Principle of Mystery: The Governing Force of Creativity in S. L. Bhyrappa’s Novels

Studying the life and works of S L Bhyrappa, I strongly feel that the urge to probe into the principle of mystery around is the governing force of his creative imagination. Mystery of nature, birth, death, sexual instinct, history, the intellectual and emotional world of humans—all play a dominant role in shaping him as an individual and litterateur par excellence.

            The natural phenomenon of rain is an important motif in S. L. Bhyrappa’s novels. It is first evidenced in an event that occurred when Bhyrappa was yet a teenage boy. This event is significant as the governing force of his mind that began probing into the mystery of nature, which saved the boy from the thought of committing suicide, thus giving us a great writer. Bhitti, his autobiography, has recorded this event:

Bhyrappa, after undergoing varied experiences in Bombay, returned to Karnataka with some sadhus. He shed off the ochre clothes and came to Mysore. When he was refused admission to his class, he became dejected, went to K.R.S., and thought of drowning himself. Being an ace swimmer, the boy doubted whether he would succeed in his effort. Pondering thus, he sat on a stone bench, looking at the clouds floating above. Suddenly his imagination was fired. His mind started wondering about the mysterious process of the cycle of rain. These natural phenomena of water of the rivers and seas being evaporated by the heat of the Sun, forming clouds, pouring down on the earth in showers, torrential rains with thunder and lightning, mesmerised the boy’s mind. Immersed in this mystery, he dozed and slipped into sleep. By the time he woke up, the thought of suicide had vanished. This is the first and last time we see the thought of suicide enter the mind of Bhyrappa. No wonder clouds, showers, rain, torrential rains, and thunder play an important role in his novels as powerful images shaped by his creative genius.

In Vamsha-vriksha, the drizzle of Jyeshtha becomes the backdrop of many main events of the novel and plays as a character itself. Jalapata, through the images of clouds, describes the psychological and physical actions of characters. In Parva, rain becomes the water of pralaya at the end of the novel.

This thought of probing into the mystery of nature takes the form of observing the wonders of the astral world and finds its culmination in Yaana, which picturises the voyage of a spacecraft with human beings beyond the gravitational pull of the Sun.

            The urge to probe into the mystery of death is another governing force that heightens Bhyrappa’s creativity to its zenith. Roots of this, too, lie in his boyhood. Having undergone the bitter pangs of bereavement of his mother, sister and brother in a very young age, and carrying on his shoulder the dead body of his younger brother to the cemetery and cremating him alone, he sharpened his sense of finality. When he grew into a young man, this caused the urge to read Kathopanishad as per the advice of his mentor Yamunacharya. Further, his study of philosophy intensified the sense of inevitability and finality of death.

            Probing the mystery of death has found expressions—both artistically and philosophically—through characters, mainly in novels such as Parva and Nele. There is reference to death in almost all his novels. In Parva, in which Mahabharata is demystified, Vyasa, Shuka and many other mythological, characters well versed in Shruti, Smriti etc., analyse and explore the mystery of death seriously. In Nele the characters are of our contemporary society, without any philosophical background. Yet, their understanding and exploration of the mystery of death is astounding. Kalappa, Javarayi and Parvati experience death while living and realise death as a part of living. These are but a few examples from novels. Apart from these, there is Sattilla (Not Dead), a short story, in which Bhyrappa explores the mystery and finality of death from the perspective of a small boy Chandri, who first does not want to accept his father’s death, thinks his father has gone to God’s place, which is very beautiful and prosperous, and would bring rare gifts to him when he returns. But finally, the author makes the child accept the hard truth of death so artistically that it moves the readers to tears.

            The indomitable power of sex is another governing force that triggers Bhyrappa’s creativity and imagination. This has found expression in almost all his novels—from Grihabhanga to Kavalu. The negative force of sexual instinct and its impact on society is explored to the maximum in Saakshi through Manjayya, an embodiment of deceit, falsehood and cruelty, who contaminates everyone who comes into his contact. Likewise, positive aspects of this instinct are found in many man-woman (husband-wife) relations who lead a happy and fruitful life. One example that immediately comes to mind is Ravindra’s grandparents in Tantu. The pull and power of sex is no doubt indomitable, but in characters like Shrotri of Vamshavriksha and Gore Sahed of Mandra, these are subdued and sublimated.

