Annamayya, by S Rajam

Today Annamayya’s compositions are an integral part of Carnatic Music performances in lyric if not in tune. This is commendable, given the late discovery of such a composer and the resurrection of his work. Yes, even though Annamayya’s life spanned the 15th and early 16th centuries, his oeuvre had to wait for long to see the light of day.

He was born in 1408 and passed away in 1503. Initiated into Sri Vaishnavism by Adivan Shatakopa Yati of the Ahobilam Math (d 1458), he had a special affinity for Lord Venkateswara of Tirumala. It is said he began composing at the age of 16, creating at least one song each day thereafter. The total number is computed at 32,000 of which 14,000 have survived. Of these, around 12,000 are themed on shrngara. The balance are classified as Adhyaytma Sankirtanas and deal with spiritual matters and high philosophy. The songs have pallavis and many charanams and he is recognised as the Pitamaha, grandsire of the pada kavita format.

It is not clear as to how and from where he picked up his musical knowledge. But his prowess became well known for the temple authorities to place him in charge of the musical offerings at Tirumala, earning him the title of Sankirtanacharya. He also composed 12 shatakams (collection of 100 verses) of which four have survived. Besides, there the Venkatachala Mahatmiya and the Shrngara Manjari, both in Sanskrit, a Telugu Ramayana and a Sanskrit treatise on music – the Sankirtana Lakshanam, which is now lost but whose Telugu translation by his grandson Chinnanna survives. It was also Annamayya who began the practice of abhishekam to Srinivasa at Tirumala each Friday. His talents came to be recognised by Saluva Narasimha, the founder of the Saluva dynasty of the Vijayanagar Empire.

Of his two wives Timmakka and Akkalamma, the former wrote a set of verses with Subhadra Kalyanam as its theme. His son by Timmakka, Narasinganna was praised by Tenali Ramakrishna, the scholar and poet of the court of King Krishnadeva Raya. Akkalamma’s son Pedda Tirumalayya and grandson Chinna Tirumalacharya, carried on the music tradition. Pedda Tirumalayya it was that had Annammayya’s songs inscribed on copper plates and preserved in a sealed chamber known as the Sankirtana Bhandaram in Tirumala. Bas-reliefs of father and son stand on either side of this chamber. The family was well to do and donated villages to the Tirumala temple besides other shrines in the vicinity.

There is a tradition that Purandara Dasa (1484-1564) met Annamayya at Tirumala. This is however doubtful as the former’s life story has it that he reformed and became a minstrel only in middle age, by when Annamayya was probably long gone. It is likely that Purandara met Pedda Tirumalacharya and the incident was later ascribed to Annamayya. Certainly by the time of Tyagaraja, Annamayya was clearly forgotten. The Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam mentions several other greats including Marathi bhakti poets but not Annamayya. In his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini, Subbarama Dikshitar devotes a section to Tallapaka Chinnayya where the content is clearly about Annamayya! He states that the composer was the originator of the Bhajana Paddhati. Some songs did get around, one being rather intriguingly preserved by the Mullamoodu Bhagavatars at the Travancore Court.

College of Fort St George’s river gate

In the midst of all this, in 1816, under the instructions of Archibald Duncan Campbell, an officer of the East India Company, the Bhandaram was opened. He and FW Ellis who translated the Tirukkural, were pillars of the College of Fort St George, which operated from what is now the DPI campus on College Road, Chennai. Ellis, Campbell and others of their kind studied Dravidian languages in detail. It is in Ellis’s preface to Campbell’s Telugu grammar that we find the first ‘proof’ that Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam originated outside of Sanskrit.

Campbell was keen to find out what lay in the Bhandaram but was disappointed to know that these were “nothing but voluminous hymns in praise of the Deity.” He did however make a careful copy of a treatise on grammar found there. It was only in 1922 that the next move was made, and the copper plates rediscovered. They contained the works of Annamayya, his son and grandson. In 1947, Vetturi Prabhakara Sastry organised for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam to acquire the plates. They were cleaned and coated in gold, after which research began on them. Each plate had at least three compositions, with the ragas mentioned. The tunes were however lost for good. The Devasthanam has published all the compositions in 29 volumes. Several scholars set them to music, the most well known being Rallapalli Ananthakrishna Sarma, M Balamuralikrishna and Nedunuri Krishnamurthy. As for singing and propagating them, perhaps it is to MS Subbulakshmi that we need to give the greatest credit.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated May 17, 2019 in the Friday Features section.