S. L. Bhyrappa’s ‘Mandra’: A Study

The novel ‘Mandra’ by S. L. Bhyrappa which appeared in 2002 is unique in several respects. It is woven around music and musicians. It is not only a tour de force as novel-writing goes; it is in a class by itself because of the high degree of its sensitivity, multi-layered structure, richness of insight and extra-ordinary narrative skill. The work is a great deal more than mere story-telling; its portrayal of characters and its thematic intensity are of epic dimensions. The dialogues have a lyrical quality one seldom expects in a work of fiction. (More about this later).

S. L. Bhyrappa is incontrovertibly the most popular novelist in Kannada in the last half-century. Between 1958 and 2017 he has authored 24 novels. His latest novel ‘Uttarakanda’ came out in 2017. All his novels have retained their readership continuously through the decades. All of them have been in constant demand and have undergone numerous re-issues. Two of his novels (‘Grihabhanga’ and ‘Datu’) have been translated into all 14 languages [i.e. major Indian languages]; 15 of his novels and 3 non-fiction works have been translated into several languages. Even in translated form the novels have attracted wide readership. Several of his novels have been made into successful films. The fact that his novels have enjoyed record sales is noteworthy for the reason that it evidences the existence of a vast number of readers who are aesthetically responsive. This aspect deserves mention because Bhyrappa’s writing is by no means smooth; it is ponderous, lengthy, purpose-driven. Study, travel, research, interaction, refinement of thought as well as writing – such preparatory work for each novel often stretches over many years and guides and shapes each work. Each novel is polished like a work of art. It may be mentioned in passing that Bhyrappa’s specific training is in philosophy, which he taught for many years. To make people properly comprehend the nature of life’s crucial problems and analyse them intelligently has been his aim; and he chose the medium of fiction for his discourse. This has proved to be a happy choice as it has been able to create a constituency of readership which is mind-boggling in its scale. In the process Bhyrappa elevated fiction-writing to new heights of craftsmanship. Thus, apart from substance, a well-trained endeavour to grasp the nuances of the form of Bhyrappa’s craftsmanship as a novel-writer would be highly rewarding.

Above all, the chief thrust in Bhyrappa’s novels has been to present the human dimensions of the major challenges facing society. Each novel thus also amounts to social commentary though in the garb of fiction. Bhyrappa is a serious writer, and his novels stand apart in this genre of literature.

Naturally his pre-occupation is with themes crucially relevant to society. No subject interests him merely because of its narrative potential. Just to indicate the nature of the themes handled by him in his novels:

‘Dharmashree’ (1961) deals with Hindu-Christian cultural encounter. ‘Vamshavriksha’ (1965) discusses the often dubious roots of aggressively-claimed genealogical identity. ‘Matadana’ (1965) deals with electoral politics. ‘Nayi-Neralu’ (1968) deals with reincarnation. ‘Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane’ (1968) contrasts the Indian and occidental perspectives on the place of the cow in human life. ‘Grihabhanga’ (1970) portrays the vicissitudes of a rural household victimized by others’ greed and its own lack of articulateness. ‘Grahana’ (1972) analyses the dichotomy bet-ween the life of a householder and that of a sannyasin. ‘Parva’ (1979) is an interpretative re-telling of Mahabharata, highlighting the all-time relevance of the values and instincts driving the epic characters. ‘Tantu’ (1993) is a trenchant critique of the deadly mix of capitalism and degenerate politics. In ‘Uttarakanda’ Bhyrappa re-visits the Ramayana and through the story-line expounds how Dharma was the pole-star constantly guiding Rama’s conduct. The novel ‘Sartha’ (1998) dealt with the complex cultural and historical scenario of 8th century when Buddhism had sunk to depths of degeneracy and Hinduism was on yet another course to self-recovery. A sequel to the above is Bhyrappa’s 2007 novel ‘Avarana’, which dealt with the centuries of Muslim dominance, its varied dimensions and some of its legacies which have survived to this day. His novel ‘Kavalu’ (2010) critically examines the roots and the fallout of feminism from a sociological and civilizational perspective.

