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.)