The Genres of History and Biography (Part 5)

Revealing Character

What is necessary for a biography is a series of character-revealing incidents.

An Example: I had mentioned earlier about my meeting with Diwan T Ananda Rao with the intention of gathering biographical information about Diwan Rangacharlu. At that time, I was in my early twenties; I had just eaten dirt in my Matriculation[1] examination. As for Ananda Rao, he was in his sixties. He had earned name as a man who was precise in speech and action. He was well-versed with English literature. I constantly pondered about how a person like me should conduct himself in the presence of such a noble personage; what would be appropriate? I showed up at the appointed time on the appointed day at the appointed place. The place was his house, the time was three in the afternoon.

I entered the premises of his house and even as I was climbing the stairs of the portico, a clerk came from within the house and after calling out my name, asked me in English, “Are you the same person?” When I said, “Yes,” he said, “Go inside.” Accordingly, I set foot in the room that he indicated. Ananda Rao was standing there. I said, “Namaskāra!” and folded my hands to greet him. He folded his hands in a namaste in response to my greeting and then held his right hand forward with the intention of a handshake. After we shook hands, he pointed to a chair and said in English, “Please sit down.” I began thinking how I could begin my introduction without sitting down. For a second time he said, “Please sit down.” I simply said, “It’s alright,” and was in the attempt of getting started. Ananda Rao said for a third time, “Please sit down,” and followed it up with, “I will not sit before you sit down. If we both are not seated, there shall be no discussion,” spoken in a tone of finality. I sat down and our interaction began. Everything went off well. This is just an example for the sort of courtesy and respect that Ananda Rao showed to people.[2]

Ananda Rao was the census commissioner. At that point, one Ramayya was the manager of his office. Ananda Rao came to office exactly at eleven in the morning. Not a minute earlier; not a minute later. When the clock struck eleven and began ringing, he crossed the threshold and set foot into the office room. He sat down in his chair and the very next moment asked, “Ramayya, has everyone arrived?” Ananda Rao had weak eyesight. He could recognize only objects that were really close to his eyes. Reading and writing also proved to be quite strenuous for him. Ramayya said, “Everyone has arrived,” and then Ananda Rao asked, “Have all the staff arrived?” In response, Ramayya said, “All of them have come, sir.” Soon after, he said, “Then let coffee be served to everyone.” A similar thing would happen at about two in the afternoon. A large cup of coffee, a large plate of snacks. The coffee and snacks served every day – this was a treat Ananda Rao would offer to his colleagues at his own expense.

Ananda Rao was born wealthy. When I think about his inborn traits of magnanimity and gentleness that came along with all that wealth, it evokes great joy in me. It is an example of his unique personality.

Nobody will feel that the two episodes that I’ve narrated about Ananda Rao captures his personality in its entirety or portrays his character in multiple dimensions. None will think that these episodes illustrate his competence in governance. It is natural to have differences in opinion about matters regarding his methods and principles of governance. As for politics, it is a public affair. As for courtesy, respect, and friendship, they are private matters.

There is definitely a connection between a person’s nature and his conduct in public. What was the nature of that connection, to what extent was there a connection between the two – these are matters for the biographer to study. But the ingredients for that are hidden in episodes such as what has been narrated.

Ingredients for a Biography

If our people can identify and record the various episodes that highlight the distinguishing qualities of our famous personalities – such as the style of oratory; behaviour with friends and relatives; interests in the arts, be it music or literature; personal objectives and ideals; the way they conducted their ācāra and vyavahāra[3]; habits with respect to clothing and ornamentation; ability for sustained hard work; fortitude, determination, and resilience; etc. – that would prove to be a priceless raw material for a biographer.

The tradition of recording and preserving the raw materials needed for a biography is extremely rare among our people. Several great souls—those who’re famous and widely respected by people—don’t dirty their hands in maintaining records of their memories or compiling documents regarding their past. If you go to a gentleman and say, “Sir, your father was a great man. I wish to write about him. The necessary material for that – his writings, letters, critiques, or insightful notes – anything at all that you have, please give them to me!” Even if you were to plead with these words, the gentleman would show his empty hands and say that he has nothing of value – this I have experienced. I’ve gone to tens of places and returned empty-handed, disappointed. We’re not able to find any sort of raw materials to write about even famous personages like Sir T Muthuswami Iyer or Sir K Seshadri Iyer. Their descendants, who are enjoying the benefits of their ancestral property and inherited wealth, are themselves lacking in pride and gratitude with regard to their illustrious ancestor. It has become rare to see our people preserve the name and glory of an illustrious ancestor out of gratitude and devotion toward him.

The episodes in this book took shape from within my memories. I have not given any citations or documented evidence for them. At this point, that is a task impossible for me.

Apparently there is a Latin proverb that says “Ex pede Herculem” – “From his foot, [we can measure] Hercules.” Hercules (akin to our Bhīmasena) is a divine hero. His amazing strength and numerous far-ranging adventures are captured in famous legends. The Latin proverb is about his statue. To realize the greatness of the physical form of Hercules, one need not see his body from head to toe. If one were to see just his thumb, that is sufficient, for the rest of his body will be in proportion to the thumb – that is the summary.

These essays are not biographies. They are just rough sketches.[4] These are raw materials that might be somewhat of use to the historian (writing about the country) or biographer (writing about an individual).

On the subject of some great souls who I felt were worthy of speaking about—to the extent I saw with my eyes, to the extent I experienced with my mind, and to the extent my memory has retained them—I dictated these episodes to a few young friends of mine and had them write it down. These are not complete or comprehensive. Further, I am not under the impression that my views will be accepted by one and all. There might be, in the hearts of others, emotions that are quite different as compared to many of the opinions that I’ve expressed. There might be lacunae in my memory too. The existence of differences in opinion is not that important; if there are gaps in the narration of episodes or with other factual details, they must be corrected after referring to written documentation. If I’ve committed any blunder with regard to facts and figures, it is my humble request to the reader to bring it to my notice.

santaḥ sadābhigantavyā
yadi nopadiśantyapi

yāstu svairakathāsteṣām
upadeśā bhavanti tāḥ


One must always go to noble people
and gain proximity to them
It doesn’t matter if they don’t give us
upadeśa, formal instruction
Whatever words they utter as pleases them
becomes an advice to us!


This is the fifth part of a five-part English translation of the introductory essay of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale – Vol. 1 – Sahiti Sajjana Sarvajanikaru. DVG wrote this series in the early 1950s. Thanks to Arjun Bharadwaj for his thorough review and astute suggestions.



[1] An equivalent of eleventh standard; after one cleared the Matriculation examination, he was eligible for further study, which included the ‘Intermediate,’ following which he could get a bachelor’s degree.

[2] A Diwan of those days can be likened to a Chief Minister of today. DVG was a young journalist, largely unknown at that time in public life. With this backdrop, when we see the episode, we can better realize the value of Ananda Rao’s conduct.

[3] Typically ‘ācāra’ refers to traditional or spiritual activities while ‘vyavahāra’ refers material or transactional activities. Rewards and punishments related to ācāra are prescribed in traditional treatises or directed by family customs while those related to vyavahāra come under the ambit of the country’s laws.

[4] The original has ‘pārśva-rekhegaḻu;’ pārśva = side, flank, vicinity and rekhā = line, streak, sketch, drawing.



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 an author, translator, editor, designer, and violinist with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited some forty books, mostly related to Indian culture.

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