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.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Talli Vinki — Nātu-Telugu versification of Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram

The versatile genius of Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās (1864-1945) as an aṣṭāvadhāni, writer, poet, composer, linguist, dancer and actor is well known. He was the creator of the performing art harikatha which is a composite of five distinct arts—purāṇik storytelling; poetry and classical music, pre-written and composed extempore; dancing and acting. He wrote twenty-one harikathas (which he called yakṣagānās); seventeen in Telugu, three in Sanskrit and one in Telugu devoid of Sanskrit terms. The literary component of the harikathas is characterized by rich imagery and idiom. As the yakṣagānās were written to be performed on stage they were imbued with euphony in every line and a piquancy flavour in every passage and verse. In addition to choosing rāgas and tāḷas appropriate to the contexts in which the kṛtis were composed, he experimented with rare and innovative rāgas and tāḷas, and special features like svarākṣara kṛtis and rāga mudras. His aṣṭāvadhāna performances, which he commenced much before he wrote his first literary work, had musical elements. Just as other aṣṭāvadhānis composed verses on demand, he composed kṛtis extempore in specified rāgas and tāḷas and sang them to synchronize with two or four tāḷas

Nārāyaṇa Dās wrote his first literary work when he just turned twenty. It was Aṃbarīṣa Caritra (1883). The harikatha has been hailed for the beauty of its language, innovative storytelling and the depth of its philosophical insights. From then on for the next sixty years he produced magnificent literature in a variety of genres: prose, poetry, music, drama etc. They included moral stories for children, allegorical poems suffused with deep philosophical insights, philosophical treatises and translations.

There were three distinct phases in Nārāyaṇa Dās’ literary odyssey. The first, 1883–1910, was entirely devoted to writing in Sanskritised Telugu (also known as miśrama-Telugu), the language in which most Telugu literature was and has been written to this day. In the second phase, between 1910 and 1920 he wrote both in Sanskrit and Sanskritised Telugu. The third phase began around 1920, when he set out to compare and contrast the beauties of Shakespeare and Kāḷidās in a monumental study, he titled Nava Rasa Taraṅgiṇi (1922). It was no mean task to vet the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays and one hundred and fifty-four sonnets; select passages in which the nine rasas (moods or sentiments) are portrayed; pick up similar portrayals from Kāḷidās’ plays and kāvyas, and contrast their relative beauties and merits. The different languages in which the esteemed poets wrote presented a difficulty for their comparison. Therefore, Nārāyaṇa Dās decided to translate them both into Telugu for evaluating their relative merits. Here he saw a second difficulty. A thousand poets before him must have translated Sanskrit works into Telugu but none burdened himself with the rule that a translation from Sanskrit to Telugu should not contain either tatsama (equivalent) or tadbhava (derivative) Sanskrit words. There is a variant called acca-Telugu, in which tadbhava words are permitted, but it would not do for him. He therefore chose what he termed as u-Telugu[1] totally excluding tatsama and tadbhava words for his translations of Shakespeare and Kāidās. If he could not find a suitable word to translate a Sanskrit word, he coined it. Similarly, he created a corpus of u-Telugu technical words for use in Āyurvēda, poetics and music. Nava Rasa Taraṅgiṇi in effect launched the third phase of his literary career. From then on, most of his literary works were in u-Telugu. There were two exceptions: his musical magnum opus Daśa Vidha Rāga Navati Kusuma Mañjari (1938), and his philosophical magnum opus Jagajjyōti (1939-43).

Though an accomplished litterateur and musician, Nārāyaṇa Dās chose harikatha as his principal vocation for he believed that inculcation of bhakti was the means to attain an exalted level of consciousness and eventually mōkṣa. In almost six decades, in hundreds of performances from Kolkata to Kanyakumari he strove to instill bhakti in the minds of his audiences. Though most of his literature reflects this ideal, two works through which he sought to win the almighty with the intense ardour of his bhakti deserve mention.

In 1908, his fourth elder brother and lifelong mate in his artistic odyssey, Pērayya Śāstry fell seriously ill. His doctors gave up hope. Nārāyaṇa Dās sat by his bedside, composed and recited Mṛtyuñjaya Śiva Śatakam. In it he laid bare his heart and spread it at the feet of “Mṛtyuñjaya Śiva” as it were. In the composition he pleaded, beseeched, wailed and even threatened Mṛtyuñjaya Śiva, the god of laya, to spare the life of his beloved brother. He earnestly wanted his brother to outlive him. His wish was granted and his elder brother not only survived the severe illness but outlived him.

