24 అక్టో, 2011


A Poet of Staggering Scholarship and a Polyglot


[Dr. Puttaparthi Narayanacharya is one of the great–­if not the greatest–living poets of Andhra Pradesh. He is a versatile scholar and a literary critic of distinction, besides being a polyglot. He is a golden synthesis between the epic age and the modern age. He received in January 1988 the prestigious Rashtriya Bhasha Parishat (of Calcutta) Award of Ten Thousand Rupees for his distinguished service to Telugu literature. The following is a detailed account of his career by one of his devoted students.

Puttaparthi Narayanacharya – affectionately called “Putta­parthi” by his admirers – is the most charismatic figure in contemporary Telugu literature. He is a poet, literary critic, translator, composer, and a polyglot. He is a doyen in several of these generes and has enriched Telugu literature as no one man possibly can. Till very recently he had been a great orator who could hold the audiences spell-bound for several hours on any literary subject. His rendition of poetry and especially of his “Sivatandavam” used to be equally enthralling.

As a poet Narayanacharya is a harmonious blend of the best in classicism and modernism. As a literary critic he is in the tradition of great commentators like Mallinatha. He has the abundant commonsense of Samuel Johnson and the cultivated punctiliousness of T. S. Eliot acquired through his careful study of Western criticism. He has about 5,000 musical compositions to his credit and the notation he has done for some of them exhibits his great knowledge of musicology. As a scholar he is astonishingly versatile. His scholarship is not confined to a few languages or subjects. He is a polyglot with a good knowledge of most of the Indian languages, both living and dead. He knows several European languages also fairly well. When he was honoured at the Russian Embassy in Delhi, he pleasantly surprised everyone by making a speech in Russian. Recently he told this author that he would not mind if someone called him a bad poet, but hated to be called an inadequate scholar. He learns new subjects with the eagerness of a young man. His friends were not surprised when he started learning the Mridangam in his mid-seventies. He says that he will learn anything that he thinks is useful to him as a poet.

Narayanacharya was born on 28th March, 1914, in Penugonda, the summer capital of Vijayanagar empire. His father Srinivasa­charya was a well-known scholar in Sanskrit and Telugu. He belongs to the ancestry of Tirumala Tatacharya, the religious preceptor of Sri Krishnadeva Raya. Narayanacharya started his education in Sanskrit and Telugu under his father. He learnt Bharatanatyam from Mahalakshmamma, the learned dancer from Bukkapatnam. Mrs. Pitt, wife of the then Sub-Collector of Penugonda, who had done research work on Shakespeare and Browning at Cambridge, took the young Narayanacharya under her wing and taught him English language and literature. Narayana­charya took an instant liking for Shakespeare’s humanistic characterization which has deeply influenced his literary career.

At the age of twelve Narayanacharya wrote a book in classical metric verse called “Penugonda Lakshmi”, immortalizing the architectural splendour of his place of birth and published it after four years. It blazed a trail of poetical works on places of historical importance. His first book gave Narayanacharya one of his unforgettable and ironic experiences. “Penugonda Lakshmi” was prescribed as a text when he took the Vidwan examination in his late ’Twenties. The poet had to read his own book and prepare for the examination. “I don’t think any other poet in the world had a similar experience” says Narayana­charya with a chuckle.

During this period Narayanacharya delved deep into Sanskrit alankara and kavya literatures. He also studied Patanjali and the Prakarana Granthas under eminent teachers at the Oriental College, Tirupati.

When he was still a student in Tirupati he came under the influence of Sufi philosophy and Persian poetry and, wrote a long poem in metrical verse called “Shaaji.” The maturity of thought and the mastery of form he showed in this book when he was barely nineteen amazed scholars and critics. Immediately after its publication it was prescribed as a text for the Intermediate class by Madras University. In his early ’Twenties – Narayanachary was fascinated by the stage and gave dance recitals and played female roles. But it was only a transient phase in him. Another of his fleeting passions was avadhaanam. He performed several avadhaanams with distinction. But quickly he came to the conclu­sion that avadhaanam hampers the poetic instinct and distorts the natural thought process of a gifted poet and gave it up. He could not continue his Vyakarana Siromani course also because of his personal problems.

