Wednesday, 27 March 2013

I Don’t Know Anything About Ragas!

The year beginning August 31 this year is Adibhatla Narayana Das’ sesquicentennial as he was born on August 31, 1864. Over the next few weeks we will present you interesting snippets – excerpts from a new biography - from the life of the great man. The biography is planned to be released during the sesquicentennial.

‘I Don’t Know Anything About Ragas’!

Suryanarayana had his initial Samskrit education from his father and Vedic studies from Peraiah an elderly, irascible tutor. In those days, the teaching of Vedas was as per the gurukula system in which the pupils had to do a lot of errands around the guru’s ashram. This gave young Suryanarayana an opportunity to roam the hills surrounding their village, singing like a lark; swimming in the streams and wandering in the woods that abound in the area; soaking in the beauties of nature and frame them in the mind’s eye of a future artiste.

However small pox intervened to put an end to his stay in the gurukula – and in effect his formal education in Samskrit and Vedic studies - at the age of nine.

In the meantime his melodious voice and the minstrel that was taking shape within him were noticed not only by his parents but also by Vasa Kamaiah a noted veena vidwan from Bobbili who offered to take him under his wing as a disciple and teach him classical music. However, for the boy this meant relocating to Bobbili which his poor family could not afford. Kamaiah offered to put him up at his own home and offer free food one day a week. He was to look for six other households that would offer a ‘varabhojanam’. Under the varabhojanam practice prevalent at the time, a household offers free food to a poor scholar one day a week (varam), so that if the scholar could find seven households he could pursue his studies without hindrance.

One day he was passing by the fort crooning a tag oblivious to his surroundings and two people following him. One of them, Tumarada Venkaiah a music vidwan, stopped him to enquire of his antecedents and asked him whether he knew what raga he was singing. On being replied that he did not, Venkaiah complimented him on his melodious rendering of ‘subhapantuvarali’ and prophesied that the boy would grow into a great musician. The boy nonchalantly replied that the vidwan’s praise was ‘all right’, but could he arrange a varabhojanam? The vidwan happily agreed to offer a varam. In spite of such munificence, try as he might, the boy could not find the necessary seven households in Bobbili and after a month of privations he returned home.

This in effect put an end to his formal education in music - lasting all of a month!

At the tender age of nine Narayana Das was able to sing in a complex raga like Subhapantuvarali even though he was oblivious to it as he had no formal training in music. This was perhaps the reason why the famous poet Chellapilla Venkata Sastry described him as Pumbhäva Saraswati - a male incarnation of the Goddess of learning! (We will see in another snippet the anecdote relating to Chellapilla Venkata Sastry’s description of Narayana Das as Pumbhäva Saraswati.)

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Reciting Bhagavatam At The Age Of Five

The year beginning August 31 this year is Adibhatla Narayana Das’ sesquicentennial as he was born on August 31, 1864. Over the next few weeks we will present you interesting snippets – excerpts from a new biography - from the life of the great man. The biography is planned to be released during the sesquicentennial.


When he was five years old, just after he had had his ‘upanayanam’ Suryanarayana [later to become Narayana Das] accompanied his mother Narasamma, to visit the Siva shrine at Gumpa, situated at the confluence of Nagavali and Jhanjhavati, on a Mahasivaratri day. On their way back, at Parvatipuram, Narasamma sought to buy a copy of Bammera Potana’s Bhagavatam. The book stall owner Rangayya dismissed her, as in those days although women were well-versed in the scriptures, only a few were literate. Narasamma proposed that the boy would read the book and she would explain the meaning. To the surprise of everyone who gathered by then, the boy recited some famous verses from the book in a melodious voice and Narasamma explained their meaning in an enchanting voice. Pleased with the performance, Rangaiah gifted the book after having it leather-bound. This was the first trophy of a multitude that Suryanarayana collected in his life as an artiste, one which he preserved as a cherishing memorabile.    

