M V KRISHNASWAMY
God’s in His Heaven, All’s Right With the World
Filmmaker M V Krishnaswamy recalls his times at the Maharaja’s College—the 175-year-old institution in Mysore that shaped some of India’s best minds in the 20th century
By SUGATA SRINIVASARAJU
When I used to look at ‘Kusum Bhavan,’ in the corner of an intersection on Malleswaram 17th cross, I used to wonder who lived inside it. It was a single-storeyed palatial bungalow with a huge neem tree and a wide enough swing beneath it to accommodate four people. But I had seen nobody use the swing. I had seen nobody stroll the huge untamed garden in the evening. I had not seen an old Plymouth, a Morris Minor or an Ambassador that was so common to such bungalows. In fact, there was not even a driveway or a barking pet.
On the ground there were patches of carelessly strewn cut gneiss that gave a vague idea of a walkway. The only sign of life about the house to a passerby was that serene sepia bulb-glow in the winding corridor-like verandah behind the mesh grill. Everything was still and quiet about the house. Even as Bangalore’s boomtime transformation was underway; when apartment blocks came up all over the city and around this house too; when old bungalows in its neighbourhood were being pulled down and the precious land were being divided among children who came in for inheritance, Kusum Bhavan remained an island; a symbol of old charm and grace; a mini-forest of curiosity with a stoic calm about bulldozing change. Perhaps only the dry winter leaves made some noise.
In my memory, the house is still a dim light in the wintry fog that once upon a time attacked the tree-filled avenues of Malleswaram pretty early in the evening. That image refuses to die even after I have earned an unfettered access to the house in the last five years and have befriended the gentleman and his family who live inside and have lived there for more than half a century without owning it.
So M V Krishnaswamy is not the owner of the house, but there is nobody else to whom it belongs as much as it belongs to him in the minds of his fans, friends, admirers and the countless passersby who have been lucky enough to have a glimpse of this unassuming personality at the gate or under the tree.
MVK has had an illustrious career as a filmmaker. He is arguably the first Indian who assisted legendary Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini on the sets of Viaggio in Italia, which starred Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders and later in India 57, which had Aldo Tonti of War and Peace fame as cameraman; he is probably the only one from the Mysore state who went to Paris, London and Rome in the late 1940s to study films and their direction; he was probably the only one from India at that time who trained under masters like John Grierson to pick up documentary filmmaking, Grierson also nominated him later as the secretary of the Overseas Film Club; he was probably the only one to be an official ‘king-companion’ to the North Indian son-in-law of the then Maharaja of Mysore; he was probably the first amateur to act in a lead role of a modern Kannada film, Bharathi, 60 years ago with the gorgeous Padmini; he was the only one who could convince centenarian engineer Sir M Vishvesvaraya for a documentary film on his life; he was probably the only one from Karnataka who had such a major presence in the country’s film institutions like the Films Division, the National Films Development Corporation, the Censor Board, the national film awards jury, the Film and TV Institute etc.; he was the unfortunate one who was accused of making Satyajit Ray stand in the queue for a film ticket when he was in-charge of international film festivals and he is probably the one who is relatively less known from among the towering members of the ‘Mysore Generation,’ which includes Kannada icon Kuvempu, essayist Murthy Rao, writer Rajaratnam, philosopher Hiryanna, advisor to Indian prime ministers H Y Sharada Prasad, English professor C D Narasimhaiah, scholar T N Srikantaiah, cartoonist R K Laxman, novelist R K Narayan and photojournalist T S Satyan.
But whenever you get into MVK’s house these facts don’t awe you. That’s not because you are indifferent to them, but it is characteristic of MVK to make them all look achievable and commonplace. He makes them all appear like that serene illumination in the verandah, which does not blind your eyes. The connections, associations are all points of departure to measure the weight of history created during his time. But yet he is remarkably update; never cynical to the experiments of the present generation; never that grumbling old man who has surrendered to the remainder of his destiny. His narratives are gripping and they are unlike the slowness that his house signifies in my mind – time really flies when he talks and chuckles in his mild baritone.
