TaRaSu, popular novelist from Chitradurga who immortalised its history in ‘Durgastamana’, his last novel and masterpiece

On the birth anniversary of Talukina Ramaswamayya Subbarao, one of the leading novelists of the Pragatisheela or 'progressive' movement in 20th-century Kannada literature, Dr HS Sathyanarayana gives us an overview of the work and life of the author to whom 'writing came as easily as drinking water'.

ByHS Sathyanarayana

Published Apr 21, 2023 | 11:05 AM Updated Apr 21, 2023 | 11:05 AM

A profile of Tarasu

Talukina Ramaswamayya Subbarao, better known as TaRaSu or Tarasu (pronounced tha-raa-su), was an extremely popular writer who was at the forefront of the Pragatisheela (“Progressive”) movement in 20th-century Kannada literature.

A novelist born into a literary family

A profile of Tarasu

A profile of Tarasu (Supplied)

A writer to whom narrative came naturally, he enriched the Kannada novel. Though Tarasu worked in several other fields of literature, it is as a novelist that he is remembered by the Kannada people.

Tarasu’s uncle (his father’s older brother) was Talukina Venkannayya, a man lauded by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar as an “Ashwini Devata” (divine physician) of Kannada.

Another uncle (his father’s younger brother) was TS Shamarao, a well-respected scholar. This meant Tarasu, from a young age, grew up in a literary environment.

Wrote a story to win a prize of ₹10 from his uncle

When his uncle Venkannayya put forth a challenge in the household, ‘If anyone can write a story within the space of a week, they will win a reward of 10 rupees’, not only did Tarasu take it seriously, he produced a story of such quality as to astonish his uncle and make the ten rupees his.

Thus his uncle Venkannayya, who was known for his unstinting encouragement of writers, became responsible for Tarasu entering the mainstream of literature.

It was this same Venkannayya to whom Kuvempu, Kannada’s first Jnanpith awardee, dedicated his magnum opus, the Ramayana Darshanam.

Also read: DV Gundappa, a polymath who wrote ‘Kannada’s Bhagavad Gita’

A writer from Chitradurga with a deep connection to its roots

Writing to Tarasu came as easily as drinking water. No sooner had an idea for a story flashed than he was capable of entering a trance-like state of complete involvement and finishing writing the story. 

Including ದುರ್ಗಾಸ್ತಮಾನ (Durgastamana), the number of novels Tarasu wrote about Chitradurga exceeds 15. Of those, 10 novels are about the ಪಾಳೇಗಾರ (paaḷegaara: chieftains) of Chitradurga. 

A son of the soil of Chitradurga, Tarasu had this to say about it: “For the people of Chitradurga, Chitradurga is not a town or a fort or a mountain; it is a living entity with an umbilical connection to them. This same truth holds for Madakari Nayaka too — he is not some historical king who is long gone. He is a living relation of intimate closeness.”

A writer whose imagination soared in the face of life’s troubles

Tarasu holding a cigarette

A drawing of Tarasu on the cover page of a book (Kamat’s Potpourri)

Durgastamana is Tarasu’s last novel. Though the writer has said he took a year to write it, in reality, the novel was a dream-child born after gestating in his mind for a quarter of a century. 

If it were someone else, the illness of their last days would have caused them to retire from writing and take to their bed; Tarasu, however, wrote as if he was possessed and finished this epic novel before he died.

Indeed, a lot of his works were created in such severe circumstances. Facing the obstacles of the world head-on gave him inspiration and ideas for his writing. His friends and family have noted how it was during such difficult times that his talent seemed to sprout wings and fly high.

As a matter of fact, the Kannada novelist Chaduranga was worried that Tarasu would breathe his last after he finished writing Durgastamana. That was why he used to go to Tarasu’s house and tell him, “There’s no hurry, take your time, take your time.” 

I myself heard Chaduranga mention this after Tarasu’s passing. But Tarasu was not particularly good at taking people’s advice; not listening to Chaduranga’s advice either, he finished writing Durgastamana and, as if he had finished his duty, left this world and moved on.

Hamsageethe, a purely fictional story that was mistaken for historical fact!

Among Tarasu’s novels is a fictional story called Hamsageethe.

This novel, which was later made into a famous film, was set in Chitradurga. A great number of the novel’s readers even believed that the story of the novel was true and the events described in it had taken place in Chitradurga! Later, Girish Karnad would use a strand picked from the novel to write his play, Hoo.

As youngsters, the story of Hamsageethe had enthralled us and made our hair stand on end! To this day, I am astonished by the heights scaled by Tarasu’s imagination.

But not all his works offer such an experience. Tarasu has also written duds like Vishaprashana. Similarly, I have got the feeling, both then and now, that a number of his novels were incomplete and immature.

Also read: Kodagina Gowramma, the pioneering Kannada feminist writer

The novelist whose novels were the basis for the megahit ‘Nagarahaavu’ film

Those of who watched the film ‘Nagarahaavu’ may have recognised that it wove together three separate novels by Tarasu. 

