S.L. BHYRAPPA: Literature as an agent of change

Eight Kannada writers have received the Jnanpith Award since its inception. To Santheshivara Lingannaiah Bhyrappa aka S.L. Bhyrappa goes the distinction of becoming the very first one to bag the equally respected Saraswati Samman instituted by the K.K. Birla foundation, for his 2002 novel Mandra.

Bhyrappa who worked as a coolie in Bombay Central railway station, as a coach driver in Bombay, as a waiter in village restaurants, as a gatekeeper in village tent cinemas, and sold sherbet in village fairs and agarbathis for a living, before becoming an academic and writer, accepted the high honour in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Below is the full text of his acceptance speech, delivered in English:



I cannot reflect on my literature without reminiscing my life.

I was born into a very poor family in a village in Karnataka. My mother bore the brunt of earning and looking after the children as my father was an utterly irresponsible person. When I was ten years old, plague visited our family attacking me, my sister who was married just fifteeen days earlier and my elder brother.

Both of them died within a span of one hour and somehow I survived. After two years my mother too died of plague. I had to continue my education in a town four miles away from my village with free food obtained in seven houses as was the tradition those days.

When I was fourteen my sister aged four died of cholera. When I was fifteen, my brother aged six died of some undiagnosed illness. I carried his dead body on my shoulder to the cremation ground and burnt it assisted by a sweeper, a government servant of the very low caste in the hierarchy.

All these experiences started to bother me with the questions: what is the meaning of death?

Why do people die?

When I was studying in Mysore for my Intermediate, I met a professor of philosophy in the University and posed my problem. He gave me a Kannada translation of the Kathopanishad with a commentary. I read it with great concentration but could not find the answer to my nagging question.

Again I approached the professor and expressed my inability to understand the teaching of Yama to Nachiketa. The professor said they were questions which required a systematic study of philosophy for my BA. I followed his advice and took to study of philosophy in all seriousness for the bachelor’s and master’s course.

I studied philosophy with total concentration for twelve years as a student and eight years as a teacher and researcher in the subject. I did my PhD in aesthetics, on a comparative study of truth and beauty, and continued my research on beauty and goodness.

By this time, I realised two things: philosophy, which included all branches of knowledge in both India and ancient Greece, is now shed of cosmology, epistemiology, psychology and even many questions of ethics giving place to modern astrophysics, theoretical phyiscs, economics, sociology, experimental psychology and jurisprudence.

So, philosophy now remains a study of values.

I also realised that though the Vedas and the Upanishads form the foundation of Indian philosophy, it is Ramayana and Mahabharata which analysed and critically concretised our national ethos. By this time I had written my first major novel Vamsha Vriksha.

This critical experience mingled with the understanding of how values and even disvalues of life are concretised in Ramayana and Mahabharata made me realise that my vocation was not formal, dry, academic philosophy but exploration of human experience through the medium of imagination, that is literature.

Further I realised that the two most important steams of Indian philosophy, Vedanta and Buddhism, and their values emanate from the same source, viz death.

Siddhartha left his family at the sight of death and arrived at the philosophy of impermanence of life. The most important Upanishad, Katha, also starts with the problem of death and arrives at the philosophy of impermanence of mundane life and therefore asks us to seek what it calls the permanent.

Anyhow, the Indian value-consciousness awakens with the awareness of death.

Since I started writing and until now the general atmosphere in the country has been making a demand on creative writers to subserve literature to the cause of change, modernity and amelioration of the downtrodden.

Having had a background of philosophy, that too axiology, i.e. study of values, I have much sympathy with these expectations. But I consider it a disservice to both the values if one is made subservient to the other.

Not that literature is against change, modernity or amelioration, but it should maintain its identity and freedom. Literature itself is a vast, possibly the widest field in which all the values of life can be explored than in any other intellectual activity; in it the demands of political parties and social activists are also accommodated but with a higher vision and more critical analysis.

The ameliorists and activists try to constrict the aim of creative writing to what they consider the most important to the present and pressure the writer to write only in the way they think best. They attack the writers who do not fall in line as bourgeoise and rightists.

They do not realise that social issues change every couple of decades and literature restricting itself to these issues becomes obsolete. Throughout I stood firm and maintained my creative and intellectual freedom.

I am glad that of my recent novels, Mandra is selected for the Saraswati Samman. I have tried to explore the relation between art and other values of life through a musician, his surroundings and persons who come in interactive contact with him. Throughout the novel music itself is the main character.

I chose music as the principal motif because it is is the purest and therefore, the most raw and powerful medium when compared to other arts like painting, sculpture and literature. It moves through all the basic and mixed rasas ranging from the depth of Mandra to the height of Taarataara.

Mandra is a state of total inwardness, i.e. meditation.

Photograph: Chairman of the Indian council of cultural relations Dr Karan Singh (right) presenting the “Saraswati Samman-2010” to S.L. Bhyrappa, in New Delhi on Wednesday. The president of K.K. Birla foundation Shobhana Bhartia looks on (Karnataka Photo News)

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