Only a fraction of people in any culture have had the fortune whereby their name becomes a proverb and an eponym as Masti Venkatesha Iyengar: ಮಾಸ್ತಿ ಕನ್ನಡದ ಆಸ್ತಿ -- Masti is Kannada’s treasure. It is noteworthy that he has been called “Kannada’s treasure,” and not Karnataka’s treasure. The three-word proverb arguably encapsulates the entire contribution of Masti Venkatesha Iyengar.
Masti’s life was long and well-lived and his accomplishments were multifaceted and multidisciplinary. He was a distinguished governor in the real sense of being a stellar administrator who ushered in reforms which have stood the test of time. This portion of his legacy has been little studied and barely written about perhaps because his towering stature as a literary titan overshadows all else. He has rightfully earned the title as the king of short stories in Kannada, a genre to which his contribution was pathbreaking. None before or after him can vie to wrest this title from him.
In the ninety-five eventful, elevating, evolved, and fruitful years that Masti lived, he left behind a prized store of 123 books in Kannada, 17 in English, scores of short stories, and hundreds of precious essays on contemporary politics, history, literature, poetry and assorted topics. In 1983, he became the fourth Kannada writer to receive the Jnanapith Award for his historical novel Chikaveera Rajendra, a powerful and tragic tale of the last Raja of Kodagu (Coorg).
Like his distinction in the field of administration, Masti’s legacy as an iconic editor of the monthly Kannada journal, Jivana (Life), is little known. He edited and published Jivana for twenty years (1944-1965).
A study of his life, work and legacy is both rewarding and ennobling, and deserves a global audience.
It was a life marked by the highest degree of personal integrity, a gentle, non-malicious, yet unwavering opposition to wrongdoing anywhere by anyone, and a deep and reflective mind whose imprints are embodied in all his writings.
Masti Venkatesha Iyengar completed his Mysore Civil Services (equivalent of today’s Karnataka Administrative Services) and rose up to the rank of District Commissioner. After twenty-six years of dedicated service, Masti resigned in moral protest when his junior was thrust on his head, superseding him to a post that was rightfully his. This unjust promotion was based on considerations other than merit. Due recognition came to him in the form of the then-prestigious title, Rajasevasakta (One who is always interested in the well-being of the people) conferred by the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV.
When his Chikaveera Rajendra was met with hostility by the ascendant gang of literary secularists, he remained unperturbed and asked them to the furnish proof for their baseless assertions. Needless, that immediately shut them up.
Masti Venkatesha Iyengar’s literary labours touched almost all genres: from a solitary epic (Sri Rama Pattabhishekha) to short stories, novellas, novels, anthologies, plays and his fine autobiography Bhaava.
His Kakana Kote was made into a movie bearing the same title. Directed by the Kannada theatre personality C.R. Simha, its screenplay was written by Girish Karnad and went on to win popular and critical acclaim and awards, and remains a classic of Kannada cinema. His other, lesser-known play, Tiruppani tells the moving story of the transformation of the lowly Tiruppan who would eventually become Tiruppan Alvar and find a place in the galaxy of the twelve Alvars of the Srivaishnava tradition. The play is notable for its seamless interweaving of simple, rustic and lyrical bhakti, the recreation of eighth-century Srirangam and the subtext of devotion that quietly flows throughout the play.
Masti’s influence and imprint on Kannada literature is as vast as it is enduring. Reading Masti’s work is akin to experiencing an elevating conversation—or even a quiet presence—with a person who has attained heights of refinement in thought, word and deed. There are short stories and there are Masti’s short stories. Indeed, for an aspiring short-story writer, Masti’s work offers a readymade model for deep study in order to hone its art, language and craft. Masti brought both a rare and rarefied dignity to the Kannada language in the previous century.
Masti’s editorship of the Jivana magazine enlivened values in public discourse and his editorials, columns and literary essays re-watered the roots of decency which was fast disappearing in public life. His short, aphoristic editorials and long forms are a collector’s delight. They are lessons no university or journalism course can teach any journalist, writer, reporter or editor no matter his age or experience because they were rooted in Life itself in the sense that Thoreau uses the word. They were divorced from temporal ideologies, political fads, economic and social vicissitudes.
No topic was out of bounds for Masti: day-to-day political and social developments, conduct in public life, politics of Karnataka and India, bureaucracy, temples, Hinduism, tradition, issues of national interest and national security, international affairs, Pakistan, China, USSR, America, colonialism, the first landing on the Moon, communism, secularism, the Congress Party, literary conferences and seminars, litterateurs, pithy portraits of eminent men drawn from various fields…nothing escaped his perceptive pen, which carved out arresting sculptures or demolished eminent phonies.
Masti Venkatesha Iyengar belonged to that rare breed, an Editor’s Editor, a distinction he shared with that other contemporary giant, DVG.
