Culture

Dr S L Bhyrappa – A Life in Literature

By all measures of classical Indian aesthetics – Rasa, dhwani (multilayered suggestions) and auchitya (sense of propriety) – Bhyrappa’s works have stood the test of time.

India has had a long and rich tradition of both literature and literary criticism beginning with Bharata’s seminal Natya Shastra, which still is the basis of performing arts including contemporary cinema. This was followed by thousands of commentaries and treatises on literary theory, criticism, the nature and craft of literature and so on. Of these, Anandavaradhana’s Dhvanyaloka, and Abhinavagupta’s Dhvanyalokalocana stand out as outstanding and timeless expositions on Aesthetics.

One commonality between all of these treatises and expositions is the fact that nothing but merit was the sole criterion to judge the greatness or otherwise of a work of literature. It is for this reason that Valmiki, Vyasa and Kalidasa were universally accorded respect in these treatises. And neither was it just the critics who admired these poets. Generations of Indians have reveled in the beauty and profundity of their works and eulogized them with myriad legends. Tradition has proudly proclaimed –

‘नानृषिःकुरुतेकाव्यंऋषिश्चकिलदर्शनात्।

विचित्रभावधर्मांशतत्त्वप्रख्याहिदर्शनम्॥’ –

‘He who is not a sage will not be able to create (great) literature. One becomes a sage by realizing philosophy. And what is philosophy if it is not the elucidation of the universality of different emotions?’

Therefore, according to Indian tradition, great literature was nothing but a beautiful expression of a sublime philosophy or an intuitive or even conscious realization.

This literary tradition holds that only a sage’s heart would melt in sorrow at the sight of a hunter killing one of a pair of lovemaking birds, and out of that sorrow would the Ramayana emerge. Likewise, only a sage could create an immortal epic out of a fratricidal war among his own progeny (Vyasa). And, similarly, only a sage could talk of ‘enjoyment without indulgence’ despite living in the bounteous age of the Guptas (Kalidasa), which allowed him unfettered access to every form of indulgence.

Simultaneously, the same tradition was vigilant enough to ensure that mere mastery of language without wisdom and/or insight would never buy anyone a place alongside the aforementioned greats. That they achieved such enduring fame is mostly because they drew from the inexhaustible wellspring of basic human impulses and emotions which cut across time and space. Even translations of these works have become landmarks in various vernacular languages of the country.

The great critic Rajashekhara sums it up in this verse –

‘एकस्यतिष्ठतिकवेर्गृहएवकाव्यं

अन्यस्यगच्छतिसुहृद्भवनानियावत्।

न्यस्याविदग्धवदनेषुपदानिशश्वत्

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कस्यापिसञ्चरतिविश्वकुतूहलीव॥‘

‘Some poets’ work does not cross the threshold of their own homes. Someone else’s will make the rounds of a few of his friends’ homes. Rare is the poet whose work finds its way into the lexicon of the laymen of the world like an adventurer exploring the far corners of the Earth.’

This same tradition also encouraged poets to attain erudition by learning from books as well as from the world. The 11thcentury Kashmiri poet, commentator, and critic, Kshemendra lists a plethora of qualities, discipline, and methods that an aspiring poet needs to attain erudition.

In summary, the Indian literary tradition emphasized talent and erudition in that order. With the very greatest poets, the two of these blend so harmoniously that it would be difficult to tell one from the other. In fact,as the celebrated literary critic Anandavardhana says in Dhvanyaloka, that in the entire Sanskrit tradition, there may be two, three, or at best,only five poets like Kalidasa who have attained this high watermark. Such were the high standards set by the ancient Indian literary tradition.

This tradition of writing literature (adhering to those ancient standards) survived almost intact right up to the early 1960s largely in Indian regional literature. Telugu and Kannada are the most representative languages where this had survived. Notables in Telugu include Viswanatha Satyanarayana, Tirupati Venkata Kavulu, and Veturi Sundararama Murthy. In Kannada, the list includes D.V. Gundappa, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, and Kuvempu.

