Though Srinivasa Sastri often claimed it as an excuse, he did not lack knowledge about the Rāmāyaṇa at all. He went through the original Rāmāyaṇa in Sanskrit again and again and perhaps he did so all through the day. As he went through the original version of the Epic composed by Vālmīki, he grew curious to see how the other poets had described the same episodes. He would immediately call out for his wife.
“Lakshmi! Read out what Kamban has written in the context of this incident. Let me hear it out”
His beloved wife, Lakshmi would then read the Tamil version of the Rāmāyaṇa out loud and also compare it with the Tamil translation of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa as rendered by Srinivasa Iyengar. Sastri would then examine in detail the manner in which Kālidāsa had presented the matter and how Bhavabhūti had creatively managed the same episode. Later, he discussed the same with friends who shared interest in the subject. I have been a witness to all this.
It was about eleven one morning. Srinivasa Sastri looked agitated after having read the conversation that Śrī Rāmacandra had with Sītā-devī after killing Rāvaṇa. He was enraged about the manner in which Rāma spoke to Sītā. He read out –
“रावणाकम्पपरिभ्रष्टा….” This and other such sentences.
“Che! Che! How can Rāmacandra speak this way? It seems like he has turned into a country man and has taken to vulgar means!” A shocked Lakshmamma watched his outburst and knew not how she should react. After about eight to ten minutes, Sastri seemed to have regained his composure.
When a person who has examined the original work with this degree of thoroughness pleads of possessing deficiency in knowledge, is it acceptable or believable? His friends T.R. Venkataramana Shastri and others in Madras insisted a lot. Sastri finally gave his consent in 1944 and began his series of lectures on the Rāmāyaṇa.
The Lectures on the Rāmāyaṇa
Sastri started speaking on the Rāmāyaṇa only on the behest of his friends and only as a part of a closely knit circle. It all started in T.R. Venkataramana Shastri’s house. As the people who attended the lectures started inviting their friends and relatives to join them in the following days, the crowd kept growing. News about the lecture series spread through word of mouth. Sastri was, at times, overcome with emotion as he spoke about the Epic and his voice choked. His eyes filled with tears and he would go silent for a while. The audience that had gathered also lost themselves in the lecture and felt that their life had found meaning.
A grand concluding ceremony for the series of lectures on Rāmāyaṇa was organised for the audience to express its thoughts and delight in going through the process. The people presented Sastri with a silver plate with letters from a Sanskrit śloka from the original Rāmāyaṇa embossed on it. The śloka was from the instance where Rāma meets Āñjaneya for the first time, and having got impressed with his manner of expression utters words of appreciation. The audience was also, similarly, impressed with Sastri’s style of presentation and the śloka was thus relevant to the context.
संस्कारक्रमसंपन्नाम् अद्रुतामविलम्बिताम् ।
उच्चारयति कल्याणीं वाचं हृदयहर्षिणीम् ॥
saṃskārakramasaṃpannām adrutāmavilambitām ।
uccārayati kalyāṇīṃ vācaṃ hṛdayaharṣiṇīm ॥
There is a school of thought in Indian literary aesthetics which considers Style as the Soul of Poetry – “Rītirātmā Kāvyasya”
This holds true in case of Sastri’s art of expression. His lecture was poetry and the best part was his style of rendition.
Thēvāram Kacheri – A Concert of Thevaram
I’ll now narrate another experience.
I visited Annamalai when Srinivasa Sastri was in his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of the University. I was to deliver a talk on Gopalakrishna Gokhale to commemorate his birth anniversary. That day, Sastri was not in town and was away in Delhi. He returned the following day or probably three days after my talk got over. I had planned to visit Annamalai only for a day. When I communicated my plan to Sastri, he said:
“What is this? You have come to Chidambaram and want to return without listening to a Thevaram! You are a fool. Stay back for two more days. I’ll arrange for a Thevaram.”