This brief resume should suffice to indicate Bhyrappa’s concerns and the chief feature of his novels.

The above outline has been necessary in order to facilitate an appraisal of Bhyrappa’s mega-novel ‘Mandra’ (2002). Bhyrappa has long been not only a connoisseur of Hindustani music; he has also himself undergone musical training for long years. He considers music as the pinnacle of human expression, while at the same time recognizing the power and sweep of literature. It is not surprising that even an early novel of his, ‘Jalapata’ written in mid-1960s, had a musical backdrop. A main character in that novel, Vasundhara, is dedicated to music. ‘Mandra’ which came three decades later is wholly on music – both as art and as profession.

There have been a handful of novels with a musician as hero. In most such novels what gets the lion’s share is biographical detail and life’s ups and downs. Those novels would have been equally remarkable even if the chief character had been a practitioner of some other craft. What makes ‘Mandra’ unique is the fact that its characters live and have their being in music. For them music itself has evolved into the language of life.

Bhyrappa delves deep into his themes. Not for him the touch-and-go flips which often embroider novels for mere effect.

‘Mandra’ is a formidable tome of six hundred closely printed pages and defies summarization in view of its sprawliness and complexity. It is by no means an easy read, unless one has the capacity to stay tuned to its intensity and episodic richness and is grounded in the intricacies of Hindustani music. If one does have this mental make-up one would find the novel incomparably rewarding.

Mohanlal, the protagonist in ‘Mandra’, after being rigorously trained in music, first by a saint-musician Omkar Baba at Hardwar and then by an ex-Maharaja of Chatarpur, peregrinates to Mumbai, where he garners fame and money. Down the line he is married to Ramkumari, a village girl by whom he has a son Kishan and a daughter Bakula. With growing fame his bodily hunger too escalates and drives him into the arms of a succession of femmes fatale.

Mohanlal’s life-story is not unpredictable. His self-forgetful emotional hunger proves irrepressible, resulting in one traumatic imbroglio after another: Madhumita, thirty years younger, who later marries a US-based businessman and migrates; Manohari Das, an accomplished danseuse, whose association ends in disaster; Champa who tends to be domineering and who relentlessly commercialises her involvement with Mohanlal with whom she enters into marriage despite that Mohanlal is already wedded to Ramkumari and even has a son and a daughter by her. When in the US, Mohanlal casually runs into a girl called Loren Smith who eventually moves to India to resume discipleship.

Mohanlal’s recklessness and lack of steadfastness on the one hand and the inexorable life’s realities on the other adversely affect both his inner life and his life as a virtuoso. There are highs (as when his Ahir Bhairav at Frankfurt airport mesmerizes the gathering) and lows (as when he discovers that Champa had been marketing the recordings of parts of his stage concerts without so much as a say-so from him).

There are poignant situations galore. At one point Mohanlal goes to the extent of pledging the Tambura (which had been bequeathed to him by his Guru at the Ganda ceremony) to find money for visiting a brothel. When informed of the intended marriage of his daughter Bakula he expresses a momentary surprise that she had not yet married. Such was the measure of his estrangement from his wife and children. He had remained unaware even of the fact that his wife had been serving as a maid in the household of a patron of his. For over a score of years he had distanced himself from his wife and maintenance money was being sent to her through a third person.

Mohanlal combines in himself the qualities of both hero and villain. As musician and teacher he is nonpareil and honest to the core; but he totally lacks character in his love-life. This nuance in the novel has a chiselled perfection.

