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Benegal Ramrao

Another feather in the Chitrapur Saraswat cap

By Dr (Smt.) Sushama A. Arur, Goa


Chitrapur Saraswats are familiar with the illustrious Benegal brothers - the late Sir Rama Rau, who was Chairman of the Reserve Bank of India and Sir Narasing Rao, one of the co-authors of the Constitution of India. But many are not aware of Benegal Ramrao, son of Manjunathayya of South Kanara. A nationalist with a poetic bent of mind, he worked alongside Alur Venkatrao and others to bring about the unification of Karnataka by instilling amongst the Kannada-speaking people a sense of pride and love for their mother tongue.

In recognition of his dedicated service to the Kannada language and culture, Benegal Ramrao was made President of the Kannada Sahitya Parishad held at Belgavi (Belgaum) in 1925. Benegal Ramrao happened to live during turbulent times when India was going through a period of great political upheaval. The Indian national movement was in its infancy and an urgent need was being felt to change the mindset of the people, to unite all Indians through a feeling of oneness and a shared pride in India's diverse culture. The leaders of Karnataka had a two-fold aim to achieve: apart from fighting for freedom, they also had to unify the Kannada-speaking people. For political and administrative reasons, the British had divided Kannada speaking areas and joined them with those areas where Marathi, Telugu and Tamil were dominant. As a result, the Kannadigas had lost their identity by neglecting their language and were unaware of their history and culture. Many Chitrapur Saraswats of South Kanara and North Kanara have contributed towards achieving these goals - Karnad Sadashivrao, Shamrao Vithal Kaikini, Panje Mangeshrao and Benegal Ramrao are some of the prominent people who worked untiringly among the masses to create this feeling of awareness.

Ramrao was born in 1876 in Mangalore. His father was a lawyer. After completing school from Mulki and Puttur, he went to Mangalore to pursue higher education. He, then, did his BA from Presidency College, Madras, in 1896. He had a great craving for learning languages; apart from Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali and Hindi, he mastered Sanskrit and English too. He was conferred a Masters' degree for his research work titled, 'Renaissance in Modern Kannada' after which he did his LLB from Bombay University.


He had a great passion for the Kannada language, which he fulfilled by teaching the language in schools and colleges. He continued to dabble in different languages and translated many works from Bengali, Telugu, Marathi and Sanskrit into Kannada. He also wrote small stories by the names of 'Iravati', 'Chikka Kategalu', and 'Mahaniyara Charitramale'.


Ramrao had a deep interest in history too. He would urge people to go and see temples, caves and other historical monuments to acquaint themselves with their local history. He was better known as 'Kaifiyat Ramrao' because he wrote kaifiyats (accounts/descriptions) of the Tanjavur family, Halebid and Holehonnur. He is also known for having written -a prominent research work called 'Purana Nama Chudamani' along with Panyam Sundar Shastri.


Ramrao's "karmabhumi" was an expansive area, encompassing the Bombay-Karnataka and Madras Presidencies of the British Empire where he worked initially as a translator for the Bombay Government and later as head of the Translation Department in the Madras Government. He devoted his time and energy in organizing various programmes to bring the Kannada-speaking people to work collectively towards the common goal of freedom and unification of Karnataka. To achieve this end, he toured the nooks and corners of Kannada-speaking areas, interacting with people and giving fiery speeches.


Ramrao was the editor of the Kannada newspapers 'Suvasini' (Mangalore) and 'Vagbhushana' (Dharwad) through which he spoke his mind boldly, giving a wake-up call to the people to unite and work for the progress and development of their 'Matrubhumi'. He used this medium effectively to educate the masses to work wards unity and freedom. He believed strongly that everyone should learn their mother tongue. He urged the Kannadigas to buy newspapers daily. He was actively associated with the public library movement and encouraged the literate to read prolifically so much so that they should have at least a hundred Kannada works in their homes. Chitrapur Saraswats being a minority community have the unique characteristic of mingling with the majority yet retaining their identity. As a result, though their mother tongue, Konkani, was spoken at home, Kannada was used for all practical and business purposes. Many Chitrapur Saraswats were Kannada poets and litterateurs.


Ramrao was one of the forerunners in Karnataka to bring about a movement of literacy in the mother tongue as also cultural awareness among the masses through street plays, kirtans, bhajans, speeches etc. Historical plays and skits were organized to motivate people to work for the common goal. These activities immensely helped in paving the way for literacy and social awareness which led to the unification of Karnataka and its people of different classes and castes, towards the common goal of achieving freedom.


Ramrao never hankered for publicity and worked silently along with Alur Venkatrao and other leaders in preparing the ground for unifying the people through their writings and selfless, dedicated work. Later, the political leaders carried out their legacy and fulfilled the two dreams of the people - freedom of the nation from British rule and the unification of Karnataka.

The above piece was printed the Kanara Saraswat Magazine of January 2009. expresses its gratitude for allowing us to publish the article here. 

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