Accordingly, a concert of the Thevaram was organised as per the instructions of the Vice Chancellor. Thevaram is a collection of stotras (hymns) dedicated to Śiva. This is like the Veda for the Tamil Shaivites, who consider Śiva as the Supreme Deity. The great scholar of Tamil, Raghava Iyengar was invited to the venue to explain the meaning of the Thevarams to me. The Thevarams were musically rendered by a group of seven to eight people. It was accompanied by a mridangam. The format of rendition of songs of the Thevaram is very ancient. The brāhmaṇa rāgas and the tāla patterns have come down traditionally. The singers are trained in the Gurukula system. There was a pāṭhaśālā (traditional school) in Chidambaram solely dedicated to training such people. Sastri said:
“Such pāṭhaśālās that teach Thevaram have been established in all the countries where Natukoti Chettiyars (also called 'Nattukottai Chettiars') live. They are found in Burma, Malaysia and several other places. There are temples dedicated to Śiva in those countries and they have the tradition of singing Thevarams in those temples as well. The Natukoti Chettiyars have generously donated for this cause”
The Thevaram concert went on for about two hours. I was not only thrilled by listening to it but also got some idea about the melodic rendition of Tamil metrical patterns (geya-chandas).
The aspect that I wanted to narrate is a different one. The day after the Thevaram Concert took place, Sastri seemed to be facing some trouble with his health. It was probably because of his long journey on the previous days. He seemed weak during the meals. We thought that he would be alright after taking some rest. He. however, developed pain in his chest by about 1-1:30 PM in the afternoon. He felt it difficult to speak for about four to five minutes. We laid him down on a cot. He was pressing his chest with his palm and it looked like the pain had increased.
I didn’t know what I should do as I hadn’t seen such ailment before. I had never seen a person suffer that way. I did not know what it would look like to have chest pain. As both my parents had sturdy and healthy bodies, I had not seen them suffering from any such ailment. There were only three others with Sastri when this incident took place (other than the servants there) – Me, Anasuyamma, the wife of Suryanarayana who worked for Servants of India Society and Venkataram, his private secretary. Venkataram was about 25-26 years of age. He had finished his MA with good scores and was known to be a smart person. We could fetch the help of a physician who lived about six to seven miles away from the Vice Chancellor’s bungalow. I came up with a plan. Venkataram was to travel by his car to fetch the physician. I would ask Anasuyamma to play some songs on the gramophone until Venkataram came back with the doctor. It would take him about fifteen to twenty minutes to fetch the doctor. I stood by Sastri’s side and massaged his hands and feet. We were, anyway, to work as per the doctor’s instructions upon his arrival.
A Request about his Last Moments
As per our plan, Anasuyamma played the gramophone recording. As I knew the rāgas that Srinivasa Sastri liked, I suggested which ones she could play. I continued to massage Sastri’s hands and legs. Sastri was motionless and held his limbs close to one another. It looked as if he was not conscious of the world around him at all. Anasyuamma played a few records and after they were done, she switched to the composition “Pahi Ramachandra Raghava” in the Rāga Yadukula-kambhodhi . The song was rendered by Musuri Subrahmanya Iyer and was a composition of Tyagaraja. As the song was nearing its end, I heard the word “Sir…” faintly emerge out of Sastri’s mouth. I immediately held my ear close to his mouth. He said “Once more Sir”. Anasuyamma played the record once again. After having played the song thrice, Sastri whispered in my ear:
“Only if I could listen to this song during my last moments…” His words revealed his heart. His eyes were wet. He wished that he could always hear Sri Rāmacandra’s stuti.
In fact, when Srinivasa Sastri passed away in April 1949, the Madras AIR, which announced about his sad demise, played a kīrtana on Śrīrāma at the end of the announcement. which is equally moving and fitting to the situation. It was “Raa Raa Maayintidaakaa” in the Rāga Asaveri. When I heard this being played, I just couldn’t control the outburst of my tears.
To be continued...
This is the ninth part of the English translation of the Second essay in D V Gundappa’s magnum-opus Jnapakachitrashaale (Volume 6) – Halavaru Saarvajanikaru.