When this film by Puttanna Kanagal was being hailed as a groundbreaking feat and earning universal acclaim, Tarasu, who hadn’t liked the film all that much, said “What I wrote was a king cobra, what Puttana’s filmed is a water snake” and ruffled a number of feathers. 

That Tarasu did not shy away from criticising the work of one of the most celebrated Kannada cinema directors of the ’70s seems to indicate a great self-belief and the ability to take a firm stand.

When we think about how most writers of the time were more or less waiting on bended knee for Puttanna Kanagal to choose their novels to film, Tarasu’s criticism of ‘Nagarahaavu’ comes across as a conscientious and independent stand.

ರಕ್ತರಾತ್ರಿ (Raktaraatri), ತಿರುಗುಬಾಣ (Tirugubaana), ನೃಪತುಂಗ (Nrupatunga), ಸಿಡಿಲಮೊಗ್ಗು (Sidilamoggu) — these novels parade one after the other within the mind’s eye.

They make you wonder in astonishment at just how fascinatingly Tarasu could tell a story. If Hamsageethe revealed one facet of Tarasu’s talent, Durgastamana revealed every facet of it.

Durgastamana, Tarasu’s final novel and his masterpiece

Cover page of the novel Durgastamana

The cover page of Tarasu’s last novel, the award-winning ದುರ್ಗಾಸ್ತಮಾನ or Durgastamana (Wikimedia Commons)

A work that turns history into a story, that details the rise and fall of people’s lives, that delineates the nuances of weighty political relations, ‘Durgastamana’ is testament to Tarasu’s insight and his wide reading and has rightly attained the status of a ‘classic’ of Kannada literature.

Look at the title ‘Durgastamana’ itself! It does not simply indicate the fall of Madakari Nayaka alone. It speaks of the downfall of society and people’s lives, of the conflict of self-interest, of the collapse of a fort!

Just like a fort collapses, so too can people’s lives collapse and reach a terrible end is what ‘Durgastamana’ clearly shows.

Two years after Tarasu passed away, his novel ‘Durgaastamana’ won the Central Sahitya Akademi award. He was the second Kannada writer to receive the award posthumously. The first was Devudu Narasimha Shastri, for his novel ‘Mahakshatriya’.

A fair-minded rasika

Piquantly, Tarasu was set to win the Sahitya Akademi award a couple of years before his death. However, Yashwant Chittal won it that year. Here is how HM Nayak, well-known Kannada academician, recalled Tarasu responding to the news that Chittal had won the award.

Tarasu said, “A few people came up to me saying that it was wrong that Chittal won the award and that it should have come to me. I had not read much of Chittal’s work. So, I ordered all of his books and read them over the course of two or three days. There is no doubt that he is one of our distinguished storytellers. His winning the award has not brought me any dissatisfaction. Though I didn’t win the prize this year, let’s see, I may win it in one of the coming years.”

What a fair-minded man our Tarasu was! In the midst of writers jostling for prizes, people like Tarasu stand out for their magnanimity. When a good writer is also a good man, the value of his works increases twofold.

Also read: Yashwant Chittal and his ‘writerly’ incomplete novel

A life characterised by poverty and tough times

Tarasu in his last days

Tarasu during the illness of his last days (Kamat’s Potpourri)

After Tarasu’s death, his wife’s memoirs were serialised in ‘Taranga’, a weekly magazine, as “Ambuja Tarasu Hindirugi Nodidaga” (Ambuja Tarasu Looks Back). My memories of reading the memoir as it appeared every week remain fresh.

Like so many other writers who were part of the “progressive movement” and depended on their writing to make a living, Tarasu’s life was a life of poverty.

His wife, Ambujamma, has written engagingly about Tarasu running a fair-price shop (and holding a balance) as a way to make ends meet.

If any one of his books won an award, Tarasu was wont to say, “If I win about 10,000 rupees, that should be enough to pay back the amount I borrowed some time ago.”

It is a feather in Tarasu’s cap that he was the first writer from the “Progressive Movement” to win the Central Sahitya Akademi award. But he was not around to hear the announcement or receive the prize! Anakru, the writer who Tarasu accepted as his mentor, didn’t receive the prize either!

Today is Tarasu’s birth anniversary. Let us pay tribute to him by reading and correctly understanding his works.

(This article is a translation by Madhav Ajjampur of an essay in Kannada by Dr HS Sathyanarayana.

Dr Sathyanarayana, a PhD in Kannada, has been a Kannada lecturer at the pre-university level for the last 28 years. For 2017-18, he received the state-level ‘best lecturer’ award presented by the Government of Karnataka. He is also the recipient of the Hiremallur Ishwaran Rajya Prashasti for his teaching achievements. Dr Sathyanarayana has written and edited a number of books, including ‘Apoorva Odanaata’, ‘Makkaligaagi Masti’, and ‘Nudichitra’. His work ‘Apoorva Odanata’ won the Meghamaitri Pustaka Bahumana and the Ha Ma Nayak Kannada Jagriti Pustaka Bahumana.)