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"Magical Mystery Tour"

Arshia Sattar

By S.L. Bhyrappa Translated from the Kannada by S. Ramaswamy
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 292, Rs. 395.00


S.L. Bhyrappa is one of Kannada’s most prolific and popular writer, having won several literary awards within and without the state. Outside Karnataka, he may be known more from his novels that were made into films during the 1970s, including Vamsavriksha (directed by Girish Karnad and B.V. Karanth) and Tabbaliyu Ninade Magane which was made into Godhuli (directed by B.V. Karanth). This was a time when the parallel cinema movement was at its height and literary works from several regional languages appeared on the national screens, allowing us a glimpse into other worlds and other languages. The Sahitya Akademi has worked hard for decades at moving Indian literatures from one language to another, but it was not until the early 1990s that private Indian publishers took on translations as a concerted enterprise. The translation was funded by the MR. AR. Educational Society whose stated aim is to “sponsor Indian literature.”   Sartha follows the first person adventures of Nagabhatta, a brahmin, who lived in the tumultuous and pluralistic 8th century, a magnificent and polyphonic period in which to set a novel: a time when early Muslim traders had arrived on the west coast of the sub-continent (though Arab trade was much older), when Buddhism was a vibrant and living tradition in intellectual contact and contention with the newly formulated Hindu philosophies of Dvaita and Advaita, and tantric practices (both Hindu and Buddhist) as well as cults of complete renunciation (sannyasa), provided heterodox counterpoints and alternatives. Trade flourished and urban centres throbbed with economic prosperity and cultural and religious diversity. Placing Nagabhatta’s story in this historical period, Bhyrappa also calls upon legends and oral and literary apocrypha: there is a king Amaru in whose name the wonderful erotic Sanskrit verses, (Amaru Sataka), are composed, the philosophers Kumarila Bhatta and Sankara and their legendary debate and the dominance of Nalanda as a locus of learning. There are literary echoes as well: character of the courtesan-performer Chandrika recalls Sudraka’s immortal Vasantasena as well as Bhagvati Charan Varma’s more recent Chitralekha.   Bhyrappa does well by his chosen setting in terms of bringing together historical and intellectual detail as well as a sense of a society in flux, where many ways of being and thinking jostled for attention and canonization. Briefly, the story is as follows -– Nagabhatta is sent off by his friend, a king named Amaru, to ...

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