Learning to Exhale: A tribute to modern yoga virtuoso BKS Iyengar

The legacy of BKS Iyengar in Bellur, the village in Karnataka where his 96-year-long journey began.

Written by V Shoba | Published:September 7, 2014 1:00 am
iyengar-main Young yogis at a high school built by BKS Iyengar (Photos: selvaprakash)

In May, as a scorching summer was upon the drought-hit Kolar district of Karnataka, one village basked gaily in the shadow of a grand old man. Bellur’s prodigal son, yoga virtuoso BKS Iyengar, had descended upon the hamlet for a month-long interlude and a family reunion. Chaperoned by his near and dear, as Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar celebrated the 150th anniversary of his father’s birth at their ancestral village, it was as if his own life had come full circle. For the village was the pivot of a 96-year-long journey that saw him stretch the limits of possibility and make the leap from a sickly boy to the Vitruvian man of yoga.

As Iyengar breathed his last in a Pune hospital on August 20, this unlikely ground zero of modern yoga, located about 50 km east of Bangalore on the NH4 to Kolar, felt “orphaned”. “We are proud to share Guruji’s initial: B for Bellur,” says BV Venkataswamy, the panchayat president, who runs a quarry on the fringes of the village. “The roads we walk on, the water we drink, the temples we worship at, the schools and colleges we go to, all of this is by his grace,” he says. Modern civilisation first graced this dustbowl of a village in the year 1968, when Iyengar, who had left Bellur for Bangalore at the age of five, built a primary school here, dedicating it to his parents. Handed over to the government three years later, the school still bears their names — Krishnamachar and Seshamma — and houses a hall where Bellur’s children are initiated in the rudiments of yoga.

One of the last Iyengar families in Bellur (Photos: selvaprakash) One of the last Iyengar families in Bellur (Photos: selvaprakash)

An ancient settlement of Brahmins who hailed from Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, Bellur was once a modest agrahara of Iyengar families with an 11th-century Rama temple at its fulcrum, says Savitha Iyengar, BKS Iyengar’s Pune-based daughter who ploughed through the gazettes of Kolar to find a mention of their Vaishnavite ancestors. “A forefather of ours named Vellurappa settled here and began teaching the tribals of the area. His eight children lived along the Rama temple street. They had been allotted this land by the raja who ruled Kolar at the time,” she says. Her epistemology of ‘Bellur’ is at variance with local legend. “It is said that a large silver bowl was excavated from the village pond (which now runs dry). Silver is ‘velli’ in Tamil and it became Belli in Kannada, giving the village its name,” says BM Narayanappa, a wizened old farmer, in his mud house. Thousands of bats, distinctive of Bellur, roost in spindly trees across the street and sparrows fly low through spartan homes with their doors flung wide open. Bellur doesn’t just support a population of 3,000 men, women and children; it is also home to other animal and bird life.

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Posters of Iyengar coiled into impossible curliques and proof of his largesse now abound in Bellur, but it had been oblivious to yoga until the turn of the century, when whispers of his second coming roused the village from its slumber. Iyengar had become distant and inaccessible to the people of Bellur, until a nameless force — some say it was a letter from a primary school teacher beseeching him to return — impelled him towards his birthplace. Acquiring about 15 acres of land at the edge of the village, he christened it Ramamani Nagar, after his wife. A high school building, with 12 classrooms and a yoga hall, was the first to come up on campus in 2005. “Until then, the nearest high school had been 5 km away, in Narsapura hobli, and most girls from Bellur dropped out after primary school,” says headmaster Venkatesh HR, who drives down from Bangalore every day. “The high school provides free education to 300 students from villages nearby. We have a pass percentage of over 95 per cent in Class X.” But Iyengar had set his sights higher. He would go on to build a hospital, a senior secondary school, a college, and a technical training institute, the last of which placed its first batch of 15 students in factories in Narsapura this year.

BKS Iyengar; one of the many quarries in and around the village (Photos: selvaprakash) BKS Iyengar; one of the many quarries in and around the village (Photos: selvaprakash)

In the early hours of the morning, young yogis explore the timeless relevance of Iyengar yoga in a hall on the first floor of the high school, built under the aegis of the Bellur Krishnamachar and Seshamma Smaraka Nidhi Trust (BKSSNT). Clocks and other ephemera emblazoned with yogic postures dot the brightly-lit room, where framed sepia-tinted pictures of Iyengar and his wife seem to preside over the proceedings. BM Suguna’s lithe body is contorted into the suptakurmasana (reclining tortoise pose), one of the most challenging yogic postures, going by the illustrative chart on the wall. “Yoga makes me feel like I can achieve anything,” says the Class X student, in the relative repose of the veerabhadrasana (warrior pose). Born into a poor family in Bellur, Suguna lost her father at a young age and worries that she might be forced into an early marriage. Education and yoga are her only solace, and she is good at both. “I would like to become a doctor and return to the village to set up a clinic, just like Guruji came back to help us,” she says.

The village that Iyengar put on the global map was the one place in the world he wanted to be, says Raghu Bashyam, his son-in-law and trustee of the BKSSNT. “If you mentioned Bellur to him even in the middle of the night, he would immediately get ready to head to his village. He was extremely attached to his birthplace and wanted it to be self-sufficient,” says Bashyam, who lives in Bangalore. “He loved simple food, simpler people and travel by road.” Every year, while on his way back from a pilgrimage to Tirupati, Iyengar would make a pitstop at Bellur and distribute laddoos to students at the primary school. He recently renovated the Rama temple while also building a temple to Patanjali, considered the father of yoga. “It was in 2004, when Guruji built this shrine, that he became a part of Bellur’s pantheon,” says B Gowramma, who runs a small eatery, on land that once belonged to the Iyengar family.

iyengar-3 The school campus (Photos: selvaprakash)

“The Iyengar families of the village gave away most of their land for a pittance. There were 42 families before Independence, but they all left for Bangalore, Mysore and Pune,” says Eeramma, 95. Most people in Bellur today are Telugu-speaking Nayakas, a Scheduled Tribe, and they work as labourers or farmers. Nearly 100 women are employed at a Dutch pickling factory nearby, and at least 200 men labour away at the quarries. “Ten years ago, 70 per cent of Bellur’s workforce depended on the industry. Now they all want easy money and they go to work at auto factories,” says Venkataswamy, who owns a quarry in Sonnenahalli, 2 km away. “If it wasn’t for Guruji, there would not have been a culture of education in this village,” says BS Navakumaran, the ageing patriarch of one of the two Iyengar families left in the village. Built on a raised plinth, his ancestral house has an arena in front where the children once gathered to watch TV. “Even today, TV is the only entertainment here,” he says. With just three-to-four hours of power in the day, even that is uncertain. But the monkeys that run rampage keep him busy, he says, brandishing a catapult.

Once a year, in December, a clutch of BKS Iyengar’s ardent followers from across the world congregates in his village, practising yogasanas, soaking in the atmosphere and listening to stories about how the Pandavas may have stayed in these parts, itinerants like them. If Iyengar drew the village into his embrace, Bellur readily co-opted his legacy, never dithering from the light. “Guruji watched the local Karaga festival with great interest while he was here and said, ‘I won’t get to see this again.’ He knew he did not have long to live,” says B Nayanappa, a farmer. “This was the longest time he spent here since his childhood.” There are no coincidences in this village, only karma. Bellur will continue to experience its share of it for years to come.

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