Kanthapura is the first novel of Raja Rao. It was written in France thousands of miles away from India and yet it gives a most graphic, vivid and realistic account of the Gandhian freedom struggle in the 1930s and its impact on the masses of India. Gandhi does not make a personal appearance in the novel but he is constantly present in the background and at every step, there are references to important events of the day such as the historic Dandi March and the breaking of the Salt Law. Hence for a better understanding of the novel, it is essential to form a clear idea of the important political and social events connected with the Indian freedom struggle.
The time of action is 1930 and the scene of action is Kanthapura, a typical South Indian village on the slopes of the Western Ghats. Moorthy, the central figure, is a young man educated in the city. He is a staunch Gandhi man and the Gandhian Civil Disobedience movement comes to this remote secluded village when Moorthy comes from the city with the message of the Mahatma. He goes from door to door even in the Pariah quarter of the village and explains to the villagers the significance of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for independence. He inspires them to take to charka – spinning and weaving their cloth. Soon the Congress Committee is formed in Kanthapura. Publicity material is brought from the city and freely circulated in the village. A volunteer corps is formed and the volunteers are trained and educated so that they may remain non-violent in the face of government repression. In this task of organizing the freedom struggle in Kanthapura, Moorthy is helped by Ratna, a young lady, of progressive and enlightened views and Patel Range Gowda, the Sardar Patel of the village.
The Red man’s Government, on its part, takes prompt steps to counter the moves of the Gandhi men and to contain the movement. Policeman Bade Khan, is posted in the village and he is actively helped and supported by Bhatta, the Brahmin. Bhatta enlists the support of a Swami in the city, who seems to be a powerful religious authority and wields much influence on the ignorant people of the village. He threatens to excommunicate all those who fraternize with the Pariahs. Moorthy is ex-communicated and a few desert him but on the whole, the people remain undaunted and firm in their support of the Gandhi movement. Reports regarding the Dandi March of the Mahatma to break the Salt Law and the enthusiasm it had evoked throughout the country, reach the village and do much to boost the public morale.
Soon there are satyagrahas and picketing. The villagers under the leadership of Moorthy offer satyagraha outside the coffee plantation. There is a police lathi charge and many are wounded and hurt seriously. A large number of people are arrested and sent to jail. This is followed by the picketing of the toddy booth outside the Skeffington Coffee Estate. Government repression is even more ruthless this time. Even women, children and old men are not spared. The suffering of their fellow villagers touches the heart of the workers of the Skeffington Coffee Estate and they too join their suffering brethren. The atmosphere resounds with shouts of “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai”. Even larger numbers are arrested. Moorthy is also arrested and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. In his absence, Ratna looks after the Congress work in the village.
Then comes the no-tax campaign. The people are directed not to pay land revenue to the unjust Red men. They should remain peaceful and non-violent even if their fields, crops, cattle and houses are auctioned and occupied. They remain non-violent in the beginning but soon violence breaks out. Government is ruthless in its repression. There are merciless lathi charges and even shootings. The atmosphere resounds with shrieking and crying as well as with shouts of “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai”.
The villagers put up a brave resistance but ultimately they are compelled to flee. Their morale is broken. They have to leave Kanthapura, trudge along for miles over unknown territory and finally find shelter in a remote village. They have been defeated but in their very defeat lay their victory. Their brave resistance has given a jolt to the government and as such jolts were being administered all over the country, the British government was bound to be shaken and overthrown over time. It was so over-thrown in 1947, and the British were forced to withdraw. The heroic struggle of the people of Kanthapura is thus a milestone in India’s march towards independence.
Kanthapura depicts the conflict between the Indian villagers and the British authorities. Here Raja Rao paints Moorthy as a bold follower of Gandhian ideology. As a freedom fighter, he does not accept caste barriers at all. Here Bhatta, the money lender exploits the poor innocent villagers. Gandhi’s plan to introduce Charkha succeeds and many villagers start earning their livelihood. Moorthy organizes the villagers for a national cause and they follow Gandhian dictates. As a result, the tax policy of the British government gets a setback. Finally, Moorthy is arrested but not excommunicated. When he comes out of prison, he asks his followers to lead a life of ‘action’. Much has got to be done for national freedom. This novel is remarkable for social realism, economic realism and political realism. There is a direct encounter between the villagers of Kanthapura and the British imperial powers.
In Kanthapura, Raja Rao has made effective use of the mythical technique used with such success by English writers like T S Eliot and James Joyce. The use of the mythical technique means that the past is juxtaposed with the present and in this way, the past may serve as a criticism of the present or it may be used to heighten and glorify the present. Raja Rao has used this very technique to glorify the present and to impart to the novel the dignity and status of an epic or Purana. By the use of the mythical technique, the novelist has enriched the texture of his novel and imparted to it a rare expansiveness, elevation and dignity. Just as in a myth some of the chief characters are Gods and other beings larger in power than humanity, in this tale, Moorthy is presented as a figure much above the common run of men. He is a dedicated and selfless soul, who is idealized to the extent of being regarded as a local Mahatma. And of course, there is the real Mahatma Gandhi also, always in the background, though he is nowhere physically present. The village women think of him as the big mountain and of Moorthy as the small mountain.
In the novel, Rao explains vividly the evils of the Red man’s administration in India. The exploitation of Indians by the colonialists led to the formation of Gandhi’s freedom movement. In Kanthapura, Moorthy, a strong supporter of Gandhi, moves home to the remote village to mobilize people against the evils of the colonialists in their country and forms a Congress. When villagers demonstrate against the oppression of their masters in the coffee plantations, the government sends its police officers to terrorize the protesters. Many people are killed and wounded, and Moorthy is arrested alongside other freedom fighters. Throughout the novel, the reader witnesses the hardships Indians had to go through before gaining their independence. There are tortures, killings, unlawful arrests, economic oppression, political oppression, unfair working conditions, high taxes, and more – all of which inspired Gandhi and his movement, and, in the novel, the villagers of Kanthapura.