Art, Artist and the Individual in K Viswanath's Cinema

This article is part 4 of 6 in the series Appreciation of K Viswanath's Cinema

--- I ---

Art, the creator of art, the final product of this creative process, and the relationship among the three has fascinated and has been explored by artists and aestheticians since ancient times.

The myth-legend of Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where a brilliant sculptor falls in love with his own creation and ends up marrying her has passed through countless interpretations. It continues to appeal to artists even today and will do so even in future.

Myths, like idioms have the great and inbuilt power of Sadharanikarana (universalization; this technical term in Indian aesthetic theory is used in this essay in a generic and wider sense), which makes them highly malleable and offers unlimited options for creative exploration in various art forms.

We hardly need to mention the infinite myths and legends in the Indian epics and Puranas that have similarly lent themselves to equally countless interpretations, a process that is still ongoing. In our own time, Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s major novels like Daatu, Parva, Sakshi, Mandra, Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane, Nayi Neralu and Thantu are outstanding works showcasing the extraordinary usage of these myths, symbolism etc. The interested reader may peruse an exhaustive exploration of myths and legends done by Prof L V Shanta Kumari in Prekshaa Journal:

Perhaps one of the best investigations into the aforementioned relationship has been carried out again by Dr. S L Bhyrappa in his classic Mandra, which is at once music, its pursuit, its creation-process, and the musician himself. Mandra is both art and art criticism.

In the realm of aesthetic appreciation and criticism, India has produced a truly oceanic output beginning all the way from Bharatamuni’s Natya Shastra to Sri Sediyappu Krishna Bhatta and to Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh in the present time. From this perspective, it’s instructive to glean the fundamental Indian approach to aesthetics encompassed in the notion of Rasa.

…the Sanskrit word for poetry, viz., Kavya…is equally applicable to verse as well as to prose…it is explained as kavi-karma…poetry is what the poet writes… in this respect…it shifts the question from poetry to the poet… The common view of the poet is to regard him as a creator or maker… His skill does not consist in selecting the salient features of an existing situation and portraying them exactly as they are, but rather in creating new situations… the poet's work involves the invention of many new elements; and it is for this reason that in Sanskrit literature the poet is often found compared to the Creator and the Creator to the poet… It is this transcending of self-consciousness…that constitutes the secret of aesthetic delight. The highest function of the poet who easily rises to this mood is to communicate the same to us… It is this wholly unique experience that is termed rasa in Sanskrit…

Poetry then is to be regarded first and foremost as a means of securing a spell of detachment from common life and not for any lessons or 'criticism of life' it may contain. There is no doubt that it has many such lessons for us and that their value is great. But they are only the further good resulting from poetic experience and not the good which that experience itself is… This rasanubhava or aesthetic experience is to be preferred not only to whatever good may result from it, but also…to the very writing of poetry. [Art Experience: M. Hiriyanna. Emphasis added]

This conception of and approach towards aesthetics pretty much applies to all creative art forms including cinema. And K Viswanath is one of the most accomplished practitioner of this approach, an echo of which is found in his classic Sagara Sangamam where Kamal Hassan explains the meaning of Bharatamuni’s “Yatho drishtistato hastah…yatho bhAvostato rasah.”

It’s also important to remember that Indian classical art is unique in one respect: during the time of its creation, it is highly individualistic but is community or society-oriented at the time of its enjoyment and appreciation. When a singer of Indian classical music performs an AlApanam, it is impromptu—no two AlApanams of the same raga by the same singer is the same—but the gathering of connoisseurs appreciates both for a wide variety of reasons.

Pygmalion Sculpture. Pic Courtesy: Google Image Search

Which is why such artistic creation constitutes Marga and its appreciation, Deshi. But owing to much mischievous, misleading and agenda-based theorizing, a pervasive notion has emerged which places Marga in opposition to Deshi. Indeed, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The term Marga, meaning “search” or “quest,” has numerous connotations such as “classical,” and “Pan-Indian.” And the term Deshi (derived from the Sanskrit, dishyate iti deshi) means “regional,” “presentation” in the sense of revealing something.

