Madhava-Vidyaranya: Contribution to Art

As seen from earlier parts, the chief objective of Madhava-Vidyaranya was the rejuvenation of Dharma. While his works on Dharma and Vedanta influenced the educated and the deeply interested, they remained beyond the ken of the lay public. How then could his program of dharmic rejuvenation transcend societal and educational barriers?

Madhava-Vidyaranya’s well-rounded education, which included exposure to both classical and folk music, helped him appreciate the magical ability of the fine arts. After all, is it not said, “शिशुर्वेत्ति पशुर्वेत्ति वेत्ति गानरसं फणिः” (the essence of music is understood by even children, animals, and snakes)?  Madhava had the key insight that instrumental and vocal music, dance, painting and sculpture managed to capture even those otherwise indifferent. Both folk and classical art, sans mutual conflict, could help the rasika attain the dual objectives of emotional refinement and aesthetic joy. Madhava-Vidyaranya was not only a practitioner but also a patron of these arts at their different levels and saw the intertwined nature of sanatana-dharma and the fine arts.

Sanatana-dharma has the ideal of yajna as its basis. The same principle further attained currency via temple culture. Much of our art (both folk and classical) has not only risen from temples and the celebrations and rituals therein, but has also thrived there. Such fine arts, especially those oriented towards performance, can be understood and appreciated only from direct experience. In those days that lacked modern methods of documentation and transmission, these arts could be nurtured and propagated only via teacher-disciple relationships and constant performance. All of these were dependent on temples. Most art, therefore, owed its existence to temples and temple culture.

Such temples, unfortunately, had to bear the brunt of Islamic iconoclasm from the likes of Malik Kafur and the Tughlaqs. After several decades of decay and destruction of these centres of art, dependent art forms were destroyed due to a lack of support. As art lives in its practitioner, a lack of patronage or disciples prevents its sustenance and transmission. If the artist dies without disciples, the art is as good as dead. Grave indeed was the situation of Indian art in that age. This is one of the key reasons why temples need to thrive even in this modern era.

Due to the foresight of Sayana and Madhava, temple reconstruction, an important aspect of the cultural renaissance, was taken up with priority. It is because of their effort that these art forms are present to this day.

Though the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Gangas, Kadambas and Hoysalas had built several beautiful temples, they were small in size and lacked provisions for protection. Built with sandstone and soapstone, these temple sculptures tended to erode rather easily. But Vidyaranya envisioned capacious and fortified temples with igneous rocks (granite) that could withstand the vagaries of time. The enthusiasm to build new temples was coupled with a desire to repair and rejuvenate the old ones as well. Fortification of temples in India was done for the first time in the Vijayanagara Empire. A unique feature of the temples of this era is the construction of rayagopurams using stucco, wood and brick. These rayagopurams proudly proclaimed their presence from afar, defiantly announcing to the iconoclasts that they still thrived, while instilling confidence in the Hindu community.

Temple painting was key in the spread of dharmic ideas in those days that lacked modern means of dissemination. Due to the frenetic pace of temple construction in the Vijayanagara era, it is no surprise that the famous Tanjavur, Mysore and Lepakshi styles of painting started then. We know that Madhava-Vidyaranya was adept at painting from the Chitradeepa part of his Panchadashi. It is therefore quite plausible that painting received a fillip from Madhava-Vidyaranya.

A magnificent monument of Sri Vidyaranya’s contribution to temple construction is the Vidyashankara temple in Sringeri. With several karanas from the Natyashastra,  depictions of stories from the itihasas and puranas as well as from popular culture, these temples serve verily as cultural encyclopedias to this day. By visiting this temple, one can see how temple visitors got not only spiritual benefits but also recharged their cultural and artistic values.

We gathered from earlier parts that Madhava-Vidyaranya was an expert veena player. It was therefore natural for one well-versed in musical theory and practice to have great regard for music. In those times, music did not have a solitary existence but was seen as part of a triad - vocal music, instrumental music and dance, as seen in the quote below.

गीतं वाद्यं तथा नृत्यं त्रयं संगीतसंज्ञकम् । (Bharatakosha)
The triad of song, instrumental music and dance is denoted by the term Sangita.

Hence it must be understood that Madhava-Vidyaranya had mastery over all three aspects. It is now well-established that Madhava-Vidyaranya authored Sangitasara, a work on music. Govinda-Dikshita in his famed Sangita-sudha has not only mentioned this but has evidently restated several ideas from the Sangitasara. Researchers have shown that the elaboration of ragas, insights into the melas, tips for the vaggeyakara (composer), and the attributes of a singer are but some of the topics that Govinda-Dikshita has obtained from the Sangitasara. From this, it can be inferred that the janya-janaka method for the characterization of ragas (credited to Venkatamakhin) was pioneered by Madhava-Vidyaranya. In fact, it is because of him that South Indian music came to be known as Karnataka-Sangita. For more details one can refer to Dr R Satyanarayana's Kannada magnum opus “ಕರ್ಣಾಟಕ-ಸಂಗೀತ-ವಾಹಿನೀ” wherein he systematically explores the musical contributions of Madhava-Vidyaranya for almost 85 pages.