The overall feeling which remains in the minds of readers after the convoluted traverse is that of the process of evolution of each of the characters rather than the nitty-gritty details of events. Nor is it surprising that the pervasive tonality is a certain indescribable sadness. It is hard to deny that it is sadness and not joy that can ripen the minds of people. It is not as if the characters are merely obsessed. All that can be said is that most people respond naturally and spontaneously to life’s situations. While such casualness may not be justifiable in an ultimate sense, it is what governs most normal beings. All classical oeuvres comprise negative characters too; their absence would have rendered the works incomplete.

Mohanlal is jilted by all. Years later there are filmic re-unions with the earlier inamoratas which prove to be rather clinical and infructuous. To dismiss Mohanlal as irresponsible and given to lechery would be a horrendous error.

While not lacking in narrative interest, ‘Mandra’ is conceived as an aesthetic experience. Being a virtual work of art, it expects the reader to meet the novel halfway with adequate preparedness and constant attunement. The novelist is never judgmental and displays equal empathy for all characters throughout. Such conformance to certain human characteristics is intrinsic and germane to the craft of the writer. Isn’t such maintenance of Rasa and Bhava at the heart of all great writing?

This is an aspect of Bhyrappa’s technique and craftsmanship which unfortunately has hardly ever been addressed by critics.

Bhyrappa has portrayed each character in great depth and in all its complexity. Even peripheral characters are meticulously delineated (as for instance the pressman Paranjpe who subtly commercialises the events for his personal advantage). The portrayal of characters such as Mohanlal’s wife Ramkumari, his most dedicated disciple Madhumita, his associate Raja Ram Tipnis, his warm patron Gore-saheb, etc., is memorable and has a haunting quality.

At the fag-end Mohanlal intensely feels both his own failure and the absence of a worthy disciple. An intended farewell concert ends in disaster. That marks his death as a performer; as a human being, as disciple, husband, father, Guru, etc., he had long since died. His self-alienation is complete. He finds there is not a single soul in whom he could unburden himself. When he attempted to sing, there was mere memory and no emotion.

A major contributory factor in the novel is the lyrical and almost other-worldly nature of the interior monologue and the exchanges between characters. The narrative portions too employ musical concepts and terminology. Thus, the Shivalinga in the forest-abode of the Maharaja appears as ‘concretisation of Mandra-shadja’; the elevator in the building-complex in Mumbai ‘ascends like Mandra-shadja racing towards Tara-shadja’. Loren’s descent to Mandra-shadja while rendering Komal-Rishabh Asavari appears to her to represent her own downfall and inadequacy, prompting her to return to India to resume learning. When Mohanlal sights Loren for the first time, he addresses her as Bhoopali. (Bhoopali, corresponding to Mohana in Karnatak music, is a bold Raga wherein there is as a sudden leap from Dhaiwat to Shadja). Hardwar where the river Ganga enters the plains is like ‘the confluence of Vilambit and Drut-taan’.

A distinct feature of the major novels of Bhyrappa is that he has rendered into the fictional mould a whole gamut of highly abstract themes. While this in itself is extraordinary, the fact that his novels have succeeded in eliciting positive response from multitudes of even lay readers is indeed remarkable. It is this phenomenon that has conferred on Bhyrappa’s novels their iconic status.

Viewed from this angle the corpus of Bhyrappa’s novels bid fair to be classed as modern-day classics. Inasmuch as Bhyrappa’s whole preoccupation is with the cultural roots of society, he may be said to be a national novelist and not merely a Kannada writer.

The challenge the novelist has posed for himself is to express the artistry of one medium, viz., music, through another medium, viz., verbal and literary articulation. In other words music is the real protagonist in the novel. Viewed in this perspective, Bhyrappa’s ‘Mandra’ is unique and many-splendoured.



This essay was published for the first time recently in the two-volume anthology of Essays and Speeches by Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy (published by Rashtrotthana Sahitya, Bangalore). Those interested in reading the anthology can purchase it online here: https://www.sahityabooks.com/shop/rashtrotthana-sahitya/essays-speeches/



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.

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