The origin of Kannada language can be traced to the early Christian era. The earliest available work in Kannada was Kavirajamarga (c.850 A.D.) written by the Rasjtrakuta king Nripatunga. Another early work of real literary value in Kannada is Vaddaaradhana written by a Jain Sivakotyacharya around 920 A.D. Pampa was the most renowned poet of Kannada who adorned the court of the Chalukya king Arikesan II. He authored the two great classics Adi Purana, which deals with the life of Vrishaba – the first Jain Tirthankara, and Vikramarjuna-vijaya (also called Pampa-Bharata), which an adaptation of Vyasa’s Mahabharata into Kannada. Ponna (c.950 A.D.) was another great poet of Kannada who wrote Shanti Purana, Bhuvanaika-Ramabhyudaya and Jinaksaramale. Ranna is credited with noteworthy works like Ajita Purana (993 A.D.) and Sahasa-Bhima-vijayam (or Gada-yuddha). Chamundaraya condensed the Sanskrit Mahapurana of Jinasena and Gunabhadra in his Chamundaraya Purana or Trisasti-laksana-mahapurana. Nagavarman I rendered Banabhatta’s Kadambari into Kannada. Durgasimha is renowned for his rendering of the Panchatantra into Kannada in 1031AD. Ramachandracharita Purana or the Pampa Ramayana authored by Nagachandra is the earliest available Ramayana in Kannada. Dharmamrata written by Nayasena in 1117 A.D. is another noteworthy work of the period. Nagavarman II is credited with systematizing the Kannada grammar in his Karnataka-bhasa-bhusana. He also authored a standard work in poetics called Kavyavalokama and a Kannada lexicon called Abhidhana-vastukosa.
The new religious movement propagated by Basava (c.1150 A.D.) had a tremendous impact on the Kannada literature. Harihara (13th century) brought about several changes in the metre and introduced what is called the ragale metre in Kannada literature. He used this in his works Basavarajadevararagale, Nambiyannana-ragale and Pushpa-ragale. Raghavanka introduced a new metre called satpadi and produced great works like Harishchandra-kavya, Somanathacharita and Siddharamcharita. The other notable works of this period were Nemichandra’s Lilavati-prabandham and Neminathacharita; Rudra Bhatta’s Jagannatha-vijaya; Mallikarjuna’s Sukti-sudharnava, Janna’s Yasodharacharita (1209AD) and Anantanatha Purana, Kesiraja’s Sabdamani-darpana, Kumudendu’s Kumudendu Ramayana, Ratta Kavi’s Rattamata (or Ratta Sutra), Nagaraja’s Punyasrava and Madhura’s Dharmanatha Purana. The best example of a pure Kannada work, without using any Sanskrit words, is Kabbigarakava of Andayya.
The Kannada literature received great patronage from the Vijayanagara rulers during the 14th-16th centuries. Kumara Vyasa wrote the first ten parvans of the Mahabharata in his Kumara Vyasa Bharata or Gadugina. Another poet Camarasa wrote Prabhulingalile and Nijaguna Sivayogin attempted to compile the first encyclopedia in Kannada in his Vivekachintamani. The other important works of this period include Lakmisa’s Jaimini-Bharata, Ratnakara’s Bharatesa-vaibhava, Ratnakara-sataka, Triloka-sataka and Aparajitesvara-sataka; Nanjundakavi’s Ramanathacharita; Sadaksaradeva’s Rajasekharavilasa, Vrisabhendra-vijaya and Sabara-sankara-vilasa and Cikkadevaraja’s Cikkadevaraja Binnapam and Gita Gopala. Singararya’s Mitravinda-Govinda was the first drama in Kannada. Honnamma, Giriyamma and Celuvambi were the important women poets of this period.
Kempu Narayana and N.Lakshminarayanappa (‘Muddanna’) were the two jewels of the modern Kannada literature. Kempu Narayana wrote Mudramanjusa in 1823, which is the first historical romance written in prose in Kannada. Muddana’s memorable works include Rama-Pattabhisekha, Adhuta Ramayana and Sri Ramasvamedham. Basavappa Sastri was the pioneer in bringing European literature to Kannada by adapting Shakespeare’s Othello into Kannada. M.S.Puttana was also a renowned novelist in Kannada. His best-known novel was Madiddunno Maharaya.
B.M.Srikanthayya (or Sri) was the pioneer of modern poetry in Kannada. He invented several new metres and translated some of the best lyrics of English poets into Kannada. His important works are Gitegalu, Honganasuglu, Asvatthaman and Parasikaru. The other great modern poets of Kannada include Panje Mangesa Rao, Manjeswar Govinda Pai, K.V.Puttappa (‘Kovempu’), Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, P.T.Narsimhachar (‘Putina’), D.V.Gundappa (‘DVG’) and Govinda Pai. DVG’s Umarana Osage, Belurina Silabalikeyaru, Sri Ramapariksanam and the great philosophical poem Manku-Timmana-kagga are some of his great works. G.P.Rajaratnam of the Ratnana-padagalu and Nagana-padagalu fame and K.S.Narasimhaswamy of Maisuru Mallige fame are two other great stalwarts of modern Kannada poetry.
K.Sivarama Karanta, A.N.Krishna Rao, T.R.Subba Rao, Krishna Murthy Puranik, V.M.Inamdar and K.Srinivasa Rao were the pioneers of Kannada novel. Sivarama Karanta was the most outstanding novelist of Kannada literature who produced the great epic of Marali Mannige. Some other great novels in Kannada are Srinivasa’s Cennabasava Nayaka and Chikavira Rajendra; Mirji Arjun Rao’s Nisarga; Bhyrappa’s Vamsavriksha, Anathamurthy’s Samskara, V.K.Gokak’s Samarasave Jivana, Devudu Narasimha’s Mahabrahmana and Mahaksatriya, Puttaswamiah’s Kranti Kalyana and V.Sitarama Sastry’s Daulat and Nagarada Rani.
Masti Venkatatesa Iyengar (‘Srinivasa’) introduced the short stories into the Kannada literature. Some of his famous short stories are The last Days of Sariputra, The Rani of Nijagal,Vasumati and Mosarina Mangamma. The other well-known short story writers in Kannada are Gorur Ramaswamy, Purnachandra Tejaswi, U.R.Anantamurthy and Gopal Krishna Rao. The well-known names among the Kannada playwrights are Garuda (Paduka Pattabhisheka), C.K.Venkataramiah (Mandodari), Srinivasa Murthy (Nagarika and Dharmaduranta), Sriranga (Sanjivini, Savitri, Kelu Janamejaya) and Sivarama Karanta (Garbha Gudi). P.T.Narasimhachar was the pioneer of the Kannada opera. He composed several operas including Gokula-nirgamana, Ahalya, Sabari, Harinabhi-sarana and Hamsa-Damyanti. A.N.Murthy Rao, S.Krishna Sharma, Vamana Bhatta, M.Rama Rao and N.Prahlad Rao are some of the renowned essayists in Kannada.