Manakanjite tane prana kodepavu Kodavu
Janatanatele janala jayisuvavu Kodavu
Dana darmake tane minalippavu Kodavu
Ane ponnede beda bekkatavu Kodavu
(Personal honour and reputation are worth a Kodava’s life to him; he masters people through intelligence and skill. At the forefront of generosity and philanthropy, he views men and women as equal)
These lines from a poem by the eminent writer Bacharanianda P. Appanna of Kodagu, Karnataka, define the characteristics of a true Kodava. The verse stands out for more than its lyricality, though: It’s written in Kodava takke, classified as a definitely endangered language by Unesco and spoken by just 166,187 people according to the 2001 census.
Now, researcher-writer Kaveri Ponnapa has just self-published A Place Apart: Poems From Kodagu, a bilingual edition of 21 poems by Appanna. Ponnapa says these poems capture the ethos, culture and changing world of one of the smallest communities. The simple lines are framed with references to myth, history and the landscape of Kodagu.
The project, begun just ahead of the pandemic, was completed earlier this year. A Place Apart features translations and transliteration of the poems by Ponnapa in Roman script, based on ISO 15919, an international standard of Romanisation of many Brahmic scripts. For this, she worked closely with Appanna, who was born in 1935 in the state of Coorg (now Kodagu) and has observed the changes in the region through the decades.
The book starts with poems celebrating the golden landscape, with its fragrant coffee plantations, and orange and areca nut trees. Appanna takes us to Tadiyandamol, the area’s tallest peak, in one poem and down to the paddy fields, which seem to be teeming with Kodavathis in saris pleated mid-back, in another. Reading each verse is like unravelling the layers of an ancient culture and way of life. In Ainmanæ, he talks about the original homes of the okka, or family groups. “In days gone by, they built houses in three styles and lived in them—munde manæ, madake manæ, ottae poræ,” reads the translation.
In another poetic piece, he describes the forest trees and their usage: ate mara that went into railway sleepers, balanji for rafters and chappayu reserved for shrines. Soon the poems celebrating the glory of the land give way to moving laments about the fast-fading culture, the pain of deforestation and the social upheavals. The last five poems are meant for children, in a bid to encourage them to speak the language.
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Appanna has spent years trying to conserve Kodava takke, even contributing 400 words to the Kodava language dictionary published in 2016. “It is impossible to undervalue Appanna’s work in this context; it is original, reflective of the times and constantly evolving, supported by immense cultural and linguistic knowledge anchored in ancient heritage,” writes Ponnapa . Author of The Vanishing Kodavas, a cultural study, she embarked on the translation project when she realised that many from the region, working outside Kodagu, longed for a connection with the land and its language.
Kodava takke, which doesn’t have a script, has over the years found its way into a written form through Kannada. However, this transliteration, using the Roman script, has suddenly made these poems accessible to people who might have had little or no knowledge of the Kannada script. It offers a fresh lease of life to the language, which Ponnapa believes is as unique as the people of Kodagu.
Kodava takke belongs to the Dravidian group of languages. Over the past few centuries, words from the neighbouring states of Malabar and Mysore have crept in. Regional variations have come up as well, with the Kiggati takk being spoken in the south and the Mendele takk in the north, writes Ponnapa.
Several factors have contributed to the language becoming endangered. “With the coming of the Haleri dynasty, Kannada became the language of communication, the language of the court and state. The language took a further back seat when the British introduced Kannada as the medium of education,” Ponnapa writes in The Vanishing Kodavas. And now, as the youth move out, the chasm between the people and their oral traditions is widening. The book, Ponnapa, feels is at least an effort to bridge this gap. “Small cultures deserve greater attention to keep diversity of thought and perspective alive in this rapidly homogenizing world. For Kodavas, I wish that this collection will prompt you, as the poet writes, to ‘Spend your days speaking Kodava takke,’.”