A Tapestry of Pen-portraits: The Education we Need Today

It is my great fortune and joy to write this review on the English adaptation of Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy’s extraordinary pen-portraits befittingly titled, A Tapestry of Pen-portraits published by Prekshaa Pratishthana, which witnessed a formal launch on 26 December, 2020. The volume is a collection of essays on nine luminaires of Karnataka who flourished for the most part of the previous century and left behind a brilliant legacy of splendid and enduring service in the fields of scholarship, literature, journalism and music.

The title of the work by itself evokes a profound image akin to a painting and it should be so. Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy has captured the creamiest essence of the brilliant and well-lived lives of these nine luminaries. But for his pen-portraits, the full gamut of their valuable bequest would have perhaps been lost to posterity forever.

Dr. Ramaswamy had the great fortune of not only knowing all of them closely, he had earned the fond latitude of deriving mirth by teasing them. He garnished this fortune with assiduous value to their work and an almost spiritual reverence to their character. The result is this nine-course feast titled A Tapestry of Pen-portraits. The translators and the entire team at Prekshaa thoroughly relished this feast and continue to do so, and I hope that you too will.

 A Tapestry of Pen-portraits is not a mere book of pen-portraits, it is an entire education by itself, and this is not an exaggeration. When we ponder on it for a moment, what is the kind of “education” that our formal academic institutions are providing to our students? It appears that our “education” system since Independence has consciously banned the teaching of all that is great, grand, profound, virtuous and noble in our cultural heritage and is drilling mindless inanities into the heads of our children and transforming them into robotic adults whose present is directionless and whose future is questionable at best. Small wonder that we have an epidemic of psychiatrists where we should have had nationwide hermitages of savants. I speak this with the authority of being a victim of such an alleged education.

A great value of Dr. Ramaswamy’s volume of pen-portraits is the fact that it is a study in values, to borrow Prof. M. Hiriyanna’s memorable phrase. It is a study in values concretised by real people who lived these values. Minus this concretization, all values are just words which have merely a lexical meaning and are actually meaningless in real life. Thus, by writing about these luminaries, Dr. Ramaswamy has upheld the great Sanatana tradition of the importance of ācāra or practice, the time-honoured method of propagating values. This is entirely consonant with the tradition of D.V.G who pioneered a unique literary genre in Kannada by writing the bejeweled volumes of the peerless jñāpakacitraśāle.

The eminences featured in Dr. Ramaswamy’s work were scholars, litterateurs, Vidwans and connoisseurs of art and music of the highest order. Their learning was vast and deep, their erudition was razor-sharp and they commanded both of these at will. Their value-system was deeply rooted in the civilizational genius of Bharata, which in turn endowed fearless sturdiness to their character and compassion, truth and virtue to their conduct. A combination of all these transformed their work into glittering gems that have lasting value. It is a matter of great pride that all of them made Karnataka their Karma Bhumi. Although Sri Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma originally hailed from Andhra Pradesh, he spent some of the most productive years of his life in Karnataka. However, there is another side to this. If scholars of the stature of Vidwan N. Ranganatha Sarma, Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma and Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri had been born in America or Europe, they would have been celebrated as national treasures and paraded before the world as the icons of these countries. Tragically, even today, only a handful of people in Karnataka itself have even heard their names. That this nadir has been reached in a land fabled for centuries as the original home of Saraswati is a dark commentary on how far we have fallen.

We also live in an era where we are being divorced from our own mother tongues right from childhood, and are witnessing the rapid proliferation of books written by Indians in English. To that extent, the current translation, A Tapestry of Pen-portraits offers a ray of hope by introducing these titans to a global audience. For this, we must offer our heartfelt gratitude to the translators, Arjun Bharadwaj, Hari Ravikumar, Kashyap Naik, G.S. Raghavendra and B.N. Shashi Kiran.

This tapestry of pen-portraits has been skillfully, lovingly woven together by collecting various material that Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy wrote and spoke over fifty-odd years about these luminaries. However, the main source material for these translations is found in I call Dr. Ramaswamy’s Luminous Trilogy comprising dīvaṭigegaḻu (Lamps), dīptimaṃtaru (Luminaries), and dīptaśṛṃgagaḻu (Luminous Summits), all in Kannada. The translators’ introduction to the present volume provides a nicely detailed account of how the work evolved, in itself a superb story.

