Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Man And The Encyclopaedic Range Of His Interests


R. Appalaswamy was a lecturer in English at the Maharajah’s College, Vizianagaram. Regarded as a maverick philosopher and reputed to be a scholar in several Indian and European languages including, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Telugu, he was a literary critic and writer.

The Man And The Encyclopaedic Range Of His Interests

R. Appalaswamy

In my boyhood days, already during my middle school years, Narayana Das had established himself as the inventor of a new species of serious entertainment called ‘Harikatha’, which combines poetry, music and dance for the production of intensity which is the very soul of art in all its magical manifestations. He was a name to conjure with throughout the length and breadth of Telugu land and it was not unoften that I saw the stalwart’s portrait in printed pamphlets of his Harikathas in the hands of village readers. I had not the good fortune, however, of having witnessed a Harikatha performance by him until I came to Vizianagaram for my college studies when he was already past the prime of his life and was working as principal of the Music College under the Maharaja’s management. It was during the late twenties of the century that I first saw him and he was then already a sexagenarian but still possessed a physical beauty and an abundance of vigour, which drew forth the admiration of both old and young of either sex. I remember having been present at two Harikathas in those days and his megaphone bass voice which needed no mike for an audience of several thousand still rings in my ears over a stretch of thirty long vicissitudinous years. He had a very well preserved body, which was a miracle in itself. He had stones to his ears that lighted up his face, a fine turned moustache that enhanced his lion-like elegance and a pair of eyes that had at once the depth of waters stilled at even and the quicksilver sparkle of stars of the first magnitude that seemed to engage all celestial bodies in a cosmic dance and made the beholder gape in all the wonder of the Yeatsian exclamation-interrogation:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance!

How can we know the dancer from the dance? He was frequently to be met with in those days of an evening along the main road with half a dozen disciples in his company with his arms thrown over his walking stick laid across the back of his neck behind his capacious shoulders, all absorbed in a peripatetic lesson in music and a difficult dance step. At a certain point in his low-toned discourse he would go into a spin and, as he pirouetted like a teenage girl, his voice would go mounting up and execute a spellbinding Raga that transfixed the passers by in a tableau of exceeding self-transcendence. There were then no radio receiving sets and no cacophonous amplification of cinema music that wears out our nerves in these days of universal electrification. With his uncompromising red canvas shoes, with his dhoti front tucked over one leg and his gold anklet of victory glinting challenge on the other, he was a tower of strength for purposes of offence and of defence for the Telugu-speaking people in sister realms of poetry and music.

Narayana Das had a force of personality, which marked him out as an institution among his people during his lifetime. He was a man of intensive scholarship both in Telugu and Sanskrit, and his knowledge of Persian, Hindi and English was of quite a high order. While he could write Sanskrit fluently both in prose and in verse, he deprecated over-Sanskritization of the mother tongue and demonstrated how accessible and expressive Telugu could be in an allegorical poem like ‘Batasari’ (or the Traveller) which is an original poem and not a translation of Goldsmith’s Traveller. It was for this very reason that he refused to accept any Sanskrit title and compelled a certain organisation that honoured him to call him “Ata patala meti”. He disagreed with music critics who still hold that the ‘marg’ tradition in music as represented by Thyagaraja is superior to the ‘Desi’ or folk tradition. According to Narayana Das the ‘marg’ tradition is somewhat different from that of Thyagaraja and was in use for chanting Vedic Hymns in times gone by. He was strongly of the conviction that the true musician should purify and refine the musical sensibility of his time and achieve correspondence with the dormant psychic strivings of his generation. He put the theory into practice and clicked admirably with his public, which was ready to respond to his suggestions. And he was thoroughly versed in Natyasastra both in theory and in practice. His skill in ‘Tala’ or rhythm was unrivalled and he was the only man in his own day who could execute the ‘Shanmukha’ or sextuple ‘Tala’ with his hands and his arms against the sides and his right foot beating five orders of sounds to synchronise with a prescribed tag sung in Sanskrit.

