We reproduce below an article that appeared in the Indian Express of November 2, 1982 and some correspondence that followed its publication. The writer is Pandit Narayana Das' great-grandson.
Indian Express, Tuesday, November 2, 1982
ADIBHATLA: DOYEN OF HARIKATHA
The cultural history of Vizianagaram, which is now the head-quarters of Vizianagaram district, is the life story of its giants in the literary, social and cultural fields. As the name suggests, the city of Vizianagaram or Vidyala-nagaram has been a seat of learning. Sangeetha Sahitya Sarvabhouma Adibhatla Narayana Das, Mahamahopadhyaya Tata Subbaraya Sastry, Mahakavi Gurazada Appa Rao were some of the stars that shone in its literary firmament.
Narayana Das better known as “Harikathapitamaha” after the art form he created was an erudite scholar, poet, musician, dancer and linguist. His literary works range from mythology to philosophy, children’s stories to original classics.
Just as the “Mahabharata” was many things to many, so also was Narayana Das - in devotional zeal a Pothana, in erudite arrogance a Srinatha, in composing acumen a Tyagaraja, in scholarship a Valmiki, in encyclopaedic knowledge a Vyasa and literary craftsmanship a Kalidasa.
Born in 1864 in a small village called Ajjada on the banks of Suvarnamukhi (in the present Vizianagaram district) in a poor but scholarly family, Suryanarayana (as he was named) was a child prodigy. At the age of five, he was able to recite verses from Pothana’s Bhagavatam. It was this immortal classic that shaped the course of his later years. The devotion that he developed to Lord Narayana as a boy made him to be the servant of the Lord. Hence he came to be known as Narayana Das. As the precocious child grew, his parents sent him to his elder brother, Seetharamaiah, who was an advocate at Vizianagaram with the hope that he would receive English education and obtain a job. From then on, till his death, Vizianagaram remained his alma mater, as it were. During his formative years, Narayana Das evinced a keen interest in poetry and music, excelling in his school curriculum and blossomed into a multifaceted genius at the age of 20.
It was at this stage that his mature mind churned out the novel “Harikatha” system which revolutionised the art of histrionics. “Harikatha”, as the name connotes, has a mythological theme as its core, the twin realms of poetry and music as its verbal medium and dance and histrionics as its visual expression. The exponent should be well-versed, should be able to improvise and recite extempore, should enact and enliven the many characters that comprise the narrative, giving additional information and pleasing both the ignorant and the enlightened. Thus the art form is a dramatised epic and its exponent a versatile genius.
The purpose of “Harikatha” is both to entertain and educate, to inculcate devotion and instruct righteousness, to drive out the devil and bring out the man. The evolution of such an art form lifted Narayana Das to celestial heights. Having invented the vehicle, he wrote twenty-one Harikathas - seventeen in Telugu, one in pure Telugu or Desyandhram and three in Sanskrit - and sang and enacted them.
When he performed his Harikatha outside Andhra, he used to give an extempore commentary in local language, Tamil, Urdu, Bengali or Hindustani while reciting his original Sanskrit verses. In one of these performances, he mystified Rabindranth Tagore by his knowledge and his bass megaphone voice which reached an audience of as many as ten thousand people without microphone. The Gurudev expressed his applause by embracing Narayana Das on the dais. The artiste had a rich melodious voice and mastered both Carnatic and Hindustani music; the latter won him many an approbation including the one in the durbar of the Maharajah of Mysore.
That Tagore sought the music curriculum (introduced by Narayana Das in his music college) to be introduced in Santiniketan and that the Maharajah of Mysore wanted the music maestros of his court to learn Hindustani music from Narayana Das are a source of pride to every Andhra.
Being a scholar in Persian, he understood the original Persian quatrains of Omar Khaiyam. He felt that Edward Fitzgerald’s English renderings of this poet’s verses were far from literal.
In his "Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam", Narayana Das disputed the wine-woman-music concept of life presented in Fitzgerald’s translations. He equated them in the Persian poet’s perspective with divine service, a pure mind and meditation. In order to illustrate his point, he translated into pure-Telugu and Sanskrit the Persian original as well as the English rendering of Fitzgerald, with telling effect.
