Documents, history, legend: which is the honest record of the past? Perhaps none of these. Can partial truths reflect the whole? In fact, they may but distort the totality of experience. Suddenly there comes the rare historical novelist whose narrative genius recreates the past in terms of romantic imagination. A moment of time at a particular patch of earth is then rendered deathless.


For Masti Venkatesa Iyengar’s Chenna Basava Nayaka (1950), the patch of earth is the Honnajolige region of Karnataka, evoked magnificently in the opening pages:


“The names of the shrunken villages are all that remain of their vanished gladness; Siri Vasi, the home of the Goddess of Prosperity, is a huddle of wretched hovels; Sogadavana ‘the honey wood’ and Sogadavani, ‘the mellifluous caller’ as the loving peasants called their teeming villages are now memory-haunted bereaved hamlets. It is as though the strength of heart which made the pulse of Honnajolige seeme beat with life failed halfway and could not reach this unhappy land. Here is wealth but none to gather it; music, but no ear to hear; no heart to rejoice in its sweetness.”


This “desolation that crushes the heart” fell upon the region when the last of the Bidanur Nayaks fell victim to a conspiracy of circumstances. The novel seeks to probe the reasons for the decline and fall of the Bidanur-Nagar principality of the Shimoga country.


As the novel opens, the elder Nayak is dead, but Chenna Basava has not yet been placed on the gadi. The reason is Chenna Basava’s mother–Veerammaji who is at once Queen Gertrude of Denmark and Queen Cleopatra of Syria. Like the former she has become too intimate with young Nambayya, the royal steward; like the latter, she is capable of disowning her son and abetting his murder. The milk of maternal love had curdled at some stage and as a result it poisons everything, be it the innocent and trusting Shantavva or the luscious kingdom of Bidanur.


Chenna Basava himself becomes an introvert like Hamlet because of his mother’s adultery. Frontal attack has little effect on Veerammaji and the boy curls up within his own anger which bursts out occasionally into “white-hot uncontrolled rage.” For the rest, withdrawal into himself proves to be the fatal flaw. Because of the embittered childhood and boyhood, Chenna Basava in his youth is unable to be open-hearted towards his gentle, adoring wife Shantavva. They love each other and trust each other. Yet an invisible curtain keeps them apart, and Chenna Basava Nayaka is about this relationship that plays hide-and-seek with domestic happiness and ends in the death of the two. Our innermost being, however, refuses to accept the end. Can such pure love and goodness and nobility die? Never! So Death, where is thy sting then?


“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so;

For those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor Death, nor yet can’st thou kill me ....

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt Die.”

(John Donne)


Indeed, the rural populace still wait for the return of their Nayak and his consort, immortalised in the legends of the Honnajolige region. Two hundred years after their passing the kolata boys clash their sticks and sing;


“With jewelled sticks in jewelled hands

Our diademed queen is coming ....

O our Nayaka, come our Nayaka,

Quickly come, Chenna Basava Nayaka.”


Masti’s conclusion wistfully muses upon this “living tradition, a fond hope, which lives in loving hearts”!


“How strange is this hope that Chenna Basava Nayaka who died a hundred and sixty years ago, will come again! History is a colourful dream, which returns never more; but the nation’s living spirit behind that dream endures forever. Chenoa Basava Nayaka was a lordly eagle overwhelmed and shattered by a very tornado of misfortune, but he met it with head erect and unconquered heart. He lives in tradition because of his intrepidity, his patriotism, and his love for his people. May his life be an inspiration to his countrymen, and may such heroism as his never be wanting at the call of our country.”


The second half of the 17th century ushered in many changes in Karnataka. Hyder Ali was on the ascendant and the weak king of Mysore had been reduced to figurehead Maharaja. Bidanur was a Karnataka principality friendly to the Mysore State. Hyder’s long-term plan was to become the Lord of Mysore and the surroun­ding regions. But he was a capable dissembler who wished to make Bidanur a vassal of Mysore before gobbling up the whole. The Mysore Maharaja knows this but is helpless, for “Hyder, whom he had brought up affectionately like a domestic cat, had repaid him by treating him as a cat treats a mouse – playing with him before making a meal of him.”


