Showing posts with label Adibhatla Narayana Das. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adibhatla Narayana Das. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Rubâiyât of Omar Khaiyâm

“It is not my habit to have my works corrected and recast by others!”Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās 

Adibhatla Narayana Das
Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās learnt Persian when he was about thirty years old. When he was about sixty, he chanced upon a copy of Edward Fitzgerald’s translations of the Rubâiyât of Omar Khaiyâm. As he glanced through it, he felt that Fitzgerald’s translations did not do justice to the eleventh century Persian poet-philosopher’s original verses. Understanding Persian was one thing; but to be able to translate it into Saṃskṛtaṃ and Telugu required a far greater linguistic proficiency. He therefore set about to polish and master the language at the ripe old age of sixty and translated the work c1930. Maharāṇi Lalitā Kumari Dēvi of Vijayanagaram was so impressed with it that she felt it should be presented to the literary public. She sent the manuscript to Sarvēpalli Rādhākṛṣṇan who was then Vice Chancellor of Andhra university with a request to write a foreword to it. The book was published in 1932. In a rare honour, The Hyderabad Bulletin, a British owned newspaper reviewed the book in an editorial entitled A Monument of ScholarshipThe Sahitya Akademi published a second edition of the book in its ‘Rare Books’ series in 2012. The Sanskrit Academy, Hyderabad, affiliated to the Central Sanskrit University brought out a special edition of the Sanskrit portion of the book in August 2023.   

The reason that attracted Nārāyaa Dās to Omar Khaiyâm could perhaps be a shared worldview towards life and religion. Both of them were Sun-worshippers and polymaths. In his English introduction to the Rubâiyât of Omar Khaiyâm, Nārāyaa Dās says “Omar Khaiyâm commences his verses with the word “Khurshīd”, which means the Sun; because I presume, he was a sun worshipper…” 

Omar Khaiyâm’s interests extended from poetry, music, philosophy and theology to mathematics, astronomy, geography, mineralogy and meteorology. Nārāyaa Dās’ interests extended from poetry, music and musicology, literature and linguistics, dance and acting, philosophy, theology and Vēdik studies (a conglomeration of various branches of theology, philosophy, arts and sciences) to astrology and medicine (Āyurvēda). 

Neither of them was properly understood by his contemporaries during his life time. Omar Khaiyâm was seen either as an atheist and hedonist or at the other extreme, as a mystical Sufi poet. In the case of Nārāyaa Dās although his proclivity to the Bhakti tradition was never in doubt, his philosophy of humanism might not have been fully understood. While Nārāyaa Dās devoted his life to the teaching of ‘Bhakti, Jñāna, Mōkṣa’, he condemned with vehemence some prevailing practices of his time, such as animal sacrifice as unacceptable, as he felt they were at variance with the spirit of Vēdik philosophy. 

The Title Page
Nārāyaa Dās used to absorb knowledge from his environs just as a sponge absorbed water, and improve upon it. After coming into contact with the Hindustāni musician, Mohabbat Khān at Vijayanagaraṃ, he cultivated the Hindustāni genre of music to develop a Karṇātik-Hindustāni hybrid timbre. Similarly, when he was thirty-seven, he came into contact with a Maulvi, he utilized the opportunity to pick up rudiments of Arabic and Persian from him, obtained books on their teaching and began developing his knowledge of the two languages. His interest in Persian grew when he observed that ‘Old Persian’[1] has some resemblance to Prākṛtaṃ, considered to be the colloquial form of literary Saṃskṛtaṃ. This could well be the case because ‘Old Avestan’, the precursor of the Iranian languages, was closer to what linguists call Indic Saṃskṛtaṃ, whereas ‘Young Avestan’ was closer to Persian. In fact, both ‘Old Persian’ and ‘Middle Persian’ were written left to right like Prākṛtaṃ unlike their modern-day version, which adapted the Perso-Arabic script, written right to left. In his Saṃskṛtaṃ introduction to Rubâiyât of Omar Khaiyâm Nārāyaa Dās observed that although there were Yavana[2] terms, much of the Rubâiyât, Omar Khaiyâm wrote was in ‘Old Persian’, which in his view was closer to Prākṛtaṃ. 

Over time, Nārāyaa Dās developed a great admiration for the Persian philosopher-poet. When he read Edward Fitzgerald’s English translation of the Persian quatrains, he felt they were not true to the original. It is now known that not only Fitzgerald’s translations were not literal but he also mingled the quatrains. Fitzgerald’s translation has about three hundred verses. Of these Nārāyaa Dās selected a hundred and ten and their original Persian quatrains and translated the original and their English translation into Saṃskṛtaṃ and Acca-Telugu. 

Translating from one language to another could be a daunting task because it is not just conveying the meaning of words. A language evolved over time embeds the culture and traditions; beliefs and values; rituals and practices and history and legends of a society in its usages and idioms. If the translator is not proficient in either of the languages, he might miss the meaning altogether or the translation might appear to be artificial like a patchwork quilt. Good translation requires not only proficiency in both the languages but great technical skill to express the idiom of one language in the corresponding idiom of the other. As languages continue to evolve, meanings of words and usages change over time or usages might lose their relevance. Therefore, translating from an ancient language to another classical language requires great scholarship if one were to convey the true intended meaning of the original writer. 

Prayer In Four
The book opens with a prayer in four languages, Persian, English, Saṃskṛtaṃ and Telugu. The poem was written in the Kaṅdaṃ metre, one of the toughest prosodies in the Telugu language. Writing a poem in difficult prosody, with each line in a different language is an expression of Nārāyaa Dās’ penchant for accomplishing the formidable. 