“Tarakam” was his original poem in lucid Sanskrit which was held in esteem not only in India but also abroad. Gueldner of Marburg University of Prussia acknowledged this work by praising the author in two Sanskrit verses.
His “Navarasatarangini” was a comparative study of the works of Shakespeare and those of Kalidasa bringing out the beauties of the “navarasas” of both. Indeed, this was his tour de force.
However, Narayana Das’ magnum opus was “Jagajjyothi” in which he analysed, discussed and critiqued ancient Vedic lore and tried to apply his theories to everyday life. A condensed English translation of the book has been recently published. It contains the quintessence of Narayana Das’ philosophy and outlook towards life. In this he was at once heretical and traditional, rational and religious. He distilled all that is good in all philosophies and brought about a synthesis - the Hindu (Dvaita, Advaita and Visisthadvaita), Buddhist, Jain and even Charvak - and propounded a new philosophy of humanism.
Narayana Das lived a full and accomplished life and breathed his last in 1945 at the ripe age of 82.
If his erudition left him peerless, the philosopher in him made him brush aside earthly fame. He did not, approve of an attempt to move the Noble literature committee to make him a laureate. Unfortunately he was recognised more as a Harikatha exponent than as a litterateur.
However, in recent times, most of Narayana Das’ works are seeing the light of the day largely due to the single-minded devotion and untiring zeal of Mr. Karra Eswara Rao who is an authority on Narayana Das-ana. Others that need mention as contributors to Pandit Narayana Das’ literature are the late Mr. Upadhyayula Suryanarayana Rao who was behind the “Pandit Adibhatla Narayana Das’ Unprinted Works Publication Committee”, Mr. Bhattam Srirama Murthy, who has been helping Narayana Das-ana by getting patronage from the state and central governments and Mr. S.B. P.B.K. Satyanarayana Rao, MLC who is the founder of “Sarvaraya Harikatha Pathasala”, the first of its kind in the country, to have Harikatha as its curriculum.
Postscript - 1:
However no mention had ever been made of a backstage worker who dedicated his life for the publication of Narayana Das’ voluminous literature. He was Upadhyayula Appalanarasaiah, Narayana Das’ son-in-law who painstakingly fair-copied thousands of pages of the author’s manuscripts.
Postscript - 2:
We reproduce below a reply to another correspondent published in Indian Express of November 27, 1982.
This bears reference to the letter of Mr. P. Rajagopala Rao of Kakinada (Nov. 8).
In 1919, the Maharajah Vijayarama Gajapathi set out to establish a college for music studies. The Maharajah sent for Pandit Narayana Das to head the institution, but he refused the offer on two counts - one he was already fifty five and two, he did not wish to serve under a mortal. It was for the same reason that he declined the offer of the Maharajah of Mysore, earlier, to be the court musician. The Maharajah of Vizianagaram however persisted and offered the principal-ship of the music college, and assured Pandit Narayana Das that he could serve as long as he wished and would continue to receive the salary as pension even after his 'retirement'. Pandit Narayana Das finally agreed to head the institution, with the proviso that it be treated as the temple of Lord Rama and he His servant.
With the death of Maharajah Alakanarayana Gajapathi, the Vizianagaram Samasthanam (again) passed into the hands of the court and the British administration oblivious of the colossal stature of the artiste or the history of his ‘appointment’ decided to 'retire' him without pension. Pandit Narayana Das gracefully bowed out without a murmur. Two years later he casually recounted this to his friend, Mr. Bardswell (who was then a member of the board of revenue) who intervened with the British administration and had the Pandit’s pension restored.
In 1945 Pandit Narayana Das’ grandson fell ill and contracted small-pox. Pandit Narayana Das decided that the young man deserved to be in this world for some more time while he himself had had his winnings. He prayed to Goddess Lalitha by reciting her Sahasranamams throughout the night for his pet grandson’s life offering his own life in reparation for the ordinance. The miracle happened! From the next day the grandson gradually recuperated while the old man started sinking and finally died with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips.
These and other interesting anecdotes from the life of the versatile genius have been recounted in a biography of the Pandit entitled “Monarch of Rhythm” by Dr. G. Srirama Murty.
U. Narayana Das