Monday, April 15, 2013

Composing Ambarisha Charitramu in one night!

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.

*** *** ***


Buoyed by the success of his debut at Vizianagaram Narayana Das set out on a tour of the country, his first stop being the Samsthanam* of Urlam, which was well known for its patronage of arts, culture and Samskrit studies**. Here he delivered his second Hari Katha performance in the court of Zamindarini Kandukuri Mahalakshmamma. Impressed by his ability of asukavitvam (literally, composing poetry extempore), the courtier-pundits wanted to know whether he could perform Asta-avadhanam, to which he answered in the positive. Delighted as much by Narayana Das’ asta-avadhanam arranged next day as she was by his Hari Katha and asukavitvam earlier, the Zamindarini offered him a ‘varshikam’.

After Urlam, he performed Hari Kathas at many places in the region. H. R. Bardswell, the sub-collector of Srikakulam district was so impressed by his performance at Narasannapeta that he became his fan and life-long friend. At Berhampore, Kuppuswami Naidu, the inspiration behind his creation of Hari Katha was among the audience. Very much impressed by the performance, he wanted to know who the guru who taught Narayana Das was. Narayana Das informed him that while there was no guru, he himself was the inspiration.

Also at Berhampore Narayana Das added Jaynthi Kamesam Pantulu, an advocate, educationist and poet to his multiplying horde of fans and life-long friends. Narayana Das was so overwhelmed by the love and affection that Kamesam Pantulu showered on him that he dedicated his autobiography Naa Eruka to him when he died.

It was at Chatrapuram that an interesting episode prompted him to compose his second Hari Katha. Till then, he was performing his first composition, Dhruvacharitra. His performance was so impressive that a member of the elite audience wondered whether the young man really did write the Hari Katha. When Narayana Das affirmed that it was indeed he that wrote it, he was challenged to write Ambarisha Charitramu and perform it. He was given a week to do so. Narayana Das accepted the challenge but wrote it overnight – not in one week that was given to him – and performed it the next morning.

During the trip, Narayana Das performed at Lokanadham villege Sangeetha-ashta-avadhanam - of which mention has been made earlier - introducing musical elements into ashta-avadhanam.

By the time he returned to Vizianagaram, the transformation of Suryanarayana into Narayana Das was complete. He just turned twenty. As he entered his twenty first year he married Narasamma, the daughter of Vadlamani Annappa.

* A Samsthanam is smaller than a kingdom, the equivalent of a principality, also sometimes referred to as a Zamindari.

** The ‘Urlam Examination’ in Samskrit studies was known for its methodology and rigour and had a standing similar to that of a degree obtained in Kashi.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Creation Of Harikatha

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.

*** *** ***
Those were the days when a performing artiste was tried, tested and stretched in every performance. The aesthete audiences expected nothing less than avant-garde performances. It was an unrelenting ambience with its inexorable demands for excellence. It was also the perfect setting for an artiste who vowed to himself that he would be second to none!

The fields chosen by Narayana Das were such that they required a combination of faculties to be brought into play far more than in the case of other performing arts.

For instance the audience of a music concert seeks in the artiste, melody in voice, the ability to delineate ragas and innovative rendition of the finer points of music. The audience of a dance performance seeks in the artiste, radiance of beauty, fluidity of grace, nimbleness of foot and expressiveness of various emotions. The audience of a drama seeks in the actors, the ability to express and evoke suitable emotional responses for various moods in them apart from dialogue delivery which includes accent, clarity, intonation, mood and modulation of speech.

An audience of Purana Kalakshepam seeks in the exponent, an eloquence of speech, a felicity of expression, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures and allied literature and the ability to annotate examples from them to illustrate a moral or philosophical point. The performance of an ‘avadhanam’ requires firstly a phenomenal memory, the ability to compose and recite poetry extempore and an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, scriptures and men and matters.

On the other hand the performance of ‘Hari Katha’ requires almost all of these faculties – story-telling, singing, dancing, acting and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures - to be employed simultaneously to make it a delectable treat. And Narayana Das used to enliven his performances by customising his performance to suit the tastes and talent of the audience.

*** *** ***

It was while Narayana Das was studying for matriculation examination that the seeds for the creation of Hari Katha were sown in his prolific imagination. He happened to see Kuppuswami Naidu, a bhagavatar from Madras performing a Hari Katha. It was in the Tamil tradition in which the bhagavatar narrated the story and there was a ‘second fiddle’ to render devotional music during interludes.

Narayana Das described his creation as a ‘yakshagana prabandhamu’ in his introduction to several Hari Kathas and in his magazine/newspaper articles. He elaborated the definition of Hari Katha as a ‘performing art that comprises dance, music and acting (of the various characters in the story) by a single artiste’. Improvised poetry (asukavitvam) was a necessary component of a Hari Kadha exponent’s repertoire.

