How with Puneeth Rajkumar’s passing away, the already muted Kannada conservatism loses a glorious figurehead

Puneeth Rajkumar’s death has been a shocking one, but the outpouring following his death has reinforced the tenacity of the values of Kannada Conservatism

As we witness the extraordinary scenes of millions from across the state of Karnataka gathering in Bengaluru to pay their last respect to Puneeth Rajkumar, the sense of grief is overwhelming for millions of Kannadigas and other followers across the world. In addition to the asymmetric pull of superstars, an immense talent such as Puneeth passing away due to a heart attack at the young age of 46 is certainly a cruel twist of fate, as the prime minister tweeted.

Many observers are perhaps surprised at this outpouring; hence, it is vital to document and decode the profound sense of loss and grief that goes beyond losing a superstar at an untimely age. As we head into the 65th year of the formation of the state of Karnataka, it is important to understand the death of Puneeth, and the outpouring commiseration in light of Kannada Conservatism.

Scholars recently have started to further the literature on Indian Conservatism, after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tremendous electoral successes. In this regard, Karnataka is a stark exception among the south Indian states, clearly manifesting its expression of religiosity and cultural priorities via electoral politics.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has always considered Karnataka a strong base, more recently witnessed by its incredible performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by winning 25 out of the 28 constituencies. Given the heterogeneity of societies in India, it is instructive to look at Indian Conservatism as a bottom-up build of ideologies, instead of a top-down approach. Kannada Conservatism makes for a unique study of the decentralised model of Indian Conservatism as it situates itself in the larger Indian cultural ethos.

There are three essential features of Kannada Conservatism; First, the practice of liberal Hindu values. The two components in this feature are liberal and Hindu. The latter is usually credited to the great Hindu Empire of Vijayanagara, and even more pertinently to the erstwhile Mysore Kingdom. Under a great many Hindu Kings of Mysore, the kingdom thrived as a princely state right up until Independence. These kings seamlessly wove their patronage towards Hindu traditions with the modern democratic institutions. For example, the kingdom of Mysore was the first in India to have had a democratic representative assembly since 1881. Further, exceptionally progressive reforms introduced by Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar, popularly known as Rajarshi (Saintly King christened by Gandhi), marched Karnataka into independent India.

Some of them include making the representative assembly into a bicameral house, reservation in government jobs for non-Brahmins among many others. Alongside Madan Mohan Malaviya, Krishnaraja Wadiyar even went on to become the first chancellor and the co-founder of the Banaras Hindu University. The spillover of the Mysore kingdom ideology to the state of Karnataka and its population is one of the reasons for Karnataka being an exception in its political leanings vis-à-vis other south Indian states.

Immensely popular actor and polymath, and perhaps the greatest Kannadiga of the 20th century, Dr Rajkumar, father to Puneeth Rajkumar, was born in the proximate Chamarajnagar district. There was an undeniable hallmark in the life of Dr Rajkumar who embodied the liberal Hindu ideas that the Mysore kingdom preached and practised. From his impeccable yoga regimen to his unabashed religiosity towards Hinduism, Dr Rajkumar was an exemplar of this aspect of Kannada Conservatism. For my generation, Puneeth was an extension of this. He was even scheduled to visit the Chamarajnagar region and head to climb Chamundi Hills by steps for the darshan of presiding deity Goddess Chamundeshwari.

The second feature of Kannada Conservatism is the deeply embedded value system of being non-controversial, accommodating, and high standards of public conduct. The Rajkumar family has been the perfect embodiment of these values, as they remained unblemished and set high standards for public life throughout. Even amid the jolt of Puneeth’s sudden demise, the Rajkumar family stuck to its promise of donating his eyes, a long stand commitment that the family has had for public health. Dr Rajkumar’s death in 2006 and now with Puneeth’s death, have highlighted how hard it is to set apart the loss of personalities from the sense of erosion of certain features of Kannada Conservatism.

While Bengaluru has been making its mark across the world for its tremendous growth and as the top innovation hub of Asia, the concomitant social and cultural changes exhibited in the city due to migration are unparalleled. The population of the city went up from 9.6 million in 2011 to 14.2 million in 2021, marking a decadal increase of 48 percent. While this is unhealthy in some dimensions, it is the nature of the accommodation and active acceptance of Kannada Conservatism that has allowed such talent to locate itself in the city.

The final feature of this brand of conservatism is the clear precedence of nationalism over regionalism. Karnataka is a textbook case study on the symphony between regional and national identities. In Karnataka rarely have these conflicts been a source of the problem, compared to the other south Indian states. While many deserve credit for this achievement, it was practised unambiguously in the Kannada film industry. The folklore, the songs, and the stories have Karnataka and Kannada in their centre stage, but unflinchingly located themselves alongside the patriotic narrative of the nation. Hence, Kannada Conservatism transcended the barrier of language to connect with the ethos of the nation. Movies of Dr Rajkumar and Puneeth bear the ultimate testimony to this.

Puneeth Rajkumar’s death has been a shocking one, but the outpouring following his death has reinforced the tenacity of the values of Kannada Conservatism. Growing up in the Kannada pockets of Bengaluru, I was always in the belief that Kannada identity, for its accommodating nature, is politically losing the battle to other ethnic identities in south India, especially in Bengaluru. With Puneeth’s passing away, the already muted and subdued movement has surely lost a glorious figurehead.

The writer is pursuing a PhD in Economics at the University of Cambridge. He is also a recipient of the Adam Smith Fellowship at the Mercatus Centre in George Mason University. Views expressed are personal.

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