yatha vrikshasya sampushpitasya duradgandho vatyevam punyasya |

karmano duradgandho vati yathasidharam karte’vahitamavakrame ||

yadyuve yuve hava vihvayishyami kartam |

patishyamityevamamritadatmanam jugupset || (Mahanarayana Upanishad 11.1)

Just as the fragrance emanating from the flowers of a tree reaches far and wide even to people who haven’t seen the tree, so do the virtues and good deeds done for the welfare of the world by wise people and sages spread everywhere. [Ed—rough translation, mine]

This hoary verse is applicable to the very last syllable to D.V. Gundappa (who has been featured on CRI earlier). Indeed, he inspired me to quote this Upanishadic verse, which he himself applies while reminiscing about a Vedic scholar he knew in his childhood.This reminiscence is just one among the tens of reminiscences of people who DVG knew with varying degrees of intimacy throughout his life. These reminiscences have been recorded in what is known as Jnapaka Chitrashaale, literally, the “Art School of Memories,” running into six volumes organized and titled according to either their profession/occupation or personal traits.

Within the limited scope of my readings, Jnapaka Chitrashaale is a unique work, which perhaps has no parallel anywhere in world literature. It is a genre by and in itself. Of course, you had someone like Charles Lamb who wrote about the chimney cleaners of London but those were more like one-off pieces.

You can call Jnapaka Chitrashaale an autobiography of DVG and you would be right and wrong; right to the extent that it is a chronicle of the lives of people in DVG’s life, and wrong because DVG, like a self-effacing saint, never wrote about himself except only when it was absolutely unavoidable. What Jnapaka Chitrashaale really is, is that it is at once his autobiography; it is a rich, primary source of the cultural, social, and political history of the time; it is also an intimate, minute canvas of the geography of the places he lived and worked and travelled, and above all, it is a kaleidoscope of the lives of the people illumined in there by the light of his pen.

DVG was in public life till the end—as a journalist, newspaper editor and publisher, a political mentor and founder of several institutions—and naturally came into contact with hundreds if not thousands of people. Yet he craved neither fame nor attention although he had Chief Ministers and Diwans meeting him and seeking his advice at his decrepit house in Basavanagudi or elsewhere. Equally, he had thousands of ordinary folks craving both audience and solace from him. Indeed, it is said that a gentleman from some place wrote a letter to DVG, and in the address box, simply wrote “DVG, Bangalore.” The letter reached DVG.

Of all these thousands of people, only about a hundred figure in his Jnapaka Chitrashaale for no other reason than the fact that they impacted him and/or the societydeeply in various ways and for various reasons. From the lowly and the humble to the eminent and the powerful, DVG brings their lives alive in these volumes. Some of these chronicles are brief life sketches spanning no longer than three pages, while others stretch over more than 30 pages. Yet, what’s common to every single account is the dignity DVG endows them with.

Their position or station in life is secondary—they’re seen as embodiments of certain prized values and principles. It could be anybody—writers, artists, painters, courtesans, legislators, municipal councillors, Diwans, clerks, high level bureaucrats, vocalists, instrumentalists, poets, literary critics, novelists, Vedic scholars, priests, pushcart drivers, an old destitute couple surviving on rotten vegetables, businessmen, advocates, schoolteachers, bairagis, shopkeepers, hotel owners…but you don’t feel any difference in tone and tenor when you read their accounts. Dignity, but more importantly, compassion. He dims their faults and celebrates their virtues. And this is just one part of the story.

What is even more astonishing is how DVG always places himself in the background and allows his interactions with these people to tell the story. Where it is unavoidable to say something about himself, he is invariably self-effacing, and this self-effacing is genuine to a fault. Nowhere does he mention the depth of his erudition nor boast about any of his other achievements. This, considering the fact that DVG himself was a poet, dramatist, public commentator, polyglot and a scholar non paraleil although his academic qualification stopped much earlier than the 10th standard.

Jnapaka Chitrashaale is how DVG has immortalized people who would’ve otherwise remained completely unknown. Why would anybody remember a 70-year old couple who literally lived on the streets? Why would anybody remember the aged wife who derived immense joy by cooking food for her aged husband who had picked rotten vegetables from the streets? It was only a chance spotting of this couple by DVG who was so moved by that scene that he immortalized them in Chitrashaale.

Equally, why would anybody remember a mid-level bureaucrat who quit his job and became immersed in Kumaravyasa’s Mahabharata to such an extent that he spent the rest of his life reading it over and over? Or the simple, unsung, and eventless lives of poor Vedic Brahmins in DVG’s hometown. Remember what Gray wrote:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

The short and simple annals of the Poor…

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands that the rod of empire might have sway’d,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre…

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air…

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood,

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood…

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth

A youth, to Fortune and to Fame unknown;

Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth

And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;

Heaven did a recompense as largely send:

He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,

He gain’d from Heaven, ’twas all he wish’d, a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,

Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,

(There they alike in trembling hope repose,)

The bosom of his Father and his God.

DVG gives us but a few glimpses of the lives of such people and by immortalizing their unsung lives in his art school, has himself become immortal.

Postscript: I will try and translate some of these life sketches for CRI in the coming days to provide a sample of the treasure that Jnapaka Chitrashaale is.

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Sandeep Balakrishna

Writer, blogger and lapsed IT professional.