He introduced Omar Khaiyâm, the poet and his poetry in three languages, English, Saṃskṛtaṃ and Telugu. He used the introductions to express his deep admiration for Omar Khaiyâm and his poetry. But the introductions were more than that. Nārāyaa Dās used them to express his own worldview about his field of work; poetry and poets; literature and literary criticism and the contemporary socio-political milieu. He begins the Saṃskṛtaṃ introduction by describing the qualities a literary critic should possess. 

Just as the reasons are understood from a deed, so should a poet be judged by his literary work. A critic should not blindly go by what others say of a poet but must be capable of independent thinking and judging the merit of a work. He should be erudite, having read and imbibed many kāvyās and must be proficient in languages like Saṃskṛtaṃ and Prākṛtaṃ. A critic who is himself a poet or writer would be better equipped to judge the work of others.[3]     

On can’t help wonder if he hadn’t read his own qualities (such as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Vēdās and Śastrās, an exquisite poet, musician, dancer, actor et al.) into the qualities desirable in a critic and in his unstinted praise for Omar Khaiyâm. His description of Nišâpur reflects the literary and cultural milieu of Vijayanagaraṃ. He laments the diminution of ethical and moral standards and corruption of culture, following hundreds of years of alien rule. 

The people of this land which came to be known as ‘karma bhūmi’ have lost their independence. They have had to abandon their traditional education and discipline. Having somehow acquired a degree in an alien language they were able to occupy positions of power. Those who do not have a modicum of knowledge of Saṃskṛtaṃ and are incapable of writing anything in Saṃskṛtaṃ or Prākṛtaṃ have come to be celebrated as litterateurs. Thanks to the ambience created by the unenlightened officials and uneducated rich, a wicked person has come to be seen as virtuous and a mountebank is seen as noble. 

The introductory essay is rich in the philosophy of Sanātana Dharma and explains the nature of human existence and its relationship with godhead. It expostulates on the need for virtuous living. 

The (human) creature is devoid of self-knowledge. Man has no role in determining (his own) weal or woe. It is Īśwara who decides whether he would end up in heaven or hell. A man attains advaita jñānaṃ only by of the grace of Īśwara. It is not possible to realise Viṇu without bhakti. 

The synonymous use of Īśwara and Viṇu in the passage emphasizes the essence of Advaita philosophy as “[T]he identification of the Self with Brahman and the absolute reality of one and only one existence.”[4] 

Bhakti is jñānaṃ that combines the following qualities: being happy without ego; not looking for rewards; not craving for anything;   

Typical Double Page
Spread In The Book 
In his English introduction, he expresses the view that ‘an original writer’ should take ‘pride in having his works published as they are so that critics might see him in his true colours’. It was for this reason, he says, “It is not my habit to have my works corrected and recast by others”. He laments the propensity of literary critics to judge the work of writers based more on their outward appearance than a true evaluation of their literary work. Could Fitzgerald’s impression of how Omar lived his life have coloured his translations of the poet’s immortal verses? 

Did Nārāyaa Dās find a twin soul when he observed that Omar Khaiyâm decried ‘all religious shows and philosophical discussions’ as ‘merely vain and whimsical actions for passing an idle life’? He says Khaiyâm was vexed with the deep chasm between precept and practice of crafty philosophers. He therefore satirized their philosophy. For him pleasing society was true religion and devotion to Almighty was the happiest enjoyment. It was perhaps because of this perception that Nārāyaa Dās found in Khaiyâm, a mystic rather than a romantic poet. He feels Khaiyâm’s philosophy was largely misunderstood and his advocacy of ‘wine, woman & music’ should be read as cryptic symbols for ‘divine service, pure mind and meditation’.  

Nārāyaa Dās translated Omar Khaiyâm’s Rubâiyât when he was well into his sixties and published the book when he was sixty-eight. This was what Sarvēpalli Rādhākṣṇan, former president of India, then Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University, had to say of the translations in his ‘FOREWORD’: 

“[…] was greatly struck by his varied talents, remarkable linguistic equipment, and technical power of versification. […] The Telugu verses are written in what is called Acca 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 rare honour, The Hyderabad Bulletin, a British era newspaper published from Hyderabad, reviewed the book in an editorial entitled, “A Monument of Scholarship”. Here are some excerpts: 

“[A] careful perusal of the book fills us with admiration at the astounding scholarship of the learned Padi.


“There are, of course dozens of translations of the immortal “Rubâiyât”, the most popular and probably the best known being that of Edward Fitzgerald. Padi Nārāyaṇa Dās, who frankly expresses the opinion that Fitzgerald’s work is not a literal translation, has gone back to the original Persian in order that the letter and the spirit of Omar Khaiyâm may not be missed.


“In these degenerate days when scholarship has fallen on evil times, it is incredible to learn that a Hindu, with Telugu as his mother tongue, should have been so filled with admiration for a Persian poet that, after he had passed his sixtieth year, he took the trouble to master so alien a language, and translate the masterpiece not only into Telugu but into another classical language, Saṃskṛtaṃ.


“We find in the book that while Fitzgerald’s translation is rendered into Saṃskṛtaṃ and into Telugu of the Kaṅdaṁ metre, the hardest perhaps in the Telugu prosody, Omar Khaiyâm’s original text is again translated into Gīti and the Bhujangi metres.


“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 Saṃskṛtaṃ language who are anxious to have a rendering of the Persian original.


“Padi Nārāyaṇa Dās’ erudition is enhanced by the fact that even in using his own mother tongue, he has selected what is called Acca-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.


