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Purandara Dasa: The father we lest forget

An artist's rendering of Shri Purandara Dasa
An artist’s rendering of Shri Purandara Dasa

I was introduced to Carnatic music tradition at the age of six. In the class, my Guru would write the lessons for all the students. The customary Shri, OM , Shri Saraswatiye Namaha and Dasacharana samarpitham were the first page salutations in the music book. To my curiosity, I asked my teacher what the last word, Dasacharana samarpitham, meant. She narrated the story of Shri Purandara Dasa. He is the legendary composer honoured by the community as the Karnataka Sangeetha Pitamaha, or the Father of Carnatic music.

Life

Purandara Dasa was a saint who belonged to Haridasa tradition. His story of becoming a saint is the most magical one to start with. Dasaru was born as Srinivasa Naayaka in a merchant family in Purandaraghada (some do say Kshemapura in Shivamogga) who had a bad distinction of being a miser. Legend says that the Lord Vishnu himself came and taught him the lesson of giving away and being selfless. That day Srinivasa Nayaka who was known as Navakoti Narayana became a Haridasa and dedicated the rest of his life to the Lord.  He became the student of Shri Vyasathirtha, the prominent madhwa guru and also the rajaguru of Vijayanagara kingdom. There, Srinivasa Nayaka became Purandara Dasa. The word ‘Dasa’ means servant of god. He started writing his kritis with the ankithanaama/pen name ‘Purandara Vittala’.

Music

In this pretext of dedicating his life to god, the music tradition of South India got its greatest gift. Purandaradasa was instrumental in structuring the basic lessons in Carnatic classical music. These were organised into Sarali varases, Janti swaras, Alankaras, Lakshana geetas, Prabandhas, Ugabhogas, Daatu varase, Geetams, Sooladis and Kritis. He introduced the raaga Maayamalavagowla as the basic scale for music instruction and fashioned series of graded lessons. This is the structure that is still used in practise. All the lessons in Riyaz are structured that way as well.

Purandara Dasa is said to have composed 475,000 songs in both Kannada and Sanskrit. He adopted a simple, lucid Kannada style with telling phrases and similes. With among the most beautiful lyrics, he sang many rare ragas. There are 84 ragas which he identified including the ones such as Kalyani, Varali, Todi, Bhairavi, and Saveri which are popular today. Tyagaraja’s praise in Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam is for Purandara Dasa. In fact, some of his famous songs are patterned after those by Purandara Dasa. For example, the song Nanupaalimpa is based on Dasa’s Bide ninna pada.

He also used a variety of musical forms: kritis, keertanas – devotional songs, padams – a dance form employing nayaka-nayaki (hero-heroine) bhava, besides many other rare forms. The verses he sang were his own compositions on a variety of themes. Some of them described Shri Krishna’s adventures in this world. Few others sang about God’s kindness to man. A few more verses were simple compositions expounding the philosophy contained in the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavadgita in simple words. In yet other verses, he praises Lord Krishna affectionately. In some others, he makes fun of Him. His songs which preached surrender to Vittala have an elusive fragrance, poetic fervour, extraordinary logic and cutting satire.

It is not Carnatic music alone that benefited from his compositions, but also Hindustani music. Artists like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Basavraj Rajguru, Vidushi Gangubai Hanagal have sung his songs in their kutcheris/concerts as bhajans.

Social reform

Dasaru was also one of the social reformers in 14th Century. He simplified worship for the common people who could not understand Sanskrit, the language which was much prevalent for religious purposes. His compositions were mainly in Kannada, the local language of the people in the Kingdom of Vijayanagara. He was a Vaggeyakara (singer-composer) and a lakshanakara (musicologist). His compositions are philosophical,  simple to understand and musically very very valuable.

Most of his kritis do speak on reforming the society which has elusive barriers in terms of caste, religion and the immense lust of conquering kingdoms/wars. The classical music form which was only restricted to the durbar halls of the kings was made accessible to the common man who earlier had barriers of language and status. This, along with structuring the music and putting a foundation to Carnatic Music was his biggest contribution. For all his works, his own guru Shri Vyasathirtha appreciated him and said “Dasarendare Purandaradasarayya” meaning “Among the devotees of Hari, Purandara Dasa is the greatest”.

Remembering him

He spent his last years in Hampi and also sang in Krishnadevaraya’s durbar. The mantapa  in which he stayed is known as Purandara Dasa Mantapa  in Hampi. The same place where he sat down and composed many of his songs. Today that place is very sacred to musicians. Every year during the months of Feb-March Purandara Dasa’s aradhana  is held on the pushya bahula amavasya (a no moon day) of the Indian chandramana calendar (lunar calendar). The musicians and art aficionados in the state of Karnataka, rest of South India and many art and religious centers around the world observe this occasion in deep religious and musical fervor.

To the guru who structured the basics of Carnatic Music, the one who taught us the way to reach god was through music and the one who reformed the society, salutations to him.

Here are a couple of his music compositions sung by stalwarts.

Carnatic Music

Singer : Vidwan R K Srikantan

Hindustani Music

Singer : Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

Other Famous Musicians to Follow

6 Comments

  1. Asha srinivasan Asha srinivasan April 27, 2017

    Meghana!! Ur blog proves that u r well versed with the knowledge of music too. To b frank, I gained some unknown information abt purandara dasaru. Keep going. We r here to encourage u.
    All the best to u dear!

  2. Meghana Sudhindra Meghana Sudhindra April 27, 2017

    thanks asha 🙂

  3. Nagesh Nagesh September 16, 2017

    Meghana it’s nice to read about purandara dasaru and stallwarts. Thanks. Want to know how I can decide my vocal range is c or c+ or d or d+. Is there any ideas to check

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