Title :Flowers At His Feet
Guest :Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao
On the way to Pollachi last week, I received a call on my mobile from the editor. Pressing the answering button, I said into the phone, "Yes, Subramanian?". ....
On the way to Pollachi last week, I received a call on my mobile from the editor. Pressing the answering button, I said into the phone, "Yes, Subramanian?"
The appointment with Dr. Pappu has been confirmed for Saturday at 10.30 am."
"Saturday!" I exclaimed in dismay. "Oh no, I am scheduled to drive down to my village that very morning!"
"Well, you'll just have to reschedule" the editor replied flatly. "That's the only day he is free and the week after that he is scheduled to fly to the US".
There was a short pause. "Allright," I finally conceded. "I'll see how I can alter my schedule so that we can meet him then".
"Good!" replied Subramanian. "We'll meet and go together on Saturday. I need to hang up now - I am getting another call".
"Wait - before you hang up, I want to tell you something," I said. "Did you see The Hindu today?"
"No, why?"
"There is a comprehensive review on his latest book on the 'Sri Chakra'".
"Really? I must see that. What does the review say?"
"It says it's a highly competent work that throws light on Sri Chakra, Mantra, Tantra, Yantra and Kundalini Yoga," I quoted from the newspaper which I happened to have with me then. "The reviewer also says that the book is a comprehensive exposition of the religious practice of Sri Vidya with all its components, chanting of various Mantras, Bijaksharas and external worship of Sri Chakra".

"I can only say, it's a happy coincidence that he has agreed to meet us at this point in time," I said enthusiastically into the phone as I ended the mobile phone conversation.

Fast forwarding to the stipulated Saturday, for Subramanian and me it was sheer delight to enter his residence, resplendently adorned by a beautiful idol of Vinaayaka, the exquisitely framed and lighted Venkateswara, the pictures of Sri Vidya and the Sri Chakram, among many others.

Once we were comfortably seated, he asked with a smile, "Well, what do you want to talk about? And by the way, is an interview with me really necessary for your journal?"

"Necessary!" I echoed. "Of course it's necessary! I mean, even though you are well known as a musicologist and as an authority on Annamacharya, I guess not many would know that you are have three Masters degrees; in Telugu, Sanskrit and in English Literature and above that, a PhD in Telugu and Sanskrit plus an All India Gold medal in Business Management! And apart from that, all those books and the numerous scholarly papers you have presented till date. It is our humble endeavour to present *some* facets of you, so to speak."

"Right!" he acknowledged with a grin. "How do you want to begin?"

"Let's start with regards your association with music. How did that begin?"

"Well, I hail from Vizianagaram", began Dr. Pappu, "and my family is related to Adibhatla Narayana Das - who was a renowned exponent of Harikatha in Andhra. In fact he was known as the 'pitamaha' of Harikatha. And as you know, Vizianagaram has the distinction of having the oldest functioning music college in the entire span of the Eastern coast of India.

"My school was about one and a half kilometers from the music college and it was practically a matter of routine for me to go to the music college after school hours. Even at an early age I thus got an opportunity to interact with stalwarts like Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, Kattravallapalli Veerabhadra Rao and others. I think I can safely say my practical knowledge of music began when I was about 12 years old.

"Vizianagaram those days was a very vibrant place indeed. Apart from music concerts the days would be filled with Harikatha, Burra Katha, and Ashatavadhanam and Shatavadhanam demonstrations. My first interest was in Literature followed by the art / science of Ashtavadhanam. I also remember writing my first poem at the age of 12!

"With my interests in literature building up, it was a logical consequence that my interest in music also increased manifold. And I was immediately drawn to the fact that while there were many "performers" then as there are now, there weren't too many people who were into the theoretical aspects of music.

"As I began to read more and more, I became firmly convinced that there is nothing compared to our ancient treatises on the Fine Arts, the Natya Sastra being one such glorious example. I never cease to marvel at the sheer systematic approach in which they have been compiled and written. Even the science of Linguistics as we know today, is based on Panini's grammar."