“But literature transcends the limitation of language, age and country, and it is most gratifying that a Telugu writer of the twentieth century should have paid the most splendid tribute to a Persian Poet of the twelfth century. He has added a most copious glossary at the end of the book to facilitate an appreciation of the original, its translation by Fitzgerald, and the author’s own translation into Saṃskṛtaṃ and Telugu.


“In inviting the attention of H.E.H. the Nizam’s Government to the Padi’s work, we trust that, in consonance with their liberal support of classical scholarship; they will extend their patronage to the Padi, and thus bring about a sympathetic understanding and interpretation between the two classical languages.” 

The first edition of Rubâiyât of Omar Khaiyâm was published in 1932[5] and a second edition by the Sahitya Akademi in 2012. The book in four languages has the original Persian text, its English transliteration with diacritical marks, Fitzgerald’s English translation, Saṃskṛtaṃ and Acca-Telugu translations of Omar Khaiyâm’s original text and Fitzgerald’s translation. It is a veritable collector’s item.[6]

[1] Old Persian was an Iranian language which was in use from circa 600 B.C.E to 300 B.C.E. The next phase in the evolution of the language between 300 B.C.E. and 800 C.E. has been designated Middle Persian and from 800 C.E. it is known as Modern Persian or Farsi.

[2] By Yavana terms Nārāyaṇa Dās was probably referring to ‘Middle Persian’.

[3] The gist of Nārāyaa Dās’ Saṃskṛtaṃ introduction entitled “Umara Kavipraśaṃsā” is based on the Telugu translation of the Saṃskṛtaṃ part of the work by Yāmijāla, Padmanābhaswāmi (1982).

[4] Swami Prabhavananda. (1963). The Spiritual Heritage of India. p. 274

[5] The year of publication was not mentioned in the book, but going by the date of Sarvēpalli Rādhākṣṇan’s “Foreword” it can be deduced that it was published in 1932.

[6] A character in Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (Scene IV) soliloquises: “Now this is what I call workmanship. There is nothing on earth more exquisite than a bonny book, with well-placed columns of rich black writing in beautiful borders, and illuminated pictures cunningly inset. But nowadays, instead of looking at books, people read them.” 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023


‘Bāṭasāri’, as some literary commentators erroneously believed, was not a translation of Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Traveller’. Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās’ himself dispelled the misconception in his preface to the 1933 edition of the book, which had gone through several editions during his life time: 

“In writing this small poetical work my main object had been to present to the Telugu reading public an attempt at something original as to plot, coupled with vividness of natural descriptions told in easy Telugu devoid of all the artificialities of the usual ornate style.” 

Significantly he did not name the protagonist. He was just Bāṭasāri (traveller), who gets separated from his family in a shipwreck. In fact, none of the characters were named. The author did not find it necessary to name them. He specified that his poem was “an allegory of human life which begins in sheer ignorance and ends in perfect knowledge”. The story was about man’s travails through the sea called life.

Nārāyaṇa Dās wrote Bāṭasāri when he was twenty-four and dedicated it to Panappākkaṃ Anaṅdācāryulu, an advocate and a member of the Madras Legislative Council. Anaṅdācāryulu was a connoisseur of arts and a Sanskrit scholar of repute, who earned the title ‘Vidyāvinōdi’. 

The Story 

The ship in which Bāṭasāri was travelling with his wife and son was wrecked when it hit a mountain. The tides carried them in different directions. Grieving the separation from his wife and son he wandered along the shore to reach a stream flowing by a mountain. Lying down on the bank of the stream he woke up at night to find the moon up. Roaming in search of his wife and son, he walked into a forest, which came to its night life with buzzing insects and roaring tigers. He emerged from the forest to reach a pointed hill. Exhausted, he fell asleep to wake in the midmorning. On waking up he saw a valley on the other side of the mountain. He walked through the valley to find a pond. He bathed in the pond and offered oblation to the Sun god. He found some tubers with which he satisfied his hunger and rested under a beech tree. As a herd of elephants approached the pond, he climbed a banyan tree from where he could see the peak of a tall building. Happy to find a human dwelling in the vicinity at last, he climbed down and walked towards it. Crossing a beautiful garden, he entered a seven-storied palace and marvelled at its resplendence. The palace stood on a single pillar and was in the shape of a lotus and approximately a mile in diameter. It had seven rooms on the first floor, six on the second and so on till just one on the top floor which was used as a prayer room. 

While he was soaking in the beauties of the palace a bell sounded and lights came on in the building. The master of the palace, a king who had just had a bath and his daily ritual prayer, entered along with his female attendants. Seeing the naked Bāṭasāri, who lost his clothes in the shipwreck and his perambulations, the king asked him, “Who are you? How did you reach this palace? Why are you weeping? Where from did you come?” After arranging clothes for him the king listened to his painful story and assured him, “Do not worry. Just as you are alive, your wife and son too must have survived and must be living somewhere.” The king having ordered Bāṭasāri be put up left the place. Women frolicking in the moonlight brought back memories of happier days for Bāṭasāri, memories of days spent with his wife and son and the pain of missing them hit him.

The next day the king invited Bāṭasāri to join him in a hunting expedition for wild boars and tigers. Accompanied by hunting dogs, they rode horses carrying guns, bows and arrows and spears and long spears as their weapons. Impressed by Batakari’s hunting skill, the king invited him to remain in his kingdom. The king asked him to make a round of his capital. Bāṭasāri did so but could not enjoy the sight-seeing. He returned to the king and wailed “Oh noble king, you have been kind to me but your efforts are as in vain as is a feast for a sick man. You are indeed a friend in my hour of grief. How can I survive without your succour. At the same time how can I forget my wife and son?”  

