The Krishna Leela Tarangini is a fascinating work that comprises songs describing incidents from the life of Sri Krishna. Based largely on Srimad Bhagavatam, it ends with the marriage of Krishna to Rukmini. The composer who created this was Narayana Teertha (1675-1745).


Born into an orthodox family of Kaza in present day Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, Narayana Teertha acquired proficiency in language and music. His devotion to Krishna was absolute and he took to the orders of a monk in middle age. A chronic ailment tormented him and he wandered from shrine to shrine in search of a cure. Arriving in the Tanjavur area, he took shelter in a Ganesha temple in Nadukaveri. In the night he dreamt of Lord Krishna who instructed him to follow the first animal he saw on waking up, in order to be relieved of his illness.


The next morning Narayana Teertha espied a white boar wandering outside the temple. He followed it and walked to Bhupatirajapuram, a village four miles away. The boar vanished into the Venkatesa Perumal shrine there and Narayana Teertha followed. Once in the sanctum he found himself cured of the illness. He decided to make the village his abode. His fame as a holy personage spread far and wide and in remembrance of the white boar that brought him there, the village was renamed as Varaha (boar) puri (town) which in Tamil became Varahur.


Expressing his gratitude to Krishna, Narayana Teertha decided to compose His life in the form of a collection of songs. It is said that the Lord kept time to the songs by the chime of his anklets. Narayana Teertha was overjoyed at hearing if not being able to see his deity. But when he completed the section pertaining to the marriage of Krishna and Rukmini, he found that the anklets ceased to keep time for any further compositions. He therefore decided to end his work with the wedding as he felt that the Lord desired him to do so. The collection came to be called the Krishna Leela Tarangini.


Narayana Teertha made Varahur an important pilgrim centre and soon the Gokulashtami festival, the birthday of Krishna which falls in the month of Shravan (Aug/Sep), began witnessing enormous participation. The composer codified the celebration with events such Uriyadi (breaking of pots containing butter, curds, milk and sweets suspended from a height), a sport which Krishna made famous in Gokulam and Brindavanam. Even today the festival is celebrated with gusto at the shrine. Credit for its revival must go largely to Varahur Muthuswami Iyer, a well known violinist of the 20th century. His family along with other enthusiastic participants and donors keeps the event going.


The exact place of death of Narayana Teertha is disputed. Some believe he is buried at nearby Tirupoonturuthi while others say he was laid to rest in Varahur. The former village has a Samadhi identified with him where an annual festival is conducted in his honour.


The Krishna Leela Tarangini’s music as originally created by Narayana Teertha has undergone several changes. The songs have been reset to music by many musicians. What is significant is the presence of several sollukattus (syllables which are recited as an accompaniment to dance in the text), thereby leading credence to the theory that the Lord danced to the songs when first sung by the composer.


The work is divided into 12 sections each of which is called a Tarangam. Each Tarangam had several songs in it, which in turn follow varying structures. Some are formally made out as kritis with pallavi, anupallavi and a series of charanams which again vary anywhere from three to eight in number. There are some songs which are structured as a collection of couplets, yet others are in collections of four lines. There are a few songs on other deities such as Ganesha and Durga. Interestingly the song Himagiri Tanaya Patyam, which is a prayer to Shiva became an integral part of Harikatha repertoire as an opening piece. All songs end with the name of the composer as the mudra.


Over the years several musicians made some pieces there own. There was a time when “Madhava mamava deva” (Nilambari) was heard in every home as the lullaby for infants. The famed theatre artiste SV Subbiah Bhagavatar took up “Jaya jaya gokula bala” as his “entry song” when he strode on to the stage. This was sung no matter what role he played even if it was that of Krishna. He is said to have set the song as a pancha raagamaalika (Bhairavi, Athaana, Kaamboji, Kalyaani, Surutti) which is how it is sung today. Bhagavatar and his harmonium counterpart KS Devudu Iyer would indulge in on stage pyrotechnics with neraval and swaram for this song which would invariably draw thunderous applause. The song remains a popular concert piece. Yet another very popular song, made famous by ML Vasanthakumari was “Sharanam bhava karuna mayi” which TM Thiyagarajan set in Hamsavinodini. It is sung in other ragas also but nothing has matched the magic that MLV wove with her rapid fire kalpana swarams for the line “madhusudana madhusudana” in the song.


Narayana Teertha’s songs clearly influenced those of latter day composers such as Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitar. There are similarities in lyrics and perhaps if the music had survived intact it would be possible to see similarities in that as well. The composer himself has earned an immortal place in the annals of Carnatic Music.