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Remembering K Raghavendra Rao

Rajaram Tolpadi ( is at the Department of Political Science, Mangalore University.

K Raghavendra Rao’s death is a loss to the academic community. But the legacy he has left behind of reconstructing the domain of political ideas in the complex cultural milieu of India will be continued meaningfully by his successors.

K Raghavendra Rao, an eminent political theorist from Karnataka and a fascinating teacher of political science, passed away on 11 October 2018, at the age of 90, at his residence in Dharwad. Rao belonged to that singular generation of scholar-cum-educationists who considered teaching to be more a calling, than a profession. He relished the aesthetics of reading, reflecting and writing and had carved a niche for himself in the fields of political theory and literature. This piece of writing is a modest attempt at delineating some distinct and distinguished aspects of his vibrant intellectual life.

Education and Professional Life

Rao hailed from a Brahmin family of Karnataka, settled in Hospet, a town bordering the adjacent state of Andhra Pradesh. Though raised in a bilingual environment, he was more acclimatised to Telugu than Kannada. He completed intermediate-level education from Guntur, with distinction; graduated from Madras Christian College with honours in English, and then obtained master’s degrees in both English literature and political science. Such interdisciplinary education had enabled him to navigate the breadth and depth of the discipline of humanities.

On the other hand, serving in different institutions across the country gave him a platform for continual learning and teaching in uniquely varied contexts. He taught at his alma mater, Madras Christian College for a short duration and then joined the department of political science of the Gauhati University, Assam. Later, he joined the political science department in Karnataka University, Dharwad as reader and spent most of his teaching career there. During this period, Rao also obtained his doctoral degree from the University of Toronto, Canada. He wrote a dissertation on the “Unification of Karnataka.” Towards the end of his teaching career, Rao was appointed professor and head of the political science department at the Mangalore University and eventually retired from there.

Superannuation was just another phase in the academic horizon of such an unstoppable multifarious intellectual. That he continued teaching political science and pursued meaningful research even after official retirement is a testimony to his relentless pursuit of knowledge. Rao was the University Grants Commission (UGC) emeritus professor at the Mangalore University; a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla; and held the Zakir Hussain Chair at the Mysore University. These were acknowledgements of his academic brilliance.

Rao was a representative of that vibrant community of Indian political theorists who saw the necessity and desirability of embedded political theory. His perpetual endeavour comprised the reconstruction and re-conceptualisation of Western political theories against the cultural milieu in which he was situated.

Nuanced Marxism

As an expert on Marxism, Rao never considered this concept as a doctrine or a fixed immutable ideology. Marxism to him was a constantly evolving and developing theoretical perspective, a constant becoming, as it were. It is precisely this openness to knowledge that enabled him to apply not only multiple but even divergent intellectual resources for conducting an exciting journey in the realm of philosophical explorations. To Rao, there were no limiting barriers, ideology or otherwise, to tether his vision. One could easily slip into labelling him a “philosophical anarchist” or a futuristic traveller on a planet full of exciting and undiscovered location.

Rao’s major publication Contradictions: Political Theory, Sociology, and Ideology stands testimony to the theoretical open-endedness that he always wished to represent. This book tries to reconstruct the domain of political ideas by traversing through a broad spectrum of thinkers and their ideas. It provides a rereading of Aristotle, Augustine, Hegel and Marx of the Western world as it offers new perspectives on Kautilya, Gandhi, Mao and Fanon of the non-European world. What is striking is the ease and comfort with which Rao has been able to handle abstract and complex political concepts and categories.

This theoretical open-endedness which is fundamental to Rao’s intellectual enquiry made him keenly aware of the doctrinal tendencies within Marxism and also maintain a distance from such tendencies. He always remained conversant with the contemporary debates both within and outside Marxism in order to avoid possibilities of imitative political theory. In fact, Rao’s nuanced Marxism also enabled him to re-envision Marx in the light of Indian thinkers like Gandhi, Ambedkar or Lohia. This amazing ability for convergence of vision through an uninhibited tracing of the legacy of thought makes him a distinct as well as distinguished academician of political theory.

Unfortunately, he had not been able to crystallise this refreshing idea into a formidable argument through a published volume. In this regard, Rao’s arguments have remained fragmentary—still to be cultivated as a full-fledged theory. We receive these ideas in the form of some stray writings on Marx, Gandhi and Ambedkar.