The king replied that he had good news for the Bāṭasāri as the search party he sent out came back to inform him that his wife and son were alive. On hearing this Bāṭasāri was beside himself with joy. The king further informed him that his wife wrote something at the base of the tower clock and took him there. Bāṭasāri was happy to recognize the script and that it was indeed his wife’s, hearing a description of the woman who wrote it. He was again consumed by pain wondering how he could convey his well-being to her. The king consoled him and having spent some time in recreational activities took Bāṭasāri alone to his garden.  

The king said. “Just as a philosopher’s spirits lift when he sees a new treatise, my spirits lifted when I heard your story.” And then narrated the story of his family. He pointed to a man approaching them and said he was his brother’s son. The family had a strange custom. The king’s brother ruled the family for a while and handed it over to him. He would to give it to his brother’s son who would later transfer it to the king’s son. The kingdom where Bāṭasāri’s wife was spotted was ruled by his brother’s brother-in-law. He had a feud with his brother-in-law (the king’s brother) as he did not like the ways of his brother-in-law’s family. The king’s nephew (his brother’s son) loved his uncle’s daughter but because of the family feud, unable to marry her. The young couple pined for each other and were in intense grief because of the obstacles that came in the way of their union. 

The king requested Bāṭasāri to accompany his nephew to the neighbouring kingdom where he planned to meet the princess. The trip would also give Bāṭasāri a chance to meet his wife and son there. There is a hint that the king hoped Bāṭasāri would be able to persuade the girl’s father to agree for the union. He said, “Both of you meet your respective women and come back with them.”  He added that after their return he would hand over the kingdom to his brother’s son as per prior arrangement and asked Bāṭasāri to join him in vānaprasthaṃ—the third phase in a man’s life according to the saṇātana dharma. With that the king saw them off at the port.  

In the ship the young prince told Bāṭasāri about a love letter he received from the princess and grieved about their inability to unite. Bāṭasāri consoled him and as it was approaching midnight suggested they should retire to bed. However, he himself could not sleep as he mused about his wife and son. The ship reached the destination at daybreak. As they came off the ship, the princess’ lady in waiting met them. She brought a ring as an identification and informed that the princess wanted her cousin to stay in the (two-storied) building in the flower garden. As the ladies in waiting served the prince, it was the turn of Bāṭasāri to agonize over his own separation from his wife and son. The prince consoled him. As they moved to the building the sky turned overcast with clouds and started to rain. In the meantime, a woman clutching a boy to her bosom approached them.  Bāṭasāri and the woman recognized each other. The boy was his son and the woman the boy’s nanny. She informed him that his wife was consumed with grief and not being able to bear their separation was considering suicide. She took the boy on a stroll and ran to the building because of the sudden rain. Bāṭasāri cuddled his son, showed him to the prince and expressed his joy about the coming reunion with his family. He asked the nanny to rush back to inform his wife about his arrival and told the prince “[For me the separation was like] a drowning man losing his breath but thanks to you and your uncle, I feel like the man floating on the water to regain his breath.” As he was saying this, the nanny returned with his wife. The prince discreetly moved aside to let them enjoy their reunion. 

Bāṭasāri and his wife could not contain their joy as they embraced to celebrate their reunion. Chastened by the lessons of life learnt during separation, loneliness and reunion he told his wife, “Let’s forget the unsavoury past and enjoy the moment. Here is the prince that brought us together.” Saying thus he introduced the prince to his wife. The prince in turn had good news of his own to convey. His uncle agreed to marry his daughter to him and also to celebrate the marriage in the prince’s own city. The princess arrived, “glowing like a flowerpot [that sprays silver flower sparkles] amidst wick lamps”. Bāṭasāri with his wife and son, and the prince and princess crossed the sea to return to the prince’s city. The king was joyed to see the to-be-wedded couple, and the reunited couple.  

The Allegory 

The narrative is straight–forward. In fact, the story is so simple that the author summed it up in a single verse at the beginning of the narrative. In order to help readers unravel the philosophical core of the allegory, he provided a guide, also at the beginning. 

The protagonist, Bāṭasāri, wanted to emancipate from the hellish illusion of a previous life. The wife and son were education and wisdom. The sea was the family life of human beings with all its attendant trials and tribulations. The mountain that wrecked the ship represented man’s evil deeds. The pointed hill was nature. The river and its environs were the three states of consciousness, wakefulness, dreamful sleep and dreamless sleep. The seven-storied lotus–shaped palace with twenty-eight rooms represented the seven elements of the human body[i]; the seven techniques used to achieve goals in temporal transactions[ii]; the six enemies of the mind[iii]; the five layers or kōśas of the soul[iv]; the four moral values[v]; the three psychological states[vi]; the two paths to mōkṣa[vii] and attainment of the supreme consciousness[viii]. The pillar supporting the building symbolized meditation; the royal couple symbolised knowledge and renunciation, and the royal attendants symbolised the eight limbs described in the science of yoga[ix]. The first capital city symbolised the present temporal world and the second capital symbolised the ‘other’ world. The tower or pillar in the clock tower symbolised karma[x]; the writing on it śastraṃ[xi]; the new couple bhakti and śraddha; the love letter, the Upanishats; the reunion of Bāṭasāri with his wife and son, the attainment of mōkṣa; the horse, the intellect; the weapons (sword, gun, spear and long spear), the four sequential practices or pillars of knowledge[xii]; the boar and the tiger, rāga and dvēṣa; the hunting dogs, holy practices; the seat, dedication; the nanny, cultural practice; the clock, life; the ring, recognition; the rain, blessing of the gods; the uncle, teacher and the cousin (the prince) the lover. In the philosophy of sanātana dharma, ātma has no death. It wanders, finds a body for a while, is released from it and keeps repeating the process in an endless cycle.  


