The true root and heart of Mandra is located in the music of Raja Saheb and his small Mahadeva Temple overlooking the perennial, gurgling currents of Narmada River amid the dense jungle he has specially grown. In less than ten pages, Dr. Bhyrappa unveils a majestic opulence that at once encompasses the highest and the best traditions of Indian music, its underlying philosophy, its aesthetic goal and its ultimate ideal. He serves us a multi-course feast that includes the most deliciously optimal mix of the ingredients of the relationship of music with nature, human impulses and Creation itself and infuses it with some of the grandest elements of Indian mythology, symbolism and suggestion. We can directly examine a few lines[i] from the novel:
This is not his voice. He is not the singer. The Raga has selected his voice to reveal its purest form. Seated with his eyes closed, he has completely surrendered himself to the Raga. The man sitting before me is not a Raja. He is a Swara-Rishi…The effortless ease with which his voice had total suzerainty in all three Saptakas [gamut] … and the manner in which he dived and rose and dived and rose from the lowermost octave [Ati Mandra] to the highest octave [Ati Tara] brought the picture of the Matysa-Avatara to my mind…The hand of the clock was unable to compute the time of his Aalap…But the duration of the movement of the Swara [Musical note] created a feeling of Eternity.
This episode is easily one of the virtuoso feats in world literature. It is equally a superb—and firsthand—testimony to what Dr. Bhyrappa considers as ideal music.
The Music of Mohanlal
The character Mohanlal, who narrates the aforementioned episode in a stream of consciousness manner is the disciple of the singer, Raja Saheb. Raja Saheb is akin to his music. Magnanimous. Lofty. Noble. Disciplined. Cultured. Refined. Contemplative. Inward-looking. The contrast between a Guru and a disciple couldn’t be starker or more repulsive. Mohanlal, the protagonist of Mandra, only learns—and learns really well—the musical prowess of his Guru. Nothing else.
This incongruity also marks the crux of literary irony in a powerful manner.
And this incongruity is what provides the basis for the central theme of Mandra: the conflict, friction and the relationship between something as profound as Indian classical music and values and culture. Dr. Bhyrappa dwells on and demonstrates the nature, form, and nuances of this conflict in deliberate elaboration akin to a leisurely Alap of say, the Yaman Raga. Or to quote Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh’s words,
Even to the readers ignorant in Indian classical music, Dr. Bhyrappa has himself painted the dominant temperaments of different Ragas in the corresponding temperaments of characters. This by itself is poetry in its own right.
Mohanlal’s music is near-perfect; there’s absolutely no apaswara (jarring note) apashruti (incorrect pitch) and avalaya (incorrect beat) but in his personal life, his moral compass resembles a discordant cacophony. He singes the life of every woman he comes in contact with and leaves a destructive trail of broken emotions and lives. With one exception. His second wife Champa who is devoid of ethics in the same way that he is devoid of morals.
Even someone like the danseuse Manohari Das who fritters her life among various men eventually finds an emotional and spiritual fulfilment of sorts. Or Madhumita, whom Mohanlal manipulates with appalling cruelty, discovers her inner strength in music—her only true husband, companion and Deity all rolled into one. Or the extraordinary character of the prostitute in Kamatipura, the infamous Red Light District of Mumbai. Mohanlal’s chance encounter with her much later in Udaipur occurs when he is slowly but surely hurtling towards his all-round downfall. Her devotion to him remains unstinted even at that stage. In her own[ii] words,
I listened to your Maru Bihag [Raga] that day for an hour when you sang it before me. You left and never returned. I pined for you. Not for physical love. Not like how Radha pined for Krishna. But to learn music from you…I no longer wanted to sell my body in this city…so I decided to leave…I returned to Udaipur…To tell you the truth, after I served you that night, I did not serve any other man. I realized I’m a singer. I decided that I would serve only a man who could sing better than me, who could be a Guru to me, no one else. And I remained that way ever since.
The sheer artistry of Dr. Bhyrappa blazes forth in this encounter when we recall that Mohanlal first visits this prostitute after mortgaging his Tanpura to satisfy his sexual craving. At that point, in that seedy room of this prostitute in Kamatipura, Mohanlal beautifully resolves the confusion that she has between the Maru Bihag and Bihag Ragas. This is a superb suggestion that her life is back on track. Her realization about the innate value of music eventually helps her acquire both Samskara (culture) and Samsara (family), in a manner of speaking. Although she becomes the concubine of a wealthy (former) Raja, she remains completely faithful to him, like a wife.
The Plight of Ramkumari
But the only woman who triumphs in the entire novel is Mohanlal’s first wife, Ramkumari. She is his Dharmapatni in the truest sense of the word. She “loses” only superficially when Mohanlal heartlessly abandons her after using her to satisfy his sexual urge and begets two children from her in the process. Ramkumari’s character is a typically Bhyrappesque female character marked by a native fidelity to high ideals, unshakeable inner strength, firm grit in directly facing life’s challenges, an unswerving conviction in a sense of right and wrong, and rooted firmly in Sanatana values. Ramkumari is akin to Nanjamma in Gruhabhanga, Satyabhama in Daatu, Tayavva in Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, and Lakshmi (Razia) in Aavarana. She symbolizes the DhIra element very powerfully.
Strength of Samskara
Ramkumari is an unlettered lady originally hailing from some remote village in Uttar Pradesh whose only education is the “accumulated strength of thousands of years of Samskara.” Ramkumari is also a robust cultural counter to the soul-destroying notion and narrative of feminism of the kind espoused by Kanti and Sheetal in Tantu, and Ila in Kavalu. It is this Samskara that makes a newly-wed Ramkumari regard her philandering husband Mohanlal as any traditional Hindu woman does: Ishwara. She trusts him blindly even after he marries Champa without divorcing her first. She doesn’t suspect him even when he repeatedly manipulates her by exploiting her steadfast devotion in her favourite Devi Amba Bhavani before completely abandoning her.
In contemporary parlance, Ramkumari becomes the single mother raising two young children with none of the advantages of an urban, college-educated single mother and all the drawbacks that cripple this illiterate and innocent but devout, traditional Hindu wife living in a city like Mumbai.
However, in Ramkumari, innocence doesn’t translate into foolishness. She is subconsciously aware of her severe limitations in a heartless city like Mumbai but she doesn’t feel helpless or scared. Her Sthayi-bhava or basic nature is her sense of fierce independence and self-respect, which in turn derives from her deep-rootedness in traditional Sanatana culture, which takes the outward form of her devotion to Amba Bhavani. In fact, her encounters, nay, conversations with Amba Bhavani form a superb, recurrent metaphor throughout the novel. While on the mere surface, it can be taken as conversations with her own inner self, the layered implication is profoundly deep as we shall see.
- Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa. “MANDRA.” pp. 89., Sahitya Bhandara, Bangalore. Excerpt translated by Sandeep Balakrishna
- Ibid pp. 440