Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Although dense with expressions of Indian customs, epical history, politics, and religion, Kanthapura is unusual as an Indo-English novel because the female characters serve in the forefront of revolutionary struggle. In her concluding summary, Achakka expresses her belief that what has happened in her village is essentially positive. Things have changed irrevocably.

In form, Kanthapura is an extension of the Indian oral tradition, adapted to a Western language and genre. The extensive use of songs and prayers, allusions, and digressions, and the more limited use of proverbs and epic lists, or catalogs, contribute to the folkloric nature of the writing. Sometimes the pace is heightened by a piling-on of compound sentences at a breathless tempo, and the use of tales-within-tales promotes the sense of impromptu fabrication and immediacy.

Kanthapura is one of the earliest examples of the Gandhian novel: fiction that derives its moral force from the figure and precepts of the great political and spiritual leader. It is not simply an exotic tale of a vanished era but also a clever use of a colonial language to serve didactic ends. Like the early novels of Mulk Raj Anand, it is a deliberately moral fiction, but unlike Anand’s work, it is not almost exclusively sociological in tenor. By providing detailed notes on Indian terms and allusions, Rao is able to extend the reach of his fiction, compelling Western readers to slow down their pace of reading, examine the network of mythological and historical associations, and note the analogies which he is drawing between secular history and sacred mythology.