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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2022



Martyrdom of an Undaunted Crusader: A Study of Basavaraj Naikar’s Historical Play Rayanna: The Tiger of Sangavalli

Dr. Radha Kanta Mishra, Retd. Reader in English, Mahalaxmi Nagar, Bolangir, Odisha


Indian English Drama is rather poor as compared to fiction and poetry. And again Indian English historical drama is the poorest as compared to drama. This paucity of historical fiction in general and drama in particular is attributable to the difficulty involved in producing historical literature. Writing historical fiction or drama is not a joke at all. It is not as easy as writing a contemporary novel or play as it requires deep historical research, consultation with historical documents and other records, oral history and an additional qualification of historical imagination to harmonize all the facts into a coherent whole by removing the irrelevant and contradictory information. That is why the number of historical plays in Indian English Literature is very small. Apart from Sri Aurobindo, Malgonkar, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya there are no historical dramatists worth the name. In this context Basavaraj Naikar’s Rayanna, The Tiger of Sangavalli happens to be an important contribution to the impoverished realm.

There are numerous accounts of martyrdoms of many heroic personalities who plunged ungrudgingly into the stream of anti-colonial rebellion against the British for freedom of their motherland from their dominion.   Such uprisings broke out first against the East India Company in the early phase of 19thcentury and later on they were directed against the Britishers at the advent of the 20thcentury.   All these uprisings upheaved successively at different periods with the objective of paralyzing the foothold of the British and giving a death blow to it.   Despite consistent revolt and resistance, it thrived safely and stabilized its existence in this soil by suppressing anti-colonial rebellion through military operation. Many patriots fought for the freedom and sacrificed their lives in the battles against imperialists.   Their martyrdom is glorified by the history.  Nevertheless, many patriotic heroes volunteered to combat the imperialists inspired by nationalism and patriotism.

One of the young patriots of Karnataka, who sacrificed his life for the freedom of his motherland, was Rayanna an inhabitant of Sangavalli, a village in the kingdom of Kittur.   From his early age his mind was filled with an anti-colonial spirit that motivated him to revolt against tyrannical rule of the East India Company.   He suffered imprisonment for two years for no fault of him.   The court found him innocent and acquitted him.  His imprisonment without any cause inflamed his resentment against the Company.    He took a vow to restore the kingdom of Kittur from its dominion through arms rebellion.   He stated his determination in the following words: “I shall definitely win the freedom of our kingdom and enthrone our Sawai Mallasarja, thereby fulfilling the dream of Rani Chennamma” (P. 2).

The repressive measures enforced by the Company on the local inhabitants instilled in Rayanna an anti-colonial antagonism and provoked him to take up arms against the colonizers who had unjustly annexed the Kingdom of Kittur with an imperialistic mission.   He spoke to his mother his decision to smash the colonial rule: “mother I will not be happy and at peace until and unless I have avenged those Britishers” (P.3.).

Rayanna was an honest and upright person. He was kind and compassionate towards the poor and the needy but aggressively ferocious towards the miscreants. An incident that embittered his sentiment was his awareness of Kulkarni’s corruption.   Kulkarni, the village accountant used dishonestly to relax the condition of payment of land revenue for the villagers who bribed him in the form of grain, butter and vegetable. He extorted bribe from them unscrupulously without hesitation and compunction.   Rayanna could not tolerate his corruption and exposedhim to the inquiring inspector who connived at his offence and ignored the former’s complaint. To his disappointment, he found the inspector equally dishonest and corrupt.   Taking advantage of inspector’s corruptibility, Kulkarni invites him to dinner at his residence and offers him cash in order to ingratiate with him.   He prevails upon the inspector to ignore the charge of corruption attributed to him by Rayanna.   The inspector assures him to vindicate him and absolve him from the allegations.   After he was exposed to the inquiring inspector, Kulkarni, nursed a grudge against Rayanna and waited for an opportunity to retaliate on him.  He expressed his grudge in the following words: “Yesterday this fool insulted me publicly in the presence of my superior officers. I shall teach the lesson of his life at the right time” (P. 4.).  Kulkarni instigated the Company to expropriate Rayanna’s land and dispossess him in order to depress him.   His malicious instigation was intended to appease his anger and grudge against the latter.   As Rayanna came to know about the unjust and unfair confiscation of his land for which he attributed the conspiracy to Kulkarni, he set out vindictively to sell out his cattle and burn his haystack in retaliation of his insidious devilry.   Mr. Stoke an officer of the Company reacted to the loss sustained and suffered by Kulkarni and reported this matter of depredation to the Company but it remained irresponsive to his complaint.

