Annamacharya Sankeerthana scholar Shankar Rao

Tallapakka Annamacharya is a Saint poet who is among the first Indian musician and composer to write songs in praise of Lord Vekateshwara who is said to reside at the top of the seven hills of Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh in Sourthern India. Armed with a post graduate degree in Biochemistry and a role in a private company, Shri Shankar Rao has immersed himself in bringing unexplored facets of Annamayya’s divine literature to the world. Salabhanjika talks to Shankar on his divine journey with these kritis that were composed around themes amazingly ahead of their times.

You have been ardently pursuing the study and popularization of Annamacharya’s songs for many years now. Tell us how your tryst with Annamayya and his literature began.

Namasakaram! Though my education has been in Biochemistry, my life has been filled with literature particularly Annamacharya literature. My journey with Annammayya’s works started during my graduation period. Being from Andhra Pradesh, I had of course heard about Annamacharya and his songs before that. However, I had never been familiar with his work or heard his songs. Then, I chanced upon his evergreen sankeerthaana Adivo alladivo harivasamu, padivela seshula padagala mayamo…., I felt an unexplainable supreme bliss and a divine presence. I somehow felt I was nearer to God. I realized that this was a sign from the Lord to do something for this mesmerizing literature that is a treasure-trove for the society. But I did not know anything about the poet nor did I have a path to follow for learning more about him. Having studied in a residential school far from my home, I did not have many options to delve deeper into it. As a student, I was always passionate about Telugu literature and had garnered awards in Bhagavad Gita chanting. But up until that point in my life, divine Literature and music were fairly unknown areas to me. All I knew was that the song gave me a deep connect to God and that it was my destiny to do the best I can for sharing the happiness that I had experienced with others also.

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I began to listen to this song continuously. It may come as a surprise to you that there were days when I listened to it hundreds of times in a row. It even led to my mother and family questioning me about my obsession for the song. I would say the song was a turning point in my life.

How did you finally break through and begin to explore the literature more ?

My graduation days were spent is in a town in coastal Andhra called Bheemavaram. One day after listening to the song as had become routine by then, I decided to read more about it. But I had only my college textbooks with me and none on literature. I had heard about the Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam (TTD) regional center regional at Bheemavaram and as luck would have it, they had a few volumes on Annamacharya and his compositions. As you can imagine, my excitement knew no bounds. I started reading them to understand more on the content of the songs and how they were framed. The lyrical value of the songs was breathtaking and I was completely mesmerized.

Was the literary exploration an easy endeavor ?

There are essentially two classes of Annamacharya songs. One is Adhyatma sankeerthanas which are bhakthi songs that talk about the glory of the Lord or may even be namasakeertanas (name chanting). The second class is Srungara sankeerthanas (divya madhurabhakthi siddhantha sankeerthana) where God is treated as Supreme Nayaka. This follows along the lines of the popular Vaishnavam theme which says Sthree prayam itharam jagath except Lord Venkateshwara, everyone else is feminine. An example of this is the songs that Meerabhai from North India composed in praise of Lord Krishna. For her, God is the only nayaka.

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Through the books at the TTD center, I was able to navigate through the nuances of adhyatma sankeerthana. But understanding the philosophy behind srungara sankeerthana was not as easy. While the flavor of adhyatma sankeerthana was easy, I needed someone to guide me in the srungara sankeerthana space. I was indeed blessed to meet Dr Shobha Raj Garu, a singer from Tirupati Devasthanam who was the first scholar to sing Annamayya songs under the TTD Annamacharyya Project. She has given enormous contributions to Annamcharya’s literature and has brought it into the limelight through her efforts. I consider it a blessing to have had t opportunity to learn the divine philosophy behind adhyatma and srungara snakeerthanas from her and continue working on that.

You continued your journey building our wealth of knowledge on Annamacharya literature. Tell us more about that.

My focus has always been on the research of Annamacharya literature because there is a lot more to do for Annamacharya and his family of saint poets. This is a continuing process and one where there are miles to go. Annamacharya himself wrote nearly 32,000 songs dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara. He did not just write them, but also composed and sung these gems on the God of seven hills at Tirupati. There is a long history behind how Annamacharya’s songs were made public. In the 15th and 16th centuries, his son Padathirumalacharya inscribed all of Annamacharya’s songs on palm leaves. He rightly assessed their true worth to future generations and wanted to convert them into a permanent source for society. For this, he sought the help of the then ruler of Vijayanagara kingdom, King Salva Narasimharaya. Together, they engraved all these songs on big copper plates. This way they made sure that the copies were not damaged and maintained as a repository of Telugu literature. After engraving, the copper plates were kept in a store room at the Tirunmala temple. Known today as Thalappakka Ara or Sankeerthana Bhandaram, this can be seen by devotees next to the hundi of Lord Vekateshwara.After several centuries, a great literary personality Vetturi Prabhakara Shastri Garu brought all these sankeerthanas out to the public. That was the beginning of significant efforts towards the end. Following his footsteps, several scholars worked on the texts to make them discernable to Telugu society. They published the edited version of these songs as 29 volumes of Annamacharya kritis. Apart from Annamacharya himself, his son and grandson additionally wrote thousands of songs. Their family has contributed nearly 50,000 songs on Lord Venkateshwara. However, we have been able to publish only 15,000 songs from these out of which nearly 13,000 were penned by Annamacharya.

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Are these copper plates still in use and available for display to public ?

They are now the property of TTD and can be seen at the museum on Tirumala hills. Unfortunately there were stories that some of them have been stolen or misused, though there are no confirmed reports. My research is primarily on whether there are undiscovered songs of Annmacharya in places other than Tirumala such as Tamil Nadu for example. Since Annamacharya and his family are among the last of the Vaishnavam tradition, they have toured a lot of places like Srirangam and Ahobalam. The TTD has retrieved some manuscripts from Ahobalam. During that period, South India was a cultural hotspot and people moved around between towns and states exchanging cultural ideas. Annamacharya’s songs had struck a chord among many people across these towns who eventually wrote them down themselves. Some songs reached the Saraswati Maha Library which I was fortunate enough to retrieve. Available books by scholars give hints on the location of these sources. Based on my research, we moved through locations like Tanjore, Srirangam, Kumbakonam and the Tirupati Oriental Research institute and retrieved them. In addition to this, I was also able to trace out a manuscript from Annamacharya’s family that has been a strong source for further research.

Shankar Rao is research scholar on Annamacharya kritis in Hyderabad.