"I guess you are one of the few people who certainly have the credentials to asseverate that - considering the polyglot that you are!" I said in admiration.

Dr. Pappu said, "Do you know that out of the 36 chapters on Natyas in the eponymous shastra, 7 have been devoted exclusively for music. You see, there was no dichotomy between music and dance then, as it is apparent now!"

"How did you happen to relocate to Chennai?" asked Subramanian.

"I was teaching Telugu and Sanskrit at the Andhra University in Visakhapatnam. One day, I received a telegram from New Delhi asking me to come to there for a discussion. The telegram gave no details and it was sheer curiosity rather than anything else that compelled to go and find out what the telegram was about and why I had been summoned and that too by being offered two-way airfare from Visakhapatnam - which was virtually unheard of those days. Upon reaching Delhi, and after meeting the people who had summoned me, I was offered the post of the director of the American Institute of Indian Studies at Chennai.

"I was initially not very enthusiastic since I was loath to relocate from Visakhapatnam but after due consideration, I eventually did shift, arriving in Chennai in May 1980."

"How did your association with The Music Academy begin?"

"When Shri T. S. Parthasarathy was the secretary of the Music Academy, I was asked to give a lecture-demonstration on Adibhatla Narayana Das. It was adjudged the Best Paper for that year.

"I won another 'Best Paper Award' in the year 1984 for my presentation on the Kuchipudi dance form along with Shri Vempatty Chinna Satyam. Since then I have been regularly contributing articles about music and dance to the Music Academy's Journal. I was also instated on to the Music Academy's expert committee panel. And this year I was unanimously elected as Secretary, Music Academy."

"Oh, allow us to express our heartiest congratulations to you, sir!" we exclaimed in unison.

"Thank you both," he acknowledged.

"Well, on that note of achievement, we would like to proceed with our discussion," I said warmly. "We would like to know your thoughts on literature, particularly with regards to Telugu Literature."

There was a short pause as Dr. Pappu considered the generic question.

Eventually he said thoughtfully, "experimentations will survive only if they appeal aesthetically to the minds of the audience. Literature, whether it is poetry or prose, should influence their readers and the former should have the power to become etched in memory. Today with all this so-called modern poetry and modern literature, I really wonder how much of it the readers are able to recall, if they are able to recall anything at all in the first place!

Warming to one of his pet subjects Dr. Pappu continued, "Fragmented sentences cannot be called poetry. Nor can pages and pages of written material become literature. I strongly feel that even *one* sentence should have the power to evoke emotions and move its readers.

"Vaakyam rasaatmakam kaavyam" he quoted. "Look at Vande maataram as an example - its instant, long standing and cherished appeal and allure certainly cannot be denied at all. Which I am afraid is not the case with today's literature by and large. And the unfortunate part is that the goodness or badness of any fine art almost always spreads insidiously to other fields as well and the results are only too obvious with the state of affairs today."

"That sounds disturbing," I said rather soberly. "Isn't there something that can be done to prevent this?"
He answered , quite forcefully, "clearly, the responsibility lies with the artist herself/himself."

"But most of the times the situation is such that the artist is forced to pander to the audience all the time," I objected.

"No, no, NO," emphasized Dr. Pappu decisively. "I can't say this enough - it's the role and the duty of the artist to elevate and educate the audience. You can draw a parallel with the situation of a shishya learning at the feet of a guru. A good guru would always endeavour to raise the level of the shishya's knowledge and awareness. Imagine what would happen if the guru tried to stoop to the level of the shishya all the time!

"It is eternally the responsibility of the artist to depict what *can be* rather than depicting what *is* all the time. This is especially applicable to Dance, while not precluding other fields as well.

"yoyam swabhaavo kokasya sukha duhkha samanvitaha

so angaadyabhinayo peto naatyamityabhidheeyateh" he quoted.

