Art and Artistes

It is rather unlikely that experts in music and dance will find immense value in the episodes narrated here[1]. These have been written by an ordinary man who has no knowledge of the śāstras[2] [related to art] nor the strength of rigorous practice but is merely a connoisseur of good music and dance. In this book, he has captured the outlines of his experiences for the benefit of other commoners like him who enjoy listening to music and watching dance.

In the vicinity of the house where I was born and brought up[3], there lived singers and dancers. The meagre kalābhiruci—taste for art—that I developed might have resulted from this childhood association I was fortunate to receive. Over the years, there were opportunities for it to grow. My revered maternal uncle, the Late B S Ramayya was a music-lover. He was the honorary treasurer of the Gāna-vinoda-sabhā, one of the earliest music associations of Bangalore. The sabhā president was the Late K S Chandrashekhar Iyer; Late D B Ramachandra Mudaliar was the secretary as was the Late B V Lakshmana Rao. Several concerts of the sabhā took place in Ramayya’s house. Owing to the conveniences offered to me by these circumstances, my passion for music developed further. That being the case, how should I cultivate authoritative scholarship or proficiency in art criticism? At the heart of this work lies pure enthusiasm.

In this book, I have not alluded to several musicians I have heard. On many occasions I’ve heard the renowned singer ‘Tiger’ Varadacharya; not just in public concerts but also in the homes of friends. Even so, my memories of him are not recorded here.

In my childhood, a musician named Venkataramayya—I don’t know from where—had come to my house. He sang the Tyāgarāja kṛti in Toḍi rāga

āragimpave pālāragimpave…

The grandeur of the rāga I experienced when he sang that day remains fresh in my memory even after seventy years.

Similarly, there was another musician, Venkatarama Bhagavatar. They would call him ‘Paṭṭunūlu[4] Bhagavatar. It was from him that I first heard the rāga Cakravākam and was enthralled with it.

Limitation of Language

The fate of ardent admirers of the fine arts is like that of a jasmine or pārijāta flower; for one or two moments it offers its fragrance to the world and then withers away; and after that it is gone forever. Forgetfulness engulfs it and somewhere in the alcoves of the heart, it melts into oblivion. But those few moments, ah! For those who experience it, those are moments that will live with them until their last breath. Those are the immortal, nectarine moments. That ambrosial immortality is only for those who have experienced it. It is not possible to capture that experience in words for the benefit of others. Words don’t have that power.

How much of joy and peace you would have experienced in a garden! Can all that be described using language? Can you distil the fragrance of a flower in a vial? It is said that the ‘scent’ (perfume) was produced by such distillation! But how do you describe the soft touch of a flower? How do you explain in words the shapes, varieties, and specialities of its petals? Do the colours and the shadows of the leaves and sprouts have names? How would you describe the creeping of a creeper or the shaking of a collection of buds? Describing in words the beauties and nuances of music is similarly impossible.

The Kannada grammarian Keśirāja praises Vāgdevī[5] in this manner:

nāvāviṃdriyada viṣayamuṃ śrotradòḻu-

Within the scope of words
you give birth to the different objects of senses
in the listeners

These words are close to the truth; but they are not the absolute truth. Words can mark out a broad sketch, a rough outline of the various sense-experiences; it cannot bring out the subtleties and nuances. Words are external, experiences are internal.

To illustrate this, we can recall a story here.

A Tale of Tenāli Rāmakṛṣṇa

One day, a scholar called Lipi-sārvabhauma Akṣara-śekhara Lekhana-śikhāmaṇi[6] came to the court of the king and said, “Lord! In the art of writing and lettering, I’ve received several awards, honours, and adornments. I have come to receive a jayapatra—victory citation—from you. If there is a scribe in your court who can defeat me, I will bow down to him and offer all my titles and awards. But if that doesn’t happen and he ends up losing to me, he will have to give me all his titles and awards, if he has any. And your lordship should grace me with a hand-written jayapatra.”

The king was rendered speechless for a moment. If the scribes of his court were to face defeat, wouldn’t that be dishonourable! Isn’t he the sort who offers a place in his court only to the deserving?

Thus entwined in thoughts, the king turned towards Tenāli Rāmakṛṣṇa[7] and said, “What is your opinion in this matter?”

With a mischevious smile he said, “Why not accede to this scholar’s request?”

The king immediately said, “In that case, Rāmakṛṣṇa, will you tell this scholar what to write?”

“As your honour pleases!” he said and began telling the great scribe what to write down:

bhuss… bhusss… bhusss…
sss… ssss… ssss

Ten to twenty minutes passed. The ‘s’-es wouldn’t just stop. The surprised courtiers were laughing out loud. The king lost his patience and said, “What’s this, just one letter?” Then Rāmakṛṣṇa said:

gòṭṛ… gòṭr… ṭṛ…
rrr… rrrr… rrrr

and dragged the ‘r’-es. The courtiers were falling off their seats laughing. The great Lekhana-śikhāmaṇi, flabbergasted, stood up and said, “Lord, I’m feeling terribly unwell; I have a severe headache.”

The king said, “Oh so sorry to hear that! We shall call the doctor. Let us stop here today. We shall continue this tomorrow.”

The court was dismissed.

The next day, everyone assembled in the king’s court. But Lekhana-śikhāmaṇi wasn’t to be seen; his room was vacant. It was evident what happened. The king called Tenāli Rāmakṛṣṇa and asked him, “What in the world did you say yesterday?”

