“B ala Tripura Sundari, Gaikonuma Haarathi…, the strains of this captivating Telugu lyric sung sonorously by a group of children drift out of a small school in Perla village, Karnataka. Their teacher Prince Rama Varma, renowned Carnatic classical vocalist and musicologist, nods his head in approval while keeping rhythm.
This composition is by Prayaga Rangadasa, better known as the maternal grandfather of legendary musician and composer Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna. Rangadasa is also credited with other little gems like Ramududhbhavinchinaadu (Chenchuruti), Rama Rama Yanarada (Sindhubhairavi), and endearing, alliterative, folksy compositions like Yeme O Chitti, etc.
Rama Varma has also taught these children Eeswaraagya Yemo Theliyadu (Sindhubhairavi) by Mallekonda Ramdasu, another Andhra Pradesh composer. He will soon teach them another Mallekonda piece–– Mayalokamu. Varma has also taught Petrai Saami Devuda by yet another lesser-known but talented composer Yedla Ramadasu. Yedla, whose tomb you can see in Rajahmundry, is also credited with Chaalu Chaalu (Saraswathi) and a beautiful mangalam in Anandabhairavi. (Most above available on youtube).
These three Telugu composers lived between late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Prayaga Rangadasa’s compositions have tunes also by him, those of Mallekonda and Yedla have been all superbly tuned by Balamuralikrishna.
All their compositions are noted for being simple, unembellished, engaging, soaked in bhakti-bhaava or devotional fervour; and with undeniable musical merit. “They belong to simple yet authentic classical music,” states Pappu Venugopal Rao, musicologist and dance scholar, author, and secretary of Madras Music Academy.
These compositions were learnt by Rama Varma from his guru and musical giant Balamuralikrishna who has them as part of his famously vast repertoire. Though these lyrics were part of bhajan-singing perhaps a century ago, they were largely forgotten over the years and sadly neglected by the music world. However, Balamurali, re-introduced them to music-lovers by rendering them in Bhakti Ranjani of All India Radio. Occasionally, he also sang them in his concerts.
It was a great contribution from Balamurali and elicited much appreciation at that time. However, the compositions did not receive their due either from music teachers, performers or rasikas/sabhas––the entities which preserve and propagate music traditions. And thus, gradually slipped into oblivion. The saving grace was that Balamurali, much later, taught them to his student Rama Varma who has been propagating them dedicatedly by rendering them occasionally and also teaching them to his own students who are, ironically, all outside Andhra Pradesh.
To Balamuralikrishna and his star-disciple Rama Varma goes the credit of keeping these compositions still alive. Says Varma, “I love the cadences of these lyrics and their lilting tunes. They are such a delight to sing. And they have an instant appeal––once people listen to them, they want to hear them again and again.” It is indeed a sad state of affairs that such appealing lyrics and even their composers’ names are now largely unheard-of in their own state. There is little documentation too. Why have such deserving compositions disappeared from musicians’ repertoires and music-teachers classes? Explaining possible reasons, Pappu Venugopal Rao says, “There are many composers in Telugu who have receded into oblivion and their songs are not being heard or not being sung. The main reason is they did not have a ‘Sishya Parampara’ that could propagate their music in other areas of the state.”
The compositions of Prayaga Rangadasa, Mallekonda Ramadasu and Yedla Ramadasu, have worthy musical qualities; and are meaningful, melodious and aesthetic. They are deserving of public platforms including concerts. They also merit documentation in written works and audio-records. Thus, a great deal of responsibility rests on musicians, teachers and sabhas/academies who should make efforts to propagate these lyrics.