The Forgotten Father of Kannada Typewriter/Key Board Sri K anantha Subbaraya

Dr. Padmashree Anand
Published: May 2016

kannadaThe accomplishment of K Anantha Subbaraya in the history of modern Kannada script remains unsurpassed even today. He achieved the impossible, led an ordinary life and passed away without due recognition.

His contributions in advocating equal status for the Kannada script with other noted languages are incomparable if not unconceivable. This article focuses on his accomplishment and remarkable struggles to invent a Kannada typewriter and claim recognition for it.

K Anantha Subbaraya was born on December 09, 1907 to Keshavaiah and Savitramma in the Anuganahalu village of Hassan district in the south Indian state of Karnataka.

Following the untimely demise of his father when Anantha Subbaraya was barely four years old, his family experienced untold hardships. Anantha Subbaraya completed his primary education in Anuganahalu village and later moved to Hassan along with his mother to complete his middle school education. He was fond of experimenting with theoretical concepts taught in the classroom. Such was his scientific temper even at an early age. Being a bright and brilliant student, he successfully completed his lower secondary examinations in both Kannada and English. Subsequently, he took up his upper secondary exam and qualified for the teacher’s post. He married Rajamma and started his professional career as a teacher in Shimoga district. He published Akshara Pustaka, a Kannada primer book. The book was a valuable resource since it helped children learn Kannada in a scientific and systematic manner.

Anantha Subbaraya did a lot of research in designing the Kannada shorthand, first by looking at the possibilities of removing the difficulties faced in Pitman’s shorthand and secondly, seeking to find if the easier Boyd shorthand could be adopted for the Kannada script. Though he was successful in his research, it has not been recognized nor acknowledged by the scholars till date. Thanks to the political and bureaucratic apathy, his research and book on Kannada shorthand found its way to the attic. However, the general public recognised and appreciated his efforts, and learnt the Kannada shorthand designed by him owing to its simplicity and ease to learn. He himself employed it successfully in his profession as a newspaper reporter.

He also brought out Shree Sharada Sheeghralipi or Shree Sharada Shorthand, a concise ten-page manual on the Kannada shorthand. Influenced by Gandhian ideals, Anantha Subbaraya tendered his resignation as a teacher and became a news reporter for one of the leading Kannada dailies, Vishwa Karnataka. He was actively involved in the field of journalism for almost two decades as a news reporter and editor for some of the newspapers. In order to fight against injustices meted to the Kannada script, he floated his own daily, Sevaka.

Subsequently, he came to Bangalore to work on Siribhoovalaya, a treasure house of knowledge in Kannada written by the Jain monk, Kumudendu. Following which he returned to Hassan, and floated a local newspaper in the district.

The Story behind the invention of Kannada Typewriter

In order to begin his research and design a typewriter for the Kannada script, Anantha Subbaraya bought an old English typewriter to learn and understand its various parts and functions.

He bought lead liggettes, melted and casted in the engraved wooden Kannada alphabets, softened to give a nice finish and adopted the same in the English keyboard.

However, this did not solve the problem completely because of the English keyboard which is small in size and also the alphabets of Kannada are more than twice as much as that of English. Additionally, the Kannada language also contains double consonants. So, he devised a compound consonant method i.e., after typing one full alphabet, when 4-5 keys were typed over it, it would take a different shape. At this juncture, a mention must be made that he employed the dead key concept to achieve the impossible.

typewriterOn a typewriter, a dead key acts as the character modifier which is accomplished mechanically by striking the diacritical mark without advancing the carriage (in modern terms, the diacritical mark keys are non-spacing) and in the case of the Kannada language, to type a double consonant. Thus, the following letter will strike the same spot on the paper completing the full formation of the required alphabet.

Anantha Subbaraya was against any change in the existing Kannada script just for the purpose of it being adopted to design a Kannada typewriter. At several Kannada Sahitya Conferences, scholars opined that a change in the Kannada script was inevitable to design a Kannada typewriter, but Anantha Subbaraya designed a Kannada typewriter without altering the existing Kannada script, thereby antagonizing the great scholars of that time for proving them wrong.
He had designed the Kannada typewriter not just by putting caps but also casting lead made types soldered over the alphabets in the English typewriter. Thus, by putting caps over the English alphabets and placing Kannada alphabets, the English typewriter could function as a Kannada typewriter, with the same speed and accuracy. Hence to convert an English typewriter to a Kannada typewriter all one needed were the caps and the Kannada alphabets. When the Remington typewriter manufacturing company’s representative saw what Anantha Subbaraya had achieved, he was spellbound! In the interest of his company, he requested Anantha Subbaraya not to use this technique as there would be no need to manufacture Kannada typewriter separately but instead, just make the required caps.