On one such day, he got talking about his unusually long evening nap that seemed to him like a shadow of death; the news of his friend Sharada Prasad’s fall in his Delhi home and his alma mater the Maharaja College (a 175-year-old institution that shaped some of India’s best minds in the first half of the 20th century). A few weeks back he had visited his place of birth, Belakavadi; his favourite Melkote Hills and then Mysore. At 83, he wondered if he could ever go back to these places that had graduated him to life. In this backdrop listen to this unstructured slice of his life story in his own voice. They may appear like disjointed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, as I have reconstructed them after listening to them for over a week, but the full picture is not difficult to imagine:
“…Normally you go to school or college to study, achieve something and get a rank but none of these ideas were there in my head. My father was the headmaster in Belakavadi. I did not join school early, I did not have too many friends either, but I liked the place. Then my father was transferred to Kujjeru. There I was directly admitted to the second year of school. By then I knew only a few general interest things that my mother had taught me. During nighttime students used to come to my father’s school. He was a strict headmaster who believed in good results. Those boys had no facility, they used to study and sleep in the school itself. My father used to just supervise. You can’t say the students liked my father, everyone was afraid of them. When the boys were reading aloud I used to fall asleep. I completed the second and third year of school in Kujjeru. For the fourth year my father sent me to Mysore for the lower secondary exam and the centre was Maharaja’s High School. My grandmother was in Mysore. You know what she did with my date of birth? They filled up the date of my admission as the date of birth. My father and my family believed in horoscopy and all that, but still they gave my birth a new date. It deleted four months of my existence. I was born on 8 August, 1923 but they wrote 8 December.
What was the ambition of everyone in Mysore those days? Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar was towards the end of his life. Between 1934 and ’41, I have known about him, his life, his way of doing things by hearsay. To put it succinctly the mood in Mysore those days was – ‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.’ He was a wonderful king. I knew nothing about social differences, economic differences or political anger whatsoever. Mysore was a clean, good city. I used to get my food and other things at the right time. I was not a voracious eater or any such thing. I was happy and content. Everyone in Mysore was interested in education to the extent it gave them a chance for a job. That attitude was also seen in the high school examination of those days. People who did not get 35 per cent in all the papers got EPS (eligible for public service), if you passed in all papers you were eligible for college and public service. The question that was asked was: Are you an EPS or ECPS? First year I got EPS because I did not answer a whole section in the Geography question paper. I got an EPS, the next year I rewrote my papers and got an ECPS.
Those were the depression years in the world. Unemployment was acute in the Mysore state. Graduates and double graduates could not find a job. A general conversation used to be something like this: ‘What has he done?’ ‘Oh, he has graduated from the Maharaja’s College but has not found a job.’ Or there used to be the grouse that someone was overqualified but was underpaid or has not got a job of his choice. During those days in Mysore, there was a great importance for the Indian Civil Service. If you could get into the civil service that was the greatest thing that could happen. So some people who had the means would write these exams. Those who succeeded were well paid, were full of power and influence. ICS was the acme of one’s career.
This was also the time of Diwan Visvesvaraya. He and the Maharaja hit it off very well. It was not that they agreed on every point. There was a lot of disagreement. Despite the arguments, the way Krishnaraja Wodeyar supported the schemes of Visvesvaraya was something fantastic. Actually the story went that Visvesvaraya went to see the Maharaja with a resignation letter in his right pocket. If the differences became too much he would slowly slip his hand into his right pocket and the Maharaja would know. That was how Visvesvaraya spent his five years as Dewan. He worked out good schemes and from the book of Visvesvaraya’s speeches I have given you, it is clear that public life for him was not about serving the Maharaja, or the state of Mysore, but he wanted the state where he was in command to be the best in the world and not just India. This was the reason why he gave a lot of importance to the Mysore Civil Service (MCS).