Regaining consciousness after dark after the ship wreck and finding himself on the edge of a mountain near the seashore, Bāṭasāri soliloquises, “Where did I come from? Why am I unable to see anything. What is the roar I hear?” Beyond the context, these questions reflect man’s eternal quest to find his bearings! 

Literary Values 

The kāvyaṃ consists just 195 verses. The storyline is concise. The philosophical meaning of the story is deep. For the general reader, there is nature. Describing the variegated splendour of nature in the universe, and the infinite nuances of human nature are the author’s forte. There are vivid descriptions of the splendours of nature, hot summer (verse 12), sunrays (verse 21), moonlight (verse 14), frolicking in the moonlight (verse 56), dawn (verse 61), midnight (verse 135), pre–monsoon showers (verse 163) etc. It is difficult to combine appreciation of the beauties of nature and the pangs of separation from the loved ones in a single poem but the author did it in long form poetic metre known as sīsaṃ in two verses (35 & 113). The language is both ornate and simple without being highfalutin or pretentious. 

Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās’ penchant for experimentation made him create two new poetic metres which he called cakkera and nattuvu

Bāṭasāri marvels at the beauty and structural symmetry of the palace, when he first entered it. He finds nobody and wonders whether it was a dwelling of Gods. Who did the chores? Could it be some mechanical devices rather than living beings? In allowing his poetic imagination to roam did Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās unwittingly presage robots and artificial intelligence as we know them today?  

Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās used to recite poems from Bāṭasāri, which he wrote at a young age, in his Harikatha performances. Probably for the benefit of his non–Telugu–speaking audience, he translated the poems into English prose. The full text is unavailable; a few snippets from the work are quoted by literary commentators.

[i] The seven types of tissues described in Āyurvēda are rasa, rakta, māṃsa, mēda, asthi, majja, śukra.

[ii] The four commonly quoted techniques are sāma, dāna, bhēda, daṃḍa. According to moral philosophers there are three more—māya, upēkṣa, iṅdrajālaṃ―less commonly used techniques.

[iii]The six enemies of the human mind are kāma, krōdha, lōbha, mōha, mada, mātsarya.

[iv] The five layers of the soul are annamaya, prāṇamaya, manōmaya, vijñānamaya, ānaṅdamaya.

[v] The four puruṣārthas are dharma, artha, kāma, mōkṣa.

[vi] The three psychological states also known as triguna vikāras, known as sattva, rajas, tamas.

[vii] The two paths to mōkṣa are pravṛtti and nivṛtti.

[viii] Reaching the ultimate consciousness or attaining Brahma jñanaṃ.

[ix] The eight limbs or aṅgas described by Patañjali are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇayāma, pratyāhāra, dhāraṇa, dhyāna, and samādhi.

[x] The spiritual principle of cause and effect.

[xi] Any religious or scientific treatise.

[xii] They are vivēka, vairāgya, ṣatsaṃpat, mumukṣutva as described in Jñāna Yōga.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Blessed were his parents! Blessed who saw him! Blessed his listeners!

By Malladi Suribabu 

Sri Malladi Suribabu was born in a family devoted to music. His father Sri Malladi  Sriramamurthy, a music aficionado turned self-taught musician inculcated a keen interest for music in the family. Sriramamurthy learnt Adibhatla Narayana Das’ Harikathas and sang them in All India Radio (AIR) which opened in Vijayavada in 1948. Suribabu who inherited his father’s passion for music joined AIR as an announcer in 1971. Sri Voleti Venkateswarlu (producer of Karnatik music in AIR), who chanced upon Suribabu humming a classical tune encouraged him to cultivate the art. Thus encouraged, Suribabu trained with virtuosos ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ Dr. Sripada Pinakapani and ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ Dr. Nedunuri Krishnamurthy. A combination of inherited talent and passion for the art helped Suribabu acquire name and fame and titles like ‘Saptagiri Sangita Vidvanmani’, ‘Susvaragayaka’ and ‘Sangita Vidyanidhi’. Suribabu, a lucid raconteur apart from an accomplished musician, wrote a series of articles on musicians of his time under the title of ‘Amrutavarshini’ in Andhra Bhumi weekly, which was later compiled into a book.

The names of grandparents and great grandparents are remembered but the possibility of remembering the names of a generation earlier than great grandparents is scarce. Those who do are virtuous. There need be no such concerns for the creator of an art form. The art form will immortalize its creator in the minds of successive generations. Adibhatla Narayana Das was born just like many others of his generation. It was the creation of the performing art form Harikatha that immortalized him. He had been named ‘Harikatha Pitamaha’ after he reformulated the art and made it his own by laying down high standards for its performance. He was god’s gift to the Telugu–speaking people! The word ‘Pitamaha’ (grandfather) implies reverence. In Mahabharata, Bhishma has been revered as Pitamaha. Just as Purandara Das is revered as Pitamaha of Karnatik music and Tallapaka Annamacharya, Pitamaha of lyrical songs in simple Telugu so is Adibhatla Narayana Das revered as Pitamaha of Harikatha.

He loved Telugu so much, he proclaimed, “I shall bring all branches of knowledge to my dear Telugu people in easy-to-understand form. I will pay back my debt to the Telugu people who have nurtured me by giving me name, fame and sustenance.” Kalidas and other poets produced Kavyas by translating stories from Puranas in slokas. Adibhatla Narayana Das collected events from Puranas and Kavyas, translated them into poetry and prose, embellished them with music and dance in a performing art to enthrall his lay and erudite audience. Everyone knows him as a Harikatha artiste but he was a man of many parts—in fact there was no branch of knowledge which he did not master. 