He replied, “That is actually a Śiva-tāṇḍava-stotra[8]. It goes:

bhussanè nāgeśuḍu
gòṭṛ-gòṭṛmane naṃdīśuḍu
ghoñmane vighneśuḍu
thòtthomane naṭaneśuḍu

‘Hiss-hisss’ went the king of serpents (Nāgeśa)
‘Gotr-gotrr’ went the king of bulls (Nandīśa)
‘Ghom’ went Gaṇeśa (Vighneśa)
‘Tho thom’ went Śiva (Naṭaneśa)

I recited it just the way I learnt it from my guru, setting it to a melodic tune and so forth. Unable to notate these letters, god knows where that Lekhana-śikhāmaṇi went!”

This small story shows the limitation of writing.

Just as the stressed sounds of Tenāli Rāmakṛṣṇa’s recitation couldn’t be captured in writing, similar is the case with the elongations and extensions of the letters of Tyāgarāja’s kṛtis; it is outside the scope of orthography. Music lies in the stresses and peculiarities, which are out of the bounds of a written script. Music lies not in the letters but in the space between two letters, in the twists and turns and slides hidden in the recesses between two notes.

murahara rā—rā—
sā—rī—dèno ni—nnā—

The places where we have put the dash (—) in place of letters, that’s where the music appears!

The Accomplishment of an Artist is Internal[9]

Just as the slides, intonations, and melodic embellishments are to a musician, the subtleties and nuances are to an artist: indescribable in words; they transcend language and can only be realised by experience. That experience is akin to steam; it has a nebulous form, not a recognisable structure. When the accomplishment of an artist is uncapturable in words, then what more to say of his life story? The life of a poet, scholar of the śāstras, singer, or dancer deals with the inner world, not the outer world; it is in the realm of the interior, not the exterior. The life of a politician or a trader is external. They need clients. So they have to move with people; with the world at large they have to fly, chatter, dance, gambol, scream, and cry. Thus they have to draw the world towards them. In the series of actions they undertake to reach their goal, all their adventures, schemes, and investigations form the material for description and expansion [in writing]. The speeches and declarations of a politician become the material for books. But can we write and print a book about the musical enjoyments of a musician? The worshipper of art or the scholar of śāstra resides within himself, inside the recesses of his mind and intellect. Typically, he appears like an ordinary man from the outside. There are no special bodily features that distinguish an artist [from a commoner]. In matters of the body, he too has to abide by nature; whatever be his specialty, it lies within. Often it is for this reason that biographies and life-stories of poets, singers, dancers, sculptors, and painters are largely honorific; they end up being hagiographies, not a portrayal of reality. Also, they can’t be as expansive as a politician’s biography. The life-story of a singer is a biography only in name.

If that is so, what have I attempted in these pages? These are merely rough sketches, outlines. In the ‘copy’ books that are meant for children to learn writing the letters of the alphabet, the exterior forms of the letters are indicated by means of dots or dashes, aren’t they? The child has to fill up the spaces in the manner suggested by these markings. Art tutors teach sketching using a method akin to this; they indicate the exterior form of a sketch with a few coarse strokes and expect the student to fill in the details. The work that I have set out to do is quite similar: to indicate at least some of the primary markers about these individuals. What is left will be filled out by the talent of the readers.

This is also not a book that was written with focus and determination (to bring out a volume on these artists). It is a book that has resulted from my stray dictations, at some point of time or the other, upon remembering some fragments of a long-forgotten memory. And so, one will not find a definite structure in the presentation of topics in these writings.

There are people who desire to know the experiences and memories of an old man. This is a work that has been put together with the hurried anxiety that such people do not remain unsatisfied. I have the faith that readers will bear these circumstances in mind and show their compassion towards this work.

Sarvam śivam.

This is a translation of the introductory essay written by D V Gundappa for the second volume of his Jnapakachitrashaale (Kalopasakaru).


[1] A reference to the second volume of Art Gallery of Memories. The present essay is an introduction to the book. Most of the essays in this book have been published on Prekshaa.

[2] The word ‘śāstra’ in general refers to a branch of knowledge or a science. It can also mean ‘treatise,’ ‘precept,’ or ‘scriptural injunction.’

[3] In Mulbagal (or Mulabagilu), a small town in the Kolar district of Karnataka.

[4] Literally, ‘silk-thread.’ Perhaps a suggestion that his voice was as soft as silk.

[5] Another name for Sarasvatī, the goddess of speech.

[6] These are all possibly his titles: ‘Emperor of Orthography’ (lipi = ‘script’ and sārvabhauma = ‘emperor’), ‘Acme of Lettering’ (akṣara = ‘letter’ and śekhara = ‘summit’), and ‘The Crest jewel of Calligraphy’ (lekhana = ‘writing’ and śikhāmaṇi = ‘crest jewel’).

[7] Poet, scholar, polyglot, advisor, and court jester in the court of Krishnadevaraya, the Vijayanagara emperor.

[8] Poem in praise of Śiva’s tāṇḍava, the cosmic dance which sustains the universe. The use of onomatopoeic words in the poem gives it a distinct flavour.

[9] The original Kannada sub-title is ‘kalājīviya siddhi antaraṃgaddu’ and is far richer than the translated version. The word ‘kalā-jīvi’ refers to an artisitic soul, one whose life is all about art, an artist to the bone. We’ve loosely given it as ‘artist.’ The word ‘siddhi’ can mean perfection, accomplishment, fulfilment, precision, and so forth. It is also a technical term in the Nāṭya-śāstra, which means ‘outcome of a theatrical performance,’ i.e. the response of the audience. ‘Antar-aṃga’ literally means ‘innermost limb,’ but refers to the heart, the mind, the inner world, the interior realm, etc.



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 25+ books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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