The ’Thirties was a significant period in the history of modern Telugu literature. Romanticism inspired by Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats which hypnotized Andhra like an agreeable spell of magic was gradually weakening. Progressivism inspired by Marx and Engels and spearheaded by Sri Sri was gathering like a hurricane. Narayanacharya was influenced by both and composed several poems. Though his scholarship, mastery of verse form and imagina­tive fervour are very much present in these collections of poems, they failed to impress the poet himself.

Meanwhile his passion for new languages continued. He learnt a number of Indian languages and started searching for a model which suited his talent and temperament. During this search he discovered the Sam poets in Marathi and Tulasidas in Hindi. His mood of uncertainty ended and he saw the path of his future literary life clear and bright.

After Narayanacharya realised that bhakti should be his medium of self-expression, the most productive period of his literary life started. Paadyamu, a string of Satakas poignantly expressing the different moods of Bhakti, and Saakshatkaramu, a very sensitive poetic recreation of some significant incidents in the life of Tulasidas were the important results. “Paadyamu” is written in traditional Sanskrit metres on which Narayanacharya has amazing control. In the second book he had experimented with various verse forms from Sanskrit metres to verse fibre. But the choicest poem of this period is “Sivatandavam” in which his knowledge of music and dance found a poetic expression through the theme of philosophical non-dualism exemplified in the unity of Siva and Kesava.

“Sivatandavam” consists of five sections. In the first one Sandhya, the personified Evening, gets ready for the cosmic dance of Siva. It is written in very brisk geya. The second section describes in luxuriant Sanskrit the invocation made by Nandi. It is followed by Siva’s tandava written in an indigenous metre called ragada consisting of twenty syllables and divided into four rhythmic spans of five syllables each. The fourth section is a prayer by Vijaya a heavenly damsel waiting on Parvati. It is composed in mellifluous Sanskrit. The last section describes the laasya (the gentle dance performed by women) of Parvati. As Sivasankara Swami, the noted critic, says, “Sivatandavam combines music, dance and poetry into a unified whole and does not have an equal in Telugu literature.”

Though Narayanacharya’s primary concern was bhakti, he was never insensitive to social obligation. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi moved him to write a profound elegy for him called “Gandhiji Mahaprasthaanam”. His wife Smt. Kanakamma, a scholar in Sanskrit and Telugu and a poetess in her own right, contributed a section to this book. Another significant work belonging to this period is “Meghadutam”. Narayanacharya borrowed the idea of structure from Kalidasa and gave it his own content. A political activist, languishing in prison for fighting against the injustices in the society, sends a message to his wife who lives at the other end of Andhra through a cloud. As the cloud-messenger traverses along, the poet describes the places, sights and scenes in Andhra Desa. “Meghadutam” is a fine example of Narayanacharya’s stylistic and imaginative capabili­ties. “Meghadutam” is next only to “Sivatandavam” in its popularity and has been reprinted several times.

Bhakti brought about great changes in the life pattern of Narayanacharya. He became a devotee of the tradition of Samartha Ramadas. A by-product of this phase of his life are the musical compositions he has done. Music, being an effective medium for Bhakti found its natural expression in Narayanacharya and resulted in the composition of about 5,000 kirtanas. During this period he had a sudden impulse to renounce the world and become a sanyasi, which he did. Leaving his family behind, he went to the North. Living the life of a mendicant monk he wandered from place to place. He was in Benares and Nainital for sometime and did penance in the Himalayas for about two years. His wanderings finally took him to Swami Sivananda. Narayanacharya says that his meeting Swami Sivananda was a definite turning-point in his life. He dispelled Narayanacharya’s doubts about godhood and was impressed with Narayanacharya’s scholar­ship in several languages. Finally he conferred on him the title “Saraswatiputra” and asked him to return to his family and lead the life of a householder. Though Narayanacharya received several other titles before and after, he is passionately fond of the title given by Swami Sivananda. Narayanacharya went to Sri Aurobindo and spent some time with him before he finally returned home. He was deeply influenced by the intellectual quality of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and poetry.