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das - A Brief Biography

The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams established YUVA LAYAM with an aim to encourage youth to take up classical music, nurture talent and enhance standards of teaching Carnatic music. In collaboration with Sri Venkateswara Music & Dance College, Hindu Dharma Prachara Parishat and Andhra Music Academy, YUVA LAYAM conducted a youth festival in November 2012. The festival included lecture demonstrations by eminent musicians, debates, quizzes and a Carnatic music competition. About 32 teams comprising 250 young musicians (from the four southern states) filtered from two earlier rounds participated in the final music competition. A conference on ‘Promotion of Carnatic music amongst youth’ was organised as part of the festival. YUVA LAYAM published a souvenir to commemorate the event. The following article on Pandit Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das (by Upadhyayula Narayanadas) appeared in the souvenir. 

It is well nigh impossible to find a parallel for him in the history of Indian literature. Pandit Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das (1864-1945) was the only scholar who had mastery over four classical languages (SamskritTeluguArabic and Persian) and translated from Persian and English into Samskrit and Telugu; the only litterateur who wrote a comparative treatise on the works of Kalidas and Shakespeare; the only writer-composer who translated into Telugu and set to music Rig Vedic hymns and the only writer-composer who composed a geeta-malika comprising 90 Carnatic ragas. As a writer-composer who composed music in all the 72 Carnatic ragas he was next only to Thyagaraja.

Pandit Narayana Das was a writer, poet, asta-avadhani, musician, dancer, linguist and philosopher. He was a rare litterateur to whom, ‘the indiscriminately employed and hackneyed phrase ‘versatile genius’ may be justifiably applied’. The Hindu (June 30, 1894) referred to him as a ‘versatile genius’ in a review of his Harikatha:

“[…] an exquisite poet, a versatile genius conversant with English, a profound scholar in Telugu and Sanskrit and an accomplished musician of the most enchanting type. While this pride of Vizianagaram was unfolding the story with his inimitable skill, the audience was beside itself with joy. Not only was he applauded time and again, but at the close, there was a spontaneous outburst from every one present exclaiming that it was a rare and excellent treat. Of the gifted expounder, it may well be and truly said that he is entitled to be spoken of in glowing terms by the best of Pundits, by the most skilful songsters, by the most ardent lovers of music and by the most reputed of elocutionists. The rhythmic cadences of his harmonious voice, the melodious intonations of his musical flight and the snatches of vivid and picturesque representations of nature, conjured up his lively and constructive faculty of imagination and his powerful command of language appealed to the listeners’ spiritual sensibilities […]”

His literary output was voluminous. He wrote original Kavyas and Prabandhas that reflect a rare creative genius, erudition and great felicity of expression. He wrote over fifty books in Telugu, Samskrit and Atcha-Telugu (Desyandhramu or Telugu unmixed of Samskrit). His works included original story-poems (Kavyas and Prabandhas), Harikathas, prose works, musical works, dramas, translations, treatises on philosophy and Vedic studies and children’s literature. Here is a brief list of his works:


In Navarasa Tarangini, he compared and contrasted the treatment of the nine rasas or moods in the plays of Kalidas and Shakespeare. His magnum opus Jagajjyothi is a treatise on various streams of Hindu philosophy.

In Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam, he translated the original Persian quatrains and Edward Fitzgerald’s English translation into Samskrit and Atcha-Telugu, to prove that Fitzgerald’s translation did not do justice to the Persian poet. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (former President of India) had this to say of the work:

“[…] was greatly struck by his varied talents, remarkable linguistic equipment, and technical power of versification. […] The Telugu verses are written in what is called Atcha Telugu or pure Telugu, which is rather difficult. […] I am tempted to congratulate him on a performance which, taking all things into account, is certainly astounding.”

In a review published as an editorial entitled ‘A Monument of Scholarship’, The Hyderabad Bulletin (16-1-1937) had this to say of the work:

“[…] We are certainly unaware of any recent instance in India where so much learning has been brought to bear on what is no less certainly a labour of love, for it is evident that there are few persons familiar with the Sanskrit language who are anxious to have a rendering of the Persian original.

