We might in fact like to recall what befell a few good souls who were ‘pop stars’ of scripture in their time. Think how Sri Ramanuja the 11th century champion of Sri Vaishnavism took his song public, the eight-syllable feel-good mantra ‘Om Namo Narayanaya’. SriVaishnavism went viral with that and his song is still playing ten centuries later: who’d believe he got flak at first for broadcasting it from atop a temple tower? (It’s best we scurry next past the 21st century differences about 12th century superstar Jayadeva and his Gita Govinda).
Let’s peek instead at Goswami Tulsidas, rocking Varanasi in the 16th century. So many folks were stressed out those days that Tulsi, who felt things deeply and whose own life had been pitiful, was catalysed by his wife Ratnavali to take sanyas and write. The theme that stays most with people is a sad love story, be it Kovalan-Kannagi in Tamil, Sassi-Punnu in Punjabi or Romeo-Juliet elsewhere. Tulsi chose the most heartbreaking ever love story, the Ramayana, putting Valmiki’s Sanskrit into colloquial Awadhi (in 12,800 lines) so regular people could relate. But given how many others were furious, you can’t help wondering about the real reason for the Hanuman Chalisa.
How about 18th century saint-composer Thyagaraja, of whom it would not be incorrect to say that he started out as the king of classy Telugu mytho-pop, though fixed in the firmament later as the Dhruv Tara of Carnatic music? Do you think they let him be? Thyagaraja’s horrible brother threw his favourite idols into the river. But serves him right, they floated back and Thyagaraja composed a new song about it.
Thyagaraja’s subject was that very dhanush-wielding tragic hero who was, alas, a soup boy in the ‘lovv’ department like poor Sita had to be a soup girl; just what Tulsi had remixed in his time as the Sri Ramcharitmanas.
‘Why this kolaveri di’ may not be precisely epic material. But the feelings in it are, so you never know, I mean, there’s a Chipmunk version already. And so what if it’s an urban legend in urban slang?
It’s a valid topic for a pop-history dissertation and I’d be gratified if you remember me in the footnotes for helpfully pointing out other, weightier, bestsellers that became classics.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture