Saartha and Mandra: Full-Course Meals on History and Music
Sandeep Balakrishna

Saartha and Mandra: Full-Course Meals on History and Music

This episode introduces Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's maiden historical classic, "Saartha" (Caravan) and this literary musical concert, "Mandra" (the Lowest Pitch). These are works every book-lover and literature aficionado must have in his shelf.

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Saartha and Mandra: Full-Course Meals on History and Music
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Saartha and Mandra: Full-Course Meals on History and Music


SAARTHA (CARAVAN) IS DR. S.L. BHYRAPPA’S first historical novel set in eighth century India, on the eve of the so-called Arab invasion of Sindh.

One of the greatest economic forces of ancient, pre-medieval and early medieval India was the national network of trading caravans. They were a ubiquitous presence, travelling both within and outside Bharatavarsha.

Saartha is a remarkable novel, which works simultaneously on two planes. It is a physical journey across India, as well as an inward spiritual journey of an eighth-century scholar born in the Vedic tradition. Nagabhatta, the scholar, is deputed by Amaruka, the king, to study the secrets of caravans of other lands in order to improve the economy of his own kingdom.

During his extensive travels, Nagabhatta becomes a witness to and comes under the influence of an array of Dharmic schools and undergoes a range of social and cultural experiences in various cities and towns during a crucial period of historical change in Bharatavarsha.

The novel is the outcome of deep, focused and extensive study of history and research conducted by the author at actual locales, like Mathura, Nalanda and Ujjaini.

Saartha is also an artistic quest and exploration of the roots and evolution of religious beliefs in an India on the cusp of Islamic invasions. At another level, it is a wonderful literary recreation of history and philosophy.

Dr. Bhyrappa reconstructs the atmosphere of eighth-century Bharatavarsha with an authenticity that is his hallmark. Through this gripping narrative, a vast panorama of this past unfolds before us. The novel abounds in rich detail of eighth-century India, creating a lush sahṛdaya experience, which is simultaneously educative. The India that we are transported to in the novel might sound strange and alien to contemporary readers, largely unaware of our wealth and diversity that existed more than a thousand years ago.

Saartha is a historical novel par excellence, defying the ignorant opinion of western critics that Indian fiction lacks historical sense. At another level, it is akin to a restless adventure-hero’s novel seen in the episodes dealing with the escapades of the protagonist. On yet another plane, Saartha is a philosophical novel, dealing with various comparative Darsanas: Vedanta, Mimamsa, Bauddha, and Tantra. It is also a delicate and tumultuous romance between Nagabhatta and Chandrika, an actress with a drama troupe. At the politico-historical level, it is the story of the beginning of the end of Hindu India, which had irreversibly declined after the extinction of the Gupta Empire.

Dr. Bhyrappa deserves our fulsome praise for the manner in which he has delineated the characters of Adi Sankara, Kumarila Bhatta and Ubhaya Bharati. Kumarila especially, comes alive brilliantly as a powerful figure blazing with erudition and integrity.   


Mandra (Lowest Pitch) is another acclaimed epic-style novel of Dr. Bhyrappa which jostles for eminence with Parva, Sakshi, Thantu and Saartha. It won him the prestigious Saraswati Samman Award in 2010.

Explorations in Philosophy and Indian classical Music continue to endure as Dr. Bhyrappa’s most treasured and lifelong pursuits. Sakshi is a grand culmination of the former and Mandra, the latter.

Mandra, the novel, is akin to immersing oneself in an absorbing literary Hindustani Classical Concert performed by a consummate artist at the summit of his creative powers. Mandra is also the creative fruition of Dr. Bhyrappa’s enduring and intimate tryst with music in all its dimensions—theory, performance, aesthetics and philosophy. His early novel, Jalapata showed a glimpse of his musical insights, which become more pronounced in Tantu. In Mandra it scales the Gowri Sankara summit.

Mandra is also the melodious and creative fulfilment of Dr. Bhyrappa’s abandoned DLitt thesis on the interplay of relationships between art, artist, emotion, morals, ethics, values, and society. To borrow a line from Mandra itself, the eternal contradiction between art and the artist is couched in the words of Bhosle’s character: “When I savour Mohanlal’s music, it gives me the experience of entering Heaven. When I see the personal life of the artist, there is something else. Why this contradiction?”

The true root and heart of Mandra is located in the music of Raja Saheb and his small Mahadeva Temple in a dense forest overlooking the Narmada River in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. In describing Raja Saheb’s music, Dr. Bhyrappa unveils a majestic opulence that at once encompasses the highest and the best traditions of Indian music, its underlying philosophy, its aesthetic goal and its ultimate ideal.

Then there is Mohanlal, the central character of Mandra, the direct disciple of Raja Saheb, who eventually becomes the most acclaimed Hindustani Classical singer in India and abroad. Mohanlal is a completely debauched character who uses women only as sexual objects.  The contrast between a Guru and a disciple couldn’t be more repulsive. This incongruity provides the basis for the central theme of Mandra: the conflict, friction and the relationship between something as profound as Indian classical music and moral values and culture. Dr. Bhyrappa expounds on the nature, form, and nuances of this conflict in deliberate elaboration akin to a leisurely Alap. Substantial portions of this profound work give us a meditative experience.

By all measures, Mandra is a modern classic and a unique feat in world literature. It is music sung through the medium of text.

To be continued

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