The MCS was greater than the ICS for a Mysorean, because that would give him a chance to be Diwan. You couldn’t have a better job than that. Everyone’s ambition was that. There was competition between Maharaja’s College and Intermediate College. Whether you studied Science or the Arts, you had to get that MCS. That was the angle to education in Mysore.
But I did not know anything about the world, I did not know anything about public service and getting a job and getting a position. I had to go to school because they had admitted me. I was least bothered whether I got a rank, or passed or failed. But given the average intelligence of the people then and due to certain things that I was trained indirectly by my parents and because of a good handwriting I stood a better chance. I was very fluent in English and in Kannada and all this stood for the first point that gave me my pass. Because the general standard was low I easily passed my exams. I should say I was a regular, good, third class student. I passed my SSLC and joined the Maharaja’s College.
Mysore University had just then been founded. It was the youngest university in the country. I knew the name of various universities, but I did not know what a university was. The Maharaja College was Mysore University for me. The first thing that comes to mind about the college is the students’ union. It was very active. It organised a lot of cultural activities and in the whole of Mysore that was the only place where cultural activities were taking place. It actually depended on the activities of the union secretary. My brother, M V Rajagopal, became the union secretary in 1939. He was a CBZ student who wanted to do medicine but did not, because he got good marks in English. He took English Literature Honours and later went to Cambridge. Then, no First Class was available for English because Prof. J. C. Rollo had set very high standards. Second Class was very good and you easily got a lecturership. Because English was a compulsory language and subject, they wanted the maximum number of teachers in English. English was given the priority and all this talk about English-Kannada difference did not exist. Nobody could bother about it and nobody bothered about it. Kannada had a rightful place in the second place if at all with other languages like Telugu, Sanskrit, Urdu and so on. Nobody ever questioned about it and English was the king.
Mysore University soon after its founding had some sort of a reputation. It was considered great that a native state had started a university. Krishnaraja Wodeyar tried to get the best people. C R Reddy was the principal of Maharaja’s College and Brajendranath Seal was the vice chancellor. They had got Seal from Calcutta. It was not that they were looking for someone from Mysore to become the VC. Their efforts and the politics of the time you know reading Sarvepalli Gopal‘s account of his father S. Radhakrishnan‘s life. What he has written is a fact.
Among the things I remember from those days is C R Reddy’s library. By the time I could access it, it was kept in the Kebbe Katte Mansion, because Reddy before he left Mysore had given his library to Basavaraj Urs, who was the poor son-in-law of the Mysore Palace. He was married to Leelavathi because he had finished his graduation and he was a highly qualified man in those days. Basavaraj Urs was the brother of Subramanya Raje Urs (the great Kannada writer who wrote under the pen name Chaduranga).
Basavaraj Urs was a nice man and when I met him the first thing he did was to take me to the library. It was simply fantastic. Why I am saying this is because this place shaped my attitude to books and it also indicates the ideals that the people who ran the university had. That’s the reason I like the monogram of the university, which says ‘Nahi Jnanena Sadrusham.’
When I say I like something about my past I do not mean that I knew all about it then. It is just that I marvel at it now when I look back as an 83-year-old. Attitude of man to his own life changes at different stages and my attitude to my past is shaped by my present. This morning I was thinking of Prof. Murthy Rao, the eminent Kannada writer who taught me at the Maharaja’s. Death came to him very strangely. You know he was 100 plus. He was on his regular morning walk and he saw two mating dogs approach him. Dogs are dangerous during mating season. In his reflex condition he has hurriedly moved towards a roadside bench and since his walking pace had altered he lost balance and fell. That fractured his hipbone. The moment I heard of this injury I knew his end had come.
