Raja Rao (8 November 1908 – 8 July 2006) was an Indian writer of English-language novels and short stories, whose works are deeply rooted in Metaphysics. The Serpent and the Rope (1960), a semi-autobiographical novel recounting a search for spiritual truth in Europe and India, established him as one of the finest Indian prose stylists and won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1964. For the entire body of his work, Rao was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1988. Rao's wide-ranging body of work, spanning a number of genres, is seen as a varied and significant contribution to Indian English literature, as well as World literature as a whole.
Raja Rao was born on November 8, 1908 in Hassan, in the princely state of Mysore (now in Karnataka in South India), into a Smartha Brahmin family of the Hoysala Karnataka caste. He was the eldest of 9 siblings, having seven sisters and a brother named Yogeshwara Ananda. His father, H.V. Krishnaswamy, taught Kannada, the native language of Karnataka, at Nizam College in Hyderabad. His mother, Gauramma, was a homemaker who died when Raja Rao was 4 years old.
The death of his mother, when he was four, left a lasting impression on the novelist – the absence of a mother and orphanhood are recurring themes in his work. Another influence from early life was his grandfather, with whom he lived in Hassan and Harihalli or Harohalli).
Rao was educated at a Muslim school, the Madarsa-e-Aliya in Hyderabad. After matriculation in 1927, Rao studied for his degree at Nizam's College. at the Osmania University, where he became friends with Ahmad Ali. He began learning French. After graduating from the University of Madras, having majored in English and history, he won the Asiatic Scholarship of the Government of Hyderabad in 1929, for study abroad.
Rao moved to the University of Montpellier in France. He studied French language and literature, and later at the Sorbonne in Paris, he explored the Indian influence on Irish literature. He married Camille Mouly, who taught French at Montpellier, in 1931. The marriage lasted until 1939. Later he depicted the breakdown of their marriage in The Serpent and the Rope. Rao published his first stories in French and English. During 1931–32 he contributed four articles written in Kannada for Jaya Karnataka, an influential journal.
Returning to India in 1939, he edited with Iqbal Singh, Changing India, an anthology of modern Indian thought from Ram Mohan Roy to Jawaharlal Nehru. He participated in the Quit India Movement of 1942. In 1943–1944 he co-edited with Ahmad Ali a journal from Bombay called Tomorrow. He was the prime mover in the formation of a cultural organisation, Sri Vidya Samiti, devoted to reviving the values of ancient Indian civilisation; this organisation failed shortly after inception. In Bombay, he was also associated with Chetana, a cultural society for the propagation of Indian thought and values.
Rao's involvement in the nationalist movement is reflected in his first two books. The novel Kanthapura (1938) was an account of the impact of Gandhi's teaching on nonviolent resistance against the British. The story is seen from the perspective of a small Mysore village in South India. Rao borrows the style and structure from Indian vernacular tales and folk-epic. Rao returned to the theme of Gandhism in the short story collection The Cow of the Barricades (1947). The Serpent and the Rope (1960) was written after a long silence during which Rao returned to India. The work dramatised the relationships between Indian and Western culture. The serpent in the title refers to illusion and the rope to reality. Cat and Shakespeare (1965) was a metaphysical comedy that answered philosophical questions posed in the earlier novels.
Rao relocated to the United States and was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin from 1966 to 1986, when he retired as Emeritus Professor. Courses he taught included Marxism to Gandhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Indian philosophy: The Upanishads, Indian philosophy: The Metaphysical Basis of the Male and Female Principle, and Razor's Edge.
In 1965, he married Katherine Jones, an American stage actress. They had one son, Christopher Rama. In 1986, after his divorce from Katherine, Rao married his third wife, Susan Vaught, whom he met when she was a student at the University of Texas in the 1970s. In 1988 he received the prestigious International Neustadt Prize for Literature. In 1998 he published Gandhi's biography Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi.
Rao died of heart failure on 8 July 2006, at his home in Austin, Texas, at the age of 97.
Raja Rao's first and best-known novel, Kanthapura (1938), is the story of a south Indian village named Kanthapura. The novel is narrated in the form of a purana by an old woman of the village, Achakka. Dominant castes like Brahmins are privileged to get the best region of the village, while lower casts such as Pariahs are marginalized. Despite this classist system, the village retains its long-cherished traditions of festivals in which all castes interact and the villagers are united. The village is believed to be protected by a local deity named Kenchamma.
The main character of the novel, Moorthy, is a young Brahmin who leaves for the city to study, where he becomes familiar with Gandhian philosophy. He begins living a Gandhian lifestyle, wearing home-spun khaddar and discarded foreign clothes and speaking out against the caste system. This causes the village priest to turn against Moorthy and excommunicate him. Heartbroken to hear this, Moorthy's mother Narasamma dies. After this, Moorthy starts living with an educated widow, Rangamma, who is active in India’s independence movement.
Moorthy is then invited by Brahmin clerks at the Skeffington coffee estate to create an awareness of Gandhian teachings among the pariah coolies. When Moorthy arrives, he is beaten by the policeman Bade Khan, but the coolies stand up for Moorthy and beat Bade Khan - an action for which they are then thrown out of the estate. Moorthy continues his fight against injustice and social inequality and becomes a staunch ally of Gandhi. Although he is depressed over the violence at the estate, he takes responsibility and goes on a three-day fast and emerges morally elated. A unit of the independence committee is then formed in Kanthapura, with the office bearers vowing to follow Gandhi’s teachings under Moorthy's leadership.
The British government accuses Moorthy of provoking the townspeople to inflict violence and arrests him. Though the committee is willing to pay his bail, Moorthy refuses their money. While Moorthy spends the next three months in prison, the women of Kanthapura take charge, forming a volunteer corps under Rangamma's leadership. Rangamma instills a sense of patriotism among the women by telling them stories of notable women from Indian history. They face police brutality, including assault and rape, when the village is attacked and burned. Upon Moorthy's release from prison, he is greeted by the loyal townspeople, who are now united regardless of caste. The novel ends with Moorthy and the town looking to the future and planning to continue their fight for independence.
- 1964: Sahitya Akademi Award
- 1969: Padma Bhushan, India's third highest civilian award
- 1988: Neustadt International Prize for Literature
- 2007: Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian award