Showing posts with label Malladi Suribabu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Malladi Suribabu. Show all posts

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.