Lokayukta Santosh Hegde, internationally renowned cardio-surgeon Dr Devi prasad Shetty, well-known ophthalmic surgeon Dr Bhujanga Shetty, multi-lingual film artiste Prakash Rai, background music wizard Gurukiran, supermodel and actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and emerging Sandalwood actor Shuba Punja.
This might look like a list of the bold and the beautiful, but what binds them all is their community: the Bunts — an erstwhile warrior clan, till recently a peasant caste, and now an urbane community that tastes success in whatever it delves into.
Bunts were successful peasants in north Malabar and south Konkan coastal areas, what is now covered by Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, till the Land Reforms Act came as a big blow and displaced them.
Losing huge tracts of land that they had earned over centuries of loyalty to various kingdoms, Bunts found the law hard to digest.
But, for the bucolic Bunts, survival was a bigger question and they set out to travel far and wide. They struck success in nooks and corners of not just Karnataka, but across the world as well.
“By nature, Bunts are extroverts. When the Karnataka Land Reforms Act 1961 came into force, the youth started migrating to Bangalore, Mumbai and the Gulf in search of jobs. Their hard-working and creative nature found them various lucrative offers. It’s not just the hotel industry or other corporate jobs. Their attractive physical appearance, coupled with their creativity, found Bollywood and Sandalwood scouting for them as well,” says Dr Indira Hegde, a national laureate.
“In the 1950s, the Bunts living in and around Udupi, which was then part of a unified Dakshina Kannda district, started adopting modern ways of living. Many started exiting the primary sector and entered various vocations. Some of the pioneers of this movement were Sundar Ram Shetty, the founder of Vijaya Bank; KS Hegde, a former Lok Sabha speaker and father of Lokayukta Santosh Hegde; and, Nagappa Alva, a state minister and father of Jeevaraj Alva, who was a staunch follower of Jiddu Krishnamurthy and Jayaprakash Narayan. But around the 1970s, after the Land Reforms Act came into force in the state, the community members started migrating from the heartland in large numbers,” says SK Hegde, a senior leader of the Bangalore Bunt community.
While the community members migrated more than 30 years ago, they have begun yielding the fruits of their hard work only recently, says Jayapal Hegde, the author of a survey of Bunts in the state.
While the Bunts predominantly follow the joint family system, nuclear families are becoming the order of the day because of the migratory trend and career calling, says Dr Indira. It’s not just the joint family system that is disappearing from the community, but the Bunts are also losing their remaining fragments of land to modernisation.
“We cannot call it a social crisis yet, but the Bunts are losing their lands in Mangalore and Udupi at a fast rate now as the young generation is leaving the heartland for careers overseas and to larger cities in India. There are about 10 lakh Bunts across the world, of which only 4 lakh are residing in the heartland, compared to the 8.5 lakh population of the community in the region during Independence,” says BLN Hegde, president, Bunts’ Sangha.
High educational qualifications and huge salary packages are also finding many of the younger generation Bunts scouting for equally competent spouses across communities, which is taking them further away from their land, says Hegde. And those few who continue to stay at the heartland are finding it difficult to sustain the increasing overheads of agriculture. This has been resulting in widespread poverty among the Bunts.
In a bid to help these kinsmen, the Bunts’ Sangha has been issuing about 4,000 scholarships for students, and sponsoring wedding ceremonies of girls from these families every year. Financially sound Bunts like prominent philanthropists RN Shetty of Bangalore and SM Shetty (of SM Dychem) of Mumbai, have been assisting the Sangha in these deeds.
Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty contributes regularly to a school run by the Sangha, while Gurukiran, actors Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty, Shamita Shetty, and Shivadwaj also make annual contributions to the poor people’s fund of their community at the Sangha.