about raja rao


Raja Rao was born in an ancient and respected Brahmin family in Hassan, Karnataka, on 8 November 1908. The eldest son in a family of two brothers and seven sisters, he was the center of the family, always treated as if he was destined for great things. His father taught Kannada at Nizam’s College in the neighboring Hyderabad State. When he was only four, his mother died. This was one of the most important events in his life; indeed, the absence of the mother and the sense of being an orphan recur in his fiction. Perhaps, the earliest influence on Raja Rao was his grandfather, with whom he stayed both in Hassan and in Harihalli, while his father was in Hyderabad. Rao seems to have imbued a spiritual orientation from his grandfather; this preoccupation has stayed with Rao throughout his life and is evident in all his work.

Rao joined his father in Hyderabad, going there to attend high school. He studied at the Madarsa-i-Aliya, then the most famous school in the state, where the aristocracy of Hyderabad sent their children and was perhaps, the only Hindu boy in his class. He was then sent to the Aligarh Muslim University in North India. These Aligarh days proved to be crucial in shaping Rao’s intellectual growth. Under the influence of Eric Dickinson, a minor poet and a visiting professor from Oxford, Rao’s literary sensibility was awakened. He met other students such as Ahmed Ali, who became a famous novelist, and Chetan Anand, who became an influential film producer. Rao also began learning French at Aligarh, which contributed to his decision to go to France a few years later. After matriculating in 1927, he returned to Hyderabad to enroll as a student for the BA at Nizam’s College. Two years later, he graduated, having majored in English and History.

In 1929, two other important events occurred in Rao’s life. First, he won the Asiatic Scholarship of the Government of Hyderabad for study abroad. This marked the beginning of another phase in his life. He left India for the first time in his life to study at the University of Montpellier in France. Secondly, in that same year, Rao married Camille Mouly who taught French at Montpellier. Camille was undoubtedly the most important influence on Rao’s life during the next ten years; she not only encouraged him to write, but supported him financially for several years. In 1931, his early Kannada writing began to appear in the journal Jaya Karnataka. For the next two years, Rao researched the influence of India on Irish literature at the Sorbonne. His first short stories were published in journal such as Asia (New York) and Cahiers du Sud (Paris). In 1933, Rao abandoned research to devote himself completely to writing.

Although Rao lived abroad, he never ceased to be an Indian in temperament and sensibility. In fact, his awareness of Indian culture grew even though he could not settle down permanently in India. He became a compulsive visitor, returning to India again and again for spiritual and cultural nourishment; indeed, in a sense, Rao never completely left India. In 1933, he visited Pandit Taranath’s ashram in his quest for self-realization. In 1938, his masterpiece, Kanthapura, although written earlier, was published from London. One year later Rao’s marriage disintegrated; he found himself back in India, his spiritual search renewed. He even appeared to give up writing to seek the truth. In the next few years, Rao visited a number of ashrams and religious teachers, notably Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai, Narayana Maharaj of Kedgaon and Mahatama Gandhi at Sevagram. Around this time, Rao also became a public figure in India, active in several social and political causes. He edited with Iqbal Singh, Changing India (1939), an anthology of modern Indian thought from Rammohan Roy to Nehru. He participated in the underground Quit India movement of 1942, boldly associating with a group of radical socialists. In 1943-1944 he coedited with Ahmed Ali a journal from Bombay called Tomorrow. He was the prime mover in the formation of a cultural organization, Sri Vidya Samiti, devoted to reviving the values of ancient Indian civilization; this organization failed shortly after inception. In Bombay, he was also associated with Chetana, a cultural society for the propagation of Indian thought and values. Finally, in 1943, Rao’s quest appears to have been fullfilled when he met his spritual preceptor in Atmananda Guru of Trivandrum. Rao’s life altered radically after this. He even thought of settling down in Trivandrum, near his Guru’s ashram, returned to France after his Guru’s demise.

In 1960, twenty-two years after Kanthapura, Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope was published. The Cat and Shakespeare followed in 1965. About ten years later, Comrade Kirillov was published in English. Its French version Le Comrade Kirillov had appeared in 1965. From 1965 until his retirement, Rao was professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. In that same year, 1965, he married Katherine Jones, an American stage actress. They have one son, Christopher Rama. Teaching one semester year, Rao divided his time between the United States, France and India. Rao retired from the University of Texas in 1980. In 1986, after his divorce from Katherine, Rao married Susan. Today, at the age of ninety, he is still working hard on his unfinished works. He says he has to complete the last ten pages of a new novel he wrote in 1993 and is reported to have begun a new novel last year. He dreams of writing his last novel in Kannada.


Makarand Paranjape

Excerpted from the introduction to The Best of Raja Rao published in 1998 by Katha, New Delhi.