The playwright delineates another incident that mortifies Rayanna and his companions, is the insolent disinclination of the collector to withdraw the prejudicial laws of land revenue taxation which was imposed on the poor land owners.    The Collector refuses to withdraw the laws in the course of his conversation with Krishnarao regarding villagers’ resentment for imposition of newly formulated laws of land taxation and pressure on him to invalidate this law. He denies its withdrawal negatively in the following words “we cannot withdraw the laws that we have introduced once whatever may be the consequences. Our British Empire is very vast. The sun will never set on British Empire. We have annexed many princely states like Kittur” (P.5.). The insolent refusal of the collector to withdraw this anti-communal law disgruntles Rayanna and his rebellious companions and provokes them to challenge the Company’s arbitrary imposition.

Rayanna’s bravery as an undaunted hero is evinced by his victory in the duel with an adversary Parashya who was entrusted by the Company to capture him and hand him over to the Company.   He was assured to get reward from itin requital of this service.   As Rayanna went to the fort, where Parashya was hiding, the latter shot at his thigh from an advantageous position of the roof of the fort.   Despite his injury, he instantly climbed to the top of the fort and decapitated Parashya’s head and exhibited it in public.   He fought with this criminal single-handed without the assistance of any other person.    This victory in killing his adversary bears authenticity of his heroism and bravery. In any encounter with the Company, or with an adversary he betrayed his tiger like ferocity and fighting valiantly with intrepidity.   The Company deployed its forces to capture him but failed as he was invariably elusive.    

As the East India Company successively enforced the repressive measures against the insurgents, Rayanna and his gang were provoked to attack its office.   They ravaged the offices of the Company and looted the cash deposited in different treasuries in the villages and burnt all the records and documents to disestablish its administration.   The disgruntled rebels depredated the offices of the Company devastatingly as a prelude to their premeditated war against it.   This tyrannical rule exasperated Rayanna and his follow rebels to meditate a vigorous attack on the Company to annihilate its colonial supremacy.   With this end in view he approached the King Chandrasena of Shivanagutti and the RajaVenkatappaNayaka of Surapura for seeking military assistance from them.

After procuring military aids from the Kings, Rayanna consolidated his army of youth and faced three encounters successively.   In two of them, his army combated triumphantly the military force of the enemy but in the third, they were defeated by the Company due to manipulation of a new strategy of fighting employed by an expert army officer named Mr.Coorie who was entrusted to overthrow the army of Rayanna.   In consequence of his victory of his army, Mr. Coorie boastfully professed his creditable achievement in the last encounter in which he killed more than seventy soldiers and arrested eighty five of the rival army.   On hearing his insolent statement, Krishnarao expressed his reaction with an apprehension of Rayanna’s subsequent attack.   He stated “Rayanna is not an ordinary fellow.   He will rebuild his army and renovate his rebellion.   He moves about like lightning from place to place thereby misleading the chasers.   It is very difficult to catch him” (P.7.).

As a result of Rayanna’s defeat in the third encounter and loss of lives of many of his soldiers, he resolutely strengthened his army and emboldened it. He was preparing to face another encounter with confidence of his victory. Before he executed his premeditated plan of attacking the Company he was treacherously captured by a gang of conspirators as a result of which his plan of achieving victory remained unfulfilled.

