Masti Venkatesha Iyengar can be called the ‘Dewan’ of modern Kannada literature. Masti, who gained appreciation having served various governmental departments with great diligence and competence, could have been the Dewan of the State in a real sense. He had the capacity and was also slated to rise to that position. But for reasons unknown, that was not to be. Seeming to compensate for that lacuna, Masti ruled as the Dewan of the world of Kannada literature and scholarship for the good part of fifty years. In the past, the well-being of the State depended on the Dewan. In a similar strain, the well-being of the world of literature depended on Masti.
Masti’s writings were responsible for culturing the intellectual and emotional landscape of an entire generation. He used the medium of literature to emphasize the culture and values of India.
Life and conduct as pure as a crystal, competence and enthusiasm to propagate the highest ideals, and constant exercise of body and mind in a bid to nourish such ideals – the summation of all these came together in the form numerous Masti’s writings. Masti’s published works—numbering more than a hundred—come under one or more of these categories: stories, novels, poetry, drama, literary criticism, translations, biographies, and autobiography.
A Patron of Literature
A trait of Masti’s character that one must emphasize is his relentless dedication in identifying, encouraging, and bringing to light young talent. Starting from literary giants such as Da. Ra. Bendre and G P Rajarathnam all the way to writers of the present generation [c. 1991], their first attempts at writing were either motivated by Masti or promoted by him.
In the late 1920s, Sosalè Garaḷapuri Śāstri, Dr. C B Rama Rao, and Masti Venkatesha Iyengar were once discussing the scarcity of works in the Kannada language. “We must publish modern literature in Kannada that will at least fill five large bookshelves!” This was Masti’s dream back then. S.G. Śāstri and Rama Rao also had a similar sort of dedication. Masti then said, “Both of you keep aside a certain amount of money each month. I shall also give as much as possible and will also request other friends. We can put together good writings and get them published.”
This noble scheme, either in full or in part, sowed the seeds for the publication of several books belonging to the Navodaya literary revolution in Karnataka – Kuvempu’s Koḻalu, Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar’s Haḻḻiya Citragaḻu, Bendre’s Gari, Pu. Ti. Narasimhachar’s Haṇatè, T P Kailsam’s Huttadalli Hutta, and others. These which were first published by Masti and friends have remained the ornate festoons for the grand doorway to Kannada literature’s Navodaya movement.
It was Masti who inspired G P Rajarathnam to take up a serious study of Jain and Buddhist literature. After completing his graduation, G P Rajarathnam went to Masti—who was then the Census Commissioner—seeking a job. Masti said, “My heart will not permit me to give you the job of distributing chits of paper here for a paltry salary of twenty-five rupees! I have another idea. Let me know what you think.” Rajarathnam replied in the affirmative. Masti continued, “I had an ardent desire that the travelogues written by Faxian [Fa-hien] and Xuanzang [Hiuen-tsang] based on their extensive travels across India should be brought out in Kannada. The best literature in other languages must be translated into Kannada. You take up such translation assignments. I shall remunerate you with twenty-five rupees a month.” Several months passed by with this arrangement. With the encouragement and motivation of Masti, G P Rajarathnam learnt Pali, made an extensive study of Buddhist and Jain literature, and contributed greatly to this field in Kannada. Innumerable writers were privileged to receive this sort of kaiṅkarya—selfless service—from Masti. It was he who initially provided the water and manure to the growth of several littérateurs who are luminaries today.
Anyone writing about the Navodaya Movement in Kannada literature must make a mention of this trait of Masti’s in nourishing young talent as well as his Jīvana magazine. It is only through the Jīvana magazine that the talents of many young writers came to the fore, such as Navaratna Rama Rao.
Navaratna Rama Rao was a gifted scholar, intellectual, and polyglot. Although he had a great gift of writing, he didn’t have the inclination to write. But for Masti’s incessant motivation and persistence, the few writings we have of Rama Rao also would not have seen light of day. Masti would pester him to write. Rama Rao’s writings, which were later compiled under the title Kèlavu Nènapugalu [A Few Memories], first appeared as a series of articles in Jīvana. Rama Rao’s rich and mind-tickling writings in this series perhaps have no parallel in any other Indian language. Thanks to Masti and his magazine, Rama Rao’s writing talent was noticed by the readers. Such magazines are few and far between in Kannada.
During the days when Masti set out on this service to Kannada literature, the literary field was not particularly respected. For instance, Lakshmipati B.A. (Mathematics), who was senior to Masti and a Professor of Mathematics wrote and published a book in Kannada. Some of his relatives muttered under their breaths (in Telugu, their mother tongue), “Having passed a B.A., how did he get this crazy idea of writing a book in Kannada?” Tens of such instances boosted Masti’s commitment for Kannada.
In an era when English was going strong, it was but an empty dream that great works of literature should appear in Hosagannaḍa [Modern Kannada] and stand shoulder to shoulder to English literature. This remained a dream until Masti made it a reality. It can be called the aruṇodaya—period of dawn—for Hosagannaḍa literature.
When Masti was the Deputy Commissioner, he once visited a village for jamabandi. He pointed out a mistake committed by a certain farmer and said, “What’s this, my man! Don’t you know that you mustn’t do this in such a manner?”
The farmer replied, “No, I didn’t know.”
“Why is that? Aren’t there rules set out about this and shouldn’t you know them?”
“All your rules and instructions are in English, sir. How in the world should we understand them?”
Many such experiences left a lasting impression on Masti. Just as the average English reader has access to high quality literature, our people must have literature of a similar standard in our mother tongue. This was the main thrust that motivated Masti in those days. And this drove him to write Cènna-basava-nāyaka, Cikavīra Rājendra, and other novels in Kannada, which can easily be equated in quality with the literary creation of Sir Walter Scott and William Thackeray.
The situation then was such that there was no natural propensity for people to fall in love with the Kannada language. Over time, slowly, it became possible for the people of the State to fall in love with Kannada owing to the selfless, consistent efforts of several stalwarts. This entire process took three to four decades, a period that was extremely challenging for the Hosagannaḍa littérateur. It wasn’t particularly fashionable to write in Kannada; in fact, the society looked upon such writers with disdain. And those who engaged themselves in the pursuit of Kannada literature had not freed themselves from the influence of Haḻagannaḍa [classical Kannada] and Naḍūgannaḍa [neo-classical Kannada]. Therefore, it was like swimming against the current for those who wrote in Hosagannaḍa in that early period. Masti’s earliest writings faced not just derision but also mockery and blame although he was highly qualified and had gained a good position in society. However, he was firm and determined about his life’s path. He always thought that in due course, literature and language would definitely rise up to an important place in the society.
Masti was confident that the people would embrace good quality literature and his belief did not turn out to be false.
To be continued...
The current article is an English adaptation of the Kannada original by Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy. Full form of the article is a part of 'A Tapestry of Pen Portraits' published by Prekshaa Pratishtana in December 2020.
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