Narayana Das explained that there were references to a form of Hari Katha in the Vedas. The ‘Vedic’ Hari Katha was a performing art involving narration of a story with music, singing accompanied by veena and dance by two artistes. The performer of a Yajna was enjoined by the rules of the ritual to keep awake throughout its course. Hari Katha was performed to facilitate this and entertain the other participants.

The acting part is as germane to the performance of Hari Katha as defined by Narayana Das as are singing, dancing and pleasing narration. How then does an actor whose manliness is all too apparent, impersonate female roles in his narration? This is what Sthänam Narasimha Rao, the veteran stage actor who specialised in portraying female roles - in more than 1500 stage performances – had to say of Narayana Das:

All of us stage actors make an attempt to internalise the physical and mental attributes of the roles that we portray; the script, makeup, props, dress, hairdo and change of voice etc play no mean role, and especially while playing female roles…Yet at times during a performance, if one is not up to it, the actor’s masculinity peeks out. It is not so with Narayana Das. He enlivens each character that he narrates…he sings, dances and ‘talks’ them and carries his audience along with him. Remember, in his case he did not use makeup or any props. His audiences physically saw the well-built, six-foot, moustachioed figure in male garb but were so transported by his acting that they saw in him a shy Rukmini, a demure Sita, an angry Viswamitra, a villainous Ravana or a heroic Rama. And that is, the acme of acting!

A consummate actor exhibits as much skill in evoking similar emotional responses from the audience to the rasas (emotions or moods) he enacts as much in enlivening the various characters he portrays. Narayana Das’ enactment of the karuna-rasa during a performance of Harischandropakhyanam so moved Maharani Appalakondayamba (Rewah) to tears that as soon as the performance was over she begged him to present in future only those Hari Kathas which did not make her cry.

The ‘Hari Katha’ Narayana Das practised during his lifetime was not only a performing art for entertainment. His stated objectives for ‘Hari Katha were deliverance of Bhakti, Jnana and Moksha – or the paths to attain them.

For Narayana Das, the creation of Hari Katha was both a boon and bane at the same time. He elevated the erstwhile folk art form to a higher pedestal on par with classical music and literary colloquia. There were many instances when his Hari Kathas went beyond the musical and narrative kernel of a performing art to provide a platform for discourses on scripture, literature, literary criticism, dance, music and musicology - depending upon the composition and tastes of his audience.

On an occasion while performing a Hari Katha at the residence of Somina Kameswara Rao in Rajahmundry he observed the famous poet Chellapilli Venkata Sastry and other litterateurs among the audience. While narrating a scene in which Sita propitiated Durga he ‘enacted’ the puja explaining the process in lucid in Samskrit, exhibiting his erudition of the language, its complex grammar and rich idiom.  

Narayana Das had a rich voice, which in those days when there were no microphones reached the farthest of an audience of ten thousand. An interesting anecdote illustrates the richness of his megaphone voice. When he was performing a Hari Katha near a railway station no one except the signalman noticed the passing of a train, the thunderous rumble of its wheels or the Doppler effect of the engine’s shrill whistle failing to register on the consciousness of the audience which was captured by the artiste on the dais.

Hari Katha helped Narayana Das lead an independent life by providing a means of livelihood. It entertained and educated millions of his countrymen from Calcutta to Kanyakumari and earned him the title “Hari-Katha-Pitamaha”. But Hari Katha, which was only a small part of his oeuvre, obscured his other major achievements in literature and music.

Narayana Das wrote Dhruvacharitra, his first Hari Katha in 1883 when he was just nineteen. In it he included not only his own compositions but some verses from Bammera Pothana’s Bhagavatam and fables from the Panchatantra. Blessed by his elder brother Seetharamaiah who tied strings of bells (ghungroos or gajjelu in Telugu) across his ankles and accompanied by another elder brother Peranna on Tambura he debuted with a performance of Dhruvacharitra at the Venugopalaswami temple in Vizianagaram.

The debut performance did two things: firstly, it won him encomiums from the elite audience who prophesied that young Suryanarayana was on his way to eternal fame and secondly, it well and truly launched - Narayana Das - on his artistic odyssey! He acted, danced and sang his way into the hearts of his audiences in thousands of Hari Katha performances for the next six decades.

Narayana Das wrote twenty-one Hari Kathas - seventeen in Telugu, three in Samskrit and one in Atcha-Telugu but it was only in his first Hari Katha that he incorporated verses from other writers. The rest were all his own hand-crafted master pieces; literary, characterised by a richness of creativity, idiom, imagery, language and figure of speech and musical in their use of melodies and rare and innovative ragas. 

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.”