the wondrous fair.

Let ripe old men mind the cattle
with shouts of 'Hai, hachacha'.

And let the girls sit back in the village
sighing inside their huts.

They join Akrura and urge Krishna to accept the invitation.

Marx studied Asia and India in painstaking detail and said, pityingly: "These village communities, which look pretty as a picture, bind men's minds in a tight grip of meanness; they deprive them of all the grandeur that the human spirit and the historical forces are capable of." Many others have said similar pitying things from the elevated heights of Europe, a civilisation then shining gloriously. Their eyes were blinded by their own brilliance, and it was impossible for them to see clearly or understand people different from themselves. Never mind. Let's not bother about them. But let us not forget that we too have started thinking like them.

The girls I spoke about get married before they turn 20, bear children and suffer the drudgery of a mechanical life. They carry on with their half-dead lives like the oxen of the oil press. They bite their lips in despair and yet spout the words of wisdom they have learnt from their elders.
I do not doubt the integrity or the good intentions of my industrialist-friend. But I am disturbed by the other side. Is it ever possible that these girls might live with a little more, or at least the same, liveliness as the girls who stay back in the villages? They wake up at six, rush to the factory, return in the evening, complete their chores, and go to bed by ten. Their work gives them no opportunity even to imagine how thrilled someone somewhere might feel using the product they have created -- a cosmetic perhaps. Deadening work for a salary. They are not paid well enough to live decently in the expensive city. They can't go back to the villages, having taken up the challenge of migrating to the city. Besides, they feel impelled to prove to their relatives and friends back in the village that they are leading a good life here.

Even to this day, wedding and festival rituals, singing, rangoli-drawing, and the handicrafts survive in our villages, even if in a fossilised form. They point to the innumerable possibilities of life beyond money-making. People who settle in the cities are deprived of all this. Perhaps the only medium that keeps them from going mad is television, which loans out false dreams. Even these dreams turn out so costly!

All communities in India are facing an ordeal. Will it destroy us? How are we going to find a solution?

Marx's mistake
"No history evolved in India as it lived an unchanged life for several centuries. At least, we can definitely say that India has no recorded history," Marx says, in the same pitying tone. Not just Marx, but all the great Western thinkers of the last two or three centuries -- poor fellows, how profoundly they believed in history! -- were convinced that the roots of a people's past come together in their history. I wonder if Western societies ever had such a conviction before the Renaissance. As for India, it has never felt history was very important.

The chief experience of history is that we, as living beings, can examine and review the dead. History brings to us chronologies, and heaps of minute detail. It stuffs dead forms and gingerly presents them to our eye. It is somewhat like the newspapers which bring to us, in an attractive, entertaining form, what has transpired on our own lane the previous day. Incidents close to us are distanced from us and transformed into something else. What ought to disturb us entertains us. Likewise, history separates and distances us from the past. It does not become our food and enter our bloodstream; it stretches out before us like an amusement park.

Three varieties of history have evolved in India under the influence of Western education. The first originated in the Brahmo Samaj and with Keshab Chandra Sen. It is marked by a revulsion towards India, and has culminated in the likes of Nirad Chaudhuri. The second is jingoistic; it originated in Maharashtra and encourages organisations that glorify ancient Hindu culture. The third comprises university pedagogues who bury their heads in antique coins, inscriptions and copper plaques.

Indian societies have relied mostly on smriti (cultural memory) and bothered little about history. Cultural memory is made up not of historical details but their quintessence. It is like a virus, a dead organism that springs to life the moment it comes into contact with a living organism. It does not stand before us, like history, in heaps and in odd shapes. It seeps into us and enters our bloodstream. It enters our eyes and our hands and determines the way we perceive and work.

Gandhiji is a great example. The entire gamut of Indian culture -- from the Isavasya Upanishad, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, Tulsidas and Kabir to the Hindu-Jain bania lifestyle of Kathiawad -- was encapsulated in his cultural memory. He lived chanting Rama's name, and died with the same name on his lips. He never referred to the historical details of Rama's life: he did not even care where Rama was born. He nativised the concept of democracy, born of the modern liberal humanism of the West, and created a fantastic political formula out of it. He gave it the name of Ramarajya, and spoke little of democracy. In him, he transformed the idea of democracy into the idea of Ramarajya. The Bhagavad Gita was his life breath, but he did not believe the Kurukshetra war took place in history.

