Kannada is almost as old as Tamil, the truest of the Dravidian family. Initially the area of the Kannada speech extended much further to the north than present Karnataka, but was pushed back by the Aryan Marathi.
The early (pre 800AD) bits and pieces of Kannada literature are insufficient to lay claims to the literature’s origins. The oldest extant book is king Nripatunga’s literary critique Kavi Raja Marga (circa 840). Jainism being a popular religion at the time, there were some Jaina poets like Srivijaya and Guna Varman I. A new trend began with the ‘Three Gems’ of Kannada literature, Pampa, Ponna and Ranna in the 10th century, where prose and verse were mixed the campu style. The three poets extensively wrote on episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and Jain legends and biographies. Chavunda Raya, Ranna’s elder contemporary then came up with an elaborate work a history of all the 24 Jaina tirthankaras (saintly teachers). The Chola kings of Tamil-land got too aggressive around the 11th century and fought wars. This meant a lean phase in literary activities except for the works of a few writers like Naga Chandra, known for his Jain Ramayana, the Jain poetess Kanti, the grammarian Naga Varman II who wrote Karnataka Bhasha Bhushana in Sanskrit sutras (aphorisms), and Kirtti Varman and Vritta Vilasa.
The middle phase of Kannada literature saw the power of Puranic Hinduism over Jainism. A very distinct phase of writing began the second half of the 12th century in the Vira-Shaiva phase with Basava’s Vachanas. There was a spate of writers like Harihara, Raghavanka and Kereya Padmarasa writing fervently about Shiva in the 12th-13th centuries. Rebellion against the orthodox rituals came from the brilliant poetess Akkamahadevi, a harbinger of Bhakti poetry (see below). The Jains, too, weren’t idle all this while; they composed legendary histories of various tirthankaras (ford makers). In all, the 13th century was chock-full with poems, literary criticism, grammar, natural science and translations from Sanskrit.
Kannada literature took a strong Hindu bend with the orthodox Vijayanagara kings (14th-15th AD). Some eminent names were Bhima Kavi, Padmanaka, Mallanarya, Singiraja and Chamarasa. The Bhakti movement also affected Kannada literature in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas were translated afresh using the folk meters satpadi and regale. Devotional songs of dasas or singing mendicants were compiled, which formed an important part of popular literature.
The next two centuries were a busy period with many rules, of the Wodeyar kings, Bijapur Sultans and Mughals, and much literary activity. Bhattakalanka Deva’s Karnataka Shabdaushasana (1604AD) on grammar, Sakdakshara Deva’s romantic campu the Rajshekhara Vilasa (1657AD), the historical compositions of the Wodeyar period (1650-1713AD), Nijaguna Yogi’s Viveka Chintamani of Shaiva lore (mid 17th century), Nanja Raja’s Puranic works the Shiva Bhakti Mahatmya and Hari Vamsa (circa 1760), were some of the notable creations. All this while the language was changing from Middle to Modern Kannada. The popular Yakshagana, dramatization of Puranic tales with much singing, was an innovation of the late 18th century. A good mass of folk poetry thus came to be written.
Modern education made a late entry in Karnataka as compared to other parts of India. Works based on Sanskrit models, like Shakuntala of Basavappa Shastri, continued till the late 19th century. With a little initiation from the Christian missionaries, the Academy of Kannada Literature was set up in Bangalore in 1914. Gradually modern literature gained tempo and translations were made from English, Bengali and Marathi. Kerur and Galaganatha attempted the first novels in Kannada, followed by a host of novelists like Shivarama Karanta, K. V. Puttapa, G P Rajaratnam, Basavaraja Kattimani, Nanjanagudu Tirumalamba (the first major woman writer in modern Kannada) and others. The short story too made its advent with Panje Mangesha Rao and Masti Venkatesha Ayyangar. A new trend in drama began with the use of colloquial language. Poetry, too, wasn’t left behind; B. M. Shrikanthayya too Kannada poetry to great heights with innovations like the blank verse.
Literature in Kannada today is a big enterprise, with bustling centres like the University of Mysore, the Karnataka University at Dharwar and the Kannada Sahitya Parishad of Mysore.
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