Bhajan Organizations

What I’m writing about now dates back to the situation in Bangalore c. 1905–10. At that time, there were also a few music institutes in existence. The Doddanna Sabha Mandira had not yet been established at that time. Just as the London Mission High School was the focal point for all literature and science, Sahuji’s rooftop in Chickpet was the centre for music. The music concerts of Bangalore Nagarathnamma, Veena Sheshanna, Bidaram Krishnappa, and [Mysore] K Vasudevacharya were conducted in the first floor of Sahuji’s house. I have listened to innumerable concerts there.

Sanmārga Pravartaka Sabhā

The Sanmārga Pravartaka Sabhā[1] also used to operate from the same location [i.e. Sahuji’s terrace]. Among others, the main people running it were employed at the Diwan’s Office. Music rasikas like Bhāgavata Narasimhaiah, Narayana Rao (a relative of B M Srikantaiah), J Srinivasaiah, Ganjam Gundappa, and Bidare Ashwatthanarayana Shastri used to organize bhajans every Saturday. They celebrated these [bhajan sessions] with as much pomp and splendour as Rāmotsava or Kṛṣṇa-janmāṣṭami. They honoured ascetics, sādhus, and saṃnyāsis as well. During those days, a sādhu from the Kūḍali maṭha (monastery) would visit Bangalore and typically he would stay at the residence of [K T] Appanna of the Hindu Coffee Club. I have heard that this Swami’s samādhi (resting place) is on the upper side of Chamarajpet 5th Street. Rama Rao, one of the favourite disciples of the Swami, was also a member of the Sanmārga Pravartaka Sabhā. The Swami conducted bhajans everyday [at the sabhā]. Hundreds of people would come there and participate in the bhajans daily.

That was a time when people were passionate about bhajans. The person who brought about a renaissance of the bhajan tradition in Bangalore was one by name Venkatasubbaraya. He was employed at the Railway Goods Shed. His residence was to the west of the intersection of Chickpet and Balepet. I’ve been to his bhajan [sessions] a few times. Several people would gather there. Having bathed and worn fresh clothes, Venkatasubbaraya performed daily prayers there, stood up, and made sounds with the tāḻas[2] and sang – 

Jai raghuvīra samarth |

Raghupati rāghava rājārām ||

as the opening bhajan. Seven to eight people followed him in singing the opening lines and moved around in a circle. This went on for about half an hour. It was then followed by songs, kīrtanās, and then finally prasāda.

I’ve mentioned earlier about the Lakṣmī-nṛsiṃha-svāmi Bhajane Mandira in Akkipet while speaking about ‘Duṣṭabuddhi’ Sūrappa.

Sītārāma Mandira

Around the same time, a similar organization that took birth was the Sītārāma Mandira in Alasurpet. This was started by V B Narayana Rao and M Krishnaraya. Along with them, there were also others like purohitas from Alasurpet, a certain T Venkataramaiah, and my venerable relative Venkappayya. Krishnaraya was a manager in the accounts department of Spencers Company. Narayana Rao and Venkataramaiah were colleagues of Krishnaraya. Krishnaraya was a pure soul, courteous and humble, and in his heart was a staunch Vedāntin. He used to go to the learned scholar Vidvān Sitārāma-śāstri of Alasurpet to study Vedānta-śāstra. V B Narayana Rao was a lover of music. He and Venkappayya were both students of maestro Vidvān Dakṣiṇāmūri-śāstri.

It was because of the passion of these five or six people that Sītārāma Mandira was born. It also grew in fame and popularity due to the single-minded, diligent efforts of V B Narayana Rao. The Mandira also hosted several excellent music concerts. It also hosted PurāṇaHarikathā, and other literary musical activities.

Śrīnivāsa Swamiji

When the people of Bangalore were enthusiastic about bhajans and Harikathās—circa 1909–10—a certain Śrīnivāsa Brahmānanda Deśika came into the scene. I have forgotten his exact name.

It appears that he was from Tamil Nadu. The fellow’s physical stature was one of radiance and strength. He was a tall, well-built, and slightly heavyset man.

When I first listened to his Harikathā, he was already a seasoned Bangalorean by then. It also appeared that he was not well-versed in music. But his Tamil oratory was good.

As I remember, it was B V Lakshmanaraya who became his first patron. B V Lakshmanaraya was a great man. He was a superintendent in the Diwan’s office. He was free from desires, trustworthy and competent, helpful, soft-hearted, and highly sāttvik by nature. Lakshmanaraya was devoted to the Supreme and was well-versed in Vedānta. He was also a music lover. After moving to Shankarapuram, he arranged bhajans at his residence every Saturday without fail.

