Walking with the Colossus: A Tribute to the Himalayan Spirit of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa

Walking with the Colossus: A Tribute to the Himalayan Spirit of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa

A tribute to the Indian literary colossus, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa, on the occasion of receiving the Padma Bhushan award.

FEW INDIAN WRITERS writing in Indian languages in the last six decades have painted such profoundly philosophical portraits of the Himalayas and the Ganga as Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa has done. His literary creations have a participative and experiential dimension, transcending the allure and majesty of natural beauty. Perhaps it should be so.

One of the lasting convictions of Dr. Bhyrappa is this: no one can fully grasp Bharatavarsha and its fundamental cultural impulses unless he has spent some time in the cradle of the Himalayas or drunk from the Gangetic fount or sanctified oneself by dipping into her life-giving, soul-enriching perennial currents. Dr. Bhyrappa has done all these.

And because he has imbibed the Himalayan spirit, his literature has the purifying value of the Ganga. It is a spirit that endures the gusts of the eons and a liquid refinement that is innately stainless in its profound depths.

My foregoing testimony hinges on a twofold perspective: first, as a diehard and a highly-indebted connoisseur of his extraordinary and invaluable body of literary work, and second, from direct personal experience of interacting with the colossus on a few occasions.

The second occurred in the first place purely because of the goodwill of a few selfless eminences foremost of whom is Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh. After paying due obeisance to modesty and fully conscious of my own limitations, I consider it my fortune and not opportunity, to translate a pathbreaking work like Aavarana into English. I still clearly recall that fortuitous morning when my landline rang and Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa himself was on the other end wanting to know if I would agree to translate Aavarana. It remains one of the dearest moments. The translation of Aavarana was followed a few years later by the English translation of an equally brilliant and evocative work, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane as Orphaned.

On the treasured occasions that I was fortunate to interact with him for more than a decade, two features clearly stand out akin to the selfsame Himalayan peaks and the soothing waters of Ganga.

Integrity

Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa exudes integrity almost like a tangible, material quality. This integrity is not merely on the transactional surface but extends to all facets. The term "integrity" is a value, which stands independent of qualifiers and descriptors just like the terms "justice" and “truth” are absolute values.

Dr. Bhyrappa personifies this independence. His literary creations are great models of intellectual integrity and emotional splendor. His literary critiques of others’ works are notable both for the thorough absence of the airy pusillanimity of indecisiveness and the intrinsic dishonesty of phony political theories force-fitted to literature. Dr. Bhyrappa’s critiques are based on the time-honoured principles of aesthetics—i.e., using artistic yardsticks to evaluate artistic creations. His scholarship is vast, deep and updated with the latest research, and when he is convinced by new evidence, he does not hesitate to change or correct his earlier stand. The difference between Parva and Aavarana is a great illustration of this honesty and open-mindedness to change.

Compassion

The second is his genuine care and compassion. I can cite several instances but owing to space constraints, I will mention just two.

If I wanted to visit his home, I would call him beforehand to fix the date and time. He would meticulously check his diary, inform his schedule for that entire month and then ask me if I was also free on the date that he could meet me. The date was fixed in this manner. Now, on to the time. If my scheduled visit coincided with lunch time, he would insist that I eat with him and he would wait till I reached his home. When I was about thirty or forty minutes away from Mysore, he would promptly call me and say, "remember, you have agreed to have lunch with me. Hope you are having a safe journey. If there is a delay, let me know, I will wait for you." Till date, I have not summoned the courage to ask what his regular lunch time is. On other visits, he would ensure that I was fed with some snack or delicacy.

This care also manifested in a fatherly fashion: on more than one occasion, he has indirectly provided financial planning advice and has offered valuable tips on leading a worry-free, painless and comfortable life after retirement.

Unassuming Nature

This also reveals another insight into the intrinsic dignity of his character. At one level, the relationship between an author and translator is purely transactional in nature and there is nothing wrong in it. It is just the accepted norm. Yet, Dr. Bhyrappa went beyond this ken in ways that are too profound to express in mere words. Indeed, for a towering litterateur who commands a global stature, this unassuming nature of Dr. Bhyrappa has a certain earnest flair by and in itself. In an era that cheers the third-rate public flaunting by fourth-rate celebrities, Dr. Bhyrappa remains that rare luminary who radiates the inner light of his literature outside rather than bask under the blinding glare of chemically-induced candescence.

