Evolution of Sri Purandaradasa’s & Contributions to the Field of Music

– by Vidhushi Smt. V. N. Padmini, Bangalore

Twenty Centuries ago, the essential role of music was purely ritualistic. The period 15-16th cent AD represented a golden era, when music became the instrument of bhakti cult, pro-moted by Meera, Gurunanak, Kabir, Krishna Chaitanya, Sripadaraya, Vyasaraya, Annamacharya, Purandaradasa and many others. At this juncture, due to Persian invasion, the music split into two viz. Hindustani and Carnatic styles. It appeared as though the music would split into several regional versions in the south. This was when Sri Purandaradasa lived. It was the best of times-an age of tranquility, an age of creativity at its best. It was also an age of destructivity at its worst and an age of strife. The Vijayanagar empire under Sri Krishnadevaraaaya (1506-1530 AD) which fostered the ancient Indian civilization viz. religion, literature, art and culture, was destroyed due to Muslim invasion, Sri Purandara-dasa lived at this time between 1480-1564 AD.

Music had spread so widely that practitioners in different regions were pursuing mutually contradictory systems. Chaos threatened the whole system. It was around this time that Ramamatya was asked to write a book reconciling all the contradictions by Ramadeva Raya, the successor of Krishna Deva Raya. He wrote the Swaramelakalaanidhi. Similar efforts made by others remained as mere compilations. This much needed creative effort was provided by Sri Purandaradasa, though he did not enjoy any royal patronage.

Sri Sripadaraya, the guru of Sri Vyasaraya, who in turn was Sri Purandaradasa’s guru, started a new trend of Kannada compositions called Suladis and Ugabhogas (short prose). Sri Purandaradasa was ordained by Sri Vyasaraya to continue the tradition, but his creative mind found the situation confusing and chaotic. There was no system by which a beginner of music could learn singing. Talas and ragas were known, but a student would not know where to begin. Sri Purandaradasa studied the available literature and brought about reforms that embraced all the three fields in music viz. raga (tune), sahitya (lyrics) and tala (rhythm).

  • A sound foundation of swaras, though the graded exercises sarali varasai, Janti varasai and alankaras; introduction to ragas and talas through geetams and suladis and finally kirtanas and ugabhogas.
  • The correct raga to express a particular emotion, the right words to convey the feeling and the proper tala to suit the words – this is indeed a marvelous and a great contribution of Sri Purandaradasa to the fields of music.
  • Path breaking efforts in incorporating the desi ragas which were popular at the folk level by polishing them to some extent e.g. Jhanjooti.
  • Usage and mention of a group of 32 ragas known as Batteesa ragas, which were preserved by the Kannadigas for a long time. The beauty underlying these traditional natural scales is very subtle and delicate.
  • His contribution marked a turning point on both literary and music fronts. Prior to him compositions were mainly based on the Vedas, Puranas etc. He commented on social themes for the first time, which were contemporary.
  • Lofty ideas were conveyed clothed in simple language, employing simple words, which rarely needs a dictionary. Folk words too were used – reason for popularity.
  • Reformed tala usage and greatly simplified the 100 odd talas used by his predecessors to 35 suladi talas. Incorporation of rhythmical beauty in sahityas was also his pioneering effort, which was later incorporated by trinity composers.

Thus Sri Purandaradasa is rightly hailed as the Sangeethapitamaha for his reforms, which beautified Carnatic music as a whole and systematized the various components so that learning was not a torture.

There is a common belief that the original tunes for his kirtanas are lost. We have only about a thousand of his compositions available. It is generally believed that the original tunes of Dasa sahitya are lost. This conclusion looks reasonable on a superficial examination of known historical facts. Originally not all developments of music were reduced to writing. The traditional integrity was kept alive by orally imparting the knowledge from the teacher to the student. Though this is the best method of learning, even to this day, the major drawback of this system is that information is often lost, sometimes forever when the teacher-student chain breaks. The practice of writing came into vogue only around 19th century AD.

Sri Purandaradasa passed away in 1564 AD and Vijayanagar empire vanished in 1565 AD. Hampi where he lived was ransacked and people fled for safety Sri Purandaradasa’s sons who were his first disciples also left for Purandaragad near Pune, carrying with them all available material. These texts were written in Marathi. It was only few years later that these manuscripts were brought to Mysore and texts transcribed into Kannada. Since the system of writing music did not exist, only the text of the songs, were available. Sri Purandaradasa had no other formal disciples. This led to the obvious conclusion that the original tunes were lost. On a closer and deeper examination of known historical facts it appears that a few songs have still survived the onslaught.

Sri Purandaradasa traveled to every nook and corner of the Vijayanagar empire and sang his compositions during unchavrittis. Numerous people learnt these songs and they became part of their daily lives. Even in temples like Udupi, these songs were given a place of respect and were sung regularly. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that his songs survived in their original tunes among the masses and women, who learnt songs from Haridasas who came or alms.

The Dasa kootas which were lost were revived by Sri Vijayadasa about a century after Sri Purandaradasa’s death. Thus the traditions were passed on from generation to generation, by people not musically trained and they never thought of altering the tunes in anyway. However in the process quite a few songs are lost completely and a large number are available as text only.

During the 19th century AD, when the system of writing down the notation or musical compositions started maturing few musicians like Sri Karigiri Rao of Mysore (disciple of Mysore Sri Sadashiva Rao) and few others wrote down a few songs as a service to music for posterity. These notations are in the 32 ragas mentioned by Sri Purandaradasa. The songs of Sri Purandaradasa in these tunes are well soaked in devotion. About a 100 of these songs were brought out in the book Sri Purandaradasa kriti shataka/kritigalu by a committee with Rao Bahadur Sri B. Venkateshacharya as President and eminent scholars like Dr.Masthi Venkatesha Iyengar and Prof. S.K. Ramachandra Rao among others as committee members, in Bangalore, on the occasion of Purandaradasa’s 400th death anniversary to 1964.

To conclude, when the beginner’s lessons introduced by Sri Purandaradasa has come to stay, these forgotten melodies could also be taught to every aspiring student of music, so that the stage is set for handling more complex and artistic melodies.