As for Bidanur, it will not subjugate itself to Mysore, let alone bow to Hyder. Friendship, yes: but not subordination. With a little luck on his side Chenna Basava could yet have been the reigning Nayak of Bidanur. But the stars were all ranged against him.


The stars had been malignant even when he was born. Why else should he have been condemned to grow in the shadow of a stigma, so repugnant to the Indian culture that is raised on the base plank of pativratya? Indian children are taught that mother is a goddess.


“If mother had been a goddess, would I have opened my lips? When I go out in the streets, the people look pityingly at me as though to say – his mother is so and so. I dare not look them in the eye – I, the son of such a mother.”


To slink away like a coward; what a fate for Chenna Basava, the bravest wrestler in all Karnataka!


Veerammaji had compounded adultery with a deliberate hatred of her only son. A grown-up son cannot be baited all the time. But there was the convenient target, Shantavva. All the goodness and sweetness of Shantavva are lost on Veerammaji. Shantavva’s death in the end is also a direct result of Veerammaji’s heartless concealment of the vital message announcing the Nayak’s arrival at Ballala Rayana Durga where the royal ladies had taken shelter from the capital Nagar which had been besieged by Hyder. When Nayak comes, it is too late. Heart-broken, he dies not long after.


However, it must be pointed out that the tragedy was also due to the fatal flaw in Chenna Basava. If only he had been open hearted with his wife from the beginning, the sad events need not have taken place. Not being crowned, he has no direct hand in the State affairs. Hence he spends much of his time roaming the countryside disguised as Boodi Basava Swami, gathering a staunch following among the unlettered folk of the villages nestling in the forests. Shantavva does not know this and is naturally troubled by the Swami’s ascendancy. With such a mother in the palace, and such an enemy in the outskirts of the city; with the Maharatta forces invited by Veerammaji on one side and Hyder Ali’s army on the other; can Chenna Basava’s goodness and personal heroism win the day? Shantavva has immense faith in her husband, but she is little more than a child, and so a prey to endless anxieties. Not content with prayers for the Nayak’s welfare, she resorts to self-sacrifice in the literal sense of the term. The tangle grows impossible with the entry of the Kapalika who turns out to be Shantavva’s father (she never knows this though) who is a victim of his own ambitions and machinations. The genius of the narrator is evident in each move that takes the story forward, making Chenna Basava Nayaka a triumph of Masti’s art. Though he never strays away from the sober historical truth, Masti’s characterisation is so well-touched by universal truth that we have the feel of a historical present all the time. As Masti would say:


“Have I taken a bucketful of life

from the heaving flood around?

Or have I made an indent on the past

from the annalist’s treasure?


But once I’ve made my choice and named my piece

it becomes mine, mine alone.

Historical or ‘real-life’ characters,

backgrounds and situations,


processed and pushed through the conveyor-belt

of my own creative forges,

it’s a new world with its own geography,

            citizens and civic laws.” 

(K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Masti-Gita)


There is indeed God’s plenty in Masti’s world, for he intuitively recognises the nuances that mark the difference, from person to person and class to class. The moral dignity of those at the upper reaches of social scale is brought out by the projection of the Queen Mother of Mysore State and the Heggadithi of Vastara. The natural grace of those who are nurtured by generation of noble blood in their veins comes out best in these two ladies who are brave, womanly, loving, lovable. Given time and experience, Shantavva would have joined their ranks, but we see her only as an ineffectual angel, an innocent heart oppressed by unnecessary fears planted in her by the cruel Veerammaji. Was she then a person of ill-luck for Chenna Basava? Perhaps she should remove herself from the scene and then the Nayak would see good times. Soon everything is over, and Shantavva lies buried under the green sward of Ballala Rayana Durga, the home of her fabled ancestors. Nayak learns of the extent of her love and self-sacrifice only after her death:


“He now sat by her tomb and mourned, and remembered with unavailing sorrow that he had never sat by her side when alive and spoken to her words of tenderness. Is it the fate of men to misprise their most precious blessings while they have them, and realise their value only in the hour of loss?”


