Music

On the trail of Muvva’s unsung poet

The front view of Muvva Venugopalaswamy temple  

The ‘sacred geography’ of India, to borrow a term made famous by author Diana L. Eck, is dotted with villages and towns that are historically and emotionally connected to one popular deity of a local temple, who takes precedence over all others.

 

Tirupati in the south or Benaras in the north may just be names that resonate in our collective consciousness but there are many other such places, perhaps less celebrated but just as important for the devout. Most of these deities, especially in south India, have been the silent force behind the musical genius of many a composer or poet, lending a touch of renown to these small villages and towns. Think Tyagaraja and Tiruvaiyaru; think Annamayya and Tirupati, think Bhakta Ramadasu and Bhadrachalam. Place and poet are conjoined for eternity.

Sri Muvva Venugopalaswamy temple history inscribed on one of the walls

Sri Muvva Venugopalaswamy temple history inscribed on one of the walls  

Muvva, in present-day Andhra Pradesh, is one such temple town. The place is intimately connected with its local deity, Venugopala Swamy, who is the protagonist of many padams penned by the inimitable Kshetrayya. As Muvva’s Venugopala Swamy, the god is immortalised as the young cavorting Krishna, playing his flute, feet crossed in the holy swastika. Not many people might know that Muvva is the birthplace of another poet, who has remained shrouded in relative obscurity. Puvvada Sri Ramadasu, born in 1845, was also a gifted son of Muvva. Perhaps a contemporary of Muthuswami Dikshitar, he is believed to have penned several hundred compositions. Ramadasu’s piety is celebrated with a legend of how he was once bitten by a rattlesnake, but carried on with his prayers unperturbed, following which the impressed rattlesnake returned and sucked the poison out from him.

Puvvada Seshagiri Rao, Venugopal’s grandfather

Puvvada Seshagiri Rao, Venugopal’s grandfather  

Unfortunately, of the hundreds of keertanas written by him, only 10 have survived, a great loss to musical history. Now, a descendant of Sri Ramadasu, Puvvada Venugopal, has taken up the task of putting together these 10 compositions and making them available to not just music connoisseurs but also lay persons.

Restoring old works

Venugopal, head of Engineering Design at Qualcomm in Bengaluru, seemingly far removed from the world of art and culture, is committed to the idea of restoring his ancestor to his rightful place in the pantheon of Telugu poet-composers. Along with his brother Vithal, sister Sreedevi, and wife Meera, Venugopal is spearheading the revival project that was initiated by his father Thikkana Somayaji, a writer of padyalu (Telugu poetry). Somayaji collected all available material and published the book Muvva Gopala Swamy Keertanalu in 1990.

Venugopal with father Thikkana Somayaji, mother Indira, brother Vithal, sister Sreedevi, and wife Meera

Venugopal with father Thikkana Somayaji, mother Indira, brother Vithal, sister Sreedevi, and wife Meera  

The family has a long-standing and illustrious association with poetry and music. Puvvada Seshagiri Rao, Venugopal’s grandfather, was also a celebrated writer of padyalu. Telugu padyalu are rich in content and complex, with great importance accorded to meter, of which there is a dazzling variety, often leading to highly challenging permutations and combinations of syllables and words. It was Seshagiri Rao’s father who salvaged about 30 of Sri Ramadasu’s manuscripts but a fire destroyed all but 10.

The compositions give a glimpse of the versatility of the poet who wrote in praise of not just Venugopala Swamy but also other deities such as Rama and Shiva as Bhimeshwara and Ramalingeshwara — a secular approach rarely seen in poet-composers, who are usually devoted to one particular god. Ramadasu’s songs are mostly steeped in the spirit of sharanagati or surrender, with the exception of one, which opens with very unusual lyrics. The narrator, a gopika, is remonstrating with Krishna and telling him not to come seeking her as she is now a nursing mother and doesn’t have any time or inclination for frivolities! One wonders at the wealth of writing that must have emanated from the quill of this man if this unusual piece is anything to go by.

Since the songs seem amenable to dance, the revival has been designed as an audio-visual project that includes choreographies in Bharatanatyam by Bengaluru-based dancer Geeta Sirisha. Several other people are on board, with the pieces set to tune by vidwan Srivatsa, a musician from Bengaluru, while a few others are being composed by Keertana Vaidyanathan, a disciple of Bombay Jayashri.

Aalaap, a Chennai-based platform for the performing arts, is the social media partner for this project, and it hopes to reach out to a larger audience through the videos, opening up the door to further possibilities of collaboration.

The classical dancer is the artistic director of Feet on Earth.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 5:03:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/on-the-trail-of-muvvas-unsung-poet/article34386038.ece

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