Masti Venkatesha Iyengar - The Person and his Approach to Literature

Poetry in Hosagannaḍa

Masti, who was inspired by the Hoysaḷa sculptures, wrote his early poems in Hosagannaḍa. Upon seeing this, T S Venkannayya remarked, “It has been more than three hundred years since something this original has been composed in Kannada.”

Masti’s lucid poetry—such as Binnaha—which can be categorized as ‘devotional songs,’ bring to our minds the stalwarts of yore. He was also probably the first poet who attempted at writing ‘Blank Verse’ in Kannada. In his anthology titled ‘Aruṇa,’ the arrangement and presentation of the names of various places, the story of Aruṇa becoming a charioteer to Sūrya, and other narrative poems are as attractive as the storyline. His poetic creativity was further enhanced with the composition of Tāvarè, Cèluvu, and the collection of Aṣṭapadī poems titled ‘Malāra.’ There’s hardly anyone who hasn’t nodded in appreciation upon reading Gauḍara Malli.

Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, Masti thought, “Why not we have something similar in Kannada?” and this gave birth to his Navarātri anthology of poetry, where again he was a pioneer of that genre in Kannada. The strong desire that all genres of literature should find representation in Kannada flowed in Masti’s blood. This dedication was as the root of all activities that he undertook. The Navarātri anthology, which started by portraying the stalwarts who were his contemporaries, was later expanded by the addition of several historical and mythological narrative poems: Yadu-vijaya, Kappè Cannigarāya, Jini (Joan of Arc), Rāmapriya Udanta, Nāradara Anubhava, the story of Ruru and Pramadvarā, etc. He derived inspiration and borrowed from Geoffrey Chaucer only in matters of plot and style of narration; the rest of it was all his own creativity. And unlike Chaucer, the characters and events in Masti’s creation were largely inspired from real life.

A generation usually spans some forty years and therefore for a literary work to appeal across generations is very significant. And so, it is noteworthy that even among today’s youth [c. 1999]—including the ones who have little introduction to literature—are aware of Navarātri and find it interesting.

Once when Ram. Sri. Mugali was performing a vācana[1] of verses from Mallamma, the connoisseurs in the audience couldn’t hold back their emotions and burst into tears; to the extent that they slipped out of the hall unable to bear the intensity of emotion any longer!

Masti holds a great place in Hosagannaḍa literature. Without doubt, the thousands of pages of writings that he left behind as his bequest, no less, will survive for years.

Approach to Literature

One of the primary features of Masti’s writings is simple language that is free of ostentation. He emphasized values that were outside the ambit of simple words. Although he was a writer, he knew the limitation of words

In his writings, never did he veil the negative aspects of life or whitewash the problems of people. Instead he nourished the practical view that ‘life has to be managed.’ He often used the word ‘òḻḻèyadu’’ (that which is ‘good’) in his writings. In fact, we can hail Masti Venkatesha Iyengar as the distilled essence of such goodness.

For him, literature and life were not divorced from each other. It is nearly impossible to find in other writers the perfect blend we see in him. His life was profound and free from internal dichotomies. His thoughts, words, and actions were perfectly aligned. Just as he was greatly devoted to tradition, he was also open-minded with regard to modern ideas.

Today there is a great deal of discussion about feminism. Years ago, Masti contemplated upon and investigated this topic in the conversation between Yaśodharā and Buddha; in his novel Śeṣamma, we find a subtle analysis of this topic; Prof. A R Mitra has given examples for such instances in Nijagallina Rāṇi and other short stories.

The series of lectures that he delivered on different occasions culminated in valuable literary contributions. Ādikavi Vālmīki, Popular Culture in Karnataka, Sri Ramakrishna, and so on serve as excellent examples for this.

Although Masti was essentially a littérateur, he constantly engaged himself in the socio-political arena. Without any external motivation or instigation he became a socio-political commentator. The editorial notes he wrote for Jīvana are gold standards for independent and objective thinking as well as the ethics of journalism.

Gopalakrishna Adiga said about Masti – “Even after a century and a millennium, you shall remain here! In the garden of Kannada literature, you will eternally remain here as the pride of Kannada as well as the great star of Kannada literature. This is without doubt!”

Masti: The Person

Masti never compromised on his values for petty privileges like money or position. He was not a person to please his superiors at work. It is probably because of his straightforward nature that he did not rise up to positions that he truly deserved. Although there were several such disappointments in his life, he never compromised on his straightforwardness or integrity.

Once, several people from Bangalore University had come to meet him. While they were discussing about a certain point, Masti said, “Those officers behaved in such-and-such a manner because of sectarian feelings.” Today, although such things are evident, nobody dares speak in this straightforward manner.

As far as Masti was concerned, straight speech and upright conduct, were natural to him. But as a counterbalance to this, he was endowed with another quality: one can call it ‘Saundarya-dṛṣṭi’ [loosely, ‘the perspective of aesthetics’]. He would always identify what was good, what was generous, what was noble, and what was profound and propagate them enthusiastically. This was so natural to him that many critics and commentators opine that Masti Venkatesha Iyengar doesn’t seem to observe anything that is evil.

If anybody objected to this, he would smile and say, “This is how I am, my dear fellow!”

He was what he looked. Although the world around him changed, he didn’t change his habits, principles, and methods of working. Notions such as ‘In today’s world, one has to speak with great sensitivity and diplomacy’ were totally alien to him.

There were several instances of modern life that he found distasteful. But he never criticized them or spoke ill of them, for that would raise his blood pressure and pollute his tongue. He merely said, “This is not nice,” and remained silent thereafter. He would instead reiterate the values that he was firmly convinced about and he never became tired of doing so.

If someone questioned his traditional approach, he replied, “These lāñchanas [symbols, traditional insignia] are merely meant for our protection [i.e., for the protection of the traditional values and emotional welfare]. They are not an opposition to any other person or ideology. If one wants to live an organized life, a few fundamental principles are inevitable.” In this manner, there was no turbulence in his mind about such practices.

He was a man at peace with himself.

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.



[1] Recitation of classical poetry, typically set to classical rāgas (often followed by a scholarly exposition of the same, which largely includes creative appreciation of the poem).

 

Author(s)

About:

Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of stalwarts like D. V. Gundappa, Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma, V Sitaramaiah, and others. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and served as the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs for many years.

Translator(s)

About:

Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written more than fifteen books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He works in an advisory capacity with Abhinava Dance Company, Lakshminarayana Global Centre for Excellence, Pramiti, and Samvit Research Foundation.

Prekshaa Publications

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