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For his first efforts as a writer, Raja Rao (row) wrote in Kannada, his mother tongue. From 1931 through 1933, he published three essays and a poem in Kannada in the journal Jaya Karnataka . Around that time, he also began to publish his earliest stories in English. These and...

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For his first efforts as a writer, Raja Rao (row) wrote in Kannada, his mother tongue. From 1931 through 1933, he published three essays and a poem in Kannada in the journal Jaya Karnataka. Around that time, he also began to publish his earliest stories in English. These and others were collected and published as The Cow of the Barricades, and Other Stories in 1947. A later collection, The Policeman and the Rose (1978), includes seven stories published in the earlier volume and three new ones written chiefly during the 1960’s. In addition to novels and short stories, Rao published essays, travelogues, and biographical sketches in various journals and popular magazines, some of which were collected in The Meaning of India (1996). Rao also coedited, with Iqbal Singh, two anthologies of essays on India: Changing India (1939) and Whither India? (1948). In addition, after more than a decade of work, he completed a towering spiritual biography of Mohandas Gandhi, The Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1998).

Achievements

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Raja Rao, with Mulk Raj Anand and R. K. Narayan, is generally regarded as one of the most important modern Indian English novelists. The reasons for his preeminence are both historical and artistic. Rao is important historically because his first novel, Kanthapura, was published during the decade of the 1930’s, when Indian English fiction first began to gain recognition. Although the Indian English novel is considered to have begun in 1878 with Toru Dutt’s incomplete romance Bianca: Or, The Young Spanish Maiden, it was in the 1930’s that Indian English fiction began to demonstrate maturity and accomplishment with the publication of Anand’s Untouchable (1935), Narayan’s Swami and Friends (1935), and Rao’s Kanthapura.

Artistically, Rao is important because of his unique formal and thematic accomplishments. Although his productivity may seem meager in comparison to Anand’s or Narayan’s, Rao’s achievement was considerable. Formally and stylistically, he was the most adventurous of the three. As M. K. Naik has noted, Rao consistently tried to adapt the Western form of the novel to suit his Indian subject matter. He used traditional Indian genres such as Purana, sthalakatha, and the Indian beast fable to structure his works. Thus, formally, his novels are based on Indian models. Furthermore, they are written in an English that is uniquely Indian in style, tone, mood, and rhythm. This Indianness of style is achieved through heavy reliance on translation, quotation, and the use of Indian proverbs, idioms, and colloquial patterns. Rao adroitly manipulates vocabulary and syntax to enhance the Indian flavoring of his English. The result is a style that, although distinctly Indian, is evocative and perfectly intelligible to Western readers as well.

Thematically also Rao is somewhat different from the other two major Indian English novelists, Anand and Narayan. Rao is a metaphysical novelist whose concerns are primarily religious and philosophical. Kanthapura, for example, shows a strong Gandhian influence as it documents the progress of a nonviolent agitation against the British in a remote South Indian village. The Serpent and the Rope and its sequel, The Cat and Shakespeare, are expositions of the ancient Indian philosophical outlook Vedanta. Comrade Kirillov is an evaluation of the efficacy of communism. In Rao’s works there is thus an ongoing discussion of major philosophical systems, chiefly of India but also of the West.

Both stylistically and thematically, then, Rao succeeds in capturing the spirit of India in his works. His formal and stylistic innovations have expanded the expressive range of English and have influenced other writers who share Rao’s predicament: the task of writing about a culture in a language that is not native to it. Rao was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Prize for 1964 by the Academy of Indian Literature. In 1969, he received the Padma Bhushan from the Indian government. In 1988, at the age of seventy-nine, Rao was awarded the tenth Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a $50,000 prize given biennially by the University of Oklahoma’s prestigious international literary quarterly, World Literature Today, to recognize a body of work and a lifetime of literary excellence by a writer of any genre from any culture. Rao was the first Asian so honored. In January, 2007, Rao was awarded posthumously the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, given for exceptional service to the Indian people.

Bibliography

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Bhattacharya, P. C. Indo-Anglian Literature and the Works of Raja Rao. Delhi: Atma Ram, 1983. This work concentrates on Rao’s work also in the context of Indian literature written in English. Includes primary and secondary bibliographies.

Dey, E. The Novels of Raja Rao. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1992. Originally presented as the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Calcutta, a study of Rao’s works. Index.

Mittapalli, Rajeshwar, and Pier Paolo Piciucco, eds. The Fiction of Raja Rao: Critical Studies. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2001. Includes chapters on philosophy, Indian voice, myth, Ghandian ideology, identity, marriage, truth, the mind, art, and more.

Naik, M. K. Raja Rao. 1972. Rev. ed. Bombay: Blackie, 1982. A pioneering introductory, full-length study.

Narasimhaiah, C. D. Raja Rao: A Critical Study of His Work. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann India, 1973. Among the most perceptive and significant assessments.

Nasimi, Reza Ahmad. The Language of Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, and R. K. Narayan. Delhi: Capital, 1989. Rao’s writing is placed in context with the work of other Indian English novelists. Includes references and an index.

Niven, Alastair. Truth Within Fiction: A Study of Raja Rao’s “The Serpent and the Rope.” Calcutta: Writers’ Workshop, 1987. An in-depth analysis of Rao’s novel. References, bibliographies, index.

Ramachandra, Ragini, ed. Raja Rao: An Anthology of Recent Criticism. Delhi: Pencraft, 2000. A collection of critical essays.

Rao, K. R. The Fiction of Raja Rao. Aurangabad, India: Parimal, 1980. Criticism of Rao’s works published before 1965.

Ray, R. J. “The Novels of Raja Rao.” World Literature Today 63 (Spring, 1989). Addresses Rao’s novels through The Chessmaster and His Moves. References, bibliographies.

Sharrad, Paul. Raja Rao and Cultural Tradition. New Delhi: Sterling, 1987. The decline of the empire and the end of the British Raj had an enormous impact on the Indian English novelists. Sharrad discusses these and other influences on Rao’s work. References, bibliographies, and an index.

Srivastava, Narsingh. The Mind and Art of Raja Rao. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 1980. Interpretation of Rao’s philosophy as well as his novels. Bibliography, index.

Venkata Reddy, K. Major Indian Novelists: Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Bhabani Bhattacharya, Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1990. Explores twentieth century Indian authors writing in English. Index.

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