Human beings hope for and aspire many things but it is not often that they are blessed with whatever they desire. Human life is full of twists and turns and unexpected events. Whatever happens—whether good or bad, it is at the behest of God. The happenings could be reward or retribution for deeds of an earlier birth or the present. Human beings are mortal. It is the hand of God that immortalizes the memory of virtuous people. When that happens, we commemorate the lives of sages and great men in diverse fields. Strangely but sadly we often do not recognize genius in our midst. The life of Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das (1864-1945) was different. His genius was recognized in his life time.

The nineteenth century European art movement known as aestheticism coined the slogan ‘Art for art’s sake’. It centered on the doctrine that the purpose of art is mere enjoyment of beauty. For Narayana Das, his art had a divine purpose. One could say that for him, Harikatha, meaning ‘God’s story’ was bestowed by God himself. While delivering the original content in Telugu or Sanskrit he rapidly translated it into English, Tamil, Hindi or other Indian languages for the benefit of his audience, interspersing the narration with copious quotations from English, Persian and Arabic texts. His narratives were scholarly, richly imbued with imagery and idiom, quite often improvised and delivered extempore. The humour component that regaled his audience was either intrinsic to the story or contextual. He never lowered the standard of his art for the delectation of the lowest common denominator among the audience. His primary objective was to educate the lay people and win the approbation of the scholarly; monetary recompense was secondary to him. He did not envisage Harikatha as a pastime for the idle.

With a full-throated ‘Sambho’ that reverberated over a large area he called his assemblies to order. With a bass megaphone voice like that of a Gandharva, he sang and narrated events from Ramayanam, Mahabhartam and Bhagavatam. With his literary assemblies Chellapilla elevated the status of contemporary poets and poetry. Adibhatla Narayana Das brought to bear a similar dignity to Harikathas. Many poets and Harikatha artistes feel proud to claim that they were the disciples or disciples of disciples of the two.

My father developed an interest for poetry and music. In the company of the famous Harikatha artiste, Musunuri Suryanarayana and Adibhatla Narayana Das’ disciple Vajapeyajula Subbayya (who was from our village, Unguturu in West Godavari district), he used to practise Keertanas from Harikathas. On one occasion, Narayana Das was present at their practice session. My father invariably got an invitation whenever there was a Harikatha performance by Adibhatla Narayana Das in either of the Godavari districts. Over time he developed an ability to sing Keertanas on his own.

It was sage Narada who enlightened the world that chanting God’s name was more elevating than studying Vedas and Sastras. He may be said to be the first ‘Haridas’! Narada decrypted hidden philosophical meanings in Itihasas, Puranas, (the six) Vedangas and other texts like Agama, Nigama (Vedas) for his audience as he circumambulated the worlds chanting God’s name.  Haridas is the only bard that can explain the cryptic meanings and philosophical depths of Vedanta to his audience in simple, easy-to-understand language. Adibhatla Narayana Das was an exemplar of this belief!     

It is not necessary to go around the world in search of God. Bhagavan himself informed Narada that God exists at places where devotees gather and chant His name. Bhagavan said “Those who sing paeans to me are dear to me; I look after their welfare.” Those who have samskara[1] can grasp it. There is no surprise in Narayana Das, a born musician and erudite scholar grasping the underlying philosophy of Bhagavan’s edict. He combined fascinating story-telling with music, dance and acting to enchant his audience.[2] An ocean of music; he acquired fame as an embodiment of Harikatha: ‘Narayana Das was Harikatha; Harikatha was Narayana Das’.

As a young man he happened to witness a Harikatha in the residence of the wealthy Kanukurthi family in Vijayanagaram. It changed the course of his life. By then he was not just a poet but adept in ‘ashtavadhanam’[3] which involves a variety of literary skills, with composing poetry extempore as its primary component. He had an enchanting voice. Dance was a divine gift for him. He combined all these faculties to create the art form Harikatha, which was far removed from what he witnessed in the Kanukurthi residence. The first Harikatha he wrote was Dhruva Charitra. Blessed by his elder brother Sitaramayya, he presented it in the Venugopalaswami temple in Vijayanagaram. The performance enraptured his audience who blessed him with a bright future as a performing artiste. It was in the year 1883, when he just turned 19!    

Narayana Das had mastery over several languages and punditry in sastras like Nyaya, Vedanta, Vyakarana. He was a captivating story-teller; an extempore poet and an enchanting musician. There are not many today who witnessed his entrancing Harikatha performances. Just as Thyagaraja’s music became popular through the lineage of his disciples, so did Narayana Das’s Harikatha became popular through the lineage of his disciples. Two of his primary disciples were Neti Lakshminarayana and Vajapeyajula Subbayya. He taught them ‘Yathartha Ramayanam’. They came to be known as ‘Ramayanam Brothers’. Apart from these two the first-generation disciples who captured his mode (bani) of performance were Pappu Ayyavaru, Nemani Varahala Das, Ravikanti Jagannadha Das, Chittimalla Rangayya Das, Gudipati Srirama Murthy, Pentapadu Subbayya Das, Pucchala Bhramara Das (also known as Bavara Das), Karuru Krishna Das, Vedanabhatla Ramanayya Das et al.[4] Nemani Varahala Das was a lecturer in ‘Sri Vijayarama Gana Pathasala’, the Vijayanagaram music college, which Narayana Das headed as its first principal. Varahala Das’s disciple, Choppalli Suryanarayana Das was the first Haridas to publish a gramophone record. Narayaana Das put up Neti Lakshminarayana in his house and taught him Harikatha. In fact, for those of his disciples who could not afford boarding and lodging outside, his house was like a Gurukulam. Mulukutla Sadasiva Sastry, Ambatipudi Sivaramakrishna, Kuppa Veeraraghavayya et al were disciples of Neti Lakshminarayana. It would be a long list if I were to name the entire lineage of his disciples.