Similarly, at 86, my father broke his hipbone after being hit by a cyclist. The doctors said he was okay but he himself told that he would go soon. That is the reason I got very anxious last week when I heard of my friend Sharada Prasad’s fall and the profuse bleeding. Something common to Murthy Rao, Sharada Prasad, Nittur Srinivasa Rao, R K Laxman (who came to see me a couple of days back), and my own father is their zest for life. But when the moment comes, I think the zest vanishes, they may resist, but the circumstances are that the body will not respond.
Such a point arrived in the life of Radhakrishnan too, who had taught in Mysore just before our time. When he left Delhi, he made such a speech that he wanted to frighten Indira Gandhi and make her continue him as president. But that did not happen. After he retired he came to Edward Elliot Road in Madras and became a total vegetable. The person who nurtured him in his last days was his daughter-in-law (Gopal’s wife). Nobody came to see him in the last days and when he passed away nobody even realised that a great man had passed away. Everything got over very quietly. All these thoughts keep coming to me now.
Strangely, if I have to look back at my alma mater and my student days it will now happen only through the attitude and concerns of my old age. Until you are 80 there is strength in the body. For instance, I was 77 when I made the biographical film on Veena maestro Doreswamy Iyengar. Amidst his tight schedule, my friend Sharada Prasad made time to write the brochure literature for it and the project was commissioned by my former student Gautaman, who was a Dalit boy who had risen on his own merit and become the chief producer of the Films Division.
I was not absolutely healthy then, my skin problems and all that were there, but I had the clear determination to do it. But now the fact about my ageing has become pronounced. This is a very individual thing, it is not that it happens to everybody. My earlier part of life, my education, my upbringing, my attitude, my convictions all of them had an effect on me and that also circumscribes my reaction. I have absolutely no regrets; I am not a cynic; I am not a bitter person, but I am not happy inside. I can’t explain, complain or criticise against anyone; I can’t say they are responsible for my this or that. It is just that all this has happened. But the ultimate point is that at this point of time, in my heart of hearts, I am not a happy man. Problems are there. How I will get rid of it or whether I will get rid of it at all is a thing unknown to me. Ten years ago if you had asked me about Maharaja’s College perhaps my views would have been different, I could have told you whatever I knew about it. But anyway, with this difference in my own life, I look back.
My Maharaja College days were my happiest days. The feeling is that it is an age gone by. I entered Maharaja’s College in the last decade before Independence. I was part of that institution from 1938 when I entered for my intermediate, till 1948 when I left for UK. For 10 years I was there as a student and a lecturer. I taught the last 3 years of my stay. That period was full of joy and happiness. Everything was great, in the words of Browning ‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.’
There was Prof. Rollo at Maharaja’s and he was for the supremacy of the Mysore University. I do not know if he sided with the nationalists or the national Congress but he wanted Maharaja’s College to be a great place. He had come from Oxford. And naturally in those days because of British rule the only great places of education we knew were Cambridge and Oxford, Harrow and Eton. So education in Mysore was planned on the lines of these great universities. Prof. Rollo wanted Mysore to be another Oxford. There were only two colleges affiliated to the Mysore University then – Maharaja’s College and Central College. Later it expanded a little, but I think until 1948 Mysore University had only five or six affiliated colleges – the medical college, the engineering college, the Maharani’s, the Maharaja’s and the Central College.
In those days, even as there were good teachers, there were good students. You hear the name Murthy Rao as a student, in Central College in Banglore there were Rajagopalachari and Navaratna Rama Rao as old students. There was a tradition that the students should be as able as the teachers. They were given the freedom to grow and academics was not practiced in a narrow sense. Participation in social life was a very important feature. You were considered a good student if you were a good member of the university union. Student bodies were elected in a democratic way, without any imposition. Both Sharada Prasad and I were elected to the union at one point of time. So union life became very important, it was the extra curricular base shaped on the lines of the British parliamentary system and British universities. So debates, elocution competitions became very important.