In our own age, perhaps the only surviving litterateur in this tradition is Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa, the best-selling novelist and litterateur writing in Kannada. As we shall see, this rather elaborate backdrop is essential to approach and analyze Bhyrappa’s work.

Indian Literature in the Nehruvian Era

The advent of the Nehruvian era signaled a violent and unfortunate break from this rich Indian literary tradition. No longer was excellence the highest virtue. Adherence to changing fads like ‘non-violence’ and ‘secularism’ was. Universities and public establishments were gradually filled with people subscribing to the new order. Communism, the enemy of excellence by its very definition, was another favourite with Nehru.

It was but natural that the creation and criticism of literature had to be compliant with these new ideologies. The euphemism employed in public was this: litterateurs had to adhere to ‘social responsibility’ and their works had to reflect and contribute to it.

Thus, literature was no longer about merit, talent and erudition. Instead, human emotions as reflected in literature had to operate within the ‘social responsibility’ framework.The government would in turn recognize writers and artists adhering to these Nehruvian ideals by granting awards, positions, and pelf so that they could further the cause with greater commitment.

However, only a handful of people could successfully resist this State-enforced framework of literature and stay true to the ancient Indian literary tradition. Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa stands foremost in that list of people.

A Life in Letters

Dr. S L Bhyrappa has been the bestselling novelist in Kannada for over four decades now. Translations of his novels have also become bestsellers in Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, and Sanskrit. His novels Gruhabhanga and Daatu have been translated into all 14 major languages of India and have received critical and popular acclaim.

All his major novels have also been translated into English. Now in his 80s, he is still actively writing, his latest being Yaana, published in July 2014. None of his works have had an official release. News of their release spreads by word of mouth.

Being a known critic of the Nehruvian consensus, his works have never enjoyed State patronage. None of his works are prescribed reading in university courses.The author himself has been conspicuously denied the country’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith. This becomes clearer when we take a look at the political activism of the other Kannada Jnanpith recipients in the last two decades.

The only government award he has received is the Kendra Sahitya Academy award for Daa Tu.

However, all of this has been overshadowed by the enormous respect and adulation the reading public has showered on him. His bestselling Aavarana ran into 15 reprints in three months. Most of his novels—both old and recent—go into regular reprints Even his translations in other Indian languages see reprints regularly. He is the only Kannada writer to have received the prestigious Saraswati Samman from the Birla Foundation.

Dr. S L Bhyrappa was born in an extremely poor family in the little-known village of Santeshivarain in Hassan district, Karnataka. It also didn’t help that he had a reckless and irresponsible father. The only saving grace in his early childhood was a loving mother, whose hard work and extraordinary forbearance sort of offset the effects of the family’s dire condition.

It was through her that the young Bhyrappa was introduced to Kannada classics such as Kumaravyasa Bharata and Jaimini Bharata—both were epic renditions of the Mahabharata in poetic form.

The growing-up years were tremendously tough. Bhyrappa lost his mother, two brothers, and an elder sister to plague when he was about eight or ten. He worked as a gatekeeper at a village cinema hall (known as a “tent”), sold local wares at a flea market, worked as a supplier in a small hotel in Hubli, sold incense sticks door to door, washed clothes of his roommates in a kholi in Dadar, was a railway porter, and taught tuitions to his juniors in college to support himself.

After his Intermediate (Plus two in today’s parlance), Bhyrappa enrolled for a BA Honours in Philosophy because, as he says in his autobiography, Bhitti, “the question of death always haunted me and I wanted to find out more. On the advice of my lecturer, Mr. Yaamunacharya, I took up Philosophy.” He graduated with top honours and won a gold medal for his MA.

It was his years in college in Mysore that shaped both his views and equipped him with the sort of erudition and insight that we see in such expansive and intense display in all his works. It was also during this period that he happened to listen to an all-night Hindustani classical concert by Gangubai Hanagal, a life-changing experience as he terms it. That concert made him a life-long connoisseur and devotee of Hindustani classical music. His epic novel Mandra is the literary evidence of this devotion to music.

While working as a lecturer at Kadasiddeshwara College in Hubli, he began to make a name for himself as a scholar with in-depth knowledge of both Indian and Western philosophy. He was also a much sought-after speaker on these topics.