"Please tell us about yourself as a composer", requested Subramanian.
"Well, I have composed for dance, musicians and even some movies. Regarding the dance dramas, I have composed 15 of them - and all are in Sanskrit. Some of them are:

  • Satyam Shivam Sundaram
  • Om Shanti
  • Grahaanugraha
  • Guru stuti
  • Pitrarchana
  • Gajamukha (in collaboration with Dr. Va Ve Su)
  • Stree
  • Kundalini
  • Dattatreya
  • Rang (all about natural colours being better than synthetic ones
"Please tell us why you were inspired to write a commentary on the Bhaja Govindam," I requested.

The scholar responded enthusiastically, "while all of us know about Adi Sankaracharya, what some of us may not know or appreciate is his sheer genius as a composer. I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of his lyrical expression. Furthermore, my interest in Bhaja Govindam was intensified when I read the commentary by Swami Chinmayananda. Every line in this work impressed and inspired me, one of them being the theme of the distractions of the mind and how they can be controlled. This was instrumental to put me on the path of bringing out a commentary myself."

"In fact we even distributed free copies of the commentary," said Dr. Pappu with a laugh. "It was such a runaway success that I was approached by Anandam to record it with Vani Jayaram singing the lyrics."

"Two questions with regards to your books. The first one is with regards to 'Flowers at his Feet'."

"Flowers At His Feet was the result of a series of 12 monthly lectures given by me at TTD, Chennai, in response to latter's request," said Dr. Pappu. "These 12 lectures were on 12 different aspects of Annamayya's compositions, which are:

"1. Introduction. 2. Aadhyaatma Sankeertanams. 3. Devotional compositions on Venkateswara. 4. Devotional compositions on other deities. 5. Nithya sevas and utsava sevas - daily and festive rituals. 6. Madhura bhakti. 7. Sanskrit compositions- I. 8. Sanskrit compositions -II. 9. Folk compositions. 10. Social compositions. 11. Annamayya - Alamelumanga. 12. Literature & music of Annamacharya.

"The tremendous response to these lectures coupled with suggestions to bring out the lectures in book-form, was the genesis of Flowers At His Feet. The songs covered during these lectures were brought out in 4 CDs sung by Shri Nedunuri Krishna Murthy, Shri M. Balamuralikrishna, Shri G. Balakrishna Prasad and Smt. Mandapaka Sridevi."

"On your latest magnum opus - Science of Sri Chakram?"

"When I used to interact with Smt. R.Vedavalli and Shri B.M.Sundaram on the Annamayya project of TTD, I once happened to converse with Smt. Vedavalli on the merits of the Kamalamba Navavarnams, said Dr. Pappu. This resulted in a series of lectures on the navavarnams that also impelled me to delve deeper into the Sri Chakra and to write a book that would be of use both to the scholar, musician and as well as a layman, without being esoteric. For this, I studied scores of books (nearly 100 to 150!) on the Sri Chakra in all available languages and also undertook a tour to Tiruvarur to have darshan of Goddess Kamalamba.

"There is a strong link between Sri Chakra worship and the Navavarana Kritis, since Dikshitar himself was a Sri Vidya Upasaka. The Navavarana could said to be the essence of Sri Vidya worship. I have accordingly incorporated a picture of Goddess Kamalambal of Tiruvarur in the beginning of the book."

"Is there anything you would particularly highlight sir, as we wind up this meeting?"

Without hesitation Dr. Pappu replied, "What I am and what my achievements stand for today - all of them are basically rooted in two fundamental aspects of my life. One is my study of Sanskrit. And the second is my wife. She has been foremost in offering all encouragement, support and suggestions. Without her I would have just been a raw stone. It is she who has sculpted me into what I am today."

As we offered our salutations and bade the multi-faceted Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao goodbye, we came away experiencing a fulfillment that one feels when a particular undertaking has gone well, and there is much more to look forward to. Certainly, when associating with a scholar like Dr. Pappu one can positively look forward to boundless information, learning, energy and most importantly - spiritual self-advancement.

Naadhabrahmam wishes Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao a very happy 60th birthday and also wishes him all the best in his new role as the secretary - The Music Academy.

As told to N. Subramanian and Mohan Santhanam
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