After the failure of several attempts to apprehend him, Nisbet the collector betrayed his anxiety and stated with mortification “The rowdy Rayanna has become a big headache for me; he has been moving about like lightning; it is our bad luck” (P.7.).  Finally, he desperately resorted to a conspiracy and instigated his most trusted men like Krishnarao, Bhimya, Lakkya, Linganagowda and Venkanagowda and entrusted them to hatch a conspiracy to nab the wanted and the most dreaded criminal. He tempted them with the promise of rewards.   The greed for reward motivated these intriguers to undertake this task of capturing Rayanna with enthusiasm. They furtively manipulated their plan for entrapment and succeeded in their efforts.With this devilish plan in mind, they deliberately befriended Rayanna’s companions and infused confidence in them about the fairness of their intention.   As their plan went ahead, Lakkya ensured the detection of their most wanted culprit. “Everything is manipulated properly this time we are sure to catch the tiger” (P.8.).  The conspirators cunningly captured Rayanna when he was armless and alone.   Although he was nabbed, he never felt disheartened and demoralized for this treachery.   As he found his maternal uncle an accomplice in the conspiracy, he was shocked and prompted to express his reaction tauntingly in a pensive mood, “Do you think I am afraid of death.   I prefer death to dishonour, I have the satisfaction of laying down my life for my revered mother Chennamma and for my brother Sawai Mallasarja” (P.9.).

After he was captured, he was produced before the officers of the Company.   The collector, who was so long worried about the failure of detection by the Company, breathed a sigh of relief finding Rayanna under their captivity.   He stated his sense of relief, “I am feeling quite relaxed after capturing that rowdy Rayanna”(P.10.).

His captivity was followed by his interrogation about his past crime.   In his interaction with the officers, he boldly refuted the charges and allegations levelled on him by the former.   He vindicated himself by justifying his offence.   He stated in his defence, “I have not committed any crime. I have fought for my kingdom of Kittur and for my revered Rani Chennamma and Rani Viravva. I have fought for a patriotic cause” (P.11.) but his vindication proved futile and abortive as the officers ignored it and did not take any notice of his statements.   Anderson, the Visiting Commissioner of the Company recommended award of death sentence to him on the ground of his being a dreaded criminal.  He stated his adverse remark against Rayanna, “Rayanna happens to be the principal offender; he should suffer the supreme penalty of the law. Rayanna and his companion should be hanged to death and their property be confiscated by the government. He further addresses Rayanna, “You will be hanged to death for your criminal activities like robbing looting and burning etc” (P.12).

In honour of Anderson’s approval of death sentence, the Company condemned him to death and asked him to state his last wish. In reply to this he stated, “My last wish is that my patriotic mission should be continued by my followers and drive out the Ingrezi Sarkar from our land”. (13)Rayanna daringly faced death and became a martyr.   Many such rebellious personalities, who have crusaded against the East India Company in the past for the freedom of their estates and the nation, have been executed by it.    In the Irish revolution also many insurrectionists like Robert Emmet, Edward, Fitzgerald and Pearse and Connolly have been hanged to death by the British rulers to suppress their rebellion against the Government.

Rayanna’s indomitable sacrifice as a patriot was buried in oblivion till the history of his life and activities was brought to light by the eminent playwright   Basavaraj Naikar, who dramatizes his patriotic struggle against the East India Company.  Naikar has adroitly drawn out his heroic personality in a panoramic manner and presented him as a source of inspiration and reminiscences to Indian patriots.   If it is performed in public, it will evoke a feeling of pity and bring tears to the eyes of the audience.   The projection of this character and his tragic execution will sentimentalize them with the feeling of irretrievable loss of life of an invincible hero.

The patriotic life and activities of Rayanna stand comparable with other martyrs of India such as Chennamma, Rani Laxmibai, Veer Surendra Sai, Bhagat Singh, Chandra Sekhar Azad, Birsa Munda, BaghaJatin and BoxiJagabandhu of Odisha.  All these personalities are hailed as militant nationalists who struggled heroically against the British for freedom of their mother land from foreign dominion and lost their lives for the noble cause.It is relevant to recollect them by highlighting their martyrdom.