The second work of a similar nature is Talli Vinki, nātu-Telugu versification of Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram. Talli Vinki was his last work written between 1943 and his demise on January 2, 1945. In this work, Nārāyaṇa Dās did not seek a boon for himself but to fulfill the wishes of all his compatriots.

At the beginning of Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Viṣṇu informs Brahma that the trinity, Brahma, Viṣṇu and Mahēśvara create, sustain and retrieve life at the behest of Ādi Parāśakti, the supreme mother goddess. The introduction to Talli Vinki is an erudite elucidation of mother, motherhood and mother goddess Ādi Parāśakti, reflecting what Viṣṇu says in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.[2]

The following discussion is in part summarized from the introduction[3] to Talli Vinki, except where otherwise indicated. Spirituality has been accorded a prime position in Indian philosophical thought. Ancient Indian ethos laid great store by the control of physical senses and abjuring sensual pleasures as a means for the pursuit of mōkṣa. The sages, who transcribed the śṛtis, recognized that though it was an ideal, it was not possible for everyone to achieve. Therefore, in their infinite wisdom they prescribed a three-tiered approach comprising karma, upāsana and jñāna, with jñāna being the ultimate goal of spirituality. Ascendance from one stage to another is contingent on the success or adhikārita achieved in it. The first part karma is for everyone and includes the practice of dharma in the pursuit of artha and kāma.

The second step upāsana requires strong will and self-control. The practitioner (or upāsakaḥ) focuses his entire consciousness on the single deity he intends to internalize, while excluding all other thoughts. He meditates with the appropriate mantra till he experiences an inner ecstasy, an illumination. In effect, the upāsakaḥ ‘experiences’ the deity. In congruence with the meditation, the outward behaviour of the upāsakaḥ should conform to dharma. In order to internalize and experience the deity, the impure body has to be purified not just physically but by excising all impure or adhārmik thoughts. The upāsakaḥ should first understand the ṛṣi, chanda, daiva forms of the mantra. In the initial stages the upāsakaḥ visualizes the deity outside and apart from him but as he ascends the meditative ladder, when he achieves adhikārita, a stage comes when he visualizes that he and the deity are not different. This is the stage at which the upāsakaḥ really internalizes the deity. In the karma phase different practitioners see the same truth differently. In the jñāna phase the differentiation ceases and the practitioner experiences the deity. The upāsana phase bridges the two.

Three states of consciousness are described in the Māṇūkya Upaniṣat. They are wakefulness, dreaming and dreamless sleep. The fourth, the state of transcendental (or ultimate) consciousness is known as turīya—literally, the fourth state in Sanskrit. It is also described as nirvāṇa. In his Yōga Sūtras, Patañjali̍ described it as samādhi or intense abstract meditation.[4]It is in this state that the upāsakaḥ begins to experience the deity, which eventually leads him to the jñāna phase.

For those who cannot graduate through the three phases, karma, upāsana and jñāna as prescribed by the Vēdas, ancillary works known as smṛtis, (the six vēdāgas¸ the one hundred and eight upaniṣats, the eighteen purāṇas, the two itihāsas Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata et al) were written by the sages. In order to enlighten ordinary human beings about the path to achieve jñāna, some knowledge parts of the smṛtis were included in the purāṇas. Thus, Rudrādhyayam was included in Sūtasaṃhita, and Bhagavadgīta, Sanatsujātīyam and Viṣṇusahasranāma Stōtram in Mahābhārata. Similarly, Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram was included in Brahmāṇḍa purāṇa. The absorption of knowledge by ordinary enthusiasts of jñāna however depends on the adhikārita achieved by them.

At the age of eight Hindu boys are initiated into vēdik education beginning with the instruction for intonation of the gāyatri mantra. The instruction is conducted by the father to the son. The objective of intonating gāyatri mantra is to develop mind control. Though gāyatri is Brahmavidya, which amounts to worship of a male deity in nature, it is taught to the boy in the form of worship of the mother goddess. Instruction of gāyatri mantra takes two forms. The gāyatri imparted by the father while initiating the son into vēdik education consists of the twenty-four-syllable mantra which is known as the ‘overt’ gāyatri mantra. There is another form of worship of the mother goddess which is learnt as part of the karmaupāsana–jñāna  progression. In view of the cryptic nature of the worship, it requires initiation by a guru. The ‘cryptic’ gāyatri is also known as Lalitāvidya. Unlike the ‘overt’ gāyatri mentioned earlier which is imparted in boyhood, initiation into Lalitāvidya can be done at any age. Among all learning Lalitāvidya is considered to be the most sacred. Hence it is also known as Śrīvidya. The deity Lalita is symbolized in the Śrīcakra for the worship or upāsana. According to the smṛtis, not only the desire to learn Śrīvidya follows purity of mind during several preceding births but the birth during which Śrīvidya is learnt would be the culmination of the cycle of births:

