Homage to Purandara Dasa, the poet saint

Purandara aaradhane was celebrated in Sydney on Sunday 19 February at the Ermington Hall. This popular annual event in Sydney has set a tradition of starting the program with the mass rendition of the navaratna maalikas followed by groups of seniors and juniors presenting Purandara’s compositions. For the past eleven years, this forum has provided a wonderful opportunity to enjoy some great music and pay tribute to the poet, musician and Saint Sri Purandara Dasa.
These days, every well- known musician and composer is honoured in the Indian music circles. Thyagarajautsav, Annamacharya Jayanthi, Muththuswamy Deekshitar Jayanthi, Purandara Dasa aradhane, Tansen festival etc etc. These are celebrated once a year not only in India but all over the world. In fact, a whole day of musical offering has become very popular abroad with every major city having its own calendar filled with such events.
What started as a small community initiative in Sydney has now grown to include music lovers, musicians and music schools in Sydney cutting across language barriers.Its heartening to see the enthusisam as teachers train youngsters to sing simple compositions just as veteran musicians experiment with new styles of group rendition. The disciplined approach of the commitee in conducting this event and providing opportunities to upcoming musicians has received recognition and applause.
What was intriguing about this year’s festival was the theme chosen for the function.. The theme was “Tongue” (naalige in Kannada language) Music has always been the song of the heart. It has been about the love and longing of the heart or the trials and tribulations of the heart. So heart as a theme would not be surprising. Extending it a little further one could perhaps include the eyes or ears but, ‘tongue’ seemed a bit unusual.
This set me exploring about the songs based on tongue and I was amazed to find out there were plenty of songs written by the great Kannada saint, musician & composer Sri Purandara dasa. In each of these songs the great saint has described the importance of speech and how it is important to have complete control of our tongue/speech. One’s words can cause utter destruction or pave way to salvation. In one of his compositions‘naalige naalige’ he urges the tongue to recite the Lord’s name and obtain liberation.
In another ever-green composition ‘Aachara villada Naalige’ – Purandara Dasa pleads with the tongue to be disciplined. He advises the tongue to give up its meanness and instead to utter the name of the lord. He goes a step further and implores the tongue not to be harsh in judging others and not to be spiteful.By addressing the tongue directly and requesting it to be extremely careful Purandara Dasa makes the songs informal and takes away the heavy weight of didactics.
Purandara Dasa’s poetry is more like a mirror to the society. They show the positive attributes, as well as the shortcomings in our lives. Many of these aspects are as relevant today, as they were several centuries ago! He uses everyday language, simple and direct.His songs appeal equally, both to the scholar and the uninitiated.

The examples and imagery he uses in his songs are basic and familiar to the reader. To a trader he says,“Writing stories containing the names of Hari, in a paper that is none other than the heart, using the tongue as a pen, using the mouth as the ink pot is indeed a wonderful trade”. When he chances upon a postman, he composes a lyric which says there is a letter directly from the Lord, delivered through the postman! How simple, how spontaneous!
A very distinct feature of Purandara Dasa’s compositions is his wonderful sense of humour! In an age where religion and spirituality were considered extremely rigid and serious, he brought with him fresh approach, a fun and relaxed way of approaching the important and complex issues of life. He made light hearted fun of his beloved Gods, taunted them and challengedthem. In a famous composition he tells Lord Vittala (Vishnu), “Your wife Lakshmi is my affectionate mother, now come on,Vittala show us your mother? Do you have one at all?” In another song” neenyako ninna hangyako” hebrushes the Lord aside and says that he does not really need the Lord as the mere mention of his name is enoughfor him to accomplish his goals!
He addresses simple householders and explains spirituality in their own lingo. He speaks their language, understands their conflicts, anxieties, hopes, fears and despair. He has distilled the essence of the complicated texts in Sanskrit, the Vedas and the Upanishads and conveyed them in simple and lucid language.
The verses he sang were his own compositions. They were created from his own observations and life experiences. Purandara Dasa has composed thousands of padas (songs), ugabhOgas and sulAdis . ugabhogas are very interesting, they are generally rendered before a song. They are a very concise way of getting to the point – in a few short lines.
There is a very popular story about how the rich miser Srinivasa Nayaka became the great saint Purandara Dasa. Srinivasa Nayaka’s wife donates her diamond nose ring to Vishnu, who has come to her in the guise of a poor Brahmin. Srinivas Nayaka demands that his wife show him her nose ring, unable to bear his wrath, she lifts a bowl of poison to her lips and lo behold! The nose ring appears in the bowl. This is a story, a miracle that brings about a major transformation in Srinivas Nayak’s life and leads him on to become the celebrated saint Purandara Dasa.
There is yet another miracle in this story. The miracle of finding one’s true vocation. To listen to the song of one’s heart and to pursue the path of one’s calling, had Srinivasa Nayaka continued to be the miserly, arrogant goldsmith / trader he would have produced a few gold trinkets and died and passed away into oblivion, buried in the sands of time. But Purandara Dasa gave up all his worldly riches to follow his heart. He composed thousands of songs (actual number disputed) set them to music and contributed immensely to the richness of Dasa Sahitya and Kannada literature.
This remarkable personal transformation gave Purandara Dasa the maturity to look at both the good and bad aspects objectively. This makes him a wonderful social reformer, a person who is part of a society and is still able to objectively point out the evils of the same society without malice. What makes his songs so endearing is that he gently suggests; never preaches.
His contribution to music is alsounparalleled. His lyrics yield themselves beautifully to both the Carnatic and Hindustani styles of music and build a bridge between the two styles. Purandara Dasa is also rightly calledthe father, ‘pitaamaha’ of Carnatic music as it is practiced today. It is said that he set up the system of teaching early lessons to music students. This tradition is continuing since his time. His famous pillari gita’s are the first set of songs a student of music learns even to this day along with the initial notes of music set in raga mayamalavagowla.
This great musician saint lived almost five centuries ago. His message and his music are becoming more and more relevant, in this modern consumerist society.In this society of oftenmisplaced loyalties, false values, and mistaken priorities Purandara’s compostions gently nudge us to reflect on our lives and stay on track!

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