Overcoming dead key challenges

Anantha Subbaraya made use of an additional shift key that would enable Kannada numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 9 to be typed below the alphabet or adjacent to it while typing a double consonant. This was a new concept adopted by him. He also reduced the 250 alphabet impressions in Kannada printing to 90 for the typewriter thereby, achieving the impossible. This invention enabled today`s advanced DTP technology with all kind of printing materials.

Struggle for acceptance of his invention

Anantha Subbaraya designed the basic keyboard and published an article about the invention in a local daily. A Swedish manufacturing company came to know about the invention and its representatives came in search of its inventor. The company’s representative asked Anantha Subbaraya to give them the manufacturing rights of the Kannada typewriter in return for the royalty to be paid by the company. A staunch and a true patriot, he refused to relinquish the rights to a company from a foreign country.

In those days for a language to be made the administrative language, it was imperative to have a typewriter in the same language. When Anantha Subbaraya approached subsequent establishments with his invention, they appointed committees to assess the utility of the invented machine. Unfortunately, due to some vested interests in the bureaucracy, the committees appointed by the establishments gave an unfair report that Anantha Subbaraya’s invention was useless and not worth.

Even though he designed the Kannada typewriter in 1931, it was not accepted till 1961. Thus, his invention was in hibernation for 30 long years! Anantha Subbaraya was shattered by this, but, he decided to publicize his invention. Hence, he went to each district in Karnataka, demonstrating the use of the Kannada typewriter.

He also made the public aware of the fact that this machine was not yet accepted by the establishment. Articles about his invention and its lack of acceptance by the establishment were published in Prajavani – a Kannada daily. Finally, bowing to pressure and criticism from the general public and the media about the delay in giving the Kannada language the administrative language status, the establishment asked the Swedish company to manufacture Kannada typewriters but gave another design. The company stated that it would manufacture only the Kannada typewriter designed and invented by Anantha Subbaraya as it was most scientific. The establishment was left with no other choice but to finally accept Anantha Subbaraya’s invention.

Once again, Anantha Subbaraya was taken for a ride. The establishment sent emissaries to persuade Anantha Subbaraya to sell the rights of his invention to the establishment. With no choice left and with the hope that it would be sold at a reasonable price to benefit the people, Anantha Subbaraya relinquished the rights to the then establishment. One will be astonished at the ridiculous conditions put forth in the agreement with Anantha Subbaraya.

The first was that the inventor will be paid as a onetime compensation of meagre sum of Rs. 5000 (which did not even cover the costs of the experimented typewriter, materials etc. he procured in those days). The second was that the inventor should transfer drawings, designs, royalty, manufacturing rights, selling rights, etc. to the establishment.

Anantha Subbaraya’s noble goal was that his invention should benefit the society. Thus, he agreed to the terms and conditions put forth by the establishment, without thinking about himself or the future of his family members comprising three sons and a daughter.

Initially, the establishment asked the company to manufacture six machines, which was delivered in a span of three months. This was possible because Anantha Subbaraya’s Kannada typewriter machine could be manufactured by converting the existing surplus English typewriters in the company. Thus, it became a huge advantage for the manufacturing company since it involved modifying the English typewriter to Kannada with the same number of keys. Within a few years, lakhs and lakhs of machines were sold with no benefit to the inventor. Even foreign embassies like Japan and China procured the Kannada typewriter so that the design could be adopted for their languages as well. The ‘Anantha Keyboard’, designed by Anantha Subbaraya is highly scientific because till date, the design of the basic keyboard has never been changed. In fact, the same has been adopted in all types of computers and smart phones with minor modifications. However, in the process, the name Anantha has ceased to exist.

Anantha Subbaraya was not accorded his dues, given support or offered pension for his invention despite repeated pleas. If anything, his royalty was also denied despite his contributions to the Kannada script.

Having fought a lost cause and disillusioned with life, a man who led a pious life even in poverty, departed from this world after a brief illness on November 29, 1985. He spent his last days with his son in Bangalore. A mention must be made here that during his illness, part of the hospital bill was paid by the then establishment.

Although the establishment did not recognise Anantha Subbaraya’s works, Tamil Sangam, Ulsoor, Bangalore, ITI Kannada Association and a host of others came forward to honour him. Finally, in 1973, the establishment took enough cognizance of the great inventor to confer on him the Kannada Rajyotsava Award. Sudharthi, an ITI employee from Hassan inspired by Anantha Subbaraya, authored his biography in 1978 called Anantha in Kannada.

Anantha Subbaraya was a selfless person who sacrificed his entire life for the development of the Kannada script and was instrumental in obtaining an equal status for it on par with other languages.

Nevertheless, the state can recognize and realize the credit due to Anantha Subbaraya by organizing programmes throughout the state in memory of his contribution to the Kannada language and its development.

A humble salutation and kudos to the unsung and forgotten doyen of Kannada Typewriter!

Note: This article is based on excerpts from the author’s interview with Anantha Subbaraya’s son, Manjunathan AR.