At the time of the Tamil Harikathā vidvān I previously mentioned, Lakshmanaraya lived in Aralepet from what I remember. The Harikathā took place in Aralepet at Contractor Baiyanna’s residence. After that, for a while, the Vokkaliga Saṅgha’s printing press was in the same building.

When Śrī Śrīnivāsa Deśika Swamiji performed Harikathā, it was interspersed with musical kīrtanās. The Harikathā-dāsa [i.e., Swamiji] would suggest only the pallavi (opening stanza) for the kīrtanā; acting on the suggestion, the complete musical piece would be sung by Bhāskarapanta Nanjuṇḍa-śāstri. At that time, Nanjuṇḍa-śāstri was still a young man. He had an excellent śārīra (body of voice; tonal quality of singing). He was well-trained. I still remember one of the musical kīrtanās that he sang. It was in the rāga Gaurimanoharī – “Brova samayamiderā – rāmayya…”

The listeners were delighted and astonished by the rendering of this kīrtanā.

Cūrṇikā

Once in the middle of a Harikathā performance, probably during the Gajendra-mokṣa episode – when Gajendra is beseeching Lord Viṣṇu to come and rescue him from the crocodile, Śrīnivāsa Swamiji narrated a fascinating cūrṇikā[3] in Sanskrit. It began with ‘Śrīmad-akhilāṇḍa koṭi…’ and continued with ‘keśavam... mādhavam... nārāyaṇam...  pārāyaṇam.’ In this way, the cūrṇikā used the twenty-four names of Mahā-viṣṇu and associated each name with rhyming words and described the entire daśāvatāra-līlā of the Lord. In our new and ‘civilized’ literary flood, the cūrṇikā is one of the arts that have been washed away.

Bhagavadāveśa (Divine Trance)

Starting off by singing the cūrṇikā comprising of the twenty-four names of Lord Viṣṇu in rāga Ārabhi, Śrīnivāsa Swami raised his voice and pitch with each progressing name changing rāgas with every new name. By the time he reached ‘Śrīmad-adhokṣajam,’ [the last name] his hands and legs were quivering and in that rush of devotion and state of trance, it appeared like he would fall down to the ground. At that exact moment, a couple of people rushed to hold him and carried him inside the building. Then, there was a karpūra (camphor) āratī invoking the name of the lord. In the sabhā, Bhāskarapanta Nanjuṇḍa-śāstri was still singing bhajans. After three or four minutes, Śrīnivāsa Swami had recovered and returned to join the group. Then again another āratī was performed to the Lord. It was continued with the rest of the Harikathā, some bhajans, and finally the maṅgala[4].

From what I heard, this occurred quite often. Because the Swami entered a state of divine trance, more and more people came in with their offerings of fruits and flowers.

Patrikā (Magazine, Newsletter)

When Śrīnivāsa Swami’s name and fame grew, he apparently had a divine revelation telling him to start and run a magazine. That was in English. I have forgotten what it was called. ‘Message of the Vedanta’ or ‘Message of the Bhagavan’ was its name. It was printed at the Navaratna Printing Press located on Arcot Srinivasacharlu Street. Ranganna, who was a clerk in the office of the Diwan was the manager of that magazine. I remember having read some of the proofs of that magazine occasionally. The magazine ran for little more than a year. After a while, payment of the bills and dues that were owed to the printing press were getting delayed. Also, the overhead costs of the press also increased. However, they were unable to reach the Swamiji. This led to them harassing Ranganna. But what could the poor man do?

One day, there was a rumour that the Swami had left town. Here ends the episode of Śrīnivāsa Deśika Swami in Bangalore. He probably must be rendering his pious services elsewhere, where devotees are in abundance!

This is the eleventh essay in D V Gundappa’s magnum-opus Jnapakachitrashaale (Volume 6) – Halavaru Sarvajanikaru. Edited by Hari Ravikumar. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his thorough review and suggestions.

 

Footnotes

[1] Literally, ‘The Assembly Hall (sabhā) of those who Pioneer (pravartaka) the Good Path (sanmārga)’

[2] Small-sized cymbals.

[3] Cūrṇikā is a type of gadya (prose) or padya (verse) that is sung easily. Literally meaning 'powder' or 'piece' it refers to a short segment of devotional lyric that is sung. This is employed typically in the Mysore school of dance.

[4] Pieces that are sung for an auspicious conclusion; they are typically in rāgas like Śrī or Madhyamāvatī.

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:
Pratap Simha indulges in the study of Indian culture, history, arts, and literature. He is particularly fascinated by classical Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is an amateur stage actor and a poet. He also has a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering and works as an engineer in California, USA.