In 1920 Radhakrishnan became the vice president of the college. The principal was the ex-officio president of the union. All the students debated about the constitution of the union because we had to fight about everything in a constitutional way. That was one of the aspects that shaped our lives. It was a good training. My brother Rajagopal was the secretary. He was a dynamic secretary. Every evening there used to be some function or the other. Kailasam was very popular. There were interesting people like Na. Kasturi who later started Akashavani (AIR) with Gopalaswamy.
The goal that students had was an ideal one. There was not this dirty cramped material competition. It was a liberal education of the first order and the institution promoted it. Because anyone who was good in anything was admired by the whole college. A good sportsman, a good debater, a good elocutionist, a good actor were all admired. So among the students it was not just the person who got the maximum marks and passed in a rank. This was the atmosphere when I was at the Maharaja’s.
I became the union vice president in 1941-42. I was elected and how did it happen? It happened like all other things happened in my life. By chance. I was an English honours student, I was good in elocution, theatre and sports. Everyone knew me and everyone was fond of me. They gave affectionate praise without any reserve. I was not competitive, then as well as later in life. I didn’t want to be the vice president. But my friend Nadig Krishnamurthy was very ambitious he wanted to become the vice president. He stood for the election. But some people who disliked him said ‘we must get this fellow defeated,’ as a result some friends nominated me. They said that we’ll fight it out for you. You don’t bother about it. I never bothered too, but I was elected. I did not even know of my election. At Rama Vilas Agrahara, Prof. Wadia and two other teachers were coming. I greeted them. Prof. Wadia said ‘just a moment.’ I stopped and he said ‘congratulations.’ Only later did I realise that he had congratulated me for having been elected. The next day I asked myself ‘what do I do as vice president?’ and then ‘Oh god, I have to behave myself.’ Prof. Eagleton, one of the staff members was the president.
I should tell you about Prof. Eagleton, who had come to Mysore in 1937. He was only 26 years old. He was a Cambridge graduate. His notions and attitude to teaching and politics was all very different because it was ’37 and the political life of India had begun to change with Gandhi being there. There was some sort of awareness among students by then. But I’ll come to all that later.
I want to tell you something that initially shocked me and quietly shaped my attitude to sexs. Eagleton was a homosexual and that was known to everybody but nobody spoke about it openly. To describe myself then I was a great prude. I never took drinks, never smoked, I was a very neat and clean fellow. I was not orthodox, I did not follow rituals but followed the discipline of the orthodoxy. If sex itself was a taboo subject, imagine homosexuality. It was not just hated, but there was even fear to speak about it. If you were a homosexual that was the worst name that you could have had. You can now well imagine the plight of students in a college if one of their professors was homosexual. If someone called himself a friend of that professor or seen close to him, he instantly got a bad name. There would be a whisper campaign.
All fair-skinned students were suspects and targets. But the British professor was a thorough gentleman. We had quarrels with him, we disagreed, but he would never interfere with our lives. So I had a sort of respect for him. But my fellow students had a different attitude. They were afraid to go to his house even if they were invited. But I used to go to his house and quite enjoyed my conversations with him.
Around this time an interesting incident happened. I was briefly in the palace service. Once I went to Bombay on work and had to meet the maternal uncle of the maharaja. He was a well-known, raging, homosexual because he had the influence and money. If you were seen with him that was the enough to get a bad name, but this man took me to a studio in that city and got me photographed like mad. Now I am sitting and narrating it to you but then it was disgusting to tell someone what had happened. Eagelton got to see those pictures and he liked a particular one and asked me if I would give it to him. I gave him and he framed and put it up in his drawing room. The news spread among my friends and it was a scandal of sorts, for no fault of mine.
Prof. Eagleton is still alive in UK. He must be around 95 or 96. He had adopted a son and he must have taken over all his affairs now. Until some ten years ago we were in touch. If you wrote a letter he acknowledged. Many years ago when he came to Delhi, Sharada Prasad who was in the prime minister’s office by then had arranged for his stay. I too was in Delhi and one evening I took him out to a restaurant in Khan Market area for a drink. But when I offered him a drink he said: “No Kittu I have given it all up.”
