Jayasri Srinivasan is a long time reader and a friend of Mahanandi. I thank Jayasri for this special contribution to Bhakthi~Bhukthi series to celebrate the new year festival Ugadi tomorrow.
“In Whatever Form” – A Tribute to Annamacharya
By Jayasri Srinivasan
Every so often, I like to remember, dust-off and re-touch a distant memory, much as one would open an antique chest of precious old sarees, feel their softness, air them out and put them safely back in.
I am seven years old, it’s another typical Bangalore morning-fresh and crisp, and I am suspended in that delicious, mysterious state between sleep and wakefulness. Sounds and smells slowly seep into my consciousness: the sharp sizzle of boiling water percolating through the stainless steel coffee filter, the tantalizing aroma of my grandmother’s rasam, the gentle clinking of pots and ladles as she works her culinary magic to feed and nourish us, and the pure, resonant voice of M.S Subbulakshmi pouring out of the tape recorder, drifting in the air and lingering long after the tape stops playing….
A particularly beautiful krithi I remember from the vast repertoire of M.S Subbulakshmi songs that were such a staple in our house is a composition by Annamacharya, the great poet-saint of the 15th century. The krithi beginning “Enthamathramuna” roughly transliterated “Whatsoever be your form” is a paen to Lord Vishnu and in typical Hindu fashion goes on to emphasize his universality by extolling him as the embodiment of multiple divine forms.
Whether as a serious student of Karnatic music or as an enthusiastic rasika, the krithis of Annamacharya are part of one’s singing or listening repertoire alongside other compositions by luminaries like Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Purandaradasa, to name only a few.
Born in Tallapaka village (about 500 km from Hyderabad and 75 km from Cuddapah town) near Tirupati , the boy who would grow up to become of the greatest Telugu hymnographers was named “Annamayya” after Lord Vishnu. “Annam”, a Sanskrit word commonly denoting rice but more broadly used to denote food itself, appears in the iconic Vishnu-sahasranama-stotram- (Literally, “Hymn of a 1000 names of Vishnu”). As Adi Sankaracharya explains in his commentary on the hymn, Lord Vishnu is “Annam”. In a dual sense-he is both the “eater” (he devours the universe during pralaya-the great deluge) and the “eaten” (for the enlightened seeker, he provides spiritual nourishment).
Annamacharya belonged to the sect of Vaishnavas, specifically the Vishishtadvaita sect who believe that Lord Vishnu is the all-pervading divine being of the Universe. To the already existing theological framework of Vaishnavism, Annamacharya brought his own special humanistic interpretation. His gospel of Universal brotherhood was expressed in lyrics of transcendent beauty. Annamacharya’s Vishnu is not the exclusive deity of a defined sect or religion, he is untouched by trappings of caste and creed. Instead, his Lord Vishnu is the glorious “Supreme Spirit”, the “Divine father of all beings” and we are all his children. At this time, now more than ever, the truth of this concept becomes all the more poignant. There is no place in this world then, for anger and hatred, violence and war. It is time now for love and peace, understanding and harmony. This message of universal love and tolerance was Annamacharya’s greatest legacy, his medium was his music, and it is by embracing the spirit of this message in our daily lives that we can best pay tribute to one of the greatest poet-saints of all time.
In the first stanza of the krithi “Enthamathramuna”, Annamacharya extols Lord Vishnu thus “O Lord, you become whatever one thinks of you, you are the same Lord in whatever form one worships you.” Particularly notable is the fact that Annamacharya, being a householder himself, drew upon simple, everyday examples to illustrate esoteric truths that might otherwise be difficult to grasp. In this song, he uses a pithy and practical metaphor by drawing on the versatility of a humble kitchen staple-the ubiquitous and sustaining flour. “One can make it whatever one chooses”, sings Annamacharya, referring to flour. “The size of the pancake depends on the quantity of flour used.” An interpretation of this could be that our perception of the divine is limited only by the extent of our spiritual stamina and seeking. Whether we hedge our bets and place our faith in a beloved personal God or a universal life force, every route is unique. Each path to self-realization is valid.
Stanzas 2 and 3 contain a spiritual checklist of sorts. Annamacharya lists the various names of Lord Vishnu attributed to him by his interestingly diverse cohort of worshippers. “The Vaishnavas adoringly call you Vishnu”-sings the saint. “Those who profess a knowledge of Vedanta call you Parabrahman. Devout Saivites think of you as Shiva. The Kapalikas sing your praises as Adibhairava. The Sakteyas worship you as Goddess Sakthi. Thus, different devotees visualize you differently”. And now, gently, unobtrusively and lyrically, Annamacharya slips in two lines of such depth and meaning that one has to stop and ponder their significance. “To those that show you little regard”, says the poet-saint, “you look small. To those that are enlightened / think nobly of you, you appear lofty.” Isn’t this a stunning and sophisticated illustration of spiritual relativism?
In the concluding stanza, he continues the earlier theme. “The weakness does not lie with you. You are like a lotus in the pond that rises and falls with the level of the water. The waters of the river Ganga alone are to be found in all the wells by the riverside.” And then comes the beautiful last line of the composition. In its eloquence, simplicity and truth, it needs no further elaboration. “You hold us under your sway, O Lord of Venkatadri. I surrender myself to you and this to me, is the Ultimate reality.”
Here is the video link to the rendition by Smt. MS Subbulakshmi.
As you listen to this enchanting song composed by a saint and sung by a goddess, may you find peace and new meaning in the coming year. Happy Ugadi and Gudi Padwa!
Note: In writing this piece, I want to acknowledge the two excellent scholarly sources that I drew upon for a translation and interpretation of this song from the original Telugu. The references are listed below.
1) Annamacharya (1989) Adapa Ramakrishna Rao. Published by Sahitya Akademi.
2) Annamacharya-Lyrics of Humanism (1999) An anthology of some Annamacharya Keertanas rendered into English. Edited by Acharya I.V. Chalapati Rao, Translated by A.S. Murthy. Published by Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad.
1. In the rendition by MS. Subbulakshmi, a Tamil shloka precedes the krithi “Enthamathramuna”.
2. There is a slight asynchronicity between the sound and image in the rendition of the song.
About the author: Jayasri Srinivasan has been a connoiseur of music, food and everything associated with her grandparents from birth. When not doing postdoctoral research in neuropharmacology, she enjoys reading Agatha Christie mystery novels and chasing after her bouncy two year old.