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Life and Compositions of TaLapaka Annamacharya

1. Life of TaLapaaka Annamacharya:

Tallapaka Annamarchya, popularly known as “Padakavitaapitaamaha”, was probably the earliest known Telugu Composer (1408 – 1503). He is known to have worshipped Lord Venkateshwara (the deity of the 7 hills) through his divine music. During his time, Annamacharya is credited to have composed almost 32,000 Sankirtanas and apart from this he also has to his credit, 12 Satakas (set of 100 verses), Ramayana in the form of Dwipada, Sringara Manjari and Venkatachala Mahatyam (bringing out the glory and significance of the holy place Thirupati). In addition, this prolific Composer has also composed “Sankirtana Lakshanamu”, a “grammar on music” which is believed to be the first of its kind. It is believed that Annamacharya’s sankirtanas were initially recorded on palm leaves and later his son Pedda Thirumalacharya got them engraved on copper plates. These copper plates were lost to public view for a period of 400 years and thus the Tallapaka poets were not known to the world. The copper plates were providentially discovered, in the earlier part of the 20th century, in a rock built cell called the Sankirtana bhandagaram, which can be seen even today inside the Thirumala temple opposite the main Hundi.

During the decade 1940 to 1950, Acharya Veturi Prabhakar Shastry(VPS) garu who was heading the research wing of Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams (TTD), located the Sankirtana copper plates of the Tallapaka poets lying unattended in the TTD administrative office. He then took the initiative and started extensive research into what he had discovered. He classified over 2000 copper plates containing approximately 6 musical compositions on each plate, and started publishing the edited Sankirtana volumes in a systematic way under the aegis of the TTD. Thus the Tallapaka poets and their prolific work saw the light of the day.

In 1949 a detailed biographical account of the life of Annamacharya called “Annamacharya Charitra”, authentically presented by the Composers’ own grandson “Chinnana”, came to the fore. This book gives us a complete insight into the Composer’s life. In this book, Chinnana mentions an incident in which Annamacharya, as an adolescent, was once engaged in the routine duty of cutting grass and while doing so cut his finger by accident. This brought about a sudden change in his attitude towards life. He realized in a flash that his life’s purpose was not to cut grass for the cattle but to cut asunder all worldly ties with the sickle of devotion and work towards the betterment of mankind thus leading to salvation.

This realization was the beginning of a new life for Annamacharya, after which he left his house at Tallapaka, a village in current day Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh unannounced. He joined a few pilgrims and started trekking towards the seven hills repeating in ecstasy the name of the Lord - “Govinda”. He reached Thirupati within a few days, paid obeisance to the deity of the town and started ascending the hills to seek darshan of the Lord. As he was travelling, due to exhaustion he decided to rest for a bit under the shade of a bamboo tree for a while – and that’s when he was blessed with a divine vision. The compassionate mother – Goddess Alamelumanga, consort of Lord Venkateshwara, appeared before him, touched his body with her graceful hands, relieved him of his pain and fatigue, fed him well and then advised him to climb up the sacred hill barefoot. Annamayya woke up with divine fervor and composed extempore a Sataka (100 verses) ending with a refrain “Venkateshwara” in praise of the mother goddess. He then began to climb up the mountain as advised by the goddess. After reaching the top of the hill he had a dip in the holy pushkarini and had the darshan of Lord Adivarahaswami. He visited all the shrines and finally reached the sanctum sanctorum of Lord Venkateshwara. On beholding the divine vigraha of the lord, he went into ecstacy and spontaneously sang “Kantinayya akhilaandakarta ne nadhiku Gantinayyaghamu Nikkamu Veedukonti” much to the astonishment of the devotees around. Thus commenced his journey as a poet-composer. Gradually Annamacharya’s sankirtana paddhati acquired much acclaim. The devotion and emotion blended in his lyrical compositions attracted everybody back then and continues to do so even today.

2. Annamacharya’s Compositions:

Annamacharya’s compositions are mostly in Telugu and a few in Sanskrit. They are replete with beautiful meanings, intricate descriptions and free flowing prosodic embellishments like “Yati” and “Dwithiaksharaprasa”. In the “Annamacharya Charithra”, Chinnana mentions that Annamacharya was one of the very first Composers to have perfected the Sankirtana format – having a clear distinction between the Pallavi and the Charanams. In most of his compositions it is observed that the Pallavi has 2 lines and the Charanams, which are usually 3 in number, have 4 lines each. Some compositions are also said to have a Pallavi with just 1 line – called as “Shikha Padam” and in this case the Charanams have two lines each, double of the Pallavi. Therefore, it is important to note that a study of Annamacharya’s compositions gives us an understanding that a clear structure of the Sankirtana format evolved as early as the 15th century and subsequently developed into the Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam structure which we see in almost all compositions of Tyagaraja , Shyama Shastri, Dikshitar and other contemporaries today. Annamacharya penned compositions under three categories – Sringara, Vyiragya and Adhyatma. He is also said to have composed “Yela Paatalu”, which show the influence of folk melodies of his time.

Another important aspect, that has interested musicologists, is whether Annamacharya was only a poet or also a Vaggeyakara. Did he compose music for his own lyrics? A mention of the Raga and Tala on the copper plates indicates that he did set his poetry to music. However, none of the copper plates had notations. As a matter of fact, learned musicologists believed that notated lyrical compositions were first found only in the later part of the 19th century and that the system of notations evolved subsequently.

Acharya VPS, just before his demise in 1950, discovered 2 stone edicts dating back to 1500 AD, within the temple precincts in Tirumala. These 2 stone edicts had a series of 21 compositions engraved with lyrics and notation sequentially. The slabs were numbered 2 and 4, suggesting that they were probably a part of a series of 5 or more slabs, as the slab no 4 was incomplete. These stone edicts were called, collectively, as the Tirumala Music Inscription (TMI). About two decades ago, a committee of learned musicologists and musicians examined the 2 stone edicts. The 2 edicts did not contain any direct references to the Tallapaka poets, as the stone edicts were incomplete, except for one salient “Venkata” mudra (signature term) that typically goes with all Tallapaka compositions. This fact amongst many other features, typical of the Tallapaka poets, lead the committee to conclude that the edicts indeed contained Tallapaka compositions. These being notated indicated that notated lyrical compositions existed even during the time of the Tallapaka poets.

In conclusion, it can be said that Annamacharya was a Vaggeyakara par excellence who was a prolific composer. His sankirtanas extolled the virtues of his Ishtadaivata, Lord Venkateshwara. This phenomenal body of work is being brought to light by a number of individuals and organisations today.

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