Paturi Madhusudana Rao, Kadali Veera Das … As long as we hear Harikathas, we will remember all these exponents. Harikatha was the vehicle invented by Narayana Das with the objective of nurturing the well-being of the society and teaching ‘dharmik’ way of life. Narayana Das’s artistic journey which began with his first performance in 1883, resonated from Kolkata to Kanyakumari for six and a half decades.

Thyagaraja Swami, Syama Sastri and Muttuswami Dikshitar endowed Karnatik music with Vedic grandeur. Adibhatla Narayana Das did the same for Harikatha. In those days there were no music colleges till the Maharaja of Vijayanagaram established one in 1919, with Narayana Das as its first principal. The college had a number of great musicians in its staff including Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu.[5] Famous playback singer Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao was a pupil of the college. Narayana Das presented him with a Tambura on his graduation.

It is no exaggeration to say that there is no other artiste who won so many felicitations, received so many rewards and accolades, and who tutored and nurtured hundreds of Harikatha artistes either directly or indirectly, not only in the Telugu states but anywhere else. As mentioned earlier, he was a pundit in many languages. But he had a special love for his mother tongue Telugu. He strove to produce literature in Accha Telugu or Natu Telugu, Telugu devoid of Sanskrit words. His literary works include Jagajjyothi (a philosophical treatise); Tarakam (an original Kavyam in Sanskrit); Navarasa Tarangini (a monumental work that compares and contrasts the depiction of navarasas in the works of Kalidas and Shakespeare); Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam (translations of the Persian original and Edward Fitzgerald’s English translations into Sanskrit and Accha Telugu). He wrote seven Satakas (two in Sanskrit and five in Telugu). His musical work ‘Dasa Vidha Raga Navati Kusuma Manjari’ is a ragamalika comprising 90 Karnatik ragas in Sanskrit and Telugu. He wrote twenty-one Harikathas (seventeen in Telugu, one in Accha Telugu and three in Sanskrit). These include Ambarisha Charitra, Gajendra Mokshanamu, Markandeya Charitra, Rukmini Kalyanamu, Harischandropakhyanamu and Sri Harikathamrutam (Sanskrit).

His coinage of Accha Telugu words is interesting. He named Simhachala Narasimha Swami as ‘Rentatragudu Tindi Mettanti Velpu’. In the Accha Telugu Harikatha, ‘Gourappa Pendli’, he renamed Sanskrit musical ragas as

Vasanta (Ragam):                  Amani Ravali   

Sri:                                         Kalimi Ravali

Kedaragowla:                         Polamugouru Ravali

Darbaru:                                 Dorakoluvu Ravali

Khamas:                                 Kammecchu Ravali

Kambhoji:                              Guruvenda Ravali

Todi:                                       Pendlamu Ravali

Trisrajati Eaka Talam:            Mudu Kuruchula Kolatagala Chappatlu (Talam with 3 kriyas)

Chaturasrajati Eka Talam:      Nalugu Kuruchala Kolatagala Chappatlu

In his earlier Ashtavadhana performances he included playing four talas with two hands and two thighs. In later years he extended it to five talas which he named Panchamukhi (the fifth being played with the head) and Shanmukhi (also known as laghuśekharam). The work ‘Dasa Vidha Raga Navati Kusuma Manjari’, mentioned earlier was written as a practical application (lakshana–lakshya) for Panchamukhi and Shanmukhi.

He named his translation of Sri Lalita Sahasra Namam, ‘Talli Vinki’; Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam, ‘Vennuni Veyi Perla Vinakari’; a selection of Aesop’s fables translated for children, ‘Nuruganti’; an independent work based on the Bhagavadgita, ‘Velpu Mata’; an introduction to Ayurvadam, ‘Manki Minku’; a dictionary of Accha Telugu words, ‘Seema Palku Vahi’ and a translation of select Ruks from Rigveda, ‘Mrokkubadi’ also known as ‘Ruksangrahamu’.

One of his seminal contributions to the field of classical music was the creation of a syncretic style fusing the Karnatic and Hindustani styles into the Karnatik–Hindustani hybrid style (or bani). This was what entranced Rabindranath Tagore, whom he first met him in 1913 during a performance of ‘Sri Krishna Jananam’ Sanskrit Harikatha in Kolkata. Tagore who met him ten years later in Vijayanagaram recalled “The Behag raga you sang in Kolkata is still ringing in my ears!” Tagore sought the music curriculum of Vijayanagaram Music College to be introduced in Viswa Bharati University. Similarly, the Maharaja of Mysore who did not have enough of his music―especially his rendering of Dhanyasi and Hindustani Bhairavi―had recorded his music in a phonograph. Narayana Das performed ‘Gajendra Mokshanamu’ and ‘Rukmini Kalyanamu’ Harikathas in the Maharaja’s durbar.  

My father taught me about fifty of Adibhatla Narayana Das’s keertanas. Each pallavi is in a class of its own. I still recall some of them I learnt in my younger days:

1.  Ramaa raghukula varnidhi somaa…

2.  Kannavaralenta dhanyulo… There is a pun in the usage of the word ‘kannavaralu’ in  this keertana, describing Sri Rama. In one sense it refers to his parents, ‘those who gave birth to him’. In another sense it means ‘those who saw him’.