Chenna Basava too would have realised his full potential as an ideal ruler of Bidanur, if he had been given a chance by Fate. He too is cut short while still very young and we have no opportunities to watch his battle-victories and administrative capability. Perhaps Hyder could have been prevented from becoming the Nayak of Bidanur and may be the history of Karnataka would not have been stained by the oppressions and depradations of Islamic rulers and British adventurers. If only Chenna Basava had not been so secretive, so silent, so withdrawn: history is full of such tragic ‘ifs.’


Every character in the novel is given individual identity by the author. Veerammaji exemplifies the dictum: optim a corrupta pessima. Nambayya is a fop, a villain, a coward. Nemayya, Sastry and Veeranna typify loyalty and goodness of heart as well as a sea-green, incorruptible idealism. From the lower classes we have Saguna, Mallige and Kenchevve: simple, affectionate, grateful, honest.


If Chenna Basava Nayaka should prove so realistic in detail even in an English translation (done with maternal care by Navaratna Rama Rao), it is no wonder that the Kannada original has become a classic for all times. D. V. Gundappa exclaimed that Sir Walter Scott could have been proud to be known as the author of a work like this and said in the course of a letter to Masti:


“The atmosphere of these troubled and exciting times has come off to a T – so convincingly and your characters are so animated and compelling in their speech and behaviour. Mastery of style has always been yours. May I say you have achieved here a marvel of economy of phrase? The dialect of Malnad and the idiom of court and council have been so perfectly brought out. Your pictures are vivid and full of life and you have informed them with a philosophy so sustaining and satisfying. Who will not feel grateful for such a gift?”


Though we miss the subtle beauty and inimitable force of the Malnad dialect in the English translation, the genius of the language shimmers through certain expressive sentences:


“Nambayya’s head is not the size of the Nayak’s big toe.”


“My Guru used to say that a man who licks his hand when it is scalded with burning ghee, will be more readily suspected of loving the ghee than sympathised with for his pain. And then also the hand may complain that it got all the pain, while the tongue got all the ghee.”


“You are not the rising foam of boiling milk, but the wrinkled crust of cold milk.”


“If an ordinary devil comes, you can frighten it away with a lighted torch. But what will you do if a torch-devil should come?”


For Bidnaur and Mysore, the torch-devil turns out to be Hyder Ali. He steps out of history into Chenna Basava Nayaka as a superbly-drawn character. Is he a serpent? Is he only a rope? Masti’s imagination does not trip anywhere as he marks Hyder’s inexorable progress from that of a soldier in the Maharaja’s employ to that of a Nawab in charge of the military, proceeding to become the Nayak of Bidanur-Nagar until we see him poised towards gathering the overlordship of Karnataka. Call it an imperial will-power or the cunning of a fox, Hyder manages to keep everything under control all the time, including, of course, the hot-headed Tipu. The secret of his success lies in keeping the army contented and seeming to do justice under all circumstances. He does not go out of the way to pluck power by force, lest he be called a namak harami. He knows time is on his side. The cankered palace affairs at Bidanur make his work easy. And he knows, and the Queen Mother knows, and the Maharaja of Mysore knows, that the realm over which generations of Hindus had ruled will soon be the kingdom of, an infidel.


But this too will be a passing phase. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan and after, the ascendancy of the British. The return of the royalty, albeit a figurehead. That too would be a passing phase. 1947. The Indian Republic. Where are the Maharajas, Nawabs and Nayaks? The past is gone forever.


For the creative writer alone the past marvellously leaps to life, as he sits gazing at the Chandradrona mountain and the Honjavanige scene:


“It was here that a vision of God’s infinite beauty entered the heart of a sculptor and found expression from his chisel in a masterpiece of sacred art. Even now the image of supreme beauty which he gave to the earth can be seen there. A little farther is to be seen the fulfilment of another sculptor’s self-dedication in the heroic statue of Gomateswara on the top of Beillgola hill. Yonder in the unfathomed distance lies Srirangapatna on the bank of the holy Cauvary. Not far from there is Mysore. Truly, this is the home of natural beauty…”


He then takes up his pen and begins to trace Shantavva’s pilgrimage to the Dattatreya Peetha in the Salivahana Saka year 1684, in the moonlit half of Phalguna of the year Vishu: and Chenna Basava Nayaka is born.