The Affectionate Venkatanarana Bhatta: Finding Fulfilment in Simple Things

Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta hailing from Mulbagal was a relative and a disciple of Sri Venkatarama Bhatta. His speech was affected with mild stammering but that didn’t come in the way of his Pourohitya.

Translator’s note: It is difficult to give an exact translation of the word “Pourohitya.” It is typically but incorrectly translated as “Priestcraft.” The word is a noun derivative of the word “Purohita.” Accordingly, Pourohitya  is the vocation of a Purohita. The nearest approximation in meaning is the following: a person learned in the Vedas, Agamas, and various procedures for performing and officiating different Pujas, Yajnas, naming ceremony, wedding, and last rites.

He had a deep and abiding interest in music and literature. He was my father’s age and a friend to him. I used to address him as “Mama” (uncle).

Three or four teachers were part of my father’s circle of friends. They were studying for the Upper Secondary and the Pandit Examination conducted by the Government’s Education Department. Because we had an expansive verandah, in the summer, they used to study there for some time and then sleep on it. I had my first acquaintance with Sanskrit poetry in their company.

Sheshappa from Srinivasapura, Subbaraya from Attikunte, and “Kurraya” Srinivasaraya were the key persons of the group. Apparently, Srinivasaraya displayed great enthusiasm in emphasizing the word, “Kururaya” (the King of the Kuru clan) while reciting verses[i] from Kumaravyasa’s Mahabharata. It seems that he was also afflicted by “Kuru” (boils) from time to time. After deeply considering these two aspects, our Headmaster, Sri Chandrashekhara Sastri nicknamed him “Kuruaya.” Over time, this honorific was transmuted as “Kurraya.”

Fruit Salad

Once on a fine full moon night at around eight, when the aforementioned three or four students were preparing to sleep, Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta arrived. Addressing Sheshappa in Telugu, he said: “It begins at nine. All of you come. Everything will be ready.” He spoke some other stuff. I was lying down, my eyes sleepy. Therefore, I couldn’t clearly hear everything that was spoken. The moment Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta said, “come,” Sheshappa replied, “Oho! Certainly, we’ll all come.” Assuming it was something special, I asked, “What’s it mama?” He said, “Rasayana, fruit salad, salad!” Whatever little sleep was dawning on me vanished at the precise moment I heard “salad.” But then I was not invited. And so, I decided that the best approach was to feign negligence. I pretended that I was asleep. Because it was summer, I did get some sleep.

I awoke after fifteen or twenty minutes. Outside, the moonlight was spread like someone had spilled milk all over.  When I opened my eyes and looked around, none of the friends were present. I called out. Silence. Then I recalled the invitation that Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta had given. I stood up and ran towards his house which was about 60 metres from mine.

About eight or ten people were sitting in the living room when I entered his house. Four oil lamps were burning in each of the four sides. Sheshappa was seated before a pillow that was propped on the Western wall. A small sliding desk in front of him. A massive book on it. Two lamps that would facilitate his reading. Perfume from the Agarbhatti, fragrance from the jasmine garland that was hung around the Deity’s picture…all of this was divine, auspicious.

I sat in a corner. Sheshappa was reading a portion from the Telugu long poem, Manu Charitra. The episode he had chosen was a conversation between a Brahmana named Pravara and a beautiful damsel named Varuthini who meet each other in a forest. The entire assembly listened with rapt attention as Sheshappa sang the verses by setting different Ragas to them. I was not at an age where I could understand the meaning of the text. I became bored after listening to it for five minutes. Then I asked in Telugu:

“Where is the Rasayana, mama?

“You mad fellow! Do you need a tastier salad than this?”

Everyone laughed.

After several years passed, I finally understood the secret message hidden in Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta’s words.

It was the Lunar Eclipse that night. It would last between 9 and 11. After the eclipse ended, Brahmanas would take bath and offer Tarpana—offering libation with water and sesame—to their ancestors.  After this, they had to perform Puja and other sacred rituals. That meant that sleep was impossible until late midnight.

Because they had two hours of free time, Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta and his friends decided to spend it in the study of poetry. True Rasayana is the Rasayana of good literature.

Translator’s Note: There is a pun in the term “Rasayana.” Typically, Rasayana is a fruit salad which is garnished variously with shredded coconut, jaggery, and honey. In the parlance of Indian aesthetics, the word “Rasa” means “sentiment, emotion, feeling,” etc, which is evoked by art works like literature, music, dance, and so on.

The foregoing incident is an instance to show the affectionate nature of Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta. Because he was always mirthful, it was common to see at least four or five people in his company almost at all times. His words typically contained an element of ingenuity. He was well-versed in Kannada, Telugu and Sanskrit.

Family Life

Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta wasn’t fortunate enough to have a happy family life. His wife was his own maternal uncle’s daughter. By nature, she was quarrelsome, and because she was the only daughter, she would visit her maternal home once every two or three months and stay there for a couple of months.

During the Gowri and other important festivals, it was the custom of the Vaishyas of the town to perform Puja in Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta’s home. Their respective wives typically adorned themselves were expensive saris and jewelry. Children would create a huge ruckus. Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta had no children. It appears that his wife didn’t quite like this sort of celebration and the noise that accompanies it. And so she would create some excuse and depart for her maternal home.

 

On such occasions, Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta’s home would transform into a Choultry, a hall for conducting functions like weddings, etc. Together with my father and two or three friends, he would embark on preparing a variety of dishes. They would take the name of some Deity and using that as an excuse, they would prepare delicacies that their palates demanded and feast on it.

My experience in this is limited to two items. The first is Avalakki or flat rice; the second is the Green Gram salad. Coconut was extremely cheap in those days—you would typically get six or eight coconuts for an Anna (Sixteen Annas was One Rupee). Because Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta was a Purohita, he had absolutely no need to buy coconuts. Smashed Avalakki was stored in large boilers in his house. Soaked Avalakki, an equal measure of shredded coconut, generous amounts of jaggery, the heady fragrance of cardamom—this was one preparation. Avalakki dipped in gojju or sauce, shredded coconut, fried groundnuts—this was another preparation. Copious amounts of thick sweet soup made of mango or jackfruit, depending on the season. This culinary worship of fruits would take place at least once a week in Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta’s home. During major festivals like Ananta Chaturdashi and Ganesha Chauti (typically in August or September), a massive feast involving sweet delicacies like Laddus and Chirotis would carry on their business.

In this manner, Sri Venkatanarana Bhatta found fulfilment in life: preparing and savouring tasty food, enjoying good literature, listening to music, and taking delight in dance.

This is the first part of an English translation of the third chapter of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale: Vol. 5 – Vaidikadharma Sampradayastharu. Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna.

To be concluded in the next part

Notes

[i] Kumaravyasa’s real name is Narayanaappa who hailed from Gadag and flourished in the early 15th Century. He is perhaps the greatest poet of Middle Kannada who achieved immortality by authoring the Karnata Bharatakathamanjari in verse form. It is the Kannada rendering of Veda Vyasa’s timeless epic, Mahabharata. Kumaravyasa’s work is also known as Gadugina Bharata. Typically, it is recited in the form of Gamaka or Kavya Vacahana, a form of storytelling that originated in Karnataka, where verses are sung in different classical ragas and its meaning expounded by a learned scholar. The tradition of singing the Gadugina Bharata continues to thrive to this day both in Karnataka and among the Kannada-speaking diaspora across the globe.

Author(s)

About:

Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.

Translator(s)

About:

Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.