Mandra: The Tragic Character of Ramkumari

This article is part 3 of 4 in the series Mandra: The Triumph of Ramkumari

From one perspective, Ramkumari’s character is fundamentally tragic. She is the only character in Mandra who keeps “losing” throughout her life. Her loss isn’t merely her abandonment by Mohanlal or much later, by her own grown-up children who choose their long-estranged father’s fame and wealth over their mother’s lifelong sacrifice in nurturing them.

Dr. S. L Bhyrappa’s artistry once again comes to the fore in the superb Dhwani or suggestion regarding Mohanlal’s children from Ramkumari. The moment he rediscovers them after more than twenty years, his corrupting influence infects them almost immediately. His own daughter Bakula readily believes Mohanlal’s slander that her mother, Ramkumari, is a loose woman. In this, one detects a slight parallel with the character of Manjayya in Sakshi in his innate ability to corrupt and debase anybody who comes in contact with him. However, Mohanlal has no such problem with the children he has sired from the cold, unfeeling, unethical and heartless Champa: this father-children relationship is entirely transactional. In all these instances, it is only Ramkumari who suffers, who is made a victim without her knowledge, without any fault on her part. Especially heart-rending is the episode where Champa, her father and a lawyer discuss the numerous ways in which they can use the law to victimise Ramkumari. It is a plot no worse in tenor and nature than say a conspiracy to murder a Saint, for example. The cruelty is compounded when we learn that the plot is discussed in Mohanlal's presence. Not only doesn't he protest against such heartlessness but becomes a silent accomplice to it.  

Throughout Mandra, the undercurrent of Ramkumari’s loss is the cold cruelty of the nonchalant and repeated betrayal by those closest to her. After a certain point, the reader feels a sense of intense dejection at her plight…it appears as though even the inkling of happiness is non-existent in Ramkumari’s scheme of life. In an age where “purpose” and “goal in life” have almost become received wisdom and accepted without scrutiny, Ramkumari’s character stands out as exceptional in its simple profundity. Her only goal – if it can be called that – is to bring up her children to be capable and independent adults and to lead a unblemished life, personally.

Indeed, throughout Mandra, only Ramkumari exemplifies the ancient and hoary Sanatana ideal of Karma Yoga; no other character does this. The fact that even her own children forsake her despite the values she has instilled in them is not her fault but is a dark commentary on contemporary urban Indian society.

To use a well-worn cliché, Ramkumari’s apparent loss is her real gain. When she realizes that Mohanlal has in reality used and discarded her, she decides to face life’s battles with the only weapon she has: the selfsame thousands of years of Samskara and her devotion to Amba Bhavani. The profound values and noble life-ideals that Jnanis (learned people, self-realized souls) practice with conscious realization have transformed into simple, unshakeable faith in this unlettered rustic, Ramkumari who lives these ideals and values without conscious effort. It is a faith, nay, a conviction that needs neither commentary nor proof.

Ramkumari is completely devoid of any musical knowledge much less its appreciation. But this ignorance of music eventually morphs into an inveterate hatred for music when her singer-husband betrays her. However, her disgust for music is directly proportional to the growth and refinement of her innate Samskara, which touches Himalayan summits in the extraordinary scene in the end where she rejects her employer-cum-benefactor Gore’s offer to pay for her new apartment.

Dr. Bhyrappa’s art and craft veers towards the philosophical when we observe that Mohanlal, the husband is endowed with great Sangita whereas his Ramkumari, his wife is endowed with Samskara. In the clash that ensues, she emerges as the clear winner—he has no Samskara to begin with and he eventually loses Sangita and all the women in his life. It is akin to the soulless silence after a destructive tornado, and not the serene quietude after a grand musical concert.    

Fundamental Impulses

The other dominant theme in Mandra is Mohanlal’s wanton philandering. Or broadly speaking, the interplay of the primary sexual impulse in people. To Mohanlal, philandering is the only other constant in his life apart from music. Needless, he justifies this behaviour to himself on several occasions. The numerous comparisons of women with ragas, including comparing Ramkumari herself as “akin to the bashfulness of the Kalyan Raga.” The comparison doesn’t stop merely at their physical form…he rates his  sexual experiences with different women based on the characteristics of the said Ragas.

Quest of Beauty and Surrender to Impulses

Indian Classical Music is one of the most sublime and abstract experiences of the innate quest for and realization of beauty. Equally, the highest elevation of the sexual impulse should ideally culminate in beauty. However, in Mohanlal, the notion of beauty is completely absent. Or to clarify this in the memorable words[i] of Prof M. Hiriyanna,

…there is one important difference in…art and morality. They signify an attitude of absolute disinterestedness. They imply that one and the same end may be pursued in two ways-with selfish inclination allowed to have its play or without it; and it is the preference of the latter to the former that differentiates art and morality from common activities… if we are contemplating a situation, the contemplation becomes aesthetic when we are so much overpowered by it that we forget ourselves… It may appear that we achieve such complete unselfishness in art…for it is recognised that aesthetic experience by its very nature is completely impersonal. The end which the moral agent seeks, it may therefore seem, is found accomplished in art. But this impersonal attitude is transient and it disappears sooner or later… Moreover, even during the experience, the impersonality achieved is in reference to a sphere which is not actual but ideal, so that it is in a sense artificial. It is achieved in an environment which is outside nature.

Mohanlal never makes any of these distinctions because his primary nature admits no inkling that such distinctions even exist. The most brutal and even repulsive instance of this trait is when he first encounters his own grown-up daughter and launches into a mental visualization of how she will be in bed. And nowhere is the “selfish inclination” that Prof M. Hiriyanna describes more visible than in sex. To quote from Dr. Bhyrappa’s Sakshi, “Sex is the distilled form of ‘I’, or the Ego.”

To be continued


M. Hiriyanna. “ART AND MORALITY.” Art Experience, pp. 55–57., Kavyalaya Publishers, Mysore.




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.

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