            Probing into the mystery of this dominating instinct fires Bhyrappa’s imagination and his creativity picturises a host of characters with varied colours and shapes. Kallesha and Saatu of Grihabhanga seek happiness outside wedlock. [So do Kaanti (Tantu), Rebello and Sripati (Jalapaata), many characters in Kavalu and so on]. Yet Vasu and Sripati are a happy couple. A man like Channigaraya (Grihabhanga) can never even dream of befriending a woman outside wedlock; yet he never keeps his wife and family happy. Mohanlal of Mandra is an enigmatic and unique character in whom the pull of sex and an equally strong aesthetic sense of extremely good music are fused. Such a portrait of an artists is not seen in any other work of art—not even in Irving Stone’s Agony and Ecstasy.

            Unearthing and unveiling falsehood is evinced in many of Bhyrappa’s novels such as Dharmasri, Matadaana, Saartha and Tantu. It culminated in Aavarana, which created a revolution not just in Karnataka but also in other provinces of India (through its translations). Such an urge to fathom the mystery hidden in the annals of history is the result of a mind that relates the past to the present and thereby gives us a correct perspective of history.     

            The myth and mystery of noble birth and purity of ‘vamsha’ is busted in Vamshavriksha, Bhyrappa’s landmark work in his literary career and in the history of Kannada literature. The theme of search for biological parents—especially father—is as old as Oedipus. Now, in the age of IVFs and frozen embryos, it still is a relevant theme. In Bhyrappa’s novels, this first found its expression in Shortri of Vamshavriksha. Later, Akash of Yana echoed it in a poignantly. The mystery of birth is explored in the epic novel Parva also.

            The urge to explore various aspects of Nature and the world we live in made Bhyrappa a globetrotter. He has wandered as an avadhuta on snowy Himalayan terrains, scaled Alps and Andes, traveled in Amsterdam and Arctic. USA, UK and Europe, to him, are like his drawing room, kitchen and living room. Yet his curiosity to understand the mystery of Nature more and more is not satisfied.

            The mystery of emotional and intellectual companionship of man and woman is another stimulus for Bhyrappa’s genius. This has led him to create characters such as Sadashiva Rao and Karunaratne (Vamshavriksha), Nagabhatta and Chandrika (Sartha), Bhima and Draupadi (Parva; after Bhima kills Kimmira and Kichaka). These are only a few characters coming into my mind at the moment.

            The aura of greatness surrounding the epic and the deification of its characters have been demystified in Parva and in the recent novel Uttarakanda. Similarly, Bhyrappa’s urge to probe into the myths related to customs, conventions, legends and caste system has worked wonders in novels such as Daatu and Grahana.

            Bhyrappa reveres cultural values, especially those of the Indian tradition. He is of the firm opinion that among other things, temples in India help in preserving glorious sculpture and architecture of ancient times. Sartha, Tantu and a few other novels evince this idea. Avarana expresses his distress and dejection over the destruction of Indian temples.

*           *           *

             As I observed in the beginning of this article, the urge to probe into the mystery of Nature—the governing force of his intellect—saved the teenage boy and gave us the titanic legacy of a litterateur. Bhyrappa’s shift from Dharwad to Gujarat is another factor that provided him an opportunity to widen his perspective of the world. Vamshavriksha helped him in his firm resolve of treading the path of literature—especially novels. He understood that he could find and create rasa in it. Moving to Delhi offered him many occasions to understand the cultural unity of our country. His travels spanning almost the entire world—long stays in the USA, UK and other places—helped him understand various patterns of life. His study of eastern and western philosophy profoundly helped in forming his vision of life. It has given a peculiar aura to all his works.  

            Lastly, one thing remains to be said, which Bhyrappa himself has to reveal. It is a major turning point in his life that saved for us a literary genius. If he had only said yes, he could easily secure the golden key to the kingdom of religion, and could have become a spiritual Guru. Thank God he did not succumb to that temptation. Fortunately for us, on this occasion his curiosity did not urge him to fathom the mystery of mysticism. He was saved to be the most loved novelist of Karnataka.

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Don't miss Prekshaa's annual book launch at 10am on Sunday, 8th December at Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, Bangalore.Click here to know more.



Prof. Shantakumari is a teacher, writer, translator and literary critic. Her seminal work ‘Yugasaakshi’ is a critical and definitive study of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Kannada novels. ‘Chaitanyada Chilume’ and ‘Nenapu gari bicchidaaga’ are her autobiographical works. ‘Satyapathika-Socrates’ and ‘Kaggada-Kaanike’ are some of her major works. She has co-translated many of Bhyrappa's novels into English and parts of Will Durant's 'Story of Civilization' into Kannada.

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