“Pandit Narayandas’s erudition is enhanced by the fact that even in using his own mother tongue, he has selected what is called Atchha-Telugu, a language that only a handful can understand. The work therefore is not intended for the masses, and the learned author expects no profits out of his scholarship. […]” 

Sahitya Akademi has recently brought out a new edition of Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam originally published in 1932.

His Samskrit works include Tarakam (an original Kavyam that reflects his rare command over Samskrit idiom and grammar); Harikathamrutam (the story of Sri Krishna in three Harikathas); Ramachandra Satakam and Kasi Satakam. His Atcha-Telugu works include Talli Vinki (exposition of Sri Lalitha Sahasranamams, each in a verse); Vennuni Veyi Perla Vinakari (exposition of Sri Vishnu Sahasranamams, each in a verse) Ruksangraham (also known as Mokkubadi, a translation and musical composition for 304 selected Ruks) and Manki Minku (an introduction to Ayurveda).


Traditional religious discourses in the form of Harikatha as a medium to inculcate Bhakti and entertain were in vogue in several states including Maharastra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra. Each had a different format and they all had more than one performer, for story telling, rendering music etc. Narayana Das opined the art form of Harikatha dated back to Vedic times. There were references to Harikatha in Rig Veda. These Harikathas involved the performance of several artistes during performance of Yaznas. The objective of these Harikathas was to keep the Yaznik awake during the course of the Yazna and entertain the audience. In the Harikatha Narayana Das created, he fused several art forms into one. These include kathaprvachanam (story narration), aasukavitwam (composing poetry extempore), rendering classical musicdancing and acting. The musical part has the usual instrumental accompaniments like mridangam and violin but the Haridas has to perform all the five components. Narayana Das stated that the objective of his Harikatha was to inculcate Bhakti and Jnana and seeking Moksha through virtuous behaviour. Having invented the vehicle, he wrote twenty one Harikathas, seventeen in Telugu, three in Samskrit and one in Atcha Telugu. The creation Harikatha earned him the title of Harikathapitamaha. The literary and musical elite of his time awarded him the title of Sangeetha Sahitya Sarvabhouma.

The Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam has undertaken the task of republishing Narayana Das’ Harikathas. Yadhartha Ramayanam (a compilation of six Harikathas based on Ramayana), Ambarisha CharitramuPrahlada CharitamuSavitri Charitramu and Harikathamrutamu (the story of Sri Krishna in three Harikathas in Samskrit) were ublished so far.


The Vizianagarm of the late nineteenth century was a haven of literary and artistic talent and was - to borrow a phrase from renaissance literature - in a state of intellectual ferment. It was the perfect ambience for the muses in the soul of a burgeoning artiste, fluttering wings to break free and find expression in his work. It was in the company of virtuosos like Durvasula Suryanarayana Somayajulu, Kaligotla Kamaraju, Mohabat Khan, Pappu Venkanna and Veena Venkataramana Dasu that Narayana Das’ innate artistry blossomed and flourished.

The cultivation of the Hindustani style added a rare and unique hybrid timbre to his music not usually found in the rendering of Carnatic singers and won him many accolades including those from the Maharajah of Mysore and Rabindranath Tagore. This is because it was unusual for Carnatic singers to be able to sing Hindustani and vice versa.

The hybrid style he developed left an indelible stamp on the progress of Carnatic music. It was adopted by later musicians including some of the greats of Carnatic music, marking it as the sui generis of Vizianagaram music. Eventually when Narayana Das became the first principal of Sri Vijayarama Gana Pathasala it became part of the curriculum, which was sought by Rabindranath Tagore to be introduced in Visva-Bharati University.

