Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pandit Narayana Das & Avadhanams

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.

Narayana Das performed ashta-avadhanams to exacting standards and stipulations. Ashta-vadhanam is the literary equivalent of psychometrics that puts to test the creativity, intelligence and phenomenal memory of the Avadhani (performer). A panel of eight members (pruchchakulu, singular pruchchakudu) puts the Avadhani through the paces to perform eight different tasks in a given sequence relying only on his memory without any external aid. According to his biographers, the Ashta-avadhanams Narayana Das performed, varied in content depending on the occasion.

For example, an Ashta-avadhanam he performed during his student days while studying for his F.A. examination at Vishakhapatnam (1887-88) comprised the following: 
  1. Unravelling and arranging in proper sequence a jumbled fifty-word Greek passage. 
  2. Reciting a specified puranik passage and composing music for it. 
  3. Reading from a book that is being spun
  4. Solving an algebra problem. 
  5. Keeping a count of flowers thrown at him. The flowers were thrown from behind and the Avadhani had to count them from touch on his bare back. 
  6. Conversing with a panellist in a way that the output results in a poem of a given prosody. 
  7. Composing poetry extempore on a given topic in Samskrit and Telugu
  8. Composing poetry excluding a specified letter.  
(Gundavarapu Lakshmi Narayana. 1983. Narayana DarsanamuFootnote 12, p 14.)

Another Ashta-avadhanam performed in Bandar (1988-89) which included a music component for the first time had thirteen instead of the usual eight panellists and comprised the following:
  1. Singing a pallavi while playing two different talas with the shoulders and two more with the palms, at a beat specified by a panellist.
  2. Mentally solving a mathematical problem.
  3. Composing poetry extempore in specified prosodies as stipulated by four panellists in Samskrit and four in Telugu.
  4. Unravelling and arranging in proper sequence a jumbled passage.
  5. Composing poetry excluding a specified letter.
  6. Extempore speech on a specified subject in English. (According to Rallabandi, this element was introduced and performed only by Narayana Das).
  7. Keeping a count of flowers thrown at him.
  8. Conversing with a panellist in a given prosody. Narayana Das termed this Asadhya-ashta-avadhanam presumably meaning that it was very difficult to perform. 
(Gundavarapu Lakshmi Narayana. 1983. Narayana Darsanamu. Footnote 14, p 17. and Rallabandi Kavita Prasad. 2006. Avadhana Vidya - Arambha Vikasalu. p.48. & 237.)

Rallabandi mentions Sangeetha-ashta-avadhanam, another variation of Asadhya-Ashta-avadhanam performed by Narayana Das. It includes composing a kriti based on a specified raga and tala; singing a kriti synchronising it with the three different talas played by three different panellists. (Rallabandi Kavita Prasad. 2006. Avadhana Vidya - Arambha Vikasalu. p.113).

These 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.

Wednesday, March 27, 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, March 26, 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.    

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Daśa Viḍha Rāga Navati Kusuma Mañjari

Daśa Viḍha Rāga Navati Kusuma Mañjari is a musical work in which Pandit Adibhatla Narayana Das exhibited his monumental skill in literary craftsmanship and musical composition.  It is a rāga mālika comprising ninety ragas in ten categories and nine rāgas 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 rāga mālika 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. Thus the composer dictated the ragas in which each line should be sung. The same ragas are repeated in the inverse order in the second half. The rāga mālika can be sung in all tālās evolving from the five jātis of eka-tāla.

Another important feature of this raga malika is this: while a vocalist sings it, and five musicians keep time each with a different eka-tāla, by the time the raga-malika is completely sung all the eka-tālas could be concluded and not in between.

If a musician can accomplish singing the rāga mālika to five different tālās 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 Sadyojatha, Vamadeva, Eesana, Tatpurusha and Aghora. The performance of Panchamukhi earned Pandit Narayana Das the title of Panchamuki-Parameswara. 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 also known as Laghusekharam in musical theory. The performance of five and six talas earned him the title, Layabrahma.

Mahamahopadhyaya’, ‘SangeethasekharaNookala 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.” 

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Translation of Khayyam's works released" - The Hindu

The report which appeared in The Hindu, Vijayawada on May 6, 2012
The report which appeared in Eenadu, Vijayawada on May 6, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Adibhatla's Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam published by Sahitya Akademi

The Kendriya Sahitya Akademi recently re-published Pandit Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das' Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam, first published in 1932, under its 'Rare Books Series' programme. The book was released at a function organised by the Sahitya Akademi and Vijayawada Book Festival Society at Vijayawada on May 5, 2012. (See the English and Telugu invitations below.) The event was prominently reported by The Hindu, The Hans India and Eenadu among other newspapers. For details of  Pandit Srimadajjada Adibhatla Narayana DasRubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam see these reviewsA Monument Of Scholarship and Body's Soul & Earth Is Heaven

Seen in the picture are from left to right: R. C. Mahesh, Regional Secretary, Sahitya Akademi; Upadhyayula Narayana Das, great-grandson of Pandit Narayana Das; Jayasri Mohanraj, translator and Professor, English & Foreign Languages Universtiy, Hyderbadad; Turlapati Kutumba Rao, writer and journalist, P. Satyavathi, writer and U. A. Narasimha Murthy, literary critic and writer.