He returned home and completed his voluminous Pandari Bhagavatam containing 24,000 couplets; called dwipadas. Dwipada which had been by and large a neglected form of poetry acquired a new significance at the hands of Narayanacharya and became the vehicle of graceful poetry and emotionally charged Bhakti. Critics feel that Narayanacharya alone has used Dwipada as effectively as Saivite poets and Ranganatha.

Telugu, perhaps, has produced more Ramayanas than any other language in our country. But most of them are pedantic and aesthetically unsatisfactory and hence none of them has become popular among the masses like the Ramacharitamaanas of Tulasidas. Narayanacharya decided to write a Ramayana “which would dance on the tongues of Telugu people” by bringing the style of the epic very close to the spoken word and making it tuneful by comprising it in geva metras. Ramachari­tamaanas served him as a model in temperament and style, though he was greatly influenced by Shakespeare in his characterization. Rama is more human than divine. Angada’s predicament is like that of Hamlet in his attempts to shake off the mortal coils. Kaikeyi, willingly inviting calumny, sent Rama into exile with the specific purpose of having Ravana killed by him. Though some scholars look askance at the changes. Narayanacharya has made, we must do well to remember that he is not the first who has done it. Narayanacharya is in the distinguished company of Bhavabhuti, Saktibhadra and several others. Janapriya Ramayanam places Narayanacharya in the galaxy of the immortals in Telugu literature. It is a fine blend of Valmiki’s love for natural phenomena and Tulasi’s devotional abandon. Several crties believe that Narayana charya’s Janapriya Ramayanam is the simplest and the most poetic Ramayana in Telugu. Sri Sri, the Marxist revolutionary poet, who dislikes the ideology of the Ramayana, says that he would like to read Narayanacharya’s Ramayana for its word-music and poetry.

Srinivasa Prabandham shows Narayanacharya in a different light. He displays his erudition – both literary and philosophical – ­in this long poetical work containing more than 2,500 stanzas. But he carefully guards himself against dry pedanticity and makes the poem devotionally poetic, though difficult at some places.

In addition to the books discussed here, Narayanacharya has several other poetical works to his credit which in no way could be called inferior to them.

Narayanacharya has few equals as a literary critic. His career as literary critic started with Prabandha Naayikalu, a collection of essays on the psychological attitudes of the heroines in the court romances of the Vijayanagar period. Narayanacharya’s subtle and gently-ironic humour was very much appreciated by pioneers like Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma. Narayanacharya’s critical works on Tenali Ramakrishna and Bhattumurti brought out several hitherto undiscovered literary excellences in them. His Mahabharata Vimarsanamu broke new grounds in literary criticism in Telugu by attempting a sociological interpretation of the Mahabharata in Sanskrit. His penchant for sociological inter­pretation reached its zenith in his Vijayanagara Saamaajika Charitra (The Social History of Vijayanagar) in which he examined several aspects of the dynamics of feudal society through epigraphical, literary and other sources. The historians who are obsessed with the geneology of kings and the chronology of incidents should strive hard to make up leeway. The greatest achievement of Narayanacharya as a literary critic is his voluminous commentary to the Bhagavata. It traces the Bhagavata tradition in Indian languages and makes an indepth comparative study of the Bhagavatas in Sanskrit and Telugu. It examines every important aspect of the Bhagavata through the philosophical perspectives of Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa.

In addition to Telugu, his mother-tongue, Narayanacharya has written poetry in several other languages. In his teens, when he was a student of Oriental College in Tirupati, he used to contribute poetry to the Sanskrit journal “Udayam.” His Sivakarnamritam containing a thousand verses is his finest work in Sanskrit. His Tyagaraja Suprabhatam and Agasteeswara Suprabhatam are also popular. Chaste idiom and chiselled expression are the hall­marks of Narayanacharya’s Samskrit poetry.