Thus, when Marga falls in the realm of creativity, it becomes Deshi and when Deshi is codified, it becomes Marga, much like the codification of language into grammar and the inevitability of employing proper grammar while using language. It’s therefore clear that both complement each other: the fulfilment of Deshi occurs in its blending with Marga.

Viswanath’s cinema brings out this artistic harmony effectively, creatively. As an immediate example, one can cite the film Apadbandhavudu in which the character of the unschooled Deshi Chiranjeevi puts in strenuous efforts and incurs great personal costs to get the Marga compositions of his poet-master published. This same blend is also reflected in Deshi lyrics and song picturization in “Govullu tellana Gopayya nallana,” “Aura ammaka chella,” “Suvvi suvvi,” “Taalibottu testanani,” and so on.

What is also striking is the natural manner in which Viswanath unfailingly includes bits and episodes related to the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas in ambience (for e.g. in a temple), dialogue, lyric, and song delivered through Deshi characters. We can refer to the washerwoman scene in Swati Muthyam cited in the previous episode of this series as well as the sequences in Sutradharulu, and the lullaby in Swati Muthyam set to lyrics that are simple yet deeply-rooted in our tradition and cultural heritage.

In the same movies, the filmmaker also infuses Marga elements for example, through scenes showing the Vedic Mantrapushpam, the GhanapATi who recites the Veda in the GhanapATa style, the Vedic blessing of Shatamanam bhavati, Bhartrhari’s verse in Jayanti te sukrtino, Vedic rituals and Puja, and temple culture.

A particularly poignant scene in Sagara Sangamam comes to mind. A drunk and hungry protagonist Kamal Hassan, defeated by life's circumstances, refuses to enter the house of his close friend Sarath Babu because it is the occasion of Sri Krishna Janmashtami. He says, "Sister-in-law has decorated the house with the footsteps of Bala (Baby) Krishna with great devotion. How can I enter this home in this state?" The background music is set to a flute rendition of the Kannada devotional lyric composed by the 15th Century Haridasa, Vyasatirtha, "Krishna nee begane baaro (Krishna my child, come soon)" while Kamala Hassan's character is named Balakrishna. The use of the flute, whose most revered and celebrated practitioner, Bhagavan Sri Krishna, completes the unity of this magnificent scene.

Sagara Sangamam Krishna Janmasthami Scene

This one scene is a good study in auchitya (aptness), rasa (aesthetic experience), and dhwani (suggestion). It also showcases Viswanath’s sincerity towards art and the emotional wealth he’s capable of delivering through his conception of scenes and characterization.

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Indeed, one of the highlights of Viswanath’s characterization is the fact that the character of his characters will never be lost. That said, his films tend to indulge in a fair bit of idealization and typefication. But they are means to an artistic end and are executed very subtly, artistically. Nowhere do we see the kind of loud proclamations so typical in say, Puttanna Kanagal’s movies or the “social” movies that N T Rama Rao   acted later in his career.

We can refer to the earlier point about Viswanath taking a slice of society and narrating his story. And so we have the characters of say, a Guru, a Purohita, a singer, dancer, etc through whose life-circumstances and characters Viswanath delivers valuable lessons about ideals. As also the prerequisites like nobility, magnanimity, and elevated conduct required for people belonging to these fields. He also shows the downside of those who don’t possess these character traits or go astray.

But Viswanath’s actual cinematic artistry lies in how he steps out of the main character and reveals them through a third person. This is a very good example of how art and art criticism go hand in hand within the frame of the film itself.

