One day, sometime during 1905-06, at about 10 in the morning, my grandfather’s brother was sitting at the veranda of our house, chatting with someone. At that time, a man came there, stood at a distance, and spoke in Telugu in a soft voice, “Right now, if I requested you for some food, would it be inconvenient?”
That man must have been 50 or 55 years old. He had a copper vessel in his hand and had covered himself with a quilt. He wore neither a shirt nor a vest. A dirty dhoti was all he wore. He had folded it and worn it like a mundu [almost like wearing shorts; the portion below the knees remains uncovered]. He had another small piece of cloth in his hand. His head was completely shaven and he had a two- or three-day old stubble.
My great uncle asked him, “Are you a brahmana?”
“Have you had a bath or will you bathe here?”
“I will go to the pond to have my bath. Will it be OK if I returned in half an hour?”
It was around 11.30 by the time we sat down for lunch. That brahmana joined us. But he sat at a distance from us, almost perpendicular to our line. Since he was a stranger, it might be better to first know him before letting him sit with us – this was perhaps my great uncle’s intention. He had that sort of a cautious outlook.
While we ate, nobody spoke with that man. He too did not speak with anyone. But he followed the exact same rituals as everyone [a set of rituals performed before eating, as a mark of gratitude for having obtained food to eat]. After lunch, he took the usual goodbye gifts – dakshina [a small amount of money] and tambula [typically a betel-leaf paan and a coconut] – and left.
After a few days, there was some talk in town. “In the Someshvara temple, at night, at an opportune time, the deities themselves come to offer worship. At that time, someone sings. Such-and-such a person has heard it... So-and-so has heard it... I too have heard it…”
A few days later, a group of four people decided to investigate into the matter – my father, Venkatanarana Bhat, Gattannagari Muniswami, and another person, perhaps Ajjappa Dasa.
The Someshvara temple is just outside the town of Mulabagal. There are no houses in the vicinity of the temple. About thirty or forty yards away from the temple, there were five or six houses. That was it. The temple was ancient and spacious. Those were not times of electricity. Therefore darkness had spread within the temple, engulfing it. Except for the nights in the Kartika month [mid-November to mid-December] when small mud lamps would be lit, during most other nights, there would not be a soul in the temple after 8.
To visit such a place at night is definitely scary. Fear of snakes and scorpions, but more than that, the fear of ghosts and spirits. Under such circumstances, what Venkatanarana Bhat and others did that night was seen as a major adventure by the town folk.
Our gang of detectives walked noiselessly, without a torch, slowly inching forward from the main entrance into the temple premises. Perhaps it was midnight. When they stood in front of the main hall, they could hear the song. They held each other’s hands and in sotto voce said, “There’s something! There’s something!” Slowly they moved forward holding each other’s hands. In front of the main room that houses the murti of Someshvara, in the northern wing there was a room that housed the murti of Parvati and it was in front of this the musical notes were heard. They stood behind the pillars and listened to the music. In the room that housed the smiling Parvati, a small lamp had been lit. The singer was perched in the main hall that faced Parvati’s murti. He was singing a song with a lot of feeling that was often reflected in his hand movements. Perhaps he was singing raga Kedaragaula – thus I was informed by those who heard it.
The singer was the man who had come to our house for lunch.
Within three or four days, the news of the adventure of our detectives spread around town. Someone set out in search of that man, with a great desire to meet him. When asked what his name was, he apparently said, “Ramasheshayya.” When asked where he lived, he apparently replied, “Wherever I live, there!”
The very next day, he left town. Nobody knows where he went. He is said to have stayed for a while in a dilapidated hall near the Someshvara temple. He ate somewhere. He led a nomadic life.
अनिकेतः स्थिरमतिः [A line from the Gita. While describing the qualities of a great bhakta, Krishna says that a true devotee is one who doesn’t care for a home and has firm determination.]
A few days later, one heard great eulogies of his music, much to everyone’s surprise.
In 1906-07 the spiritual leader of the Sringeri matha honored Bangalore by his visit. One day, he had graced the Sri Rameshwara temple in Chamarajapet. Thousands of people had gathered for a sip of sacred water and the prasada [food offered to the Supreme and then eaten; typically offered to everyone at temples and ashrams]. In that large group, Ramasheshayya was there. I was about ten yards from him when I shouted, “Ramasheshayya sir!”
In utter shock and disbelief he turned towards me and blurted out in Telugu, “Who? Who’s that?”
I went forward and narrated the episode at Mulabagal. He laughed and said, “Ah, ok!” and promptly slipped away from there. Who knows where he went.
That night, when he was singing in front of Parvati, Venkatanarana Bhat and others guessed from the groaning tone of his voice, or from the grievance emanating from the lyrics of the song, or perhaps from the soft and subtle elaboration of the raga, that Ramasheshayya was afflicted by some sorrow or experienced some unspeakable trouble.
In the midst of the heat of his family problems, Ramasheshayya had discovered the cool island of music. This is the greatest accomplishment of music.
This is the seventh chapter from D V Gundappa’s magnum-opus Jnapakachitrashaale (Volume 2) – Kalopasakaru. Translator's notes in square brackets.