One can hazard a guess but it is a well-founded guess. Dr. Bhyrappa’s remarkable autobiography, Bhitti is a classic in the annals of great biographies for the sheer wealth of life-lessons and values that it contains.

On one plane, Bhitti is a tale of the true triumph over insurmountable odds by the sheer dint of grit, concentration, focus and not choosing shortcuts in life. It is the tale of a semi-orphaned boy who could have become anything—from a gatekeeper at cinema halls, a railway porter or a waiter at a restaurant—but consciously chose, through self-guidance, an elevated path in life.

On another plane, Bhitti is also an insightful commentary on the history of India spread roughly over half a century encompassing sweeping political and social changes, literary trends, and the downfall of education. All, narrated by an eyewitness and participant.

But meeting its author in person, conversing with him and savouring his company triumphs the magnificence of the work itself. If this sounds like exaggeration, the exaggeration is well-founded.

Literary Event

Topmost in the list of my most memorable and cherished interactions with Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa are the three days I spent accompanying him to a literary event. I like to think that I made the most of that education. I also like to think that I am wrong on this count. In the space of this essay, I can recount only a few highlights.

Approach to Life and Writing

In no particular order, we can begin with a few words about his approach to and outlook on several important areas of life.

Dr. Bhyrappa regards food, drink, exercise and constant study as the combined contributors that make writing an organic whole. This is what enabled him to store an epic classic, the whole of Parva in his mind amidst the pressures of work, family and other worldly distractions. When we consider the fact that Dr. Bhyrappa spent ten years on Parva, germinating and developing the whole plot in his mind, we realise the full meaning of tapas in action. This journey began with a random conversation in Chickmagalur which seeded the idea in his mind. He then toured the whole of Bharatavarsha visiting the sites where the cosmic drama of the Mahabharata played out. Alongside, he ransacked libraries and studied almost every scrap that has been written about Bhagavan Veda Vyasa’s immortal epic. The actual writing of Parva began only after this.

But there is another side to this tapas: where the artist is inseparably wedded to his art. At the aforementioned literary event, both of us met and interacted with several famous writers and celebrities, and he patiently listened to all of them but spoke very little. Some celebrity writers of “serious literature” hadn’t even heard his name. Later, during some conversation, he told me with a rare cryptic smile, "who knows, every person that I have interacted with today might have the potential to be a character in one of my future novels."

To me, this revealed an insight into what the true pursuit of art means.

Daily Regimen

Dr. Bhyrappa repeatedly emphasized on the importance a daily regimen of vigorous exercise and optimal diet. He is a great votary of the value of conserving strength and not wasting it on trivial, frivolous, and on-the-spur writing. This is fully consonant with his Himalayan spirit. It has enabled him to write for ten straight hours each day at the peak of his powers. For his latest novel, Uttarakanda he wrote six hours every day. Dr. Bhyrappa was eighty-three when Uttarakanda was published.

Even as I write this, Dr. Bhyrappa is engaged in constant study and scholarly pursuits and is updated on the latest developments in the world. This is the outcome of a lifetime of dedication. Or as DVG says, “surrender yourself to a Great Ideal and contemplate on it, day and night.”  

Formative Experiences

As a college student who had to mostly fund his own education, Dr. Bhyrappa had taken up a summer job as a travelling salesman of Agarbattis. By then, he had acquired an abiding love for scholarly study. Dr. Bhyrappa recounts how he would board the crowded, stinky and scorching mofussil buses, clutch his heavy Agarbatti bag in one hand, lean against the pole inside the bus and read a thick scholarly tome, balancing the book with the other hand. He had developed the immersive concentration that made him oblivious to the commotion around him.

At roughly about the same age, Dr. Bhyrappa was introduced to Hindustani classical music at an all-night concert by Gangubai Hanagal. He was instantly mesmerized, and the impact that it left on the young boy has lasted till date. He has narrated with great feeling the role that Hindustani classical music has played in sculpting his own body of work. His eternal tribute to it is his extraordinary classic, Mandra, verily, a creative treatise on music.

Literary and Philosophical Insights

In Dr. Bhyrappa’s view, literature should not only be beautiful, artistic, enduring and profound, but conscientious, above all. Needless, his literary corpus embodies all these traits. As a scholar who earned his doctoral degree in Aesthetics, it is quite incredible that the brilliant insights that Dr. Bhyrappa gives into art, art experience, literature and writing is derived not from Aesthetic theory but the practice of creativity.

