How India woke up to Suprabhatam
A history enthusiast traces the story of India's most beloved prayer, which for centuries was recited only in the sanctum of Tirumala, before singer MS Subbulakshmi embraced it
When a prayer becomes a way of life, it can no longer be seen as prayer alone. That's the effect MS Subbulakshmi has had on many Indians, ever since she recorded the 20-minute-long morning hymn, Venkatesa Suprabhatam—an appeal for the Lord to arise and save the world—in the 1950s. Her rendition was so enchanting that the prayer soon became a staple in every South Indian home. Its popularity was also experienced closer home, in Mumbai, then Bombay, where radio stations started broadcasting the prayer, "as a starter to a programme of Marathi Bhajans".
Bengaluru-based history enthusiast Venkatesh Parthasarathy, who grew up in distant Delhi, remembers how Subbulakshmi's melodic voice would glide and float through the walls of his home, every morning. "This [the taped recital] was played daily all through my childhood and growing years," he recalls. A few years ago, he thought of translating the poem, as a gift to his father, who was turning 80. "But, the more I read, the more I learnt how much there was to explore, so I kept exploring. The journey took a life of its own," says Parthasarathy, who is out with a new book, Venkatesa Suprabhatam: The Story of India's Most Popular Prayer (Westland). It's a first-of-its-kind exploration of the original Sanskrit composition, its history, and the circumstances of the author, Prativadi Bhayankar Anna, who penned it roughly around 1420 CE.
In the book, which is split into four sections, Parthasarathy does a deep dive into each verse, while tracing the evolution of Lord Vishnu, who is referred to in the prayer, how his search for Goddess Lakshmi led him to Venkata Hills in Tirumala, where the idol of Lord Venkateswara (Vishnu's avatar) is said to have "self-manifested," and the reasons why Anna wrote the composition, before throwing light on the recitation's history over the centuries. Revisiting this prayer then, meant that Parthasarathy had to have a strong command of Sanskrit, as well as an understanding of mythology. "Learning the language will be a lifelong journey—I started 10 years ago and am now in Class XII [Sanskrit]. For the Puranic stories, it is impossible for anyone to do a general survey in a short period. Fortunately, for us, scholars in the past have kindly collected the stories together. I did do some work on the Venkatachala Mahatmayam, but most of the rest is from secondary sources," he says, in an email interview.
The Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, Tirupati in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, where the morning prayer is sung. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
For a significant part of history, the Venkatesa Suprabhatam was a quiet semi-private recitation done by a few in the sanctum of Tirumala. Its author, Anna, was born in Mudumbai Nambi's family in 1362 CE. Nambi was one of the 74 teachers appointed by reformer Ramanujacharya—he laid the foundations of the town of Tirupati and was a leading exponent of the Vaishnava system—to carry his message forward. Anna spent his early years in Tirumula, preparing the water required for worship every day. One day, while filling the water pot at the Akash Ganga pond at Tirumala, he met a traveller, who narrated to him the stories of Saint Manavala Mamunigal, and his extraordinary life in Srirangam. Miraculously, the water in his pot had turned fragrant, convincing him that he had to become the disciple of Mamunigal. Anna composed the Suprabhatam, on the instruction of Mamunigal, who wanted a special prayer to Lord Venkateswara.
Stitching together Anna's life story was not easy, as there was little or no written material available on him. "I was told by a descendent of Anna that Professor VV Ramanujan had written a pamphlet on Anna long ago, but that the copy was out of print. I finally landed his landline number and called his home. His son patiently heard me out and after introducing himself, gravely informed me that, that particular day was the 10th day since his father passed on. So, I was back to square one," he recalls. A series of happy accidents followed. A few months later, during lunch with friends in Bengaluru, Parthasarathy mentioned that he was trying to write a book on the Suprabhatam. "My friend perked up and said that he was at school in Hyderabad with a chap surnamed Prathivadi and wondered if it was the same family. He called his friend and discovered that not only was the gentleman a descendent, but was also involved in Anna's commemorative society. I flew to Hyderabad within the week and late that evening I was taken to the Sitarambagh Temple on the outskirts of Hyderabad, where a 90-year-old descendent of Anna officiated as the head priest. I have not met such a detached and scholarly soul. The only common language that we had was my atrocious Sanskrit and a spattering of Telugu. He heard me out and from an old file unearthed a soiled and crumpled copy of the hagiography to Anna composed by Ramanujan."
The Suprabhatam became part of popular imagination in 20th century India, and part of the reason for this was the radio boom. Parthasarathy writes how an unknown trend setter in HMV, who must have been a frequent visitor to the shrine of Tirumala, sensed that the Suprabhatam had the power to inspire millions. The earliest recording of the recitation was by PV Ananthasayanam Iyengar, who was the voice of the prayer at the temple. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) later deputed him to teach the prayer to Subbulakshmi. AIR's broadcast of her recitation in 1958, made the prayer one of the "best-loved prayers in India" and Subbulakshmi, a household name. As a by-product, her recording also went on to become the largest selling non-film recording in India's recording history, shares Parthasarathy. "It may be a combination of the lyrical beauty of the composition, the celebration of the daily routines, the genius of MS—I cannot say why, though [that the prayer continues to captivate]. MS was a genius and Anna was a saint. We can only wonder. All I learnt was that there are some things, which are not amenable to a rational thought process and I accept that—best [to] leave it that way."
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