The output of Narayana Das as a writer, to say the least, was considerable. In his twentone Harikathas, seventeen in Telugu, three in Sanskrit and one in Atcha-Telugu, he treats Puranic themes in an original and personal way and his interpretation comes home to the business and bosoms of all conditions of the population. He won renown for his Sanskrit Harikathas in Bengal and Uttar Pradesh through Hindi as his medium. He received the praises of the great Tagore himself who was in the habit of corresponding with him in matters relating to music. Seven Sathakams in Telugu and two in Sanskrit of especial fluency, all deserve a high place in modern literature.

He tried his hand at Drama too and his plays ‘Sarangadhara’ and Dambhapura Prabasanam have to be popularised by being given due publicity. ‘Batasari’ his Telugu kavyam, has become a classic and his kavyam in Sanskrit entitled ‘Tarakam’ has elicited unstinted praise from Professor Geldner of Marburg University who has expressed his homage in Sanskrit verse of remarkable purity.

Narayana Das had a versatile genius and his translations should be closely examined in juxtaposition with their originals in order to be struck with their unique beauty and their closeness to the text that is sought to be rendered into Telugu. He composed music for his Telugu renderings of some famous passages from the Rigveda, which he held, was sung to tunes very much like his own in ancient times. Who can deny that his translation of Omar Khaiyam ("Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam") into Sanskrit and pure Telugu side by side is a ‘tour de force’? What concision and what trenchancy meet the reader in every verse and how favourably does a Persian-knowing reader react when he compares Dasu’s renderings with those of Fitzgerald. ‘Navarasatarangini’ brings into juxtaposition all most all famous passages from Shakespeare and Kalidas and the translations are a perennial source of delight to the discerning reader considering their closeness to texts and their limpidity. It may be noted in passing that, in his introduction to this compilation, the translator makes no bones, according to his lights, about placing the English poet higher than the Indian though this opinion might clash with that of the majority of his countrymen. It is a pity that the Telugu public has not seen fit to bring out a de Luxe edition of Aesops Fables by Narayana Das - which he entitled Nuru gnati - for the delectation of children. He also translated the Bhagavadgita (Velpu mata), Lalita Sahasranamam (Talli vinki) and Vishnusahasranamam (Vennuni veyiperla vinakari) into pure Telugu for the average reader. He has compiled a compendium of Ayurveda (Manki minku) for the general use. He set great store by the Dictionary of pure Telugu (Seema palku vahi) which he laboriously compiled as he believed in reviving the old vocabulary which possesses such expressive magic.

‘Melubanti’, a travelogue preserves the most delightful of his memories, and the Sanskrit work, Sarvapuranasaram reveals the range of his encyclopaedic attainments. Jagajjyoti and Purushardha sadhanam, above all, crystallize his deep understanding of scripture and his outspoken views on the corruption that has overtaken our religious and social institutions. Narayana Das had no hypocrisy in him and he condemned hypocrisy wherever he found it with all the emphasis at his command. He had no patience with barriers of caste and of creed, and he is all out for social justice both in Jagajjyoti and Purushardhasadhanam. Readers of his autobiography which was serially published in Bharati though it has not yet been brought out in book form cannot have failed to come to the conclusion that concealment is not in the man’s nature and that the man stands revealed in all his massive grandeur and draws forth our love and affection for his qualities as well as the defects of those qualities.

We in Telugu land have every reason to be proud of leaders of humanism like Veeresalingam, Gurajada and Narayana Das whose centenaries have been celebrated in succession. It is a matter for humiliation for the Telugu speaking people, or that at any rate, is the strong feeling of the writer of this essay that we have not been able to move the centre to issue postage stamps in their honour in connection with their centenary celebrations. We need have no doubt at all that Narayana Das will be remembered for all time as one of the luminaries of Indian art and literature.

Reproduced from the "Harikathapitamaha Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Dasa Satajayantutsava Sanchika" (1967), the souvenir published by the Samskruthi Samithi, Chirala to commemorate the great man's birth centenary.

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