Marx comes to mind again. His ideology is developed logically on the basis of mountains of historical detail. Gandhiji's Hind Swaraj is no less significant than Marx's Das Kapital. In Hind Swaraj, a man asks questions and another replies. We don't feel the need for historical logic here.

Gandhiji's big example could give us big confidence. What the West has ignored in its recently acquired arrogance, and what many undeveloped nations have abandoned in their craze to imitate the West, still survives in India, thanks to its long and all-encompassing cultural streams. Can this memory help us face our present predicament?

The human context
The human being is not free, as the Westerners, and some of us in recent times, tend to believe. He is just a part of a living community. Communities are parts of the living mass we call humanity. How does a community, society or country face a huge predicament? The present is a very, very tiny speck in the life of humanity. Behind it is a past that is invisible, unfathomable and ancient. Today's human being can become the highest point, the flower of humanity, if he invokes his cultural memory. His decisions then become decisions of all humanity.

I, being one of millions of little creatures living here, become heir to all the responsibilities and riches of this universe. I inherit everything: the discoveries of the pre-historic Vedic rishi and the latest findings of the nuclear scientist. I can refuse nothing, shrug off nothing. If I assimilate the grand totality of the past through my cultural memory, and all of the present, the decisions I take will be natural, wholesome and good. That is why cultural memory is so important.

Our poet Puthina constantly invokes cultural memory. All his works, from his early song When rain drenches the land to his recent Sriharicharite, assume the priestly role of invoking cultural memory. Perhaps all poetry -- and art -- is concerned with the preservation and invocation of cultural memory. Take the ancient Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa. All his plays eulogise clans and dynasties. By his time, the dynasties had gone out of vogue, and a discriminatory master-slave relationship was developing between the king and his citizens. Attempts were being made to build huge kingdoms and empires in India. It is at such a juncture that Bhasa devotedly invokes the cultural memory of past dynasties and sings the glories of the ruling clans. Cultural memory encounters the contemporary and sparks a mature dialogue, as we see in his Pratima Nataka and Swapna Nataka.

Transcending caste and class
Memories of the Vaishnavite Bhagavata, and the sects it inspired, are more important now than ever before. They reveal a sincere attempt to transcend caste and class differences. Krishna, the music of his flute, and the lifestyle of Gokula together point to ways of transcending the differences between the folk and high cultures. The little Gokula community had a distinct culture. It held its head high and lived in dignity, counting itself as an independent unit within the pan-Indian community.

Memories of Krishna, his music and Gokula have flowed down in a constant literary stream in Kannada, starting from the Jaina poet Pampa and through Rudra Bhatta, the Haridasas, Kumaravyasa, Chikaveeraraja and others. Among the moderns, Ambikatanayadatta, Kuvempu, K S Narasimha Swamy and Gopalakrishna Adiga come to mind at once.

Come, dear friend,
Let's go to Brindavana to sell milk.

He gives no gold, he gives no jewels,
but he gives himself, come, dear friend.
 Kuvempu

Krishna, they say, is coming down the street
in a flower-bedecked chariot.
Make way for the handsome one
who knows nothing of snatching garments,
nothing of stealing butter!

Make way for the little one
with the fragrant kasturi on his forehead.
K S Narasimha Swamy

What magic flute lures you
to the distant shore?
Which Brindavana beckons you
with its lightning hand?
Gopalakrishna Adiga

With the rich Kannada tradition behind it, Gokula Nirgamana contemplates the passage from the rural Gokula to the urban Mathura. It begins this way:

Listen to the call of Krishna's flute.

Forget the pearl-laced blouses,
the stone studs for the ears,
the jaji and mallige for the hair,
and the dancing bells for our soft steps.
Just listen to the call of Krishna's flute.
Let the chores remain unfinished,
let the neighbours look and laugh ...

Listen to the call of Krishna's flute.

After everything is transformed, the poem indicates in a flash the truth about cultural memory and change:

It was true he was here,
it was true he loved us.
It was true we were happy,
it was true we loved him.

This piece has rambled along, and I conclude ramblingly. Works like Gokula Nirgamana are very important to my town and to the larger Karnataka community as they illuminate and enrich our cultural memory. Enriched thus, our young girls who come out scorched from the factories, and our self-respecting boys who eke out their wearying lives in the cities, can perhaps stand firm in today's terrifying turmoil. We can perhaps face the realities of our desolate villages, and explore the new paths before us with courage. 

Translated by S R Ramakrishna