Probably he read the disappointment on my face and his resolve weakened a bit. He said: “Okay I’ll have a small rum.” I toasted that drink with his favourite Milton poem that he used in the Phonetics class at the Maharaja’s: “How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth,/Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!/My hasting days fly on with full career,/But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th./Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,/ That I to manhood am arriv’d so near,/ And inward ripeness doth much less appear,/That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th/Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow…” He was very happy.
I now realise that we never enter normal sex life. We even used to feel ashamed to say that someone is my wife. If you look at our customs it is quite the opposite. But we never drew anything from it. A wife was seen as an instrument to be used and forgotten. All kinds of rotten attitudes were developed because of wrong education. Later, when I read Gandhi I was surprised that he had written so freely about the whole thing. His views on celibacy and all that came only after he was 40. He wrote and spoke with such conviction that people called him a ‘brahmachari,’ forgetting that he had children. We always understand conjugal relationsips correctly only late in life. Otherwise it is all imaginary thoughts placed in the taboo line. They treat Gandhi as a saint, but he was highly human. He was the most human person with all its flaws, faults, and feelings. But the effort to overcome all this and be above it is given to very few people. It is here we see Radhakrishnan and Nehru appear different. In all, people of my generation grew up with the most wrong impression about sex, its importance and inevitability.
I started correcting my attitude to sex and alcohol only after I went to France in the late 40s. They had a very rational and healthy attitude. They respected the relationship between man and woman. If I was in a hotel room alone they would charge the same and when my wife came and joined me they still charged me the same. They did not charge anything extra. The British were fond of whisky, but a Frenchman would not touch it. But he would take his own Cognac and other first class drinks. If you sat with him he would offer you. If you said no, he would say okay. He would never coerce you or force you. There that freedom was there, not so in India. You could not expect all this in the Mysore of those days. We received the best general education and exposure at Maharaja’s, but I now feel that it did not touch certain aspects of life.
Now that I have mentioned Gandhi, let me come to the most defining experience of my Maharaja College days. My vice presidentship years were the most wonderful for me. Because it gave me a position, I was known among the students community. Officebearers of the union were the leaders, they did not call themselves so, but they were accepted as leaders. I became vice president in ’41 and Sharada Prasad contested for the secretaryship in ’42. He was in Bangalore Central College as a science student, but he came to Mysore and took English Honours. By August ’42 the Quit India movement started.
As I have said earlier there was a general awareness about the political situation in the country. Gandhi for the first time asked students to participate in the movement. He said everyone of you is a leader. There were no leaders for the movement. It was a do or die call. I sat in my home on 8 August and wondered what to do. How can I go to college when none of my friends are there? I was in a real dilemma.
My sister was living in Nanjangud. I took a bicycle and went away to Nanjangud, because I did not want to meet people. I spent the whole day there and realised that there was no way out but to join the movement. Also something told me that it was a good thing. I didn’t know anything about Gandhi, I had not read anything about him. I came back from my sister’s house and the next day I went and joined the crowds. I was not wearing khadi, I was in a good woolen suit. Teachers tried their best to stop students from joining the movement. Prof. Rollo and Prof. Eagleton wrote letters to my father saying that “he need not come to college, but let him not join the movement.” But my father had given us the freedom to decide. He said: “Look, your professors have written to me. What do you say?” I said I want to join the movement. He did not stop me.
The National Cadet Corps (NCC) had been formed then. There was one Ananda Rao. He was a brilliant rank student in the Intermediate Arts, who had been trained in the NCC. Between 9 and 10 August he organised all students who had come out of the college. He divided nearly 400 students into 10 or 15 groups. For each one he gave a commander and also orders as to what needed to be done. It was the most disciplined student movement. Everyday there used to be a procession taken out shouting only slogans: ‘Gandhi Zindabad,’ ‘Nehru Zindabad,’ ‘Rajaji Zindabad,’ ‘Patel Bhai Zindabad,’ ‘Up Up National flag Down Down Union Jack’ etc. rent the air.