The most prominent example of this is the character of Sankara Sastry in Sankarabharanam whose devotion to Indian classical music is a lifelong penance. From leading a Zamindar-like lifestyle to being reduced to penury, this penance also has him nearly wreck his own daughter’s marriage alliance. His friend played by Allu Ramalingaiah reveals Sastry’s character brilliantly, “…at a time when music has become transformed into shrieks, howls, moans, and sighs, and he has lost the earlier reverence that his music commanded, Sri Sastry regarded the four walls of his home as the stage, the insects therein as his audience, and pursued his music Sadhana…”

Final Concert in Sankarabharanam

What is even more extraordinary is the manner in which the character of the prostitute Tulasi’s unstinted devotion to Sastry's music acts as a subtext throughout the movie, revealing his character and conduct in various life situations.

The same point applies to a lesser extent to the character of Seshendra Sharma, the Kuchipudi Guru in Swarna Kamalam. His own daughter Bhanupriya, who hates being a danseuse realizes the greatness of her own father revealed through the legions of his devoted students who offer an annual tribute to him as a Guru.

On the other side, Viswanath shows what happens when an artist loses focus on his/her art. The opening song sequence in Sagara Sangamam shows how the danseuse played by S P Shailaja pauses on stage mid-performance to savour applause as also in Swarnakamalam where Bhanupriya does the same when she pauses for photographs. Viswanath subtly conveys the consequence of the phenomenon where the persona becomes more important than the person, where the artist confounds the greatness of his/her art with his/her own personal greatness.

There’s also an other and more dangerous side to this loss of focus. It’s the slide of an artist into moral and spiritual decay, showcased very effectively in Shruti Layalu and obliquely in Sagara Sangamam.

In Shruti Layalu, the three, naïve but accomplished musical brothers who land in a big city are quickly seduced by every vice it has on the menu. In Sagara Sangamam, this takes the form of a highly accomplished classical dancer who abandons his art and takes refuge in alcohol, unable to overcome his innate character flaw of extreme emotional swings.

But K Viswanath also shows other dimensions to the said idealization, rooted in pragmatism. In Sutradharulu, this takes the form of adhering to one’s ideals in adverse circumstances by following strategy and not merely blind adherence. One can again cite the scene of Akkineni Nageswara Rao throwing the evil Zamindar’s charity in the Godavari.

The deeper aspect to this, occurring at the level of the individual is an incurable disability or a similar situation that occurs at birth and stays throughout life. The mental, emotional, and social turmoil that such an individual undergoes can only be experienced.

K Viswanath approaches this delicate subject with compassion, spirituality and splendid artistry. He takes the exact opposite approach of the widely-pervasive social discourse premised on rights. He places his starting point at acceptance. An acceptance that in the Indian parlance is Kaaya, Vaaca, Manasa, KarmaNa: body, speech, mind, and action. This attitude of acceptance is perfectly consonant with the ideals of Sanatana Dharma where the greatest Rishis accepted the world with all its flaws and evils and proceeded to contemplate deeper, at the level of the spirit, towards finding a solution.

Sirivennela is the best artistic exhibition of this intense expression of the aforementioned ideals of Sanatana Dharma. The protagonists include Sarvadaman Banerjee, a blind flutist, and Suhasini, a mute painter. In a particularly evocative scene, she paints his nose as a flute implying that music is his very breath.

Or the superb lyric in Adi Bhikshuvu vaadinedi koredi that catapulted Sitarama Sastry to permanent lyrical stardom (so much so that "Sirivennela" became a permanent prefix to his name). It is a Nindastuti on Shiva (praising Shiva by chiding him): the blind flutist telling that it’s futile to ask anything of Shiva who is himself a beggar and can give ash at the most. This song sequence is an exceptional rendering of an individual’s attitude towards accepting handicaps instead of trying to change it or getting unduly agitated. It’s precisely this attitude of disquiet that eventually fuels and leads to violence in society in the name of revolutions etc.

Adi Bhikshuvu Song

This song sequence and its conception at once introduces the character of Hari Prasad and is almost on par with the “Krishna nee begane baaro” scene in Sagara Sangamam in terms of artistry. And it is one of the truest expressions of the approach of Indian art which upholds the suzerainty of Rasa.

