The early life of Masti was filled with poverty and travails. His fight with penury, his days of vārānna, and other biographical details are as touching as a creative story or poem. Masti, who travelled the length and breadth of Karnataka for activities related to the Kannaḍa Sāhitya Pariṣad and happened to mingle with people from all walks of life, once exclaimed, “In all these homes, the Divine filled my stomach, showed me respect, and protected my very breath with great affection! I, who was ravaged by poverty in my childhood and ate at seven different households every week, ended up becoming an honoured guest in my own home during later years despite having sufficient food to eat!”
Following the decade of 1920s, the spark of Navodaya was kindled and it rose to a peak. On the one hand, there were ‘missionary’ attempts to bring people together to engage with literature and on the other hand a new genre, a new bāṇi (style) of literature emerged. One cannot deny the pivotal role played by the indefatigable Masti in all this. Although the short story was his forte, he worked across genres, be it composing sonnets and versifying in saraḻa ragaḻè, translating works from English and Sanskrit to Kannada, composing creative commentaries, or writing literary criticism.
It is unnecessary to debate whether Masti was the progenitor of the short story genre in Kannada. It is indubitable, however, that the said genre found widespread appeal because of him. His short stories won the hearts of not only the Kannada-speaking people but also readers in various languages who read his writings in translation. His short story Masumatti was translated by C Rajagopalachari into Tamil.
Villagers and townsfolk whom Masti encountered in his own life provided the inspiration for the characters in his short stories. His literature is a sublimated presentation of the happenings and events of the real world.
Masti once travelled to Mysore for a session of the Prajā-pratinidhi Sabhè [‘Citizen’s Representative Assembly’]. He had placed on the table a freshly completed handwritten manuscript of a short story. Chikkamagalur Srinivasa Rao, who was there perchance, asked, “May I have a look at this?”
“Of course,” replied Masti.
As he read the story and was engrossed in it, he began sobbing uncontrollably. He forgot for a moment that it was just a story. There’s hardly a soul who has read the story of Subbaṇṇa and not shed a tear.
Masti’s short stories captured the life and livelihood of the average middle-class person in an engaging and emotional way. The characters of his stories have been imprinted on the minds of an entire generation of readers – Mosarina Maṅgamma, the seller of curds who is highly cultured though she doesn’t belong to the higher echelons of society; Nāyinda Veṅkaṭaśāmi, who falls for a dommarāṭa [a sort of folk dance filled with acrobatics] girl; tales of men attracted to women in Bīdiyalli Hoguva Nārī; Raṅgappa, who tries to teach his wife the art of writing love-letters (Raṅgappana Courtship); and so on.
Veṅkaṭarāyana Piśāca is a story that bears testimony to Masti’s love for humour; in fact, tasteful comedy is an integral part of his short stories. “At the first instance I tried to see if the child resembled my husband Veṅkaṭiga. The next moment I thought, ‘Why should I enter into examining something that my husband himself hasn’t cared to do?’ Thinking so, I remained silent.” This is what Masti says when Veṅkaṭiga’s wife sees her baby for the first time. We see several instances of such witty nuances in his writings.
The law is different from justice – this harsh reality is depicted well in his Jogyora Añjappa.
Stories such as Sāriputrana Konèya Dinagaḻu and Hemakūṭadinda Bandamelè truly belong to the genre of poetry.
Masti must be counted among the greats not just as a revolutionary who inspired a movement in literature but also as a great writer and poet who contributed to literature directly.
M V Seetharamayya once remarked, “In his daily conversations too, he was a storyteller. His short stories are also a sort of intimate conversation.”
The Background of Masti’s Learning
Masti never paid heed to extreme ideals. He was deep-rooted in reality and in the present. He stayed away from the tendency of oversimplification of philosophy and spirituality. He believed that any great ideal should naturally emerge from one’s daily life.
Cènna-basava-nāyaka is the story of a brilliant and noble hero who was caught in the tribulations of fate. As a stark contrast to this, Cikavīra Rājendra imbibed within itself all the dark machinations of evil. In this tale, we find the description of the decline of two royal families. Though these novels are historical in nature, Masti has paid great attention to throwing light on the characterization of basic human nature rather than making it a series of historical events. One of the most attractive features of Cènna-basava-nāyaka is the manner in which he has portrayed the influence that history, culture, tradition, and environment can have on the life of a common person.
In his plays such as Yaśodharā, Tālikoṭè, Kākana Koṭè, Śivacchatrapati, and so on, it is his empathy with characters and his profound knowledge that attract us. He also composed plays about mendicant-minstrels like Kanaka-dāsa and Purandara-dāsa who touched the lives of the common folk through their poetry.
Masti wrote a work titled ‘Kannaḍa Janatèya Saṃskṛti’ (The Culture of the Kannada People) both in English and Kannada to help the masses understand the culture of Karnataka. In his ripe old age, he wrote the work Antargaṅgè, [in 1982, when he was ninety-one], which captures the cultural tradition of India.
Just as he had great regard for the best of English and Sanskrit literature, he also had deep reverence for Kannada. Once when Shivarama Karanth said, “Pearl S Buck has captured the aspects of her society very well,” Masti immediately said, “Do you think our people cannot accomplish this? A Masti and a Karanth can!” This was the confidence that he had in himself and in other Kannada writers.
Masti had great regard for the compositions of Vālmīki, Vyāsa, Kalidāsa, Shakespeare, and so forth. He wrote several works based on the creative works of these stalwarts. As for the Rāmāyaṇa and the Bhāgavata, they were treatises that he read and recited every day, as part of his nitya-pārāyaṇa. When George Barker’s statement—“When Shakespeare met the English language, she was a virgin. When he left her, she was the mother of half the universe.”—was alluded to, Masti exclaimed, “Why half the universe? The entire universe!”
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.
 During the 20th century, it was a common practice for families in South India to support young students (typically boys) by inviting them for dinner once a week. These students would identify seven such households to take care of their food requirements for the entire week.
 See his three-volume autobiography titled Bhāva (‘Emotion’).
 A metrical pattern used in Kannada poems
 Masti Venkatesha Iyengar was awarded the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award in 1968 for his short stories.
 Masti Venkatesha Iyengar might not have been the first person to write short stories in Hosagannaḍa or poetry in saraḻa ragaḻè. It is merely a matter of academic interest to find who first wrote in these genres but without doubt, it was Masti who popularized them, bringing them into the mainstream, by writing copiously in these genres.
 Short stories like Raṅgappana Dīpāvalī, Masumatti, Veṅkaṭarāyana Piśāca, etc. that Masti wrote before 1925 are popular even today, close to a century later, and they have remained relevant. Similarly, his poems such as Binnaha and Aruṇa have retained their freshness even after decades.
 “ಮಾತಿನಲ್ಲಿಯೂ ಅವರು ಕಥೆಗಾರರೇ. ಅವರ ಕಥೆಗಳೂ ಒಂದು ವಿಧವಾದ ಮಾತುಗಾರಿಕೆಯೇ.”
 Masti Venkatesha Iyengar received the Jnanpith Award in 1983 for this work.