Rani Chennamma was the supreme head of the princely state of Kittur after the death of her husband.   As the East India Company attempted to annex her kingdom, she fought with it with her local army of warriors and defeated the colonizers twice to her credit.   Finally, she was defeated in the encounter due to the treachery of her own trusted security officer who mischievously adulterated the gunpowder and rendered it dysfunctional.   Consequent upon such treachery, she lost the battle and lost the kingdom.   She was imprisoned in the Bailahongala fort.   Her rebellious fight with the Company is a milestone on the way of freedom movement.

Next to Chennamma, occurs the name of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi who fought vigorously with the East India Company to defend her kingdom.   She continued to fight with it with an indomitable heroic valour and finally sacrificed her life for the freedom of her estate from the captivity of the colonizers.   She was also looked upon as a dreaded militant nationalist who counter attacked the army of the Company and jeopardized its stability in this country.      Since the Company had a large number of military forces, it overpowered the army of Laxmibai and captured her fort.   As she found herself vulnerable, she fled from her palace to Kalpi for shelter but on her way she was attacked by a British soldier who wounded her.   She, however, killed the assailant instantly and proved her valour.   Despite the treatment of her wound, she succumbed to it and became a martyr.   Her anti-colonial struggle against the Company is counted as a significant historical event momentous in the history of freedom movement.

Veer Surendra Sai of Sambalpur in Odisha is hailed as an outstanding hero, who launched rebellion against the British in order to rout them from India and decolonize this country.   He combated the British with a gigantic monstrosity.   He harboured anti-colonial animosity against the alien rulers and fought untiringly and unflinchingly with a challenging spirit.  He disappointed the government who failed to subjugate its insurrection.   The British officers in view of his invulnerability deemed it futile to persist in its encounter against him and decided to give in but eventually they won some of the close companions of Surendra Sai and engaged them with an allurement of reward to detect him.   A plan of conspiracy was executed by the betrayers to nab him.   As a result of treachery Surendra Sai was apprehended by the police and imprisoned in Asurgarh fort of Bilaspur.   He spent the remaining part of his life in utmost tragic circumstances and breathed his last.   Thus, he became a martyr for his sacrifice of life for the country.

Another illustrious hero, who sacrificed his life in the prime of his life for his mother land and became a martyr, was Bhagat Singh.   As   a militant crusader against the British, he indulged himself in violence and criminal activities.   He assassinated those British officers who oppressed the Indians.   He continued to fight with the alien rulers with an aspiration for freedom of the nation.   He assassinated two British officers Sounders and James Scott for having attempted to kill Lajpat Rai, a dedicated patriot of India.   His strenuous struggle for freedom could not be crowned with success during his lifetime due to his premature death by execution but his sacrifice paved the path for intensification of public resentment that subsequently precipitated into a national movement which did not subside till the achievement of Indian Independence.   His martyrdom magnifies his personality and bejewelled him as an outstanding hero of war of Independence.

It is also relevant to mention the names of other militant nationalists who were also implicated in the assassination of the British officers.    These heroes were Chandra Sekhar Azad, Jay Rajguru and Sukhdev. The name of Azad is frequently articulated in connection with Bhagat Singh’s involvement in the criminal offence.   Azad was a close associate of Bhagat Singh who collaborated with each other in their struggle and fight against the alien rulers.   Azad was a dreaded criminal in the opinion of the British who deployed adequate police force to capture him but the police failed to nab him.   After eluding the police many a time, he was once attacked by it in the Alfred Park where he was hiding.   His most trusted friend Veera Bhadra Tiwari betrayed him and pointed out to police his whereabouts.   As police attacked him, he fought with them single handed but with heroic gallantry.   When the police, overpowered him, he found no means of escape and shot himself with the pistol he used to carry invariably.   Thus, he sacrificed his life as an undaunted hero and became a martyr.

The other two associates of Azad were Jay Rajguru and Sukhdev who were also aggressive nationalists.   They co-operated with Bhagat Singh and implicated themselves in killing the British officers.   As Jay Rajguru and Sukhdev were targetted by the British, they were also executed along with Bhagat Singh.   These two militant personalities are also immortal in history as martyrs.

