Sir M. Visvesvarayya’s Work Ethic as Recounted by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar

Sir M. Visvesvarayya’s Work Ethic as Recounted by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar

The eminent Kannada litterateur, Sri Masti Venkatesha Iyengar narrates his experiences of working with Bharataratna Sir M. Visvesvarayya. The essay opens a highly inspirational window into the work ethic of the great Diwan of Mysore.


THE LIVES OF ALL GREAT PEOPLE is akin to the ocean’s depth. The deeper you dive, more the treasures you discover. And so it is with Bharataratna Mokshagundam Visvesvarayya, one among the handful of Indians who epitomise our highest civilian title. In fact, few Indians have left behind such a vast and wealthy legacy and have fortunately bequeathed a bounty of anecdotes for posterity, written by those who knew him and worked with him personally and professionally.

From stalwart to stalwart. Masti Venkatesha Iyengar was one such stalwart who had the prized fortune of working closely with Sir M. Visvesvarayya when he was the Diwan of Mysore. And the Diwan’s greatness rubbed off on Masti as well because the latter was such an avid receptacle. In a moving and inspiring tribute to Sir M. Visvesvarayya titled A Hard Task Master, Masti gives us several superb anecdotes about the Diwan’s work ethic. Sir M. Visvesvarayya’s approach to his professional duties is entirely consonant with the Sanatana work ethic that what you bring to the work is more important than the work itself.

In an age where volumes of nonsense about something called “Human Resources” and “work ethic” are churned out with impunity, Masti’s essay must be made mandatory reading for high school students but especially for the CEO types. A lived life teaches far more profoundly and the lessons thus taught will be lasting than cramming theoretical fluff divorced from practice.

Do read some excerpts from Masti’s vivid account of the Diwan’s work ethic and his working style in his office.

Note: This is the first part of a series. Minor formatting changes have been made.

A Hard Task Master

WITHOUT THINKING of me, Sir Visvesvaraya determined my career in life for me; and this is how.

One of the first things he did on becoming the Dewan of Mysore was to revive the open competitive examination for appointment to the State Civil Service which had been discontinued four years previously. I had passed the B.A. examination in April 1912 and as was common with young men in those days, was wondering what to become. A teacher? A lawyer? What else ? The new civil service examination was a welcome opportunity. I passed in the first examination (held in 1913) and was appointed a probationer. After the first six months of probation, I was taken to the Dewan’s staff.

It was felt a privilege in those days to be so near the Dewan. I had this privilege for nine months. After an interval of over two yearsI was posted as Assistant Secretary to Government and was again fairly close to the Dewan for about a year, till about his retirement.

While on the Dewan's staff, I had not much regular work. The Dewan and his assistants left me largely to myself to read up the codes and rules for passing the departmental examinations, which I had to do to be confirmed. The only thing I was required to do was to act as gentleman usher on the days of the Dewan’s public interviews, and to read select books under his orders and prepare summaries for him. Occasionally, I had to note down the instructions which he wanted to communicate to any officer not immediately at hand.

My first impression of Sir Visvesvaraya’s office was that it was a place of great dignity and importance, and that it worked very systematically. The Dewan’s active influence was visible in every corner of it. Everyone was brisk and doing something. It was a strange contrast from the district office which I had just quitted. The difference was without doubt partly due to the offices being of different types, but it was as clearly due also to the Dewan himself being always brisk and active.

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Sir M. Visvesvarayya’s Work Ethic as Recounted by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar
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Sir M. Visvesvarayya’s Work Ethic as Recounted by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar

The office worked practically every day and in two sessions each day. Sundays and holidays were for other offices; here, on these days, part of the staff had rest, but the other part was present and worked part of the day. Visvesvaraya had his own methods of work. One of these was that there was a change of work every half hour or quarter of an hour. The morning session began at 7-30 or 8, generally in his residence. One group of officers would then sit with the Dewan and receive instructions. They would go after the allotted time, and a second group would come in that minute and sit down and receive instructions. After this a third group, or perhaps the first group would return to submit what had been done, or to take further instructions. Thus these groups would go on until the Dewan rose for lunch at 1 p.m. The afternoon session was generally in the Public Offices and began at 3 p.m. and closed at 6 p.m. or later. In this session, the Dewan attended to routine work and passed orders on files, a private secretary and an under secretary, and a small establishment under each. In the three hours that the Dewan sat in his chambers a great deal of work would be done.

Sir Visvesvaraya worked his men hard; but he worked himself hardest.

Of the Dewan personally, the first thing one said to oneself was: “How sprucely he is dressed, and what a beautiful turban !” (It is almost fifty years since then, but meet him for the first time now and that is what you will say to yourself.) His dress was of the English style. The material too was mostly English. The boots were of the finest leather. The tie and collar were perfect. The total effect made him look younger than he was, almost youthful.

It was known that he liked officers to dress in the English style and appear neat and brisk. We all dressed to suit his taste. I am afraid that some of us looked rather comic in these habiliments and blundered in details.

One day I was taking down some instructions to Sir Visvesvaraya’s dictation. When he finished and I got ready to leave, he said,“By the way, you should not show your collar button. The tie should cover it.” ”Yes, Sir,” I said, in some confusion, fumbling with my tie so as to cover the offending button. “Do you know who taught me this?,” he asked and proceeded, “Mr. Gokhale.” “Yes, Sir,” I said and came away. I need not say that he never again caught sight of my collar-button. The first thing I did when I had to go into his presence was to adjust my tie so as to cover it.

To be continued

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