Purandaradasa – The Saint Composer

It was Purandaradasa who, more than 400 years ago, gave form to the system of training in music that is being followed today. Purandaradasa initiated the practice of starting music lessons in the Mayamalavagowla raga, and formulated graded exercises like sarali, janti, alankara, geethas, suladis, and varnas. The selection of Mayamalavagowla raga itself was a stroke of genius, for it enabled the later development of the 72-mela scheme. As the creator of the kirtana form, Purandaradasa has won a unique place in history of being the father–Sangita Pitamaha-of modern Carnatic music.

Unfortunately, very little by way of biographical details is available. Believed to be an amsa of Narada, Purandaradasa was born in Purandargad near Pandharpur, around 1500 A.D., the only son of a wealthy diamond businessman. Srinivasa Nayaka was his original name. (Krishnappa Nayaka or Thimmappa Nayaka according to some). Being a Madhwa Desastha brahmin, Srinivasa must have had the benefit of traditional education in Sanskrit but he grew up into a notorious miser. He married in his 16th year a girl named Saraswati (Lakshmi according to some). He lost his father in his 20th year; he amassed so much wealth that he came to be known as Navakoti Narayana.

Once an old brahmin came to him and sought monetary help to celebrate his son’s upanayanam. No answer was given. The old man went to Saraswati, convinced her of her right over her stridhana, and got her nose-ring. This he promptly took for sale to Srinivasa Nayaka himself. Suspecting that the jewel was his wife’s, Srinivasa Nayaka asked the old man to stay in the shop, went home and enquired his wife about her nose-ring. She told him that it was in the puja room. On being asked to produce it, she went into the puja room and prepared to put an end to her life with the help of the other diamond ornaments she had. As she lifted the cup to take the fatal drink, something fell into the cup and it turned out to be her nose-ring. She gave it to her bewildered husband who went back to the shop only to find that the nose-ring he had been given by the old man and kept in the safe in the shop was missing. The old man too had vanished.

It occurred to Srinivasa Nayaka who was then 30, that God himself had done all this. Enlightenment dawned on him and he renounced all his worldly possessions. He became Purandaradasa.

Renunciation, however, did not leave him a sorrowful man, brooding over the ills of the world. He had a hearty laugh over his own past life and that of the people around him and set about vigorously leading people along virtuous ways.

From Purandargad Purandaradasa went to Pandharpur, where he stayed for a number of years, performing bhajans at the Vittala temple there. It is said that thousands flocked to these bhajans. He would have, perhaps, stayed there for the rest of his life but for an unfortunate event. A valuable ornament was reported missing, and Purandaradasa was blamed for it. It is said that a dancing girl, in whose possession the ornament was found, swore that Purandaradasa had given it to her. Purandaradasa was tied to a pillar in the temple and punished. Obviously he had no heart to stay there any longer and he made his way to Hampi (Pampa) and joined the group of Dasas (devotees) headd by the revered Vyasaraya, under whom he had his formal initiation. This happened in the year 1537 A.D.

Purandaradasa, after renunciation, undertook a number of pilgrimages. During one such visit to Tirupati, he is said to have met the great Telugu composer, Annamacharya. At Hampi itself, two of Purandaradasa’s closest associates were Vaikuntadasa and Kanakadasa. Purandaradasa passed away in 1564 A.D. (Bakthakshi Pushya Bahula Amavasya)

Purandaradasa is said to have composed some five lakh songs, popularly called Devaranamas. The Kannada language itself is never more charming than in Purandaradasa’s compositions. Using the simplest of words with baffling dexterity, he adopted the conversational style for his songs in which we find the impassioned pleas of paterfamilias urging people to follow virtuous ways.

Very little by way of regular research into his compositions has been undertaken. Even for purely historical reasons these songs offer much scope for research. From a study of his songs glimpses can be had into the social life of the people of those days, particularly the middle and lower classes.