English language and literature have an irresistible charm for Narayanacharya. He holds Shakespeare, Milton and Aldous Huxley in great esteem. He does not think much of the technical innovations in modern poetry and novel as they result in excessive obscurity. Obscurity, according to Narayanacharya, should be like a thin, transparent veil and enhance the beauty behind it, but not altogether cloud it.

His collection of poems in English, Leaves in the Wind, was very much appreciated by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. Recently he has written a Greek-model tragedy entitled The Hero based on the life of Suyodhana. He has written this play in Elizabethan English because he is of the opinion that modern English is not powerful enough to recreate a sense of ancient grandeur and convey turbulent tragic emotions. In this play Suyodhana is less despicable if not lovable. He is not a wicked and vicious monster but a capable king, artistic and humane.

Narayanacharya has done creditable translation work from other languages into Telugu and vice-versa. He has translated Atharva Veda into Telugu with an enlightening commentary. Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanams have accepted it for publication and likely to bring it out shortly. He has also translated fiction from Kannada and Urdu; drama from Malayalam and Sanskrit and poetry from several languages. His translation of Kosambi’s Bhagawan Buddha from Hindi is well known. Narayanacharya’s finest translation from Telugu is that of Viswanatha Satyanarayana’s Ekaveera into Malayalam. It was done at the instance of Dr. Burgula Ramakrishna Rao. The then Governor of Kerala and was dedicated to him. It won the appreciation of Malayalam scholars and was prescribed as a text-book for degree classes by the Kerala University.

Academic honours came to Narayanacharya from outside Andhra first, in spite of his staggering scholarship in a dozen languages. Narayanacharya was rotting as a Telugu Pandit in a high school for want of university degrees when the first academic honour came to him from Kerala. The Kerala University invited him as one of the editors of their etymological dictionary, waiving the condition on educational qualifications. Narayanacharya worked in Kerala for three years with Kunjan Pillai, the famous Malayalam scholar and the chief editor of the project. During his stay in Kerala he studied Manipravala and Kathakali literatures in Malayalam and published some fine essays on them in Telugu. While he was still in Kerala he was invited as the linguistic librarian by the Central Sahitya Akademi. When Narayanacharya decided to go to Delhi, Kunjan Pillai relieved him unwillingly and said that he was sending him there as an ambassador of Malayalam culture. Narayanacharya was in Delhi for about two years. Sri Krishna Kripalani, the Secretary of the Akademi then, liked Narayanacharya’s rendition of Ramacharitamaanas very much and would ask him to recite it in their social gatherings. But unfortunately Narayanacharya’s health failed in Delhi and he was forced to come back to his high school post once again. Sri Kripalani bid him a farewell saying that the glory of the Akademi was leaving it. Later Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, conferred on him a D. Litt. degree. The same university invited him as a Visiting Professor also. Very recently (June 1987) Sri Krishna­devaraya University also conferred on him the honorary degree of D. Litt.

Narayanacharya participated in the South Indian and Indian poet’s symposiums as a representative of Telugu. The Govern­ment of India honoured him with “Padmasri”. Both the State and the Central Governments gave him the Best Teacher Award. The three Mathadhipatis honoured him several times for his erudition in the Vedic literature and for the great contribution he has made to Indian literature. Regardless of the honours showered on him, Narayanacharya retired as a school teacher in 1974 and lives in Cuddapah, pursuing his literary and spiritual activities as quietly as ever before.

Narayanacharya’s spiritual life is an extension of his literary life. He has an intense faith in the path of Bhakti though he is a superlative intellectual. He firmly believes that he will have the grace of Bhagawan Srikrishna as promised to him by the senior Sankaracharya of Kanchi. Irrespective of what he is doing, writing or talking, he is unconsciously engaged in Japam.

Narayanacharya belongs to the line of Indian scholar-poets who kept the torch of classicism burning for centuries. But living in an age which professes an ideology different from his he has become a solitary figure. The very fact that several of his books have not been able to find a publisher shows that the future looks rather bleak for classical poetry and scholarly criticism. It is the duty of scholars, critics, governments and voluntary literary organizations to ensure that scholar-poets like Narayanacharya are supported in every way to carry on the tradition they have so greatly enriched. No help is small for him and no honour is greater than him.


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