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Poetry and drama in Karnataka’s Western Ghats

Shivamogga has room for everything from an immersive cultural experience to quiet contemplation

Shivamogga’s Jog Falls during the monsoon.
Shivamogga’s Jog Falls during the monsoon. (Istockphoto)

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The sun was low on the horizon, painting the sky an ethereal pink-orange. A breeze blew in, lazily pushing the scattered clouds that hung like fluffy cotton. The pockmarked surface of the rocky outcrop on the hillock was warm but not uncomfortable to sit on. It spread out like a large, uneven circular table and abruptly tapered off into an abyss. In front was a panorama of undulating hills and valleys, dissolving into a hazy blue-grey on the horizon. The hills were foregrounded by rolling forests, a mix of thick trees and verdant grasslands. Everything exuded freshness, washed clean in the monsoon rain. I am in Malenadu (literally, mountainous area in Kannada) in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, also called the Sahyadri mountain range.

The breeze carried snatches of stray conversation, bird calls, a rare elephant trumpet, and the rustle of leaves, creating a symphony for a contemplative state. It was easy to understand how the region and its ambience inspired Kuvempu (the Kannada poet, playwright and Jnanpith awardee Kuppalli Venkatappa Puttappa—1904-94). Christened Kavi Shaila (poet’s peak), the hillock was a favourite haunt of Kuvempu, and is located in his ancestral village of Kuppalli in Shivamogga district.

It was on this hillock that he was laid to rest and a circular rock memorial with pillars erected to resemble Stonehenge. In the evening light, the pillars threw long shadows, lending a touch of magic to an already mystical place.

The hillock is named after an eponymous poem by Kuvempu, written about it. Carved on to a stone slab, the poem urges people to silence, to observe the splendour of nature. As the serenity and musicality of verse engulf you, it’s hard not to agree with the poet that the hills were in a state of dhyana (contemplation).


Kavi Shaila, the hillock with a rock memorial resembling Stonehenge.
Kavi Shaila, the hillock with a rock memorial resembling Stonehenge. (Anita Rao Kashi)

In Kuvempu’s poetry, novels, plays or epics, the bewitching landscape and changing seasons don’t just form the background but are prominent characters. His descriptive narrative style paints a vivid picture, transporting the reader into the midst of the landscape.

His oeuvre was nourished by the riches of Malenadu, his stomping grounds. Fed by the rivers Tunga, Bhadra and Sharavathi, which receives incessant rain over several months, Malenadu has birthed many an artist.

At Kavimane (poet’s house), Kuvempu’s ancestral home, set amidst lush greenery, near the hillock, you get glimpses of his life—his books and manuscripts, awards, the items he and his family used. The sprawling, three-storeyed whitewashed house with a Mangalore-tiled roof, central courtyard and red-oxide floors has been turned into a museum (open all days from 9.30am-6.30pm; 10 entry fee).

Some of the items on display evoke a smile, like his wedding invitation card and the mantapa where the ceremony took place; some invoke sadness, like the clock frozen at the hour of his death; and others a mix of wonder, like the loft in which he did his writing and from where he had an unobstructed view of the hills and valleys.

I decide to continue exploring the Shivamogga region, rich not just in culture but also natural beauty.

FOLLOWING THE RIVERS: More than 100km north of Kuppalli is Sagara, a town surrounded by an astonishing number of rivers, the most beautiful being the Sharavathi, which nurtures the region. The town is known as the gateway to Jog Falls, where the Sharavathi plunges into a gorge nearly 830ft deep, making it one of the highest waterfalls in India. As it tumbles, the river splits into four distinct tributaries, making for a dramatic view. During the monsoon, all four merge to form a roaring curtain.

While the Sharavathi is all drama and spectacle, the Tunga is more tranquil, though no less spectacular. Less than an hour’s journey from Kuppalli, the river splits to accommodate an island, Mandagadde, covered with forest. It is a designated bird sanctuary that attracts about 5,000 migratory birds between July and September. A watch tower allows visitors to observe the winged creatures unobtrusively.

As mesmerising as the two destinations were, for culture aficionados the drama was more compelling at Heggodu, a village about 20km from Sagara. It is home to Ninasam (Sri Neelakanteshwara Natyaseva Sangha), a drama institute that was set up as part of a community cultural experiment more than seven decades ago by the Kannada writer and dramatist K.V. Subbanna.


A view of the auditorium at Heggodu.
A view of the auditorium at Heggodu. (Anita Rao Kashi)

With about 200 households, Heggodu is a village with one main street and a maze of lanes. Ninasam has been the silent yet dominating presence in Heggodu. Its repertory, Thirugata (which means moving from one place to another), frequently stages plays, but, more importantly, it has imbued the region with a rich culture in theatre, film and literature.

At the heart of this has been the annual, week-long art, theatre and cultural festival Samskriti Shibira, held around October to coincide with Dasara (likely to return this year after a two-year gap). It attracts participants and performances from all over the state and outside. So, in the evenings, an Odissi dance recital might sit next to a Marathi play, followed by a Kannada fusion band, while mornings are given to talks, discussions and lectures by artists, writers, film-makers and cultural icons from across the country.

The last time I went, just before the pandemic, I enjoyed wandering around the sprawling campus with its shady trees and scattered gable-roofed structures in terracotta red. There was a constant buzz, voices and sounds filled the air. I would sit under a tree or in a verandah, watching people rehearse for a street play or a musical performance.

In the evenings, there was only one place to be: the main auditorium, for the day’s headline event. One year, noted Kannada singer M.D. Pallavi seduced the audience with her rendition of devotional songs and bhavageethe (poetry set to music) before mixing it up with thumping folk songs that had the auditorium on its feet. For the Heggodu regular, this was a familiar experience.

Once the last vehicle had left to ferry people back to their villages and towns, well into the night, the campus wore a deserted look. The night air was filled with the sound of crickets; for the over-imaginative, faint echoes from that evening’s performance lingered. Like Kavi Shaila, it was as if the place was meant for contemplation.


When to go: July-February. Malenadu can be visited through the year but it is especially lovely during and after the monsoon.

How to reach: Mangaluru is the closest airport to Shivamogga—200km, or a four-hour drive, away. From Shivamogga, Kuppalli and Heggodu are 70-85km away, well-connected by local buses and taxis.

Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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