Narayana Das exhibited his musical genius in the asta-avadhanams he performed too, by introducing several musical elements in them. He called his asta-avadhanams, sangeetha-asta-avadhanam and asadhya-asta-avadhanam. The sangeetha asta-avadhanam included composing a kriti based on a specified raga and tala; singing a kriti synchronising it with three different talas played by three different panellists. The musical feats in the variations of avadhanam (asadhya ashta-avadhanam and sangeetha ashta-avadhanam) were Narayana Das’ initial experiments with tala which evolved into panchamuki and shanmukhi in later years.

Narayana Das was the first principal (1919-1936) of Sri Vijayarama Gana Pathasala, South India’s first music college founded by the Maharajah of Vizianagaram. In fact, the Maharajah established the college to honour Pandit Narayana Das and enable enthusiasts to learn music from him. The college produced many great musicians. Pandit Narayana Das inducted violin maestro Dwaram Venkata Swamy Naidu as a lecturer in the college.


Dasavidha Raga Navati Kusuma Manjari is a musical work in which Pandit Adibhatla Narayana Das exhibited his monumental skill in literary craftsmanship and musical composition.  It is a raga malika comprising ninety ragas in ten categories and nine ragas in each category. The ten categories are: (1) Sarva-sampurna ragas (2) Shadava-oudava ragas (3) Oudava-shadava ragas (4) Sampurna-oudava ragas (5) Oudava-sampurna ragas (6) Suddha-shadava ragas (7) Sampurna-shadava ragas (8) Shadava-sampurna ragas (9) Suddha-oudava ragas & (10) Vakra ragas. As the ninety ragas are woven as flowers in a garland, it is named dasavidha raga navati kusuma manjari.

The raga malika is a prayer to goddess Kanyakumari and is in two parts, the first half in Samskrit and the second in Telugu. The names of the ragas are used as a part of the prayer in each line of the first part. The same ragas are repeated in the inverse order in the second half. The raga malika can be sung in all talas evolving from the five jatis of eka tala. An important feature of this raga malika is this: while a vocalist sings it, and five musicians keep time each with a different eka-tala, by the time the raga malika is completely sung all the eka talas could be concluded and not anywhere in between.

If a musician can accomplish singing the raga malika to five different talas it would be a great achievement. Pandit Narayana Das used to perform such a feat which he called Panchamukhi, after the five facets of Paramasiva. The five facets of Paramasiva are SadyojathaVamadevaEesanaTatpurusha and Aghora. The five talas he used to perform were trisragati with the right hand; chaturasragati with the left hand; khanda with the right shoulder; misra with the left shoulder and sankeerna with the head. He also performed Shanmukhi (singing to six talas) in which, he performed all the five talas mentioned above while singing the kriti to a different tala. The performance of Panchamukhi and Shanmukhi earned him the titles of Panchamuki Parameswara and Laya Brahma.

Mahamahopadhyaya’, ‘Sangeethasekhara’ Nookala Chinasatyanarayana has this to say of the Sangeetha Prabandham: “A student of this prabandham who begins his musical education with the first line becomes a vidwan by the time he accomplishes singing the 180th line or aavartham. If a music vidwan practises this Prabandham daily, there would be nothing beyond his capability with regard to performance of music or tala.” 

For more on the life and work of Pandit Narayana Das and reviews of his literary works, see:

A clarification: An entry on AjjadaAdibhatla Narayana Dasu appeared in Wikipedia in 2007. As it is an open source encyclopaedia, I have edited it not just once but several times, so that over time the article was so thoroughly rewritten that this writer can claim ownership to it as it stands today. Others too seem to have edited a bit here and there but they are mostly minor edits. This may be seen by clicking on the ViewHistory link of the entry. However the editing prompted me to craft a Wikidot website Pandit Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das and (this) blogsite with the same name: Pandit Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das, in which I have edited and published several articles written in English by various scholars, which originally appeared in a souvenir published  by the Samskruthi Samithi Chirala (1967) to commemorate the birth centenary of Pandit Narayana Das. I have included a couple of my own articles in the sites. I have included some passages of my Wikipedia edit in the introductory parts of the website and blogsite.