The works of Vengamamba are source of spiritual wisdom and cultural heritage.
Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam's (TTD) initiative to unearth the works of saint composers of Telugu land who have been buried in the sands of time and bring such unsung souls to the limelight, that we have come to sing praises of Saint Annamacharya and another less-known poetess Tarigonda Vengamamba whose death anniversary falls this month.
With TTD's mega funding, poets, artists, researchers are contributing and participating in these cultural festivities with pride. Tarigonda Vengamamba, the 18th century saint-poetess, unlike Annamacharya was a varied composer, not just keertanas but writings in different literary genre including a treatise on the essence of Ashtanga Yoga.
A child widow whose family was socially ostracised for defying the customs of a Brahmin widow, Vengamamba lived in Tarigonda learning yoga and sutras, the Puranas, Vedanta. The devotion of this spiritual seeker is reflected in the number of works she penned singing praises of the Lord at one stage, eulogising the power of the divine at another and revelling in mystic experiences.
If one observes her literary works carefully, one is sure to find a steady rise in spiritual maturity revealed in the Yakshaganas which she titled at times as ‘natakam' (Vishnu Parijatam, Rukmini Natakam, Siva Natakam, Balakrishna Natakam, Mukti kanti vilasam, Jalakrida vilasam and Gopi Natakam or Golla kalapam). Though written in spoken Telugu of her times, there is an intrinsic poetic value that cannot be ignored, with high spiritual truths delineated in the sweetest of tones. There is a glaring wisdom from the earlier verses like Nrusimha Satakam which are more devotional in nature than spiritual.
Vengamamba scripted Gopi Natakam or Golla Kalapam had disappeared from her native place and found its way into the Devadaasi repertoire of East Godavari district, who reverently stage it to this day with utmost devotion and artistry. Later, it got re-written in the hands of erudite scholars, but the native version still exists with a Devadasi family who has been preserving and presenting it in its pristine form despite all odds.
The Gopi Natakam is a treatise on spiritualism narrated in the simplest of tones. It forms into episodes dealing with the soul's journey through life and beyond death. There is also a graphical description of the womb, and the gestation cycle, the birth (Viniki ghattam) and the issue of life after death (Yagnapattu), and finally the annihilation of ego (Tripurasamhara) to realise ultimate truth. All this is placed in conversation format between a milkmaid and a Brahmin. Why did the poetess choose a milkmaid (gollabhama) to challenge the Brahmin, one may ponder?
The dairy community is a symbolic interface between the Vedic class and the others in the social hierarchy from time immemorial. Freedom of expression is a milkman/maid's forte. The milkmaid is the symbol of illusory world: she can transform milk (ultimate truth) into curd, butter, ghee (unreal real).
Hence she is addressed as ‘Mohanangi' who actually dispels ignorance, combats ego and bestows wisdom (Gyana Saraswati) in the end. She is the direct descendent of the saviour Krishna. The Gopi Natakam is a satire condemning the sacrificial rites propagated and presided over by the priestly class which eschews meat. There is irony in this fact. The language is colloquial Telugu with sarcasm and wit interlaced.Janmana jaayathe sudraha; karmana jaayathe dwijaha; Vedadhayayane cha viprathvam; Brahma gynanena Brahmanaha
Despite individual contributions to the cause of Vengamamba's poetic literature, there still remains a vast area that is grey and the onerous task ahead for the TTD is to retrieve what is left of the manuscripts and immortalis them in digital/print archives for the future generation to know how rich a heritage the Telugu land bestowed upon us.