His stay in Hubli also saw him write a rebuttal to missionary pamphlets denigrating Hinduism. He later expanded that rebuttal in the form of his first novel, Dharmashree (1961). It deals with the disruptive dimensions of aggressive proselytization by missionaries. A student of his arranged for publishing the book. The publisher Sahitya Bhandara has remained his publisher to this day.

In its Preface, Bhyrappa confesses that during his Intermediate days, he was “greatly influenced by all things western and had developed a condescending attitude to all things native”. It was then that he happened to hear the name of Ananda K Coomaraswamy. Intrigued, he read the entire body of his work. Coomaraswamy’s writings on the various facets of Indian art and aesthetics formed a deep impression on Bhyrappa.

After his stint in Hubli, Bhyrappa moved to Sardar Patel University in Gujarat. He admits in his autobiography that the years here were his first real struggle-free years. He put them to good use, earning himself a PhD for his thesis titled Truth and Beauty, a learned exposition on the aspects of truth and beauty in Aesthetics.


An earlier interview of Dr.S.L.Bhyrappa by Sandeep Balakrishna and Jaideep Prabhu

Rise to Literary Eminence

It was also during this period that he wrote his first landmark novel, Vamshavruksha in just 31 days. And in what would later become a lifelong practice, he kept aside the manuscript for a couple of years and then revisited it for a thorough revision until he was satisfied that it was fit for publication.

Even as the Vamshavruksha manuscript lay in wait, Bhyrappa planned to present another thesis for his D.Litt degree. However, as he says in Bhitti, he was struck by a feeling that academic works—even his chosen field of philosophy—left him unfulfilled: “it gave me intellectual stimulation but by then I realized that by temperament I was creative and this academic work would not gratify my creative impulse.” This realization was the death of his D.Litt.

Vamshavruksha was published in 1965 and Bhyrappa has never looked back.

He stayed for a few more years in Gujarat and then took up a job at NCERT, New Delhi. He recounts that after a few years, he became frustrated. The reason according to him was that for a creative writer writing in his mother tongue, it made more sense to live in his native state so he would be in touch with the language and culture on a daily, intimate basis.

He finally succeeded in getting a transfer to the Regional Institute of Education, Mysore from where he retired.

Themes and Artistry

Bhyrappa admits that by temperament, he cannot write short stories. He acknowledges that his writing has been influenced by Hindustani Classical Music—where the exposition of a raga is done systematically and leisurely across the vilambit, madhya and drut tempos.

His chosen language of expression is Kannada, particularly the dialect that is spoken in the Old-Mysore region. Most of his novels are set in this geography, the one he is most intimately familiar with. However, if his novels are set in a different geography, he makes it a point to travel to those places and get a firsthand feel of the place, its people, and culture. The other characteristic that stands out in all his novels is extensive research.

A singular aspect about Bhyrappa’s work is that it cannot be slotted in any genre or category in contemporary literature. Every novel has a different theme. From his classic Parva, which is a retelling of the Mahabharata on a realistic plane to Vamshavruksha, which deals with the conflict of values in a fast-changing society and sensitive issues of the Hindu way of life to Mandra, which is a complex exposition of the interplay of human emotions set in the background of Hindustani classical music, there is no one ideological or social or political strand that binds them together.

This becomes clearer if one surveys contemporary Indian literature, which invariably is based on some ideology, or deals with specific social causes or political issues, and usually takes a stand. Notables include Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger in English and U.R.Ananthamurthy’s Samskara and Bharatipura.

As we noted earlier, the Indian literary tradition judges the worth of a work purely on merit, and not on whether a work adheres to a certain ideology or addresses an issue. Any critique of Bhyrappa’s works needs to take this crucial factor into account. This is not to say that his works don’t address social or other issues—but these issues become ancillary to the only underlying framework of all his work—dissecting human emotions, analyzing, interpreting and reinterpreting values of life.

Bhyrappa’s strong grounding in both the Indian and western schools of philosophy have helped him attain penetrating perspectives on various aspects of human life. These perspectives manifest themselves in his works in complex and variegated ways in plot and character development, themes, and situations he creates.

