Friday, October 21, 2011

The Song of the Two Dasas

Where the voice of the wind calls our wandering feet,
Through echoing forest and echoing street,
With lutes in our hands ever-singing we roam,
All men are our kindred, the world is our home….” 
Wandering Singers by Sarojini Naidu


Two men. I know them by their voices. High-pitched, soaring into the morning air with a kind of raw, gravelly, unpolished sweetness that reminds me of the jaggery. Laced by faint, underlying sound of a harmonium that warbles the story of nimble fingers that fly over yellowed and black key, barely touching them, it seems. The sound always thrills me and I wait eagerly for the arrival of these two men. The songs they sing are familiar ones – songs that have been sung exactly like this for centuries, at this doorstep and at that gate, wandering the length and breadth of this land, rising up like incense towards the heavens…


“Hari” is one of Lord Vishnu’s many names.  And “dasa” literally means “servant”. But, when the philosophers and the scholars and the poets of the Haridasa movement called themselves “Haridasa”, they were referring to the fact that they were Lord Vishnu’s most ardent devotees or bhaktas. And it was this all-consuming ardour that was the fountainhead of the massive body of literature called Haridasa Sahitya that flourished for over six centuries in India, but especially in South India.

Though historians debate over the date of the origin of this bhakti movement (as early as the 9th century?), it really came into its own in Karnataka starting from the 13th and 14th century. This is the period when the great Haridasas began to roam the land, preaching about and composing praises of their beloved Hari. The language they spoke and composed in was the language of the common man, in symbols of everyday, simple things that everyone understood….

It is said that there are about 151 Haridasas of which some of the most prominent are Madhavacharya, Sripadaraya, Vyasathirtha, Vadirajatirtha, Kanaka Dasa. And perhaps the most famous of them all – Purandaradasa.

These men and their compositions changed the face of Kannada literature and music. (The basic grounding of Carnatic music was designed by Purandaradasa  – everything from the choice of the first raga to be learnt (raga Mayamalavagowla) to all the lessons and exercises like janti swaras, alankaras, geethas; so much so that he is known as the Pitamah of Carnatic music.) But they also gave us one other legacy of a very beautiful musical tradition – that of the wandering minstrel; a tradition that, fortunately, in spite of television and the invasion of dhinchaka-dhin - exists to this very day in Karnataka.

And so, these two men that I wait so eagerly are minstrels, the present day heirs of this tradition. In their singing and their muisc is preserved the precious legacy that Puranadasa and his fellow Haridasas created so many hundreds of years ago. The last few times that these men visited, I was not ready for them. I had no recorder, no camera to capture their wonderful music, But this time, the minute I heard their voices, I rushed around to prepare myself – with a camera and a phone. The camera batteries let me down, but the phone didn’t….

So, here they are with a rendering of that most well-known of Purandaradas’s compositions – Bhagyadalaxmi Baramma