His criticism was without malice, his praise bereft of chemically-manufactured perfume. He was an iconoclast of famous fakes in public life, the most famous being Nawab Nehru. His iconoclasm was devoid of the blind, violent zealotry that characterises iconoclasts. Yet, he was equally capable of shedding tears at the death of the selfsame Nawab Nehru. While they emanated from the depth of feeling, the same tears didn’t cloud his eyes even during that mournful moment. They were ever-awake to the wreckage that these celebrated dead had inflicted upon the nation.
One of the chief values of the archives of Jivana is the fact that they form an invaluable primary source of the post-Independence history of India. Masti Venkatesha Iyengar did not merely go beyond newspaper headlines. Neither did he merely analyse. He told the truth. He scrutinized every Bill, every legislation, every Ordinance, right up to the dirty details of the despotic dismissal of the first democratically-elected Communist Kerala government to India’s humiliation at the hands of Communist China.
Masti was able to write in the aforementioned manner because he maintained a dispassionate distance from both public people and the events they unleashed, and their eventual consequences to the country and its culture. His Jivana writings are proof of the timeless maxim: to be close, you must be far.
Not for Masti the vast tracts of taxpayer-subsidized, and independence and integrity-wrecking cosy colonies and newspaper offices that dimmed the combined eyesight of mighty newspaper editors to everything other than that Red Rose that India’s first Prime Minister wore on his pocket.
In my limited reading, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar is the among the few courageous editors who showed Nawab Nehru in all his inglorious nudity. If a stretched comparison maybe made, whereas Sita Ram Goel doggedly blasted Nehru with acid-dripped prose befitting a fierce warrior on the battlefield, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar achieved the same impact with his characteristic restraint. His refined politeness with respect to Nehru was the equivalent of a slap that has the effect of a thunderclap. In a way, it is our fortune that Nehru couldn’t read and write much less understand Kannada. Else, this Nawab of all-encompassing cluelessness would have tried to terrorise Masti like he tried with Sita Ram Goel.
Masti Venkatesha Iyengar was also an intractable critic of the DMK, which back then, had newly tasted political power and set about destroying the Santana character of Tamil Nadu. He blames the Communist Party of India, the Congress, and the Dravidian “movement” for “willingly abandoning decorum in public life.” Among the other indignities that the DMK committed, one was the renaming of a road named after Annie Beasant in Madras, usurping her legacy in favour of Sivaji Ganesan. The next time you see Sivaji Ganesan road, it helps to remember this history. Masti also reserved harsh condemnation for the DMK’s single-minded assault against Sanskrit. The DMK’s first Mayor of Madras, A.P. Arasu used the All India Radio as a platform to blast out his Sanskrit hatred in these words: he would no longer use AIR because the central government had not banned the Sanskrit word “Akashavani.”
In retrospect, these might appear as minor and even insignificant episodes that don’t merit an editorial. Yet, as the history of the same period shows, it is these minor episodes, which, akin to termites have got us to where we are. Then again, we live in an era where erasing all standards in public life and discourse is itself a standard.
Masti’s detached distance also enabled him to question and criticise C. Rajagopalachari, who he had an abiding respect for and knew personally. When Rajaji announced the formation of a new political party, Masti wrote a pithy editorial in Jivana questioning the wisdom of such a move on moral and realistic grounds. Rajaji had once quit the Congress, re-joined it, enjoyed positions of extraordinary power and then quit again to form a new party. Further commentary is unnecessary.
The Jivana archives also reveal Masti’s penetrating intellect that was razor-sharp at all times and shredded high-sounding gibberish coming from high-titled people. One example is how he skewered Nawab Nehru’s “scientific temper,” his childish fascination for atheism and “reason,” and his penchant for evading difficult but logical questions. Thus, when Nawab Nehru repeatedly claimed that we don’t want temples and that Hinduism was a mass of superstitions, Masti immediately hit back with this:
As I never tire of saying, there is almost an inexhaustible treasure trove of archives in almost all major Indian languages akin to Jivana. A careful, sustained and patient unearthing and re-study of such treasures is definitely the need of the hour. We really don’t need to concoct new theories or rehash existing tropes. Past masters like Masti Venkatesha Iyengar have already provided substantial fodder for those who are serious and interested and keen and passionate to savour the best that the Indian cultural and literary tradition offers. They wrote what they did and with only the topmost quality because they lived during an era in which India was struggling to recover her cultural soul and civilizational resilience. What we got ever since was a questionable political independence at the cost of corroding this soul. To re-recover this, we have no option other than studying such reliable guides.
More often than not, inspiration doesn’t come on its own. It has to be sought. Let your seeking begin with Masti until we unearth the next source of such lofty inspiration.
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