Caramē janmani yathā śrīvidyōpāsakō bhavēt |

Nāma sāhasra paṭhasca tathā caramajanmani ||

The primary text for learning the Śrīvidya is Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram. The Sanskrit word ‘sahasra’ normally means a thousand but in this context, it need not notate a number. Depending upon the strength of his desire and the intensity of his ardour the upāsakaḥ can choose any one of the following five deities for internalizing through intense abstract meditation. They are Aṃbikā (Lakṣmi, Sarasvati), Śiva, Viṣṇu (Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Hayagrīva), Gaṇapati, Sūrya.[5] The ṛṣis of sanātanadharma internalized these deities through their upāsana. Based on their spiritual experiences, they revealed the divine nature of the deities encoded in the stōtras. Among all the stōtras, Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram may be said to be the most sacred. The sahasranāma stōtras of all other deities generally list synonyms of their names, define their general nature and describe their conquests. Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram is different. Every name is an aphorism and has a deep cryptic meaning. In point of fact, the stōtram encodes the entire corpus of knowledge that was revealed in the four Vēdas.

Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās might have commenced his Śrīvidya upāsana quite early in life but he wrote the commentary at a mature age―he turned eighty when he commenced it. He fervently wanted to share the illumination he experienced with his compatriots―in a language they did not know was theirs, but hoped at some time they would, enticed by the lyrical euphony of his translation. Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram is believed to be written by the eight deities known as Vāgdēvis in the Sāmavēda tradition to be chanted in a rhythmic metrical intonation. It would be appropriate for any translation to be written in a similar melodic metrical rhythm. Talli Vinki may be said to be the first poetic translation capable of being chanted in such a rhythmic metrical intonation. The translation is in the dvipada or in the long form mañjarīdvipada metre that lends the text a melodic flavour for chanting. In each verse he defined the name, explained its significance and the benefits it bestows on the upāsakaḥ. In some cases where the cryptic names need instruction of a guru, he merely translated them without further explanation.

Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās finished translation of the work in 1944 and was eager to publish it but could not do so because of scarcity of paper (and many other commodities) caused by the war raging in Europe. In late 1944, he was faced with one of the most critical situations in his life. It was one of those crises, which puts a man’s character to an existential test. In a way the goddess might have given him an opportunity to demonstrate the prowess of his upāsana. His only grandson who just turned twenty-two was afflicted with a very severe form of small pox. Again, as in the case of his elder brother, doctors had no hopes about the young man’s survival. He meditated a whole night chanting Śrīlalitāsahasranāma Stōtram praying the goddess to bless his grandson with life and offering his life as barter. Miraculously the grandson began recuperating from the next day and was completely healthy in nine days. On the tenth day, January 2, 1945 Ādibhaṭla Nārāyaṇa Dās, the sage, shuffled out of his mortal coil.

[1](1967). “Nāṭu Telugu”. Introduction to Sīma Palku Vahi, Nāṭu Telugu–Telugu dictionary In Ādibhaṭṭa Nārāyaṇa Dāsa Vyāsa Pīṭhamu. (1974). Joga Rao, S. V. (Ed.). Eswara Rao, K. (Publisher). Guntur. pp 67-90.

[2]Narayana Das, Adibhatla. (1974). “Mattu” (Introduction). Talli Vinki. Ibid.pp 110-121.

[3]Neelakantha Sastry, Oruganti. (1974).“Toli Paluku” (Introduction).Narayana Das, Adibhatla. Talli Vinki, (1974).Joga Rao, S. V. (Ed.).Dasa Bharati Prachuranalu. Guntur.

[4]Prabhavananda, Swami. 1977. The Spiritual Heritage of India. Sri Ramakrishna Math. Madras.p.15

[5]Over time many other sahasranāma stōtras have been composed and chanted but only the five (including their parenthetical variations mentioned) were ordained by the ṛṣis and may be said to have vēdik imprimatur.