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One of the biggest triumphs of K Viswanath’s characterization involves the depiction of feminity and womanhood. In this respect, he has unapologetically, unabashedly upheld the Indian woman as an ideal in and by itself. That he accomplished this at a time when the invasive forces of the destructive ideology of Western feminism was just making inroads in India is the more commendable. The greater accomplishment is the fact that these depictions of womanhood continue to be regarded as classic models still emulated by Telugu filmmakers, most notably in the 2013 superhit Seethamma Vaakitlo Sirimalle Chettu.

In this, K Viswanath follows the approach of Dr. S L Bhyrappa in say, Tantu, Jalapata, Nele, and to an extent, Kavalu. Viswanath has subtly discouraged and rejected the Western model of the so-called “liberated” woman, which continues to wreak havoc on the institution of family. By giving a constructive but powerful rebuttal to this brand of feminism, he has simultaneously shown that an Indian woman’s true “liberation” lies here, in the Indian ethos. But the fundamental question remains unanswered by feminists: liberation from what?

One of the facets of this constructive response lies in the artistic manner in which Viswanath has shown the innate capacity of a woman to empower both a man and the wider society.

In fact, the entire storyline of Swati Muthyam deals with this theme: how a widow who accidentally marries a mentally-challenged man (who isn’t even aware of his own sexuality), and helps him find self-respect and status in society.

Subodayam deals with the subject of a lazy husband who opts to become a Sanyasin who runs away from home instead of facing the trials of life. It evocatively traces the efforts of his wife who corrects his errors showing him that irresponsibility in a marriage can also be a two-way street. The movie reminds us of an episode in Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s Nirakarana where the protagonist’s motherless daughter asks him, “if Mother was still alive, would she choose to become a Sanyasin like you?”

One can also obliquely mention the character of the high-class call-girl played by Moon Moon Sen in Sirivennela. While she’s initially drawn towards Sarvadaman Banerjee's musical talent, she also patiently helps him tap into his own potential and helps him attain fame and worldly success.

But in all of Viswanath’s movies, the subtlest and the most powerful scene showcasing the inherent capability of a woman to empower occurs in Sagara Sangamam. It has since become iconic, known popularly as the “well scene.”

The "Well" Scene in Sagara Sangamam

In a single stroke, the female protagonist Jayaprada reveals herself once again to the former dancer-turned-alcoholic Kamal Hassan and heralds the final twist in the movie’s plot. Though widowed, she reveals herself to him as a married woman to save him from his own tumultous and intensely emotional self.

By holding his hand, she literally and metaphorically pulls him away and rescues him, now on the brink of a fatal fall into the well of artistic and spiritual decrepitude. In less than a minute, Viswanath takes us on a powerful emotional journey and shows the deeply rooted Indian conception of a woman when Kamal Hassan blocks the raindrops with his palm so that Jayaprada’s Kumkum isn’t washed away. The subtlety and artistry of this scene lies in the fact that there’s absolutely no background music or dialogue between either protagonist.

This scene is in stark contrast to the artistic mediocrity and shrillness in K. Bhagyaraj’s climactic scene in Anda Yel Naatkal which lectures the audience about Indian culture.

Together with the widely popular Takita tadhimi song that forms its backdrop, the “well scene” also has a philosophical dimension supplied by Veturi Sundararama Murthy’s extraordinary lyrics.

But given how art criticism has evolved especially in the post World War II era, this sort of aesthetic appreciation and analysis is blindly dismissed as sentimental, irrelevant, regressive, and so on. But a critical scrutiny of contemporary art criticism shows that it was built on the foundation that regards the notion of Rasa itself as cerebral, impractical even.

As we’ve seen so far, the approach of filmmakers like K Viswanath is what produces classics, and provides aesthetic enjoyment and an elevated experience of art.

To be continued



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

Prekshaa Publications

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