A Trio That Popularised Dasara Padagalu

Developments of great significance often spring from chance encounters between people who, in retrospect, appear to have been destined to play key roles in them. The renaissance of Purandaradasa's compositions in contemporary Carnatic music is one such development. T h e encounter took place at the Madras home of a native of Udupi by the name of Ur. U. Rama Rao. In 1935, he had a visitor from his home town. Narasinihadasa was his name and he was an authentic member of the community of dasas which Purandaradasa had established some 450 years earlier.

A deeply religious man who knew Ayurveda, he also knew hundreds of songs of the dasas and could sing them in the way they had been traditionally rendered by them. T h e encounter was at first between him and a musician by the name of Aiyaswamy Iyer who taught music to some of the members of the Rama Rao family. Aiyaswamy Iyer was fascinated by the divine music of the dasas which the minstrel from Udupi sang with devotion. Dasas who went from door to door singing devarnama-s weren't entirely unfamiliar in Madras at that time but somehow this encounter with the visitor from Udupi made a strong impact on Iyer who couldn't contain his excitement. He lost no time in telling his wife about Narasinihadasa and his songs.

His wife Lathangi was also a musician. Although she had a standing of her own in the world of Carnatic music, she was better known in later years as the mother of M.L. Vasanthakumari. Not content with just listening to the devarnama-s, Aiyaswamy Iyer and Lathangi quickly learned more than two hundred of them from Narasinihadasa who was only too glad to share the treasure with them and who stayed in Madras for as long as a year for this purpose. Although not taking part formally in this process, assimilating it all  was seven-year old Vasanthi who had inherited the family's musical inclination and talent. Not satisfied, again, with learning for themselves the songs of the dasas — particularly those of Purandaradasa — Aiyaswamy Iyer and Lathangi wished to bring out a book of Purandaradasa's compositions in Tamil, with notations, so that other musicians of the land could learn and sing them.

In fact, they did just that, with the help of Rangaramanuja Iyengar, a. self-taught musicologist and a vainika, who in later years distinguished himself by publishing four volumes in Tamil of the compositions of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, as well as some lesser composers, with musical notations. Recalling how her parents and Iyengar collaborated on the effort, Vasanthakumari recalls: "Iyengar was teaching at a school then. Every evening, my parents and I used to stuff ourselves into a rickshaw and go to his residence which was at some distance from ours. The trip used to cost a rupee and a half. My mother would sing the dasar pada-s and Iyengar would take them down precisely, in musical notation.

This went on for more than eighteen months." This was an effort that drew from other musicians, not appreciation but derision. Aiyaswamy Iyer's colleagues in the profession scoffed: "Why is he bothering himself with these bhajana songs?" But the Iyers were keen on propagating Purandaradasa's compositions which they found to be things of beauty and joys forever, and Iyengar, who had by then already published a book of compositions by Papanasam Sivan, was an enthusiastic collaborator not easily daunted by difficulties.

One such difficulty was raising enough money for printing the book. While Iyengar collected donations from the music fraternity and its patrons, Aiyaswamy Iyer sold a Small bit of land he had in his native village of Koothanur, and together they managed to find enough money to print 1000 copies of the book on paper furnished free "of cost by K. Srinivasan, the famous editor of the Hindu. Published in 1941, the book was an instant success and helped to spread the glory of Purandaradasa in Tamil Nadu. A smaller edition in Telugu and Sanskrit followed in 1948, printed without cost by Rukmini Devi at her Vasantha Press. And in 1955, yet another volume was brought out, a result of collaboration between MLV and T.K. Govinda Rao, a disciple of Musiri Subramania Iyer, who is currently Chief Producer for Carnatic music at All India Radio in New Delhi. "Sri Govinda Rao notated the songs perfectly," recalls MLV and adds: "My guru [GNB] also took a great deal of interest in devarnama-s and popularised songs like Jaya jaya in Nata, Dharma sravana in Durga, and Yare Rangana in Hindolam. "

Over the years MLV herself has played the lead role in popularising the compositions of Purandaradasa which she considers to be part of her family's musical wealth. She has delighted listeners across the country — and abroad too — with her enchanting renderings of the great dasa's devarnama-s and ugabogha-s. And, too, she has steadily expanded her repertoire of such songs. Today, if many others are singing the musical offerings of the dasas to their darling god Krishna in formal concerts, the credit must go to the twentieth century dasas of the Dasa who was born 500 years ago: Narasimhadasa, Aiyaswamy Iyer, Lathangi, Rangaramanuja Iyengar, Vasanthakumari, Govinda Rao... We are indebted to them all.