It is precisely this open-ended and embedded approach to political theory that compelled Rao to pay a lot of intellectual attention to issues of coloniality and modernity. His highly complex but nuanced approach to Marxism also helped him recognise Eurocentricism and develop an autonomous but highly specia­lised way of doing political theory. It is this “method in the madness” or the “madness in the method” that assisted him in engaging with complex issues concerning ways of comprehending political theories and reconstructing political thoughts in such a complex civilisational and modern construct called India.

Closely linked to Rao’s pursuit of embedded political theory has been his engagement with the mapping or remapping of political theory and reconstruction of political thought in Karnataka. His work Imagining the Unimagined Communities which takes the pride of place of being the first ever English publication by the Kannada University, Hampi, provides a critical account of how four distinct thinkers of Karnataka, namely Alur Venkat Rao, Hardeker Manjappa, Pandit Taranath and D V Gundappa from four different locations in Karnataka, offer four different cultural perspectives of the state. This work opens up a new tradition of doing political theory in Karnataka in order to reconstruct its intellectual history differently. Similarly, Rao’s work on S Nijalingappa is also pioneering in recasting the historical character and cultural content of political leadership in Karnataka.

The Littérateur

The multifaceted personality that he was, Rao also represented a fine blend of literature and political theory. His literary sensibility was largely shaped by training in English literature, his involvement in the Writers’ Workshop of Kolkata and the cultural milieu of Dharwad. This confluence epitomises the essence of Rao as an Indian poet in English and demonstrates that culture studies is really and truly integral to the study of literature. A contributor to The Illustrated Weekly of India, close associate of the Writers’ Workshop of Kolkata, an involved participant of the compilation of Modern Indian Literature (supported by Central Sahitya Akademi), he stands tall as an authentic navigator of the sociopolitical fabric of India. Rao was in close touch with literary giants and cultural icons of Karnataka like D R Bendre, Keerthinath Kurthkoti, Chennaveera Kanavi, Shanthinath Desai, Shankar Mokashi Punekar, G S Amur, and Heremallur Ishwaran among others. His interactions with these people motivated Rao to do the kind of work that he successfully undertook and completed.

Added to this, he was also one of our best translators. He translated several classical Kannada texts into English. His translations of two of Bendre’s collections of poetry into English have been widely acknowledged. He also translated S L Byrappa’s highly acclaimed novels Vamshavraksha and Parva into English. Byrappa was highly appreciative of the quality of his translations. Very recently, Rao, with his wife Prabha Rao had translated some of the selected keerthanas of the Saint poet Kanakadasa of 16th century Karnataka as well. To Rao, translation was recreation and transformation, but not imitation. Translation also served Rao a political purpose. It helped him introduce Karnataka and Kannada culture to the rest of India and the world. Hence, Rao cannot be considered only as a crucial academic, but also as a builder of bridges by providing the portal for cross-cultural communication, both within India and beyond.

Continual Learner

Apart from these significant works of translation, Rao has also contributed a good deal in creative literature. He has published a collection of poems in English, written a novel and also ventured writing a play. All these different kinds of writings reflect the profoundness of his thoughts and diversity of interests.

Being a fountainhead of creativity, music did not escape this sensitive aesthete, either. A lover of music, both classical and semi-classical, he spent a lot of time listening to music and discussing it with his friends. He had cultivated a large circle of friends in Dharwad, and in other parts of Karnataka and India. There are quite a few interesting anecdotes regarding the quality time that he spent on animated discussions with total disregard to time and place. This establishes the fact that he had ingrained the sterling qualities of a true teacher as a continual learner, open to diverse opinions and ideas. A B Shah, the philosopher, was one of his close friends with whom he had a long and enduring intellectual companionship. Poet Channaveera Kanavi was Rao’s family friend with whom he had forged a very close relationship.

All in all, Rao’s death is a great loss to the academic community of Karnataka and India. He was one of those rare scholars who was deeply concerned about the autonomy and dignity of Kannada culture. His political theory was global, no doubt. But it was, at the same time, deeply rooted in the cultural universe of modern Karnataka. Rao leaves behind a rich, critical and self-reflexive mode of intellectual enquiry waiting to be continued meaningfully by subsequent generations.

Updated On : 5th Dec, 2018


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