T S Venkannayya (Part 4)

Scholar of Literature

When Venkannayya lived in Mysore, his life was somewhat comfortable. He expected a spacious living room wherever he stayed. A soft blanket and a nice jamakhana [thick floor mats made from cloth] should be there; so also a soft pillow as a backrest. When I visited him once, he was seated with the aforesaid arrangements. T N Srikantayya (Ti Nam Sri), D L Narasimhachar (DLN), and a few other students of his were also present. Three or four of them had sloping desks in front of them.[1] They were all occupied in the process of editing Harihara’s Ragaḻe or some other classical literary work – studying the palm-leaf manuscripts of the work, identifying the pāṭhāntaras [literary variations], and comparing and debating over the various versions of the text. At regular intervals, in the middle of work, they were treated to sumptuous helpings of dosa, puri, coffee, etc. This is an episode that presents a glimpse into the life of an honest literary scholar and throws light on his personality. Oftentimes, I recall this episode. The joy that I derive from that memory is a great gift to this poor soul.

His Style of Kāvya-vācana

Venkannayya’s recitation of poetry was lovely. I have mentioned earlier that his golden voice was perfectly suited for music. Music was his favourite art. When only the two of us were together, sometimes he would sing a śloka or a song merely to derive ātma-santoṣa [self satisfaction]. “Arivem rāgada puttidendu…” was one such poem. “Dhavalagaṅgeya potta Śiva mahāliṅga…” was another. His voice was melodious and soft. He was able to sing the melodic embellishments really well. Although he wasn’t formally trained in classical music, he was a person who had grasped the nature of rāgas through his experience. He would recite Kannada poems set to classical rāgas. The influence of music on his recitation was so strong that it made me remark, “Venkannayya, if you set your heart on the poem you’re reciting, even a pedestrian verse feels like sublime poetry. But if your heart is not set on the verse, even a beautiful poem sounds like worthless words.”

There were several occasions when this happened. People would stitch together poetic lines and beg him for a certificate of approval. If Venkannayya was in a good mood, he would recite those lines setting them to a rāga. Those who composed the lines would go away feeling puffed. Later on, when A R Krishna Shastri or I would ask him about it, he would say, “What else can I do? He’s a good chap but he’s afflicted with a craze for poetry. If I refuse, the craze will increase. And so I send him away in this manner,” and laugh out loud.

A Memorable Lecture

In 1934–35, during the series of special lectures organised by the Pariṣat, the one delivered by Venkannayya would have remained clearly etched in the memories of all listeners for a long time. I’ve heard dozens of orators in Kannada. I’ve heard hundreds of their speeches. I have never heard a lecture that was as effective as the one Venkannayya delivered that morning. The topic of the lecture, to my recollection, was the harmonisation of the ancient and the modern. He spoke for close to ninety minutes. He spoke like one inspired; he seemed to have been imbued with a divine spirit – this is what the listeners felt. The speciality of that lecture was not the eloquence and fluency of speech, nor bombastic language, nor literary flourishes. It was the interesting manner in which the topic was presented. It was Venkannayya’s rapier-like intellect that gave a comprehensive vision after comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of ancient customs and modern improvements. His words were few; the language was simple; style was common; but the subject matter was profound. The presentation of the speech was solemn. Every sentence was filled with brilliance and illumination. That was the brilliance of a mind with intellectual clarity.

Poetic Pastimes

I must say that I’m grateful to Venkannayya for the joy that I have derived from literature in general and Kannada literature in particular. He had a keen sense of discernment for what was rasa in literature. Just his recitation of lines held a great charm. Even greater than that was his recognition of rasa. In a particular context of the poem, he could pin-point the greatness of an episode, the greatness of the expression of a character, the beauty in the appropriate usage of a word, the beauty in the description, and so forth. Undertaking this sort of analysis was the speciality of Venkannayya’s literary criticism.

Once when we had gone to Belgaum for a conference, we camped in one of the rooms of a high school. When we reached there, it was about three in the afternoon. After reaching there, Venkatanaranappa drew water from a well that was sixty or seventy feet deep, had a bath, and then prepared lunch. We were a bit tired from all the exertion.

We decided that we would get some rest during late afternoon the next day. Then the conversation drifted to the episode of Arjuna’s pilgrimage [in the Mahābhārata]. Venkannayya picked up the Pampa-bhārata and recited that section. That blissful expe-rience has remained with me as a treasure that I was privileged to receive. After he read it out, we all proceeded to the literary conference at Belgaum.

One afternoon, we walked about a little in a playing field outside the city of Belgaum and then sat down in a corner. Venkannayya had the Pampa-bhārata in his hand. Those who heard him recite that afternoon could never forget it as long as they lived.

After that was the tussle. Krishna Shastri and I always had this complaint about Venkannayya – “You elevate even a very ordinary verse into something extraordinary by your rendition. If you don’t feel up to it, you can make even the most exquisite poetry appear like dry verse.” To this complaint, Venkannayya’s immediate response was a hearty laugh. Following that, he proceeded to elaborate.

In the aforementioned episode, this is how the war of words began. At that point of time, one should have seen the sort of insight that Venkannayya had and the sort of scholarship that Krishna Shastri possessed. It was a wonderful lesson to students of literature.

While our discussion was going on, tens of people walked on that road. They formed a group around us, listening to our debate. But we didn’t realise that they were standing there. After we finished speaking, one or two people from the crowd said, “Why did you stop, brother? Continue chatting away – let’s all hear a little more!” Only then did we realise the sort of literary hunger for good Kannada that was present in those people. Venkannayya’s spoken language was endowed with such illumination and sweetness. We exchanged a few pleasantries with the people assembled there and finished our discussion.

To be continued.

This is the fourth part of an eight-part English translation of Chapters 23 and 24 of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale – Vol. 3 – Sahityopasakaru.



[1]  It was common in those days to sit on the floor cross-legged and use a short writing desk placed in front.



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written and (co-)edited many books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy.


Srishan Thirumalai is an Electronics Engineer who holds a senior position in the IT industry. He is passionate about Indian classical music and literature.

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