Due to Madhava-Vidyaranya's Sangitasara as well as several works produced during that era, the Vijayanagara Empire became the capital of Indian music after the demise of musically endowed kingdoms such as Devagiri and Kalyani. Tanjavur took over the musical mantle from the Vijayanagara Empire after the latter's destruction.

We will conclude this section with a translation of Dr R Satyanarayana's summary of the momentous musical contributions of Madhava-Vidyaranya.

The classical musical acumen of Sri Vidyaranya is truly awe inspiring. It is a rare achievement that the foundational musical concept of grama, followed faithfully for thousands of years, was revamped by him. His propounding of the mela concept as its replacement that has endured for over six centuries is another testimony to his ability. It is therefore only just that the name of Madhava-Vidyaranya be added to the hall of fame of Indian music comprising greats such as Bharata, Matanga, Abhinavagupta and Sharngadeva. The credit of formulating lakshanas of extant ragas for the first time, seven hundred years ago, must therefore go to him.

If Sri Purandaradasa can be called Karnataka Sangita Pitamaha, it would only be right to honour Sri Vidyaranya with the sobriquet Karnataka Sangita Prapitamaha (The great-grandfather of Carnatic Music).

After providing key insights into vocal and instrumental music, it may be apt to assume that Sri Vidyaranya could have contributed towards nritya (dance), the third aspect of sangita as well. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, in her “Natyashastra and National Unity” describes how five decades of lawlessness due to Islamic invasions and iconoclasm had caused the decline of the marga tradition of dance. She subsequently describes the efforts of Kampana the second (through Madhava-Vidyaranya) in reestablishing temple traditions and the systematization of the Devadasi Dance tradition.

Sri Vidyaranya not only beheld the intertwined nature of dharma and art, but also the secret of the cyclical births of the marga (classical) and deshi (folk) traditions from each other. To elaborate, the deshi dance traditions are regional expressions of the marga tradition expounded by Bharata, which in turn was a systematization of existing folk forms. It was thus that Madhava-Vidyaranya judiciously used the deshi traditions for inspiring the masses and the marga for preserving artistic traditions. The credit for this key insight rests with him.

A beautiful harmony of music and dance is realized in Drama, which was yet another area that was enriched by Sri Vidyaranya’s contributions. There are several references to plays having been composed and enacted upon the instruction of Sri Vidyaranya. One of them is the Unmattaraghava, where the playwright Bhaskara writes in the introduction that this play was enacted to please Sri Vidyaranya. Vamanabhatta was another whose compositions were encouraged by Sri Vidyaranya. The Vijayanagara empire saw several dramatic forms such as yakshagana, kuchipudi, perini, and terukkutthu becoming distinct. One can read the Natakadeepa section of the Panchadashi to appreciate the interest that Sri Vidyaranya had towards dance and dramatics in general. This section is probably the only work that shows a beautiful, natural and effective use of nataka terminology in explaining Vedantic topics.

With such seminal contributions towards temple culture and architecture, music and art in general at such a crucial juncture in history, it can be rightly said that Sri Vidyaranya was the rejuvenator of the fine arts not only in Karnataka but in all of south India.

In the limited scope of this short series we have attempted to understand Sri Vidyaranya’s achievements. Just as we can understand the quality of the entire vessel of cooked rice by sampling one grain (स्थाली-पुलाक-न्याय), we can attempt to understand the magnitude of Sri Vidyaranya’s all-round scholarship, his uncompromising loyalty towards dharma without being dogmatic and his ability for independent and dispassionate assessment of the Universal Principle. With no modern parallels to him, it is but just to place Sri Vidyaranya amongst towering personalities such as Sri Krishna, Sri Chanakya, Adi Shankara, and Sri Abhinavagupta.

We conclude this series with a stuti verse to Sri Vidyaranya composed by Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh, whose Kannada work forms the bones, muscles and spirit of this short series.

श्रीकृष्णमिव तुरीयाश्रमिणं
चाणक्यवद्गृहस्थाश्रमिणम् ।
विद्यारण्यमुनीन्द्रं मन्ये
सर्वाश्रमाश्रयमनन्यगुरूम् ।।
(I consider Sri Vidyaranya, the chief amongst the ascetics, akin to Lord Krishna (who was chiefly a grihastha) in the sannyasashrama, and like Chanakya (who was a brahmachari) in the grihasthaashrama. Sri Vidyaranya was the refuge of all the four ashramas and an unparalleled preceptor.)

|| iti sham ||

References
  1. Vibhutipurusha Vidyaranya (Kannada) - Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh, Shri Bhagavatpāda Prakāshana, Swarnavalli, 2001
  2. Sri Vidyaranya Vijaya (Kannada) - Dr. D V Gundappa, Volume 3 of complete works of DV Gundappa, Directorate of Kannada and Culture, Ed. H M Nayak, 1992.  
  3. Panchadashi Pravachana (Kannada) - MM Vidvan Ranganatha Sharma, Vedantabharati, Krishnarajanagar, 2003.
  4. Jivanmuktiviveka - Sri Vidyaranya, Translated by Pandit S Subrahmanya Sastri and T R Srinivasa Ayyangar, The Adyar Library and Research Centre, Chennai, 1978.
  5. Karnataka Sangeetha Vahini (Kannada), a history of Karnataka music - MM Dr. R Satyanarayana, Kannada Book Authority, 2001.

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