Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Body's Soul & Earth Is Heaven

R. M. Challa is a man of many parts. He is a scholar of the Vedas, various oriental and occidental languages including English, German, Persian, Sanskrit and Telugu, a literary and music critic, essayist and poet. "Let's tune in R. M. Challa", his literary column in the Indian Express in the sixties through the eighties used to be a piece of masterly erudition and educative to readers on diverse subjects from literature to philosophy and linguistics to phonetics. The column ran for about a quarter of a century, which is a first in Indo-Anglican journalism. “Body’s Soul & Earth’s Heaven”, is his review of Pandit Narayana Das’ “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khaiyam.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Over time a number of biographies of Pandit Narayana Das were published. They are, in chronological order, Naa Eruka his autobiography in Telugu, Life of Narayana Das (1956) in English by Vasanta Rao Bramhaji Rao, Narayana Dasa Jeevita Charitra (1959) in Telugu by Maruvada Venkata Chayanulu, Sri Narayana Dasa Jeevitacharitramu (1967) a biography in the form of a Yakshaganamu in Telugu by Peddinti Suryanarayana Deekshita Das, Purnapurushudu (1979) in Telugu by Yamijala Padmanabhaswamy, Monarch of Rhythm
(1980) in English by G. Srirama Murthy and Narayana Darsanamu (1983) a Ph. D. thesis in Telugu by Gundavarapu Lakshmi Narayana. 

Naa Eruka was an incomplete story abandoned by Narayana Das. A characteristic feature - or quirk - of Narayana Das’ psyche was his compulsive urge to excel in everything he did. He began writing what would have been the first autobiography in Telugu and sent the initial chapters, narrating his life story from birth to the age of about thirty, to the printers. There was a delay at the printers due to pressure of work and in the meantime another famous writer’s autobiography came out. Narayana Das called off the project because of his obsessive desire to be ‘second to none’. Thus was lost to the public not only an opportunity to read the great man’s life story told in his own words with remarkable candour, but also his perspective of his literary output and the literary and cultural zeitgeist of his time.

Pandit Narayana Das’ grandson, Upadhyayula Suryanarayana Rao, had a mind to edit, update and extrapolate the autobiography-biography to its natural culmination. He could have done justice to the great man’s literary odyssey for two reasons: firstly owing to his proximity, he was able to observe the genius at work. Secondly, an essayist, playwright and journalist known for his biting satire, Suryanarayana Rao, (Upadhyayula or USu for readers) was a writer of no mean talent. A chip of the old block, he too had introduced to Telugu journalism and letters certain innovative genres. His 'Nakamlo Gurazada Jadalu' was a tongue-in-cheek imaginary interview with the ‘Mahakavi’ in which he satirized the politicization of literature. The 'interview' was a first of its kind and many writers adapted this genre since. His adaptation of Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwallah’ as a shadow-play was a first in Telugu theatre. His play 'Viyanagara Vibhavam' was broadcast on All India Radio in its 'For the Universities' programme. He translated Somerset Maugham's 'Penelope' into Telugu as 'Pankajakshi'. However, Suryanarayana Rao could not fulfill his cherished desire to pay a literary tribute to his "great" grandfather owing to his untimely death at an early age.

Some of the biographers focused on trivia in the life of Narayana Das and to use a cliché, played to the gallery. Their motives can not be faulted however, the most important being to make the books eminently readable. Admittedly it is an arduous task to condense the life work of a litterateur whom Sir C. R. Reddy described as a University, into a book. In order to do justice to the multifaceted genius, the raconteur must be well versed in literature and languages, music and dance and the scriptures - and of course possess great felicity of expression.

The connoisseur would rather be interested in understanding what impelled Narayana Das to polish his understanding of Persian at the age of sixty in order to be able to translate Omar Khaiyam; what in the first place prompted him to conclude that Edward Fitzgerald’s translations of the Persian poet were not literal; what made a scholar and poet of considerable erudition in Sanskrit to eschew all vestiges of the classical language and write in what he called Atcha-Telugu; what well-springs of artistic urges drove him to perform unprecedented, monumental feats in literature and music.

Was self-actualisation the prime motive of his accomplishments rather than the ‘glories of this world’ as his favourite poet-philosopher Omar Khaiyam put it? Was this the reason why he was indifferent to - or even discouraged - efforts to nominate him for the Nobel Prize for literature? Did he constantly strive to excel standards he set for himself; setting, excelling, upgrading and excelling them in a continuous process, oblivious of and without recourse to the environment?

Was "Jagajjyothi", which many consider his magnum opus - really a record of his musings which he wrote to express and propagate his worldview of religion and message about good human conduct (sat-pravartana), a project, curtailed by his abandoned autobiography?

Wouldn't the connoisseur be rather interested in answers to these questions than be told that the boy Narayana Das was caught smoking a cigar in the loft and chased by his father with a crop.

The following are important for connoisseurs of Narayana Das-ana in that they portray his literary and musical accomplishments in great wealth of detail.

Narayana Dasa Jeevita Charita (1956). The author of this biography, Maruvada Venkata Chayanulu was a nephew of Narayana Das. Being of the family he had a grandstand view of the artistic genius from close quarters. He therefore endeavoured to largely focus on this aspect rather than making the biography a catalogue of events.

Harikathapitamaha Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Dasa Satajayantutsava Sanchika (1967), a souvenir published by the Samskruthi Samithi, Chirala to commemorate the great man’s birth centenary. This is a compilation of articles on Narayana Das by his contemporaries, disciples and other literary and music luminaries.

Adibhatla Narayana Dasa Saraswata Neerajanamu (1975) published by the Rachayithala Sahakara Sangham, Guntur. Edited by S. V. Joga Rao, Professor and Head of the Department of Telugu, Andhra University, it is a compendium of articles critiquing the various aspects of Narayana Das’ literary and musical works.

Purnapurushudu (1979) by Yamijala Padmanabhaswamy lucidly tells Narayana Das’ life story in prose tinged with poetry; interesting stories behind his literary produce, peppering it with events that help delineate his personality and sketches of his social intercourse with the literary and musical elite of his time.

Narayana Darsanamu (1983). This is Gundavarapu Lakshminarayana’s thesis on the literary output of Narayana Das, for which the Andhra University awarded him a Ph. D. degree. Although it contains a brief life-sketch, it is in fact an excellent critique of his literature in Sanskrit, Telugu and musical works.