The Genius that was Murali (B.V.K. Sastry)

It would not be wrong to say that the next generation of artists will be handicapped in introspecting and improving their art without the useful inputs from the genius and scholar Sri B.V.K. Sastry. Standing as a beacon of light, B.V.K. contributed immensely to preserving the traditions of all arts.

For those of us fortunate artists who took to music, dance, sculpture and painting as a serious vocation in his lifetime, B.V.K, as we affectionately called him, was a treasure house of information and knowledge, constantly bringing about positive improvements in an artist.

On the banks of the Kapila River, there stands an ancient pilgrimage centre, Nanjungud with its huge temple of Srikanteshwara. In this small town was born B.V.K. (Bangalore Venkatasubbiah Krishna Sastry) on 30.07.1916. B.V.K. grew up in a traditional conservative family. His early education was in Nanjungud, followed by higher education in Mysore. It was in Mysore that he was exposed to the best of music by the stalwarts of the period.

In the environment in which he was born and brought up, it was inevitable that he would begin to learn music. Those days music was a part of life in all levels of society. He would attend the bhajan sessions arranged at several houses on Saturdays and sing in the groups. His teacher Sri N. Subramanya was impressed by the singing and promised to introduce him to Mysore Vasudevachar for further training in music. While he was in Mysore at the Chamarajendra Technical Institute to study painting, he continued his music training under Sri Chikka Ramarao.

During this period Mysore was a seat for arts and culture, with the undercurrents of the freedom struggle in all walks of life. There were annual art festivals at Rama Mandira and other temples. The most important among the various events was the Palace cultural events. The Mysore Palace hosted the best of artists all over India in both Carnatic and Hindustani style for the music festival. The air of the city resonated with melodious concerts, which the people of Mysore were fortunate to enjoy.

B.V.K. apart from listening to these artists would also attend dramas wherein music was the main content of the plays. This vast exposure to the music world motivated him to pursue studying various aspects of music, i.e. its history, theory and practice.

B.V.K. tried to pursue the dream of becoming a singer but in vain. His life took a turn when his father passed away and he had to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining a large family. He took up a job in the Scouts Association of the Mysore University. It was here that he emerged as a voracious reader, getting books from various libraries and collecting information on various topics. This reading led him into the arena of writing and the writer in B. V. K. was born through his first article Pracheena Chitra Kale for a news paper called Prabuddha Karnataka in 1941. B.V.K. later took up a job at the Mysore state treasury department, while the Quit India movement was gaining momentum. During this period he was in the company of the great scholar and writer T.P.Kailasam as he invited Kailasam to be his roommate. The delightful company of T.P.Kailasam led him into many great and strange experiences with the eccentricities of artists.

B.V.K. continued his writing when his friend Sri. E.R. Sethuram invited him to write for the prestigious daily Prajavani. B.V.K.’s review of a music concert on the radio National programme of Mysore was received very well and thus started a serious career for B.V.K. in press. It later culminated in his becoming a famous dance and music critic for the Deccan Herald.

A learned critic is respected, perhaps admired, but rarely loved by artists. In B.V.K., artists saw a critic with patience. His reviews and articles were always specific and upfront, always supportive of the young artist. One could differ from him. But one could never fault him for being imprecise or partial. This great talent of supportive criticism brought several artists into the limelight.

The early 1970s to the early 1990s was a period of transition for the arts with the winds of cultural change blowing over society. In the period he made his pioneering contribution to the arts and their development. His early exposure to three generations of artists and their performances made his opinions highly valuable to both artists and art lovers. This knowledge let him to be a member of various cultural organisations at both the state and the national levels. He had a powerful presence in critic circles and cultural policy-making bodies, and amoung scholars and musicologists. Over the years his critical output showed remarkable consistency fusing his enthusiasm for new and fresh ideas with discriminating care for the definite and the precise.

He was never casual in his approach, however simple the task. Whatever subject he chose to write on, he would get several references and study and then write about it. Poets and scholars like B. M. Sree called him a walking encyclopedia. Equipped with an immaculate memory, he would vividly narrate to us interesting anecdotes which would enhance our perception of the art world. He was an author of great authenticity and deep thought; his articles are a treasure house of knowledge for the present-day young generation of artists. His lectures, often peppered with interesting information, were never boring and were a great source of much needed knowledge. I always admired his subtle ways of expressing his honest opinion to performing artists, never rude but certainly useful in improving their ability.

As a dance exponent this article of mine would not be complete if I do not mention B.V.K.’s remarkable contribution towards popularising Bharatanatyam, especially the Mysore style of Bharatanatyam.

With this objective in mind, he organized workshops in the Mysore style of Bharatanatyam, by veteran danseuse Smt. K. Venkatalakshamma, under the state academy for the arts. Apart from this, he also organized several workshops like the Choreography workshop by Smt. Maya Rao of the Natya Institute of Choreography and Abhinaya workshop by Smt. Kalanidhi Narayan. He arranged several interactive sessions with visiting artists from other states. This helped all of us, young artists as well as the seniors, in evolving into good performers.

In addition to organizing such activities, B.V.K.’s mind was occupied with ways and means of infusing new life into dance. He helped many a dancer from Karnataka perform at various prestigious dance festivals all over India and abroad. If the critic’s role is to protect and nurture art, B.V.K. arguably played the role very well. His criticism under the pseudonym Murali was always subtle and never assertive, bringing about a positive change in the performance of the artist.

Awards and accolades came to him naturally. Several state and central government cultural bodies sought his expert advice on policy decisions. His counsel was sought by artists all over India in all spheres of art like music, dance, sculpture, painting, history, etc. He authored numerous articles and books on various subjects and penned biographies of many well-know artists.

In spite of his remarkable achievements, he was modest about them. He would say, “This pleasure of enjoying art entered my system in my formative years. It is difficult for me to recall the exact social climate of that time, but I do know that in the 1930s and 1940s the atmosphere was rich with culture – everyone used to actually breathe culture.”

Though he was a critic, he would say, “Art should be experienced and enjoyed not written about.”

He was my mentor and guide in all my endeavors in dance. I am not the only one who benefited by B.V.K’s help and advice. Many artists who have made some mark in this field were helped by him. He was especially affectionate towards young artists who were trying to make it in the field.

His message to every aspiring artist si: “Your performance will be your certificate. Concentrate on your art and the rewards will come.”


From Murali Vani, published by the Bangalore Gayana Samaja
Inputs also from M.A. Jayaram Rao

“He did not dance himself but did everything else for dance and dancers!”

– Smt. Indrani Rehman