LEAFING THROUGH Kum. Veerabhadrappa’s novel is an experiment in telling a tale differently and theatre person Bhargavi’s gritty autobiography is a record of Kannada theatre
Hemareddy Mallammana Katheyu
A novel by Kum. Veerabhadrappa
Sapna Book House, Pages: 372
Kum. Veerabhadrappa, well known as ‘Kum.Vee.’, is one of the most prolific fiction writers of our times. He has published 15 collections of short stories, 13 novels, a couple of biographies and his autobiography Gandhi Clasu. He has also translated a number of Telugu stories into Kannada. Hemareddy Mallammana Katheyu is his latest novel. The major concern of Kum.Vee’s fiction is to unravel the cosmos of the feudal system. Most of his stories and novels are situated in the remote villages of Andhra Pradesh, which are characteristic for their class divide and therefore prone to feudal violence on the one hand, and radical activities on the other. The real in Kum.Vee.’s world is so macabre, grotesque and violent that it appears as fantasy. Kum.Vee. says that bomb-making is a cottage industry in most of these villages.
Murderers with their native ammunition knock at your doors for refuge. Any peaceful activity devoid of violence appears rather unnatural here. There is no wonder if comic exaggeration is the chief tool of Kum.Vee.’s narratives. Kum.Vee.’s constant experimentation with diction, syntax and narration is not an indulgent aesthetic activity but a creative need to grapple with and to come to terms with the histrionics of his characters and the unbelievable situations they are placed in. He has also been exploring new narrative strategies to transform his raw material, which is at once rich but explosive, into creative structures.
In Hemareddy Mallammana Katheyu Kum.Vee. has employed multiple first-person narrators. The first narrator happens to be the friend of one Tanikella Parthasarathi, a Telugu writer. One day he receives a telephone call from Parthasarathi requesting him to meet him at Kurnool and browse through the manuscript of his novel, which is yet to be completed. The narrator obliges. Looking at the title, the narrator exclaims that it is a mythological novel. But Parthasarathi smiles and clarifies that ‘it is not about that Shivasharane Mallamma but the Dharmapatni of that Hemareddy’ and implores the narrator to see for himself what it is about. The narrator starts reading Parthasarathi’s novel, which is in first person. The narrator of Parthasarathi’s novel is a primary school teacher in a remote village. This novel is a record of his experiences, observations, interpretations and encounters with a very wide range of personalities. In Parthasarathi’s novel this narrator is also a fiction writer. He says that a story he started a week ago is slowly transforming itself into a novel! This teacher-narrator--novelist is fascinated by the fact that real life incidents and characters have begun to influence and actually dictate his narrative.
This motif recurs in the main narrative as well. Apart from uncovering the tapestry of the complex fabric of feudalism, Kum.Vee.’s novel reflects on the intricate relationship between fact and fiction. One turning point in the life of the villagers is the arrival of a drama company. They put up a number of performances in the village and ultimately venture to take up the legend of Hemareddy Mallamma. This triggers a flurry of activities in which different faces of feudal culture show up in all their hues. Even the novelist Parthasarathi finds it hard to complete the last sentence of his manuscript. At this point Kum.Vee.’s novel gets back to the first narrator. A small discussion takes place between Parthasarathi and the first narrator regarding alternative possibilities of plot and characterisation and now it is left to the first narrator to rewrite and complete the manuscript. Hemareddy Mallammana Katheyu is a continuation of Kum.Vee.’s relentless effort to make sense of the complexities of the feudal system. However what makes this narrative slightly different from the other works of Kum.Vee is the interplay between fact and fiction on the one hand and fiction and meta-fiction on the other.
Bhargavi Narayan’s autobiography,
Ankita Pustaka, 2012 pp. 415
What is it that drives one to the stage and don the role of some one else for a brief period, against all odds? Money? There isn’t any in the Kannada theatre; fame? very short-lived; inner urge to be somebody else? Such questions haunt one while going through the autobiographies of theatre-persons like CGK, BVK, Prema Karanth, and others. The most recent one in this illustrious group is the autobiography of Bhargavi Narayan — the famous stage-film-TV artist. Bhargavi, who has been associated with the stage for the last six decades, narrates the poignant tale of her life, in a simple and straight manner: an unwanted child, she lost her father when she was seven. She led a hand-to-mouth existence with her mother and brother and hung on to a low-paying clerical job until she opted for VRS. She entered the stage during high-school and continued to act for six decades. She entered films and much later the small screen. She was bamboozled into marrying B.S. Narayanarao alias ‘make-up Nani,’ another illustrious theatre-person, who was the first Kannada theatre-person to get a British Council scholarship, and who had the privilege of doing make-up for Rajinikant and Girish Karnad (in King Oedipus).
This long story of suffering and accidents, difficult births and sad deaths could easily have become a sob story, making heavy demands on the readers’ patience but for two saving qualities: Bhargavi’s sense of humour, and her stoic temperament. She narrates her story as objectively as possible, free from self-pity and cynicism. She freely describes her own whimsicalities (like going to Mysore without telling anybody at home just to tick off her husband) as well as her husband’s quirks. She has the awareness that many others in this world could be in a worse situation. It is this awareness that enables her to give moving pen-portraits of unfortunate women around her – her mother, hated by her mother and widowed at an early age; her aunt Bhagirathi and Sheshamma (distant relatives) who were widowed just three years after marriage and spent the rest of their life serving others. More importantly, she believes that there is some unknown power which has come to her aid in critical situations. Hence, the repetitive motif of her life-story — daivam maanusha rupena — God helps in the form of human beings. There are ample instances of such ‘divine interventions’ in her story: unexpected help from one V.S. Sastry (unrelated to them) when Bhargavi’s aunt, Suguna’s marriage was about to be a non-event; when Bhargavi wishes to revoke her application for VRS, the famous playwright Parvatavani happens to meet her and carries her letter to Delhi on the last day. Hence, Bhargavi, despite her poverty and hardships, can boldly say: “I have nothing to crib about.” Again, as Ananthnag points out rightly in his foreword, this autobiography is also a history — a history of Kannada theatre and amateur theatrical groups. We come to know of Prabhat Kalavidaru, Ravi Kalavidaru, Histrionic Club of National College, Bangalore Little Theatre, which rendered selfless yeoman service to Kannada theatre in the early days.
We see Kannada theatre slowly moving away from the realistic plays of Kailasam (Bhargavi’s pet play being Taali Kattok Kuline) and Sriranga through those of Parvatavani (Bahaddur Ganda being Bhargavi’s favourite) and Kshirasagara to those of Lankesh and Karnad. Bhargavi lists not only scores of plays (and films) in which she acted but also the entire cast, which serves as a valuable reference work for theatre-scholars. On one occasion, Bhargavi admits that passion for the stage is an “incurable madness”; immediately, she adds: “but no regrets”. I am sure many others like CGK, BV K, C.R. Simha, and Prema Karanth would agree with her. Kannada theatre is rich today only because of committed artists like them.