Tenali Subbarao: A 'Mad' Crusader for 'Real Music'

Sri Narumanchi Subbarao, a lawyer by profession, is a great devotee of Carnatic music. He and his Sitharama Gana Sabha have a unique identification with each other. In Tenali and elsewhere in Andhra Pradesh, and in Tamil Nadu too, his sabha, started in 1947, has gained the distinction of being called 'Subbarao's Sabha". He even invented a flag for music and got it hoisted by Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer at Madras where he was conferred the title 'Sangeetha Vidya Ratna' in 1979 by Sri Ramanama Yagna Mandali in due recognition of his meritorious services to the cause of music. Subbarao is the pioneer of celebrations conducted in memory of Bhadrachala Ramadas, Narayana Tirtha and other composers at Madras, Bhadrachalam, Hyderabad and other places.  

Sri Sitharama Gana Sabha was so named by Subbarao out of filial regard for his ancestors. His father Narumanchi Chinna Seetharamaiah was the son of Kotiah whose brother Janakiramaiah happened to be the disciple of Veena Kuppier, who was himself a direct disciple of Sri Tyagaraja. Janakiramaiah was privileged to have been taught initially by Sri Tyagaraja himself. As a youth of eighteen, he travelled all the distance from Tenali to Tiruvaiyaru to learn music from Sri Tyagaraja who was then seventy-four years old. Subbarao, through his sabha, stands for purity of music. His devotion to music and his passion and sacrifice for upholding the sacredness of music is legendary even in his lifetime.

His simplicity and unswerving faith in what he calls 'real music' and his commitment to propagate it have endeared him to all those who matter in music circles. He has won the admiration of musicians to the point of their deem it an honour to be invited by him. Years before, it was Saraswati Gana Sabha, Kakinada. founded by the late Sri Kommireddi Suryanarayana which held the pride of place, but in recent times it is Sri Sitharama Gana Sabha that has attracted Carnatic music stalwarts. Subbarao's self-set but exacting standards of tradition have had an irresistible appeal, more so because he has, the idealist he is, refused to equate a music sabha with a profit-based commercial organisation. Sabbarao believes that music is divine and that it should not be debased or profaned. The musical Trinitv conceived music in terms of self-realisation and self-ennoblement.

Their keynote was Bhakti. They did not divorce music from bhakti for the sake of rakti. Thus, in Subbarao's view, music needs must be approached from such a spiritual angle and its appeal should never be to the senses or sensuality. He prohibits, literally prohibits — javali-s pada-s and tillana-s in his sabha. And his partiality for chauka kala rendering is grounded in his conviction that any rendering in dhruta kala or fast tempo is only a feat, to be performed by an artiste gifted to do it, but not conducive to the real musical experience. He says that music dished out at dazzling speed is no music at all since music needs to be lingered on leisurely. Understandably, he does not believe in modern phrases like virtuosity, innovation and all the rest. Subbarao has made a detailed study of the lives of musicians. He has, in two volumes, provided biographical sketches of musicians, with authoritative and authentic material about them. Notwithstanding his frail frame and failing health, Subbarao at age eighty-two is still young in spirit and gathering all available resources to constitute a permanent fund at Tenali, Madras and Hyderabad to ensure in the future also a series of annual performances along his chosen lines. In the words of art-critic A.S. Raman.

Subbarao is one of the 'mad men' among Andhras, on par. with the likes of T. Prakasam, Potti Sriramulu, B.N. Reddi, Viswanatha Satyanarayana and veteran journalist M. Chalapati Rao. All these eminent personalities strove hard, each in his own field, offering his best for human betterment and excellence. Says Raman: "Subbarao finds himself crusading aggressively for a cause than which nothing is dearer to him. He wants to revive and popularise Carnatic music as Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar sang it ... Subbarao is a fiercely fanatical purist and I am glad there are some people ready to strengthen his hands." Whether one agrees with his ideology or not, especially in the present times when crass commercialism seems to hold its sway over music, Subbarao is indeed a rare phenomenon. All those who know him hope he will live many more years to zealously continue his service to the music of the highest vintage!