By Sandhya Vinjamuri
It was sometime in 1982. My father, Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar, called out to me from his room upstairs. I ran up to his room. He asked me, “Do you know to rewind the tape to play a song again?” I said “Yes” and rewound the tape. I had to do that many times that day as he wanted to listen to that particular song repeatedly. It was Sree Venuugopala in the raga Kurinji composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar and sung by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.
Ever since I heard that song I was captivated by its beautiful melody and realised that the song was composed on the deity of Cocanada (now known as Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh). I longed to visit the temple and see the deity who inspired Dikshitar to compose such a beautiful song. Though I had the opportunity to visit Kakinada when my brother was the Collector there, somehow I was unable to visit the Venugopalaswamy temple. The opportunity presented itself when my elder sisters and I visited Kakinada to meet the Founder and Editor of Ganakala, Munuganti Sreeramamurthy. Ganakala was started in 1962 as a monthly magazine in Telugu, dedicated only to matters musical. Today it is one of the oldest surviving music magazines of India.
I was pleasantly surprised when Ramamurthy told me that the temple was close to his house and also the Saraswathi Gana Sabha, one of the oldest music sabhas in the country. It was established in 1904, prior to the Music Academy, Madras, and Gayana Samaja of Bangalore. I was excited that at last I would be visiting the temple and the music sabha that had served as a platform for the performances of all the great musicians of yesteryears and was continuing its service for almost 110 years.
The Venugopalaswamy temple was simple yet mesmerizing, small yet powerful, unassuming yet beautiful! The entrance gopuram was very small too, as was the temple with a little shrine of Garuda in the front looking at the main deity Venugopala. Apart from the main temple in which Venuugopalaswamy resides with Rukmini and Satyabhama on either side, there was also a small temple of Sree Andal. The temple has a plaque describing the sthala puranam to some extent, but there is no mention of Dikshitar visiting the temple anywhere. I did not have the opportunity to contact local music enthusiasts to confirm the year and circumstances for the visit of Dikshitar. Yet, I had the full satisfaction of my visit to that temple as the place which had inspired one of our music trinity to compose a song on the presiding deity there. I was overwhelmed with emotion when I saw the flute playing Krishna. I was happy that my long time desire was fulfilled. Yet, I was sad that such a temple is not in the height of its glory.
The tablet (see photo) has a beautiful Sanskrit sloka in Telugu script. Here is an excerpt (a free translation) of the sthala purana as mentioned in the plaque.
“Valloori Subbarao was responsible for ‘Rukmini, Satyabhama sameta Venugopala’ to exist in this premises. During the time when he was the tahsildar of this place, Subbarao had a dream one night in which Venugopala appeared and told him that he had to excavate the vigraha buried in the earth there. When Subbarao arranged for the earth to be dug up but could not find the idol, he was totally vexed. The Lord appeared in his dream again and asked him to search thoroughly. This time when they dug deeper, he found a beautiful stone idol of Venugopala with sankha and chakra in both hands and with a ‘makhara torana’. Subbarao then had the idols of Rukmini and Satyabhama made and constructed the temple.
Years later, Vanamamalai Jeer instructed the temple authorities to construct a smaller temple in the premises for Sree Andal and the Alwars, which was built and consecrated later. Since then, the worship and rituals are being conducted by the family of Pondur Suryanarayana Swamy and his descendents.”
For years Kakinada had been the cultural centre of arts in general, and music in particular. The town and its suburbs produced many famous music personalities such as Munuganti Venkatarao Pantulu (great musician), Vinjamuri Varaha Narasimhacharyulu (musician, musicologist, philosopher and author), Kommireddi Suryanarayana Murthy (art philanthropist), Marla Suryanarayana Murthy (Sangeeta Bhushanam, musician) and P.B. Srinivos (playback singer). It was considered prestigious to perform at the Kakinada Gana Sabha run under the title of ‘Saraswathi Gana Sabha’. Only top class performers were invited there (see enclosed invite from 1939). Sri Rama Samajam, a music school founded in 1804 (1894?) had been teaching music to one and all free of cost. It is probably the longest running music school. It was established and run by the Munuganti family for centuries, which deserves national recognition. Unfortunately not many even in the south have heard about the Saraswathi Gana Sabha. As the world has shrunk, travel has become insignificant, and hi-tech has made everything including knowledge accessible to everyone, we must spread our wings and recognise good wherever it may be, and educate and enlighten the enthusiasts.