Tantu and Bhitti: A Modern Mahabharata and a Profound Autobiography of a Literary Colossus
Sandeep Balakrishna

Tantu and Bhitti: A Modern Mahabharata and a Profound Autobiography of a Literary Colossus

The final episode of this series introducing Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's major works explores Tantu (Strand) and Bhitti (Foundation). Tantu is a modern, epic narrating the tragic story of India's all-round downfall after Independence. Bhitti is his autobiography, a highly inspiring chronicle of a humble village boy who sculpted his life to become a literary colossus of contemporary India.

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Tantu and Bhitti: A Modern Mahabharata and a Profound Autobiography of a Literary Colossus
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Tantu and Bhitti: A Modern Mahabharata and a Profound Autobiography of a Literary Colossus

Tantu

PUBLISHED IN 1993, Tantu (Strand; Thread) is, in the words of Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh, a “contemporary Mahabharata.” It is set in the years leading up to and culminating in the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.

It became an instant bestseller and retains its stature as a modern epic. It is also a highly original, realistic, incisive, and brutal treatise on the post-independence history of India up to the Emergency. In the literary idiom, Tantu is a Shakespearean tragedy, a disturbing chronicle of the swift and all-encompassing downfall of values in post-British India. It appears that political independence was the savage axe that hacked the roots of every ideal, ethic, virtue and value that Bharata had prized since time immemorial – this is one of the unsettling messages that the novel conveys.

Tantu is also a great testimony to the courage and blunt honesty and literary integrity characteristic of Dr. Bhyrappa’s novels.

The plot of Tantu unfolds through four or five key characters and their relationships with one another. The artistry of Dr. Bhyrappa lies in how he uses each unit: the individual, the family, the community and the society to depict the full picture of the state of the nation. And none of it is pretty. For example, one of the protagonists, Ravindra is an editor of a national newspaper, which provides Dr. Bhyrappa, the opportunity to flesh out political happenings in the entire country. Then there is Annayya, the idealistic founder of a rural school; there is Hemant Honnatti, the Sitar artist; there is Anoop (Ravindra’s son), and Kanti (Ravindra’s wife).

Throughout the novel, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi appear in the background but it is their actions that directly impact the daily lives and destines of all the characters in Tantu.

Through each character, Dr. Bhyrappa meticulously, pitilessly and in painstaking detail, documents the aforementioned downfall of values and as logical consequence, the destruction of institutions in independent India.

Annayya’s rural school inspired by the vision and ideals of Swami Vivekananda is eventually gobbled up by a group of powerful industrialists, lawyers, and influential people. This is a great metaphor illustrating the downfall of the ancient Indian ideal of education. The concomitant facet of this downfall is the emergence of capitation fee-based higher education and all its attendant evils illustrated by Anoop’s stint at his engineering college. As a parallel, Tantu also shows the phenomenon of teenage sex in college through Anoop’s character. He is growing up in the 1970s, a period when the Indian society had still held fast to traditional prohibitions of premarital and adolescent sex. Here, we notice a powerful interplay of the excesses of Artha and Kama set in the backdrop of education or Jnana, symbolizing Dharma and Moksha.  

Tantu also powerfully captures the crass corruption and decay in the world of performing arts through the character of Harishankar Prasad, a dissolute and unethical advisor to the Ministry of Culture. The episodes involving the dubious methods adopted for grooming Hemant Honnatti as a star Sitar player makes for queasy reading. Its undercurrent and outcome lie in the total debasement of something as profound as Indian classical music.

Next, we notice the downfall of the family unit – Gṛhasthāśrama Dharma, the robust traditional system that had kept the Hindu society alive and reinvigorated it in the face of extreme challenges. Ravindra’s ambitious wife Kanti abandons him, moves to Delhi permanently and becomes a highly successful businesswoman after trading her body with a bureaucrat. She also begins a prolonged illicit affair with the selfsame Hemant Honnatti, who considers Ravindra as his elder brother. When the affair falls apart, she briefly embarks on a journey of indiscriminate sex. In Kanti’s character, we observe Dr. Bhyrappa’s foresight in tracing the eventual dangers of unchecked feminism, which crept into India in the 1970s.

And then, we observe the utter destruction of the spiritual Hindu way of life in the character of Rama Bhatta, the aged Purohita of an ancient Hoysala temple in Ravindra’s ancestral village. His plight is truly gut-wrenching. In the end, he is thrown in jail during Emergency, sees worms in the food he is served, and dies of starvation. The sheer force of the symbolism, indicating the end of Sanatana Bharata, leaves the reader shaken.

And so it goes in Tantu, a grim, dreary litany of the quick collapse of democracy into dictatorship, the total decay of villages – considered the backbone of Indian culture and society – the ruthless plundering of India’s natural resources, the collapse of journalism, the degradation of art, the subversion of history…the collapse is all-encompassing.

Tantu is a timeless warning and a monumental piece of literature.

Bhitti

Bhitti is Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s autobiography published in 1996. It is an inspiring, moving, and highly-readable personal account of the journey that went into making a literary colossus.

By all counts, it is a hugely inspiring saga of the author’s indomitable spirit that rises above and overcomes the poverty, privations, humiliation, frustrations, and soars to great heights and transforms him as one of the giants in Indian literature. It is also a blow-by-blow account of the value system that Dr. Bhyrappa has embraced in his life.

The most notable parts of Bhitti include the heart-rending description of his childhood in the nondescript village of Sante Shivara near Hassan. As a ten-year-old boy, Dr. Bhyrappa loses his mother and siblings in quick succession to the plague. Adding agony to this misery is his irresponsible and vagabond father, who once steals money that Bhyrappa had earned in order to pay his school fees. In short, nothing short of a nightmarish childhood.

We also read his painful attempts to forge an education for himself. The saga of hurts and humiliations by his school and hostel management, his stints as a restaurant waiter, a ticket-collector at a rural cinema hall, a coolie at the Dadar railway station is enough to make a lesser-willed person succumb and resign to whatever fate threw at him.

The other highlight in Bhitti is the manner in which Dr. Bhyrappa discovered that his true calling in life was to be and remain a creative writer all his life. Pursuing a day job as an academic at various universities and institutions, Dr. Bhyrappa devoted all his life to writing the extraordinary novels he has written, akin to Tapas. This is a Himalayan journey of more than six decades, worthy of admiration and emulation. More so when we consider the fact that perhaps no other Kannada litterateur was subject to such targeted harassment, vilified and victimized for nearly half a century by a determined mob of Marxist ideologues. While they have long since vanished, Dr. Bhyrappa has become a living legend.  

Even disregarding biographical and personal details, Bhitti still endures as an antidote against disappointments, setbacks and frustrations. It is deeply inspirational as a real-life chronicle containing a wealth of insights which teach us to shed negativity and frustration about life’s little and big challenges and recognize the innate joy in living a life rooted in values, conviction, and an inner calling.

Series concluded

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