3.  Nanu ganna talli naluvaranee…

4.  Varanasee, varanasee…

5.  Sujanaavanamoda! Sarva jagannaadhaa…

6.  Pendli kutulunbendlikodukulun velayu sogasu bhalira…

7.  Naumite charana…

8.  Nidanamuga nee padaravindamu…

Koccharlakota Ramaraju a famous violinist of Tatipaka (Rajolu taluka) played violin wielding the bow with his left hand. Adibhatla Narayana Das performed ‘Rukmini Kalyanam’ in his brother Ramadas’s residence. My father had the good fortune of singing as a vocal accompanist in the performance. Narayana Das began the Harikatha with the keertana ‘Narahari bhajana notanaraa, notanaraa notanakunte vinaraa…’.

Many connoisseurs of music and letters like Nyapati Subbarao Pantulu (a famous advocate of Rajamahendravaram); the Raja of Pithapuram; Kandukuri Veersalingam Pantulu (the famous writer and social reformer); Vaddadi Subbarayudu and Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, the Maharaja of Mysore were among Adibhatla Narayana Das’s admirers. It was Jayanti Kamesam Pantulu a famous advocate of Brahmapuram (Odisha) who first recognized Narayana Das’s innate talent.

Adibhatla Narayana Das was an iconic figure for the laity; ‘Pitamaha’ for Harikatha artistes; a giant among poets; ‘Nandiswara’ for dancers; a great thespian among actors; a spiritual beacon for devotees, an incarnation of Adi Sankara for Vedantists―all things considered, he was a male incarnation of Sarasvati! My father used to tell me that Tekumalla Govindarao, Simhadri Ayyappa, Bhagavatula Harisastry and Mallajosyula Venkanna had a hand in shaping his genius in his early, formative years.

It is necessary to recall the role played by his fourth elder brother Perayya Sastry (popularly known as Peranna) in Narayana Das’s artistic journey. Peranna accompanied his younger brother as a shadow playing Tambura and at times as a vocal accompanist, though he had a mellow voice. With his meditative power Narayana Das sacrificed his life for his grandson, Suryanarayana who was afflicted with a life-threatening form of small pox. He prayed Goddess Durga to spare the grandson and offering his life as barter. The miracle saved the grandson; but within days small pox consumed the great man.

My father used to recall that his Harikatha performances were accompanied by two Veenas, two Tamburas and a Mridangam. Peranna sat in the background holding a Tambura. Those were the days when people led simple lives believing in ‘simple living and high thinking’, with devotion uniting people. The performers on the stage did not look down upon their audience. They strove to elevate the thinking and souls of the viewers to a higher plane. They would be remembered as long as the sun, moon, the stars, the earth and the firmament … there is no change in them … it is the nature of man that had changed …     

The advent of the moving film swallowed the earlier arts and modes of entertainment. Harikathas, stage plays, Burrakathas and purana discourses have gradually disappeared. All we see around us is the glamour of the tinsel world. Human beings transformed into automatons; life turned mechanical. Bhagavan said “Spend a little time of your life meditating about me and you will be mine. I will ignore your faults and help you ascend a step up the ladder towards moksha…” The objective of Harikatha as envisaged by Narayana Das was to ennoble the human mind and turn it towards God even if it was during the duration of his performance. He hoped, over time it would acculturate the population with Dharmic thought. He devoted his entire life to achieve the objective. He produced great literature as a vehicle to achieve the objective.

[1] ‘The faculty of memory, mental impression or recollection, impression on the mind of acts done in a former state of existence’, one of the qualities described in the ‘Vaisesika’ school of philosophy propounded by sage ‘Kanada’. The philosophy includes ‘bhavana’ the faculty of reproductive imagination.

[2] Geetam Vadyam Tatha NrityamTrayam Sangeetam Uchyate — Sarangadhara. “Sangita Ratnakaram”

[3] Ashtavadhanam means performing eight literary tasks, monitored by eight panellists. The ashtavadhanams Narayana Das performed however had more than eight panellists on several occasions. The ashtavadhanams Narayana Das performed included 1. Composing poems on subjects specified by four panellists in Telugu and four in Sanskrit. 2. The verses were composed one line at a time for the each of the. On one occasion he had thirty panellists for whom he composed verses one line each at a time. 2. Composing a kriti on a specified subject in a specified raga and singing it synchronising it with four talas beaten with the hands and the thighs. 3. Composing a verse on a specified subject excluding a specified letter of the alphabet. 4. Arranging in proper sequence a fifty-word Greek passage given to him at random intervals. 5. Solving a mathematical problem. 6. Giving the correct number of flowers thrown at him at irregular intervals. 7. Giving the correct number of rings of bells rung at irregular intervals. 8. Answering irrelevant questions with wit and wisdom. 9. Conversing with a pannelist in Sanskrit or Telugu verse. All the verses composed during the performance were to be recited in the proper sequence at the end.

[4] Another disciple was Kondapalli Asirayya (or Erukayya) whom he renamed Kalyana Das. He taught him apart from Harikatha, ‘Panchamukhi’, a hard-to-achieve genre of tala performance, which requires intense concentration and long and assiduous practice.

[5] The College opened with six branches of music and the following were appointed as lecturers: Peri Sriramamurthy (Gatram); Nemani Varahala Das (Gatram–Junior Classes); Vasa Venkata Rao (Veena); Kattu Suranna (Veena–Junior Classes); Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu (Violin); Lingam Lakshmaji (Mridangam); Muniswami (Nadasvaram) and Natesam Pillai (Dolu).


The article was written for a special issue of, a half-yearly online magazine devoted to dance and other performing arts, published by Sahrdaya Arts Trust. The issue XXIII Volume 1, JanuaryJune2023, was specially brought out to commemorate the life and work of Adibhatla Narayana Das.