In like manner, Birsa Munda and Bagha Jatin also rebelled against British rule in India with an indomitable spirit and mortified the Government by their persistent counterattack and resistance.   After prolonged fight they were also eliminated by the invulnerable force of the British. Whereas Birsa was captured and imprisoned, Bagha Jatin was wounded in an encounter and consequently breathed his last in a hospital at Balasore.   These two heroic personalities are also immortalized as martyrs for their noblest sacrifice in the cause of the nation.   Their sacrifice inspired thousands of patriots to revolt against colonial supremacy and autocracy.   This trend of anti-colonial struggle persisted unabated till India achieved her independence.

All these freedom fighters, who sacrificed their lives for the emancipation of their mother land from foreign dominion, have been immortalized in the world history.   They are honoured as precious jewels of the nation.   Reminiscence of their martyrdom as patriotic heroes necessitates a study of their lives and achievements as a source of inspiration and impetus to Indians.  Their commemoration evokes the feeling of nationalism and patriotism in the minds of millions of Indians.

Basavaraj Naikar celebrates the martyrdom of Rayanna by writing a play on his life of sacrifice. The play not only immortalizes his life but also glorifies his dedication to the state of Kittur. If we compare and contrast his martyrdom with that of other martyrs mentioned above, we find that Bhagat Singh and his associates Jay Rajguru and Sukhdev were condemned to death on the charge of assassination of British officer but none other than these crusaders was executed. Neither Veer Surendra Sai nor Birsa Munda nor Bagha Jatin was hanged to death in spite of their criminal activities against British. It was only Rayanna who was executed on the charge of arson, looting and robbery. These charges levelled on him were merely liable for imprisonment but not at all for death sentence. As the Britishers were unchallengeable supreme rulers vested with enormous power, they exercised their authority arbitrarily and unjustly to award death sentence to Rayanna in contravention of the penal law with a view to rooting out the possibility of his attack on the Company in future. They intended to dispel from their mind the apprehension and consternation of Rayanna’s vindictive action against them. Although he was unjustly sentenced to death, yet he did not protest the pronouncement of misjudgment. On the contrary he passively and stoically embraced the sentence his well-wishers and supporters, who lamented his death, did not venture to raise an objection to this unjust verdict.

Basavaraj Naikar deserves commendation for his intellectual venture in portraying Rayanna’s social background and the antecedent causes of his execution. This delineation of his noblest service to the kingdom of Kittur and his social activities for the inhabitants of the village, which were not acknowledged by the East India Company, fills our mind with anti-colonial hatred towards the British. His martyrdom should be commemorated at frequent intervals to glorify his personality. He has been enshrined in the temple of our memory for years to come. The title of the play describing Rayanna as the tiger of Sangavalli was given by the vast population of Kittur kingdom. The play is a welcome addition to the realm of Indian English historical drama, which is otherwise very poor. Although some scanty biographies are available in regional languages as well as in English on such Indian martyrs, no full-fledged plays have been attempted so far by any Indian English playwrights, which is really strange and disappointing.




Notes & References

Bhusan, Bharat. The life and Times of Chandra Sekhar Azad, Delhi: Prabhat Prakashan, 2005.

Das, Anirudha. Veer Surendra Sai, Cuttack: Nalanda, 1963.

Jalwant,  Paul E., The Rani of Jhansi Laxmibai, New Delhi: Roli Books, 1997

Krishna, Gopi. The Life and Times of Birsa Munda, New Delhi: Kanwar, Prabhat Books, 2017.

Mukharjee, Prithwindra. Bagha Jatin: The Revolutionary Legacy, Mumbai: Indus Source Books.

Naikar, Basavaraj. Rayanna: The Tiger of Sangavalli, Bangalore: CVG Books 2020.
(All the page references are to this edition.)
……..The Rani of Kittur: Bangalore: CVG Books, 2015.

Nayar, Kuldip. The Martyr Bhagat Singh: Experiment in Revolution, New Delhi: Har Anand Publication, 2000.