TRIBUTE In the death of Ni. Na. Madhyastha and Ga.Su. Bhatta we have lost our link to traditional modes of scholarship K.V. Akshara

Two people whom I liked and respected are no more. Ni. Na. Madhyastha died on February 7, 2013, at the ripe old age of 83. On August 7, 2013, the 42-year-old young poet, Ga. Su. Bhatta Bettageri put an end to his life. Both of them were involved with the Kannada literary-cultural world, but in a subdued and invisible way. They were not widely known, so the news of their death, like the achievements of their lives, occupied dim corners of some local newspapers. Their reason for not being famous is a shared one – both of them worked as school teachers in small towns. Not just that, these two noble souls were not the harbingers of ‘modern’ sensibility as it is understood in the contemporary times. With their demise, my ties with these individuals have been severed as also with our pasts considering that these two individuals epitomized traditional thought processes.

***Neerchalu Narayana Madhyastharu was born in a Havyaka family in Kasaragod. In the 1930s he had studied Sanskrit at the Mahajana Samskruta Vidyalaya, located in his own hometown. He came from a not so well-to-do family and studied for the Kannada Pandita and Hindi Rashtrabhasha exams. His pre-modern education didn’t have much value in the market, and there was no way he could get a big job. He taught at a primary school near his hometown and briefly worked in Madras too. His itinerant life as a teacher brought him to Sagar’s Nirmala Secondary School where he was a much loved teacher. In his retirement days, one saw him at functions in and around Sagar.

In what seems like the story of an ordinary man, one remains amazed about how his extraordinary persona took shape. He was not a teacher who merely did his job well; he encouraged children to write poems and plays and presented them on school stage. His activities were restricted not just to school – he passionately pursued Yakshagana and Talamaddale, was a practitioner of gamaka, an effective public speaker and an organiser who worked tirelessly. The Sahitya Parishath in Sagar and other such organisations owe much of their current status to Madhyastha’s unstinting involvement. Madhyastha’s life is an example of how an ordinary life can become extraordinary by connecting oneself with the culture around.

For over the years, I had been watching Madhyastha from a distance. Towards the end of his life, which is in the late 90s, I had a chance to experience his remarkable scholarship. Some of us at Ninasam wanted to study poetic plays in Sanskrit and Halegannada itself, and the person who helped us achieve this was Madhyastha. Over the next five years, we studied six plays, with Madhyastha being the centre of this exercise. For several days, long sessions stretching throughout the day, our study unfolded in a very slow pace. The process of our reading was simple, but unique. He used to read and explain, opening up the texts in all their richness. He held on to every single word, took us back to its source and revealed its many meanings to us. He would unravel the past and present of historical characters, narrating stories that traced them back to several births – the canvas was comprehensive. In those five years, not even once did Madhyastha come armed with secondary reading material. Except for one or two occasions when he said, “I think this word has more meanings. I will get back to you on this tomorrow.” We, at our end, were astonished that this man didn’t even need to use the dictionary, even once.

This reading project introduced me not only to Madhyastha’s scholarship, but also to a new kind of process. For a modern mind that’s in a hurry to analyse even before the reading is complete, Madhyastha’s mode taught us forbearance of a new kind. Modern temperament has come to believe that literature masquerades as ideology, and only when it is deconstructed do meanings come to the fore. Madhyastha, with his own methodology, taught us that if a text is read with total preparation, and the connoisseur is perceptive to the rasas that it evokes, meanings will unfold, and the text begins to grow within one’s self. Critical analysis can be an obstacle in our reading experience – this was the most important lesson one learnt from Madhyastha.

Relatively speaking, Ga. Su. Bhatta Bettageri was more distant to me. All I knew was that he taught at a school near Yellapura. I have met him in person only three to four times, briefly. But what has made me feel intimate to this writer is his writings. Once, in mid 1990s, a book arrived by post. It was my introduction to Ga. Su. Bhatta, through this unusual work in poetry, “Nala Damayanti”. I hadn’t read it carefully then. When he sent “Beleya Leele”, I browsed through the book; I was surprised that even in these modern times, a writer tenaciously held on to the age old chandassu form of rhythm and metre. From his works, I picturised him like a relic from Stone Age. In the days to come, I bumped into him in a theatre workshop. On seeing this man who looked like a carefree school boy wearing a tennis cap standing before me I felt awkward and confused. He gave me a copy of his “Kavi Valmikigaada Anyaya”, a book that contained essays on the various characters of Ramayana. The essays were sharp and analytical, and woke me up to the seriousness of his other works.

In Madhyastha, tradition existed without any special attention to modernity, but in Ga. Su. Bhatta, tradition was conscious of modernity. As if it were an oblique response, modernity was trying to search new meanings within him. Viewing tradition from the standpoint of modernity, and tradition discovering its own version of modernity from within itself are a world apart. Ga. Su. Bhatta’s poetry is full of instances that expound the ability of tradition to extend itself into new frontiers, and it includes modernity. In him, they were never two oppositional forces. Ruptures emerge from within tradition thereby pushing its very boundaries, but to change tradition from the position of a radical modern is not what Ga. Su. Bhatta believed. I began to see this major distinction only after reading Bhatta’s poetry.

I don’t intend to glorify Ga.Su. Bhatta’s works. All I want to highlight is his unusual thought process and the way it engaged itself with tradition, also evident from the poetic devices he employed. He was never part of the race to be known in the contemporary Kannada literary world. Whenever he was invited for a literary meet he would say, “Why all that…?” This kind of hesitation is a rare quality for our times. He was an unusual writer in every way, and hence, the unexpected death of this poet, has left me with a deep sense of loss.

In the foreword to The Last Brahmin , an autobiography of Rani Shivashankara Sharma in Telugu, translated and introduced by D. Venkata Rao, he speaks about the vanishing tribe of traditional scholars in India, which was active till the 18th century. Their disappearance, he says, is the effect of oriental research in India, which also took away their legitimacy. Therefore, to study all pre-modern texts, from Shakuntala to Kavirajamarga , we now largely depend on Western scholarship. If only the modern minds had creatively engaged with our traditional scholars our knowledge systems would have reaped rich dividends. In the absence of such a dialogue, I insist that modernity has only become frail and hapless.

Both Ga. Su. Bhatta’s practice of poetry, and Madhyastha’s reading of a text are marginalised modes. The two are important to me not as individuals alone, but as representatives of a way of tradition. Today, we believe in honouring individuals for their personal achievements, and this practise has little use in taking forward a tradition. They are sadly no more. What is sadder is that there are few who walk their paths. However, I also see a hope when I witness traditional scholarship alive in the world of tala maddale and other traditional art forms. What however remains a large minority is the educated moderns who fail to recognise this kind of erudition.

Translated by Deepa Ganesh