There was one M V Krishnappa. He had a stentorian voice. He was made the leader of the slogan-shouting brigade. With a result if he shouted it could be heard for two or three furlongs. The procession would begin from Maharaja’s College, come back and disperse. The authorities did not know what to do, because we said Gandhian principles and non-violence. It was the most peaceful agitation.
But slowly central pressure started mounting on the local government. They said such things should not be allowed and as a result they started taking action. Whoever spoke at the procession meeting was arrested automatically. The arrests happened for almost a week and whole city life was affected. One day I spoke at Subbarayanakere and the next day the police came looking for me. I was going to college and police officer Srikanta Shastri, whom I knew very well and who was unusually stiff that day told me: “Krishnaswamy, I am sorry you are under arrest.” I did not know what an arrest meant, so I asked what should I do? He asked me to just go with him. I asked if I could go home and bring some clothes. They said okay. Then, they took me to the Hamilton Police Grounds. I was being given VIP treatment because I knew all the people. The district superintendent of police was my neighbour and all his sons were my friends, to add to that was the Maharaja College’s vice presidential tag. It was so respected.
After some time they took me to the Mysore jail. I entered the premises through a small gate. There I found Sharada Prasad and few others. They were all in one place. I said I will be with them and they allowed. We were all shifted to a place designated as storeroom and there we spent three months. I had been given stories about jail life – that they will make you work, they would change the way you think etc. But there was no work, nothing whatsoever. We used to meet, discuss something or the other.
Sharada Prasad was a very well informed person. In their house they promoted nationalist activity. So he knew a lot about what was happening. He knew what was happening in the Congress and used to tell us about it. In the jail we formed our own group. We used to hoist the national flag, sing songs and eat well because detenues were given normal treatment. We were citizens and not accused. Special rations were brought into the jail to give us good food. So I felt ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.’
Because of the leisure and the context, I started studying the political history of India. That is how I got to know about Gandhi and his way of life. Only Gandhi and Nehru were important. Though Patel and Azad and all were there. Talking about Azad I should tell you how this difference between Hindu and Muslim had been carefully cultivated in those days. I used to be friendly with Muslims but I had reservations about them, because the general talk was such. When it came to them all history was perverted. They were called ‘anti-national.’ It took me some time to realise how all this was rubbish. But this Hindu-Muslim difference thing made me study the Brahmin and anti-Brahmin movement. I say this to indicate how anybody can get influenced and develop innate apathy towards other people. It had crept into my mind also. I was not violent, I would not argue. All that I thought was it was a legitimate difference.
For instance we were not orthodox. My father was not orthodox, but the orthodox system was quite rampant. I as a Srivaishnava would not bow before a Shiva temple. That was nonsense, but I realised it only later. I used to go to Melukote, the holy centre of the Srivaishnava sect. I liked the place because it was beautiful, but I disliked the Iyengar community to which I belonged, because they were doing all kinds of nonsense politics. They knew nothing about the outside world. Every fellow had a tuft and his namam. Whenever these guys passed by me they passed snide remarks like this fellow is a ‘crop cut,’ ‘he has no identification face marks’ etc. This made me develop apathy towards the community. I asked if this was really Srivaishnavism? Nobody told me, including my father, as to what is religion? Who was an Iyengar? Who was a Brahmin? Who was a Lingayat? I had also developed a distant relationship with the gods. I had my range of Gods like Rama, Lakshmana, Janaki, Kote Anajaneya etc. These were my gods, but the others did not exist. I had nothing to do with them and that is how I grew. But all this started changing after my jail experience.
Finally, at the end of three months, to break students’ unity and their resolve in the jail, they planned and executed a lathicharge. This exposed many of us to what violence and brutality was. I knew the police people but the way they acted under instructions from above was simply unbelievable. The brutality of the whole thing was clear and Gandhi’s message became clearer.
