Kanaka Dasa (1509 – 1609) was a Haridasa, a renowned composer of Carnatic music, poet, philosopher and musician. He is known for his Keertanas and Ugabhoga, compositions in the Kannada language for Carnatic music. Like other Haridasas, he used simple Kannada language and native metrical forms for his compositions.
His writing started showing his innovativeness in using the day-to-day activities of the common man. For e.g. Ramadhanya Charite is a poetic expression of conflicts between rich and poor classes where he uses Ramadhanya ragi (staple food of poor and high in nutrients) and rice (main food of rich but not as rich in nutrients) to synonymously represent poor and rich. He joined Haridasa movement and became a follower of Vyasaraja who named him as Kanakadasa. His poems and krithi deal with many aspects of life and expose the futility of external rituals. They stress the need for the cultivation of moral values in life. His compositions addressed social issues in addition to the devotional aspect. Kanaka Dasa was very aggressive and straight forward in criticizing evils of society such as superiority claims using caste system. His poem "Kula Kula Kulavendu hodedhadadiri" asks humans not to segregate themselves from one another, because every human is born the same way, everyone eats the same food and drinks the same water, hence none is superior or inferior to one another.
The deity he worshiped was Adhikeshava of Kaginele, presently in Haveri district of Karnataka. Kaginele, now a village, was a prosperous place and trading center in the Middle Ages. Out of the many of his compositions, about 240 are fully accountable today. All his Karnataka Music compositions end with mudra (signature) Kaginele Adhikeshava. In addition to being a poet, he worked as a social reformer by downplaying dogmatic communities that were suppressing the disadvantaged communities. Kanakadasa made an extreme effort in reforming the disadvantaged communities by convincing them to give up their age-old obsolete social practices and adapt to the changing world. He effectively used music to convey his philosophy. He lived at Tirupathi in his last days. He is one of the greatest musicians, composers, poets, social reformers, philosophers and saints that India has ever seen.'
Ramadhanyacharithre (ರಾಮಧಾನ್ಯಚರಿತೆ), a rare work on class struggle
Kanakadasa wrote about two hundred forty Karnataka Music compositions (Kirtane, Ugabhogas, padas, and mundiges or philosophical songs) besides five major works. His compositions are published in many languages. For example, about 100 songs in Kannada and 60 songs in English are published in popular books.
His writings were unique in style. In Ramadhanyacharitre, an allegory on the conflict between the socially strong and weak castes and classes, presented as an argument between two foodgrains, rice and ragi, is a most creative literary piece with a powerful social message, In the work, rice represents the socially powerful and ragi (millet) represents the working people. The two grains come before Rama to argue their case and establish their superiority. In the end, Rama sends both of them to prison for six months. At the end of the period, rice has turned rotten while the hardy ragi survive, earning Rama's blessings. This shows the intelligence of Kanakadasa in trying to reform society. He was blunt in criticizing those who opposed the good practices. In one of his compositions, he says,"Eternal hell is for those who criticize noblemen, for those who condemn teachings of jagadguru...".
Nalacharitre (Story of Nala)
Haribhaktisara (crux of Krishna devotion)
Nrisimhastava (compositions in praise of Lord Narasimha)
Ramadhanyacharite (story of ragi millet) and an epic