Purandara Dasa: The Father of Carnatic Music and Social Reformer

Purandara Dasa: The Father of Carnatic Music and Social Reformer

Purandara Dasa, also known as the Father of Carnatic Music, was a legendary composer, poet, and social reformer who left an indelible mark on the musical landscape of South India. Born as Srinivasa Naayaka, he underwent a transformative journey, renouncing his past to dedicate his life to the service of God. His immense contributions to Carnatic music, including the structuring of its basic lessons and the composition of thousands of soul-stirring songs, continue to resonate with music enthusiasts even today. Additionally, Purandara Dasa’s commitment to social reform, advocating for inclusivity and religious harmony, further solidifies his iconic status. In this comprehensive article, we delve into the life, music, and lasting legacy of this revered musical genius, exploring his profound impact on Carnatic music and his significant role in shaping society.

Early Life and Spiritual Transformation

Birth and Background

Purandara Dasa, originally named Srinivasa Naayaka, was born into a merchant family in Purandaraghada (some sources mention Kshemapura in Shivamogga) in Karnataka, India. His father was Varadappa Nayaka and mother Leelavathi. He lived during the 15th and 16th centuries, a time when South India was culturally vibrant and thrived under the Vijayanagara Empire.

Miserliness and Divine Intervention

Srinivasa Naayaka had gained a reputation for being miserly. However, legend has it that one day, Lord Vishnu himself appeared before him, disguised as a poor Brahmin, seeking alms. Ignoring the Brahmin’s plea, Srinivasa Naayaka offered him a small quantity of food. As he tried to serve the food, it magically multiplied, revealing the divine nature of the guest. Realizing his folly and the importance of generosity, Srinivasa Naayaka experienced a profound change of heart.

Becoming a Haridasa

Inspired by the divine encounter, Srinivasa Naayaka renounced his material possessions and embraced a life of devotion. He became a Haridasa, a servant of God, and dedicated the rest of his life to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and musical expression.

Association with Shri Vyasathirtha

Srinivasa Naayaka sought guidance and knowledge under the tutelage of Shri Vyasathirtha, a prominent Madhwa guru and the rajaguru (royal preceptor) of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Under the guidance of his guru, Srinivasa Naayaka underwent further transformation and emerged as Purandara Dasa. The word “Dasa” signifies his role as a humble servant of God, and he began composing his kritis using the ankithanaama (pen name) “Purandara Vittala.”

Purandara Dasa: The Architect of Carnatic Music

Contributions to Music Education

Organizing the Basic Lessons

Purandara Dasa played a pivotal role in structuring the fundamental lessons of Carnatic music. He systematized the learning process by organizing the musical concepts into various modules, which included Sarali varases (basic exercises), Janti swaras (sequences), Alankaras (ornaments), Lakshana geetas (songs illustrating musical concepts), Prabandhas (compositions), Ugabhogas (lyrical compositions), Daatu varase (musical compositions with fixed rhythmic patterns), Geetams (simple songs), Sooladis (musical compositions with mathematical patterns), and Kritis (elaborate compositions). Many beginners use Riyaz app to get started with these basic carnatic vocal lessons.

Introduction of Raaga Maayamalavagowla

Purandara Dasa introduced the raaga (melodic framework) Maayamalavagowla as the basic scale for music instruction. This raaga served as a foundation for students to develop their musical abilities and understanding.

Graded Lessons and Learning Structure

Purandara Dasa devised a graded approach to music education, providing a systematic progression of lessons for students. This structured learning approach facilitated the gradual development of skills and knowledge, ensuring a strong foundation in Carnatic music

Compositional Style and Mastery

Language and Lyrics

Purandara Dasa composed his songs mainly in Kannada, the local language of the people in the Vijayanagara kingdom. His lyrics were simple yet profound, employing telling phrases and similes that resonated with the common people. His compositions were accessible, making them relatable to a wide audience.

Exploration of Ragas

Purandara Dasa’s repertoire featured an exploration of numerous ragas. He identified and documented 84 ragas, including popular ones such as Kalyani, Varali, Todi, Bhairavi, and Saveri, which are still widely performed and cherished today. His expertise in ragas allowed him to evoke specific emotions and create a rich musical experience for the listeners.

Influence on Hindustani Music

Purandara Dasa’s musical contributions were not limited to Carnatic music alone; they also had a significant impact on Hindustani music. Renowned Hindustani classical artists like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Basavraj Rajguru, and Vidushi Gangubai Hanagal have incorporated his compositions into their kutcheris (concerts), often presenting them as bhajans (devotional songs).

Noteworthy Compositions

Kannada and Sanskrit Repertoire

Purandara Dasa’s prolific output resulted in a vast collection of compositions, totaling approximately 475,000 songs in both Kannada and Sanskrit. His compositions encompassed various themes, including devotional songs, dance-oriented padams (featuring nayaka-nayaki bhava, depicting the hero and heroine), and rare musical forms.