Neither are these pen-portraits merely condensed biographies of or exalted tributes to these eminences. They delineate the socio-cultural history of Karnataka spread over nearly three-fourths of a century by using the life, work, legacy and value-system of these luminaries as a cultural vehicle.

Thus, when we read Dr. Ramaswamy’s profiles of say, V. Sitaramaiah, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar or Motaganahalli Subrahmanya Sastri, we can easily reconstruct the literary history of 20th Century Karnataka. Likewise, his rendering of the lion-like Veerakesari (literary, warrior-lion) Sitarama Sastri gives us the full essence of the socio-political and journalistic scenario of the period. His profile is especially noteworthy for how the court system functioned back then and how Sitarama Sastri completely won over the Telugu cinema icon, Chittoor Nagaiah to his cause of independent journalism. For similar insights into the sort of scholarly climate that existed in those days, the pen-portraits of Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma, Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri, Pandita Pravara, Magadi Lakshminarasimha Sastri, Vidwan N. Ranganatha Sarma and Dr. S.K. Ramachandra Rao are invaluable guides. We can cite the scholar-colossus Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri as a representative example. While other scholars would list out a few primary sources in their footnotes and bibliography, Dr. Srikanta Sastri cited entire yards and miles of primary sources. This was not scholarship, it was penance. Like our proverbial Rishis who could materialize fruits and flowers and showers of gold coins (as in Adi Sankara’s case) from thin air, Dr. Srikanta Sastri could unleash the Bhagirathi-flood of research sources from his penance. If this sounds like an exaggeration, the best method to verify this fact is to read his works.   

I have deliberately refrained from giving even a small glimpse of these luminaries featured in this translation for a frank reason: this nine-course feast has to be personally savoured, and when the ensuring delightful experience is shared, the joy multiplies.

The other great highlight of this work is the sheer wealth of anecdotes it contains not merely about these eminences but specific events, places, and periods that cannot be found anywhere else. This work is yet another fine proof of the severe limitations of formal history books. Dr. Ramaswamy’s picturesque description of the Magadi-Yelahanka-Kunigal-Nelamangala-Sivagange-Doddabele-Motaganahalli-Sondekoppa belt in the vicinity of Bangalore is truly breathtaking. In less than twenty pages spread over three pen-portraits, he fleshes out the entire spiritual-cultural-scholarly-societal history of nearly four hundred years. And in doing so, he provides great comparative and contrasting insights without making it explicit. For example, the Sondekoppa village near Nelamangala was renowned as a hub of great Vedic and Sanskrit scholarship for centuries. Today, the government is building a vast detention centre for illegal immigrants in Sondekoppa.

History is not only a story and a chronology, but is also a kaleidoscope of human deeds. Few people have made this kaleidoscope so accessible to us as Dr. Ramaswamy.  

In many ways, A Tapestry of Pen-portraits is akin to a companion volume to DVG’s jñāpakacitraśāle. A comparative study of both these volumes will undoubtedly yield a rich harvest.

Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy’s finely-honed talent of bringing these luminaries alive right before our eyes is another characteristic accent of this work. He accomplishes this feat with a superb amalgam of loving attention to detail and sort of reverential intimacy that has an endearing quality to it. Their value-laden lives are his canvas and the heartfelt painting he draws on it is vivid in all its colourful splendor without missing even the crisp edge of the dhoti of Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma and the pristine Peta of V. Sitaramaiah.

It fills me with immense joy to say that the present English translation has captured all these subtle nuances with zero loss in transmission. I can only imagine the difficulty of such a feat for example, when one reads the profiles of Motaganahalli Subrahmanya Sastri, Magadi Lakshmi Narasimha Sastri and Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma. All these essays are heavily permeated by raw cultural specificities and throb with rich classical subtleties that cannot be accurately translated into a culturally poor and linguistically barren alien language like English. To pull off such a triumph is truly remarkable. For this success, the translators deserve huge kudos.

Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy’s aforementioned Luminous Trilogy remains, like jñāpakacitraśāle, a perennial source of joy, inspiration and solace to me. It is a classic in its own right and like every classic, it repeatedly beckons us to it. The present English adaption, will undoubtedly accomplish the same thing just by…being on our bookshelf.

In writing A Tapestry of Pen-portraits, Dr. Ramaswamy has enabled us to make intimate friends with a priceless past and by buying and reading it, we get an invaluable guide to an uncertain future.



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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