As a scholar of philosophy as well, Dr. Bhyrappa told me how the mundane questions related to the existence of God are not of much value. At best, they have only a tertiary place in the realm of pure philosophy. He said that his literary pursuit was better informed by the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and major Upanishads.

Dr. Bhyrappa who describes his literary journey as a quest for truth also told me that a significant aspect of this quest was a constant endeavour to catch the pulse of our epics in the geography, culture and the daily life of Bharatavarsha. He also told me something that will stay with me till the end: “I do not practice too many rituals but I constantly contemplate on what the Veda tells us to contemplate upon.” His highly philosophical works like Sakshi and Nele are perhaps the best proofs of this statement.

These insights are also akin to his prescription to aspiring writers and artists: elevate your standards. Instead of lowering standards under the excuse that the “common man” will not understand them, create art and literature of a high and enduring standard. The “common man” will definitely come to you if he sees value in the standard you have set. Or look within and see whether you have the ability to set that high standard. As an epilogue of sorts, Dr. Bhyrappa said that he has a healthy but deserved contempt for such hyped-up and loud-talkers and show-offs but he keenly observes them without comment.

Stalwarts he Admires

A few of the prominent luminaries whom he respects and admires include Mahamahopadhyaya P.V. Kane, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Surendranath Dasgupta, D.V. Gundappa, Sir M. Visvesvaraya, and Nani Palkhivala. Dr. Bhyrappa also expressed great admiration for Devudu Narasimha Shastri who he regards as unique and inimitable. His magnanimity and large-heartedness extend even to those scholars and writers who he disagrees with but respects them for their scholarship.

He also has genuine affection and regard for his translators and those who have analyzed his works with honesty shorn of any agenda. At the city where the aforementioned literary event was hosted, he went out of his way to visit the home of the Gujarati (or Hindi?) translator of his novels and patiently answered all the questions her family members asked him.

Working Style

It is also pertinent to briefly narrate Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s working style during the course of the final edits to Orphaned. For this endeavour, I visited his home for two and half days. It was truly an eye-opening and highly inspiring experience. Akin to an expert sculptor, he patiently went through each letter, each word, and marked out sentences and passages that needed revision, correction or further discussion.

Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane (Orphaned) is a novel laden with rustic density and it was not easy to find an exact English match for some Kannada idioms and antiquated linguistic idiosyncrasies in common use. The explanations and backdrop that he provided for all these opened a whole new cultural world to me. It is a world that is on the verge of extinction…it is a world in my own home state, and I was alien to several valuable and intriguing aspects that it contained.

Dr. Bhyrappa had spread out two or three dictionaries on his study desk. He had reread the original Kannada novel and had made detailed side notes and other markings, a method that he had applied to the printout of my English translation as well. For several specific English words that I had used, he had written down the full range of their meanings and synonyms to discuss with me. His methodical diligence and meticulousness were matchless, the thoroughness, unparalleled.

On my part, I thought I did a good job of concealing my nervousness.

At the end of each day, he would say, "come tomorrow after breakfast and we can work without distraction for three or four hours."

The education I received in those two and half days is truly invaluable.

A National Treasure

All these apart, I regard Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa as a devout cultural savant and a national treasure whose true value this blighted nation is yet to fully comprehend.

In all my conversations with him, I have sensed his deep and abiding concern about Bharatavarsha's irreplaceable and grand spiritual heritage that continues to suffer erosion beyond belief, an erosion that hurtles on at a rapid pace. However, his concern and worry stem from a position of strength, not helplessness. And he derives this strength from stoically withstanding the combined assaults of the Communist and Islamist lobbies for half a century. The history of the same period informs us that Dr. Bhyrappa’s indefatigability has made him triumphant while they have been clobbered into irrelevance in their own lifetimes. Triumphant and optimistic. It is an infectious optimism, which has an ancient and unbroken legacy. Of dogged patience, perseverance and solid work. Like the sacred Ganga, the optimism is life-giving. It is what characterizes Dr. Bhyrappa’s incalculable contribution to the spiritual culture and civilization of Bharatavarsha.

Just as how the Ganga is not merely a river, Dr. Bhyrappa’s body of work is not merely literature but has transcended literature.  

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

|| Om Tat Sat ||

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