Review: Venkatesa Suprabhatam by Venkatesh Parthasarathy
The Venkatesa Suprabhatam is a famous morning prayer to wake up god Vishnu. In the last century, MS Subbalakshmi immortalised it. This book gives us a close reading of the text, the historical and philosophical discourses that inform it, the possible circumstances behind its creation, and its influence over centuries. As part of this effort, it gives us deep background into the locale the verses emerged from, namely, first the Tirupati temple and later the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) and their patronage. Along the way, it attempts to make sense of the prayer’s possible audience reception through history (though there are some gaps here), and the many meanings it tries to capture and convey. An ardent devotee of the prayer and the faith has written this book.
While fervour may affect certain parts of the book, overall, it lends enthusiasm for a subject that academicians or scholars may have bored us with. This book aims to give a rounded understanding of the Suprabhatam. It talks about classical Sanskrit poetics; the rhythm-and-metre scheme (manjubhashini) that sets the pitch for chanting; the many strands of Vaishnavism that influence the prayer. It historicises the life and work of the prayer’s creator, Prativadi Bhayankara Anna, and provides a concise history of Tirupati, and of the patronage of medieval southern kings like Krishna Deva Raya and his descendants. It also deep dives into the history of the administration of the temple down the centuries, in ways paralleling the story of the reception of the prayer.
The book takes its theme and pulls it in many directions to give us a cultural-religious history of parts of the south and the Deccan. In analysing the verses of the prayer, the author emphasises the importance given to descriptions of flora and fauna, the word-picturisation of Vishnu’s many avatars, ancient Hindu mythology, and the role of the major medieval saint and philosopher Ramanujacharya. This book goes everywhere with the history of the prayer.
It is accessible. Seemingly hefty primary and secondary sources are combed and parlayed for germane details and with a lightness of touch. After analysing a quarter of the verses, the arc shifts from translating them into jumping into some aspect of their background. The author personalises his liking for the prayer, puts himself within the spirit of some stanzas that describe what must have been the journey in the medieval past to climb Mount Vaikunta – of which Tirupati is an earthly metaphor – to make readers visualise and feel the experiences the prayer tries to express. These interjections make for engaged detailing.
This book brings into reference other accounts on related things like SK Ramachandra Rao’s The Hill Shrine of Vengadam or Vettam Mani’s huge Puranic Encyclopaedia. Such books are primers for the interested reader to push themselves to know more about medieval and ancient Hindu religious philosophy and history. The author Venkatesh Parthasarathy is upfront that this isn’t a work of scholarship but a personal and sometimes whimsical study of the prayer that runs alongside his journey into the scriptures.
Initially, the lack of a central argument is freeing. It helps him undertake a wide-ranging ride. But by the middle of the book this reader couldn’t help but feel it may have helped to have a main argument. It would have made for a sharper, more focused read (although, perhaps a bit dry); not that Parthasarathy would have to prove or disprove a point, but the story would have cohered better. There are some parts which are very interesting but it is unclear how they connect to the story.
Readers will be riveted by other sections especially those to do with MS Subbalakshmi’s, the TTD’s and the public broadcaster’s roles in popularising the prayer. They will find out that the great Tamil-Kannada-Telugu playback singer PB Sreenivas shares his ancestry with the creator of the prayer.
On occasion, the author can seem less sure of the caste connotations over the hold of Sanskrit. In this context, calling Venkatesa Suprabhatam India’s “most popular prayer” is a stretch. Some more explaining was also needed of the prayer’s correlation with Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and perhaps Marathi-knowing peoples, for they are intimately tied up with it. It would have been good to learn in what linguistic and experiential fashions people from these language cultures made the prayer their own. Meaning, how did they regionalise a Sanskrit prayer in their own tongue?
Rahul Jayaram teaches at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities