Scholar and poet Munipalle Subramanya Kavi has become a forgotten composer. However, efforts are on now to preserve his kirtanas for posterity.
Long before I knew who Munipalle Subramanya Kavi was or what Adhyatma meant, I was listening to his compositions. Among the many lyrics of Subramanya Kavi which my mother used to sing when I was a child were - Andamuga Eekadha Vinave (Kanada ragam), Sriramuni Ganchenu (Shankarabharanam) and her favourite, Ee Samsayamu Vaarimpave (Regupti).
A pioneering composer with high musical merit, Munipalle Subramanya Kavi (estimated, 1730-1780) was a scholar, poet and musician in the Kalahasti court of king Damerla Thimmappa Nayaka. However, there is little authentic historical record about aspects like his personal life, students, etc. It is also not certain that Subramanya’s entire body of work has been found. However, we know that he composed Adhyatma Ramayana Keerthanalu (mostly in Telugu) and also Telugu padams in praise of Thimmapa Nayaka. “These padams include Manasu Vachchithe Rammanave (Mukhari), Nrupasikhamanivauvra (Saveri), and Cheliya Ee Virahamu (Anandabhairavi), explains well-known musician Malladi Suribabu. “However, these are not sung today.”
Subramanya Kavi’s magnum-opus is Adhyatma Ramayana Keerthanalu, literally Spiritual Ramayana’s lyrics. His retelling of the Ramayana is through music using kirtanas/lyrics, conceived as a conversation in music between Shiva and Parvati. She asks questions about the Ramayana and Shiva replies with a narration of the story in so many lyrics. The opening piece is a paean to Shiva –– the well-known Sanskrit lyric Namah Shivaya (Dhanyasi). It finds place in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi repertoires. Explains Suribabu: “There are 104 kirtanas spread over six kandas. Balakanda has 17, Ayodhyakanda nine, Aranyakanda 11, Kishkindhakanda 10, Sundarakanda 10, Yuddhakanda 47. They are narration-oriented pieces with a beautiful flavour of traditional music. The ragachaaya is revealed in each lyric.” The mudra is Seshasaila.
Subramanya’s lyrics came down with sahityam and ragas mentioned. Some books have notation too. However, says musician-musicologist Pemmaraju Surya Rao: “It is not certain that the notation was by him. So, we can’t say whether the current tunes are the ones he composed––they have just come down to us through the generations.” Possibly, the tunes are by Subramanya himself transmitted via an oral tradition, but no one is completely sure. Especially because there is no known shishya-parampara. Over time, Subramanya Kavi became a largely forgotten composer. His adhyatma lyrics became confined to temples and homes. They did not feature in kacheris –– it is widely believed that their numerous, word-heavy, long-sentence-filled charanams were the reason. Also due to a lack of shishya-parampara to propagate them. This treasure would have been totally lost but for the efforts of AIR Vijayawada and musical giant Voleti Venkateswarulu in the 1970s.
A music-lover, Jonnalagadda Shivashankara Sastry, who knew all kirtanas was invited to AIR, Vijayawada. Voleti listened to his renditions, recognised the tunes, refined some of them and wrote the notation –– in all about 70 to 80 kirtanas. Later, under Voleti’s direction they were rendered over AIR, Vijayawada by leading artistes –– Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, MV Ramanamurthy, Vinjamuri Lakshmi, Srirangam Gopalarathnam, N.C.V. Jagannathacharyulu, Balijepalli Ramakrishna Sastry, Pemmaraju Surya Rao, M.S. Balasubramanya Sarma, and K.V. Brahmanandam. “In the above renditions, the charanams are in faster tempo to enable singing of the long sentences quickly and continuously,” explains Suribabu. “It was probably sung like that earlier too including by Subramanya Kavi himself.” In recent years, we have occasionally heard renditions by Suribabu, Malladi Brothers, Nedunuri, Saraswati Vidyardhi, etc. Suribabu and Malladi Brothers are attempting to record these kirtanas with notation and preserve them for posterity.