Musical Forms and Themes

Purandara Dasa’s compositions explored a wide range of musical forms, including kritis, keertanas, and padams. His songs narrated stories from mythology, celebrated Lord Krishna’s adventures, expounded the philosophical teachings found in the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavadgita, and expressed deep devotion to Lord Krishna. Some of his compositions playfully teased and praised the deity, showcasing his versatility as a poet and composer.

Popular Songs and Their Significance

Purandara Dasa’s songs continue to be cherished and performed by musicians and enthusiasts. His compositions, such as “Nanupaalimpa,” have become iconic within the Carnatic music repertoire. Tyagaraja, one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, praised Purandara Dasa in his composition “Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam.” Many of Tyagaraja’s famous songs, including “Bide ninna pada,” are patterned after the compositions of Purandara Dasa.

Purandara Dasa as a Social Reformer

Popularizing Kannada for Worship

Purandara Dasa recognized the barriers faced by the common people who could not understand Sanskrit, the prevalent language for religious rituals and worship. To make devotion and worship more accessible, he composed most of his songs in Kannada, the vernacular language spoken by the people of the Vijayanagara kingdom. By doing so, he ensured that everyone could participate in devotional practices and connect with the divine.

Advocacy for Social Equality

Breaking Barriers of Caste and Religion

Purandara Dasa’s compositions often emphasized the importance of unity and equality, challenging the rigid caste and religious divisions prevalent in society. His songs promoted inclusivity, encouraging people from all walks of life to come together in devotion and harmony.

Critique of Materialistic Pursuits

Purandara Dasa’s compositions also criticized the materialistic pursuits and greed for power prevalent in his time. He urged individuals to prioritize spiritual growth and selfless service over the desire for wealth and conquest. His songs served as a powerful commentary on the societal issues of his era.

Legacy and Influence on Society

Purandara Dasa’s impact as a social reformer extended beyond his musical contributions. His emphasis on equality, compassion, and spiritual values inspired a generation of individuals to question societal norms and work towards a more inclusive and harmonious society. His teachings and compositions continue to be revered and celebrated, carrying forward his message of social reform and unity.

Remembering Purandara Dasa

Last Year and Musical Legacy

Purandara Dasa spent his final years in Hampi, where he had the honour of singing in the durbar (royal court) of King Krishnadevaraya. The mantapa (hall) where he resided in Hampi is now known as the Purandara Dasa Mantapa, a sacred site for musicians and music lovers.

purandara dasa mantapa at hampi karanataka

Annual Aradhana Celebrations

Every year, during the months of February and March, the aradhana (commemorative) celebrations of Purandara Dasa are held on the pushya bahula amavasya (no moon day) of the Indian chandramana calendar (lunar calendar). These celebrations, observed with deep religious and musical fervor, bring together musicians, art aficionados, and devotees from Karnataka, South India, and various other centers around the world.

Purandara Dasa’s profound influence on Carnatic music and his contributions as a social reformer make him a revered figure in Indian history. His music, with its soul-stirring melodies and poignant lyrics, continues to captivate audiences, while his messages of unity, equality, and devotion resonate across generations. Through his structured approach to music education, Purandara Dasa laid the foundation for the Carnatic music tradition, shaping the way it is taught and performed to this day. Furthermore, his efforts to break down societal barriers and promote inclusivity have left an indelible mark on the fabric of Indian society. Purandara Dasa’s legacy lives on, inspiring musicians, social activists, and seekers of spiritual enlightenment, as his words and melodies continue to touch hearts and minds, transcending time and boundaries.

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Quick facts about Purandara Dasa

What is Purandara Dasa famous for?

Purandara Dasa is famous for his contributions to Carnatic music as a composer, musician, and saint. He composed a large number of devotional songs (Keertanas) in Kannada and Sanskrit, which are widely sung and cherished in the Carnatic music tradition.

When did Purandara Dasa die?

The exact date of Purandara Dasa's death is not recorded, but it is believed to be around the year 1564.

Why is Purandara Dasa called the father of Carnatic music?

Purandara Dasa is called the "Father of Carnatic music" due to his immense contributions and influence on the genre. He is credited with systematizing and popularizing the structure of Carnatic music as it is known today. He introduced several innovations, including creating the basic lessons (sarale varase, jantai varase, and alankara varase) that form the foundation of Carnatic music training. His compositions also played a significant role in shaping the repertoire and style of Carnatic music.

Who are Purandara Dasa's wife and child?

Purandara Dasa's wife's name is Saraswathi Bai. His child's name is Madhwapathi.

Who are Purandara Dasa's parents?

The parents of Purandara Dasa are Varadappa Nayaka and Leelavathi.

What is the list of Purandara Dasa songs?

Purandara Dasa composed a vast number of songs, estimated to be around 475,000. However, many of these songs have been lost over time. Some of his well-known compositions include "Jagadoddharana," "Baro Krishnayya," "Krishna Nee Begane Baro," "Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma," and "Rama Nannu Brovara." These songs encompass various themes such as devotion, moral values, and the importance of leading a righteous life.


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