For all these reasons and experiences, the Maharaja’s College has always created a wonderful feeling inside me and it still does. But today that old institution is not there, despite the fact that the buildings are all there. After we left the Maharaja’s, people like Kuvempu did not seem to have much affection for the institution because he had grown up in a different atmosphere and his views were different. He shifted to Manasa Gangotri. In the ’60s when student violence happened the whole place was covered with all kinds of writings and posters. When I saw it at that time I was pained. It looked like the dirtiest building in the world to me. I have not been able to obliterate that sight even to this day.
A word about Kuvempu, since I have mentioned him. He was not very well known those days. He was a Kannada professor. He was dressed in absolute white Khaddar. He used to walk from his Vontikoppal home to the college. He never met anyone in the college. Not that he had bitter feelings or antipathy. It is just that he kept to his own world, Ramakrishna Ashram, Kannada Studies and creative writing. He had a very good guru in T S Venkannaiah, who was the president of the union the year before I became vice president and also a Kannada professor. Venkannaiah was a very warm and jovial man. He engaged people in a conversation. Kuvempu, the college thought was Venkannaiah’s best friend.
It was common knowledge that he was the one who gently persuaded Kuvempu to pursue his creative interests. Later, Kuvempu acknowledged this and dedicated his magnum opus, Ramayana Darshanam, to him. Interestingly, at that time, our English professors persuaded the creatively inclined to write in their mother tongues. I know for a fact that Prof. Rollo made the suggestion to Murthy Rao. Kuvempu was similarly advised by another visiting English poet.
When India got freedom in August 1947 there was big celebration organised at the Maharaja’s College. In the last minute on the previous day, I went to see Kuvempu. As usual, he was sitting alone at his desk. I told him about the celebrations and apologised for the late notice and requested him to write something to be presented the next day. He was silent for a minute and then said come and pick it up at ten in the morning. At the appointed time, a beautiful sonnet was waiting for me. I had the privilege of reading it out at the celebrations. Later, I was careless enough to lose that handwritten memorabilia. This was to me an indicator of how Kuvempu not only cherished freedom that was India’s but also how disciplined he was when it came to his writing. There were other great Kannada writers like V Seetharamaiah, T N Srikantaiah and G P Rajaratnam at the Maharaja’s. They were all friendly and affectionate with me when I was a student. Later I had the privilege of meeting them all in the staff room as their colleague. It is another matter that I left for Europe within a couple of years after becoming a lecturer. Teaching was not my cup of tea.
While I was a lecturer at Maharaja’s I got an opportunity to act in a film in one of the lead roles. It was called Bharati and shot at the Navjyothi Studio. Since I asked them to seek permission from the university for me to be involved, in the credits line I was introduced as a ‘guest artist from the University of Mysore.’ The legendary Padmini was my co-actress. There was also Surya Kumari. Film people were treated like scum. They had no respect in society. Because I was an actor nobody would respect me, with the result I decided not to miss a single lecture of mine. I would go give my lecture and come back. No student ever asked me questions about my acting in the class. We used to shoot all night from 12 to 4 a.m. then I would go home take bath, prepare for the class and be at the college by 10 am.
Incidentally, only recently I started wondering how I could work for 20 hours a day without a wink of sleep then. My health was so good. I took it for granted that my health will always be like this. That is why I said earlier that you may have the will power, but the body’s reflexes change. That’s why I gave the example of Radhakrishnan. He was vice-chancellor, ambassador to USSR, vice-president for two terms, president, everything, he was full of energy but the moment he came to Edward Elliot Road he became a vegetable. You know those famous lines: “Sceptre and crown must tumble down and be made equal in the dust.” We used to read these lines so often but only now I know what is sceptre, what is crown and what it is to be made equal in the dust. That’s happening now and I am going through it.
I still remember Maharaja’s College with greatest respect and admiration for it. But I am not shocked or surprised by the fact that Maharaja’s College has not remembered me. That is how it should be.