Indeed, the variety of topics he has explored is quite astounding. Vamshavruksha deals with the relevance of tradition in the face of a fast-changing world; Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane dissects the manner in which consumption has hijacked even a sense of basic compassion, ethics and morality; Anchu is a complex exploration of the mind of an emotionally insecure human being; Daa Tu deals with the myriad layers of complexity in the so-called caste system; Parva is a retelling of the Mahabharata with rare insights; Saartha is a cultural recreation of an India which stood at crossroads in the 8th century; Gruhabhanga, inspired by his own childhood, is a heart-rending saga of poverty, perversity and profundity etched into the early years of a destitute village boy; Saakshi is an artistic exposition of desire and greed; Tantu is an epic commentary on the all-pervasive decline of post-independence India culminating with the Emergency; Mandra has been described by the author himself as his thesis on art and morality; Aavarana is an unveiling of“secularism” as practiced in post-independent India juxtaposed with historical realities.

Estimation and Perspectives

The eminent Kannada literary critic H.M. Nayak memorably characterized Bhyrappa as an Indian novelist who merely happens to write in Kannada. His works are living testimonies to the sweep of India’s diverse geography, multitudinous cultural variety, and apparent complexity all unified by a timeless strand of shared civilizational consciousness.

Perhaps, the one characteristic that distinguishes his major works is their epic scope. His major works are comparable to any great epic both in terms of the impact and the imprint they leave on the reader’s mind.

What is also important to note both as a reader and critic of Bhyrappa’s novels is the fact that no prior intellectual or other reading or preparation is required to understand them. Reading Bhyrappa’s novels transform one from being a mere reader to an active participant.

The Kannada writer, patriot, poet, and philosopher D.V.Gundappa held that “ordinary readers not educated in literary or other theories intuitively grasp the greatness of epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.” This observation in many ways captures the essence of Indian aesthetics (and literary theory) or the Rasa theory. The nearest approximation of the meaning of Rasa in English is “feeling” or “emotion.”In general, Rasa is the emotion inspired in the audience/reader by the creative artist.

In the Indian literary tradition, an accomplished artist will create through his/her work an environment in which the connoisseur will be transported to an intensely involved, meditative state in which he temporarily loses awareness of time and space.

This quality holds true for almost all works of art and literature that are considered are classics—from ancient Indian, Greek, and Roman epics to Shakespeare and the epic Russian novels. These works are characterized by their timeless appeal across cultures, and values that are universal.

With no exaggeration, S L Bhyrappa’s major novels embody these traits. For example, the protagonist in his Saakshi asks the God of Death- Yama, “Lord, what is the root of untruth?” The novel ends with that question but almost the entire narrative up to that point is filled with a description of the triumph of untruth in ruthless detail. Similarly, in Tanthu, a conflict-torn Hemant Honnatti has a life-changing realization in a graveyard where he recalls the story of Raja Harishchandra and his wife. The intensity, poignancy and the complex underplay of emotions in that one situation makes the novel a classic.

Given all this, a truthful critique of any work of Bhyrappa needs to use only literary yardsticks instead of boxing them into this or that political or social theory. This is also not to argue that Bhyrappa’s novels are perfect in every way. Not all of his 20-plus novels are of the same standard. His Grahana, DooraSaridaru, Anveshane, and Matadanaare not comparable to his major novels. Yet, almost all criticism of Bhyrappa’s novels has focused not on the actual content of his work but on the author’s perceived image as a “Hindutva” writer. To put it bluntly, this is neither literary criticism nor does it speak well about his critics.

One of the most dependable measures of a novelist’s creativity is the number and variety of characters he/she has been able to create. Over more than 20 novels, Bhyrappa has created at least 50 vivid characters, each different in their own right and most of these characters have become household names in Karnataka. They represent all strata of society – from the rural hinterlands of Karnataka to the drawing rooms of megacities with everything in between.

By all measures of classical Indian aesthetics – Rasa, dhwani (multilayered suggestions) and auchitya (sense of propriety) – Bhyrappa’s works have stood the test of time.

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