Myths and Legends associated with music in the novel Mandra of SL Bhyrappa

In Indian mythology, Goddess Sarasvatī, and Śiva in the form of Naṭarāja, are the presiding deities of music and dance. ‘Om’ is the mystic symbol, also called ‘praṇava', that helps to attain spiritual perfection through chanting. SL Bhyrappa's novel ‘Mandra’ includes these mythical aspects of music and dance and explores their spiritual and social dimensions. The myth about music, which claims that it has immense power over natural phenomena and the five elements - rain, fire, earth, sky and air - is concretised in the historical legends about Tansen and Swami Haridasa. Music as Yoga, a path for attaining spiritual perfection, or even mokṣa itself, is concretised in the music of Rajasaheb, in the Omkāra sādhanā of the sādhu at Swami Haridasa Mandir and in the character of Swami Haridasa himself. At the same time, the other dimensions of music, its power to elevate the mind of the listener through its melody, expertise and classicism are evoked in the music of Mohanlal, and this may be treated as a social myth. Rajasaheb’s music, which combined melody, expertise, classicism and divinity, brings to mind the mythical incarnation of God as a whale. His control over svaras, tāna and rāga make us feel that he is a svara-ṛṣi. To Rajasaheb, ‘nāda’ as  defined in the Indian tradition, is ‘Nāda-brahma’ itself. Shape of the Śiva-liṅga is the all pervading ‘Nāda-brahma’. The buzzing resonance of the Tanpura is like the ‘nāda’ emanating from the all-pervading form of the Śiva-liṅga; turning around and filling the resonance chamber and returning to the strings is like the nāda merging again in the Śiva-liṅga itself. Thus, Rajasaheb’s concept of music elevates it to a state of divinity. The Omkāra sādhanā of the sādhanā at the Haridasa Mandira is yoga of pure spirituality. Omkāra is the praṇava-mantra, and its sādhanā with mathematical precision in music creates in Mohanlal's mind he mythical Brindavana of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, the milkmaids and their dance of rāsa.

The character of Mohanlal is reminiscent of the mythological archetypes, the characters who fall down from the highest summits of their achievements owing to their own  flaws. Born in utter poverty, Mohanlal, with his golden voice and disciplined training rises to the highest summits of fame in the world of music. He even gets the Tansen award, but in the end remains only a loser, and reminds us of Dr. Faustus.

Two historic legends related to the music of Tansen and Swami Haridasa elucidate the difference between the music of a Yogi and the music of a person who desires material prosperity and comfort. This popular historic legend about Akbar, Tansen and Tansen’s Deepaka rāga and Megha rāga runs like this. ln the tradition of classical music, it is believed that an intense and classical rendition of the Deepaka rāga makes the heat unbearable, and the body of the singer will ignite automatically with fire. The singer's body would begin to burn, and the fire would spread to the whole place. To counter the effect of the Deepaka rāga, the Megha rāga had to be sung. This would make the clouds gather and tempestuous rains would pour down, accompanied by thunder and lightning. In the world of classical music, there are many myths associated with various ragas. It is said in the story of  Raja Vikrama that singing the Deepka rāga not only lights up lamps, but the singer’s limbs are also regenerated. Perhaps, this is another version of the myth regarding the effect of the rāga. Tansen was the chief musician in the court of Akbar. Being an emperor and a music lover, Akbar compelled Tansen to sing the Deepaka rāga. Tansen tried to convince Akbar about the danger that he might face if he sang the rāga fully. Tansen knew that he would be burnt to death if he sang this rāga. So he taught the Megha rāga to his daughter Saraswathi, and his ‘Guru-bhaginī’ Roopavathi. He instructed them to begin singing the Megha rāga as soon as started to sing the Deepaka rāga. As soon as Tansen began singing the raga and started to elaborate the ālāpanas, the summer heat set in and everyone began to sweat profusely. By the time Tansen reached the second stage, his eyes had turned blood-red and there was fire on his body. Tansen rushed home with his body burning. By that time, Saraswathi and Roopavathi had completed the rituals of worship and had begun Megha rāga. Rain began to pour down in torrents, and Tansen’s body was cooled, but the wounds caused by the burns took a month to heal. From that day on wards, Tansen stopped singing that rāga elaborately. There were legends about Tansen saying that he could bring about darkness by singing midnight rāgas in the afternoon. By singing afternoon rāgas at midnight, his music could spread sunlight. Mohanlal had heard about the yogic power of music from Rajasaheb. He had said that music is basically a yoga.  The elements could be influenced through the process of yoga. It is said in the śāstras that if the practice of music is taken to yogic levels, it can stimulate the power of the spirits that govern the particular rāgas.

Rajasaheb’s opinions about the yogic power of music are supported by the Sadhu of Haridasa Mandir. This Sadhu denies the yogic power in the music of Tansen and narrates another version of the Tansen legend. Though Tansen was the disciple of Swami Haridasa, these legends about Tansen were only stories concocted by music lovers. The sādhu asks whether the stories of Tansen singing Deepaka and Megha rāgas would have been possible without Emperor Akbar. Would it have been possible? The Sadhu relates the legend about the power of Swami Haridasa’s music. Once, when Swami Haridasa had sung Lankadahana Saranga rāga in this same forest, a wild fire had started. Then Swami Haridasa had extinguished the fire by singing Megha rāga. Swami Haridasa was not merely a musician but he was a ‘nāda-yogi’ too. Though Akbar beseeched him in many ways, he did not accept his patronage. The emperor Akbar had to come in disguise, and hidden himself outside the ashram of Swami Haridasa to listen to his music. Tansen accepted Akbar’s patronage in return for servitude, composed songs in praise of Akbar, abandoned his religion for the sake of the woman he loved and received extra benefits from the emperor. Swami Haridasa never looked down upon or curse Tansen for abandoning his religion. Such a perfect yogi he was. The sādhu of Haridasa Mandir says that Tansen was no doubt a genius in music, but only some musicians attribute yogic powers to him.

These different versions of the legend convey the basic difference between the music of a Yogi, as a path of realizing God - a path of salvation itself, and the music that aspires to fame and material comforts. At the same time, the legend also focuses on the fame, achievements and failures of Mohanlal, the central character of ‘Mandra’. He could rise to the stature of a great genius in music like Tansen, but he was never able to climb the summit of Siddhi of a yogi in music. It shows the limitations of Tansen in the past and Mohanlal at present. As in the usage of all other myths and legends, here too, Bhyrappa explores the contemporary by probing into the past, and compels the reader to compare and analyse both these value systems. The same is applicable to Manohari’s dance too.




Prof. Shantakumari is a teacher, writer, translator and literary critic. Her seminal work ‘Yugasaakshi’ is a critical and definitive study of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Kannada novels. ‘Chaitanyada Chilume’ and ‘Nenapu gari bicchidaaga’ are her autobiographical works. ‘Satyapathika-Socrates’ and ‘Kaggada-Kaanike’ are some of her major works. She has co-translated many of Bhyrappa's novels into English and parts of Will Durant's 'Story of Civilization' into Kannada.