A Tribute to K.Viswanath: The Last of the Masters

An appreciation of the art, craft and legacy of K.Viswanath, one of the greatest masters of Indian cinema
A Tribute to K.Viswanath: The Last of the Masters

"I offer a hundred thousand salutations to the donor who extended his hands to guard the flame of pure traditional classical music which was fluttering under the assault of the typhoon of Western music," says a visibly touched Shankara Sastri, moments before he begins the ultimate concert of his life.

That immortal climactic line from the timeless classic of Indian cinema, Sankarabharanam (The Ornament of Lord Shankara) remains eminently quotable because it is eminently relevant. The movie catapulted the career of its director Kasinadhuni Viswanath to the artistic stratosphere and rewrote all the known rules of mainstream commercial cinema back then.

Also addressed with the honorific "Kala Tapasvi," K.Viswanath's fame as an iconic filmmaker rests even today on this 1980 classic, although he directed twenty-five films before it.

The Enduring Sankarabharanam

To put Sankarabharanam’s phenomenal, all-encompassing and enduring success in perspective, we can recall the fact that the film was released in exactly one theatre in Hyderabad on a contract basis, for merely seven days. Made on a shoestring budget, it opened mostly to an empty hall, but as word spread, Viswanath's ode to Indian classical music became one of the biggest commercial successes in Telugu film history, running at the movies continuously for an entire year. To stretch an analogy, in his case, the squirrel had singlehandedly built the Sri Rama Setu.

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The legacy of Sankarabharanam has stood the test of time, cutting across at least two generations. In contemporary parlance, its endurance can also be verified using a simple if pedestrian technique: check out the kind of comments below the movie, available on YouTube. Its lasting impact and influence continue to be felt in the scores of Telugu films that either incorporated or were inspired by the characters, situations, scenes, dialogues, and lyrical bits of Sankarabharanam. Few Telugu films after Maya Bazaar have had this sort of impact.

CNN-India included Sankarabharanam in its 2013 centennial list of Indian cinema as one of the "100 greatest Indian films of all time", while Forbes put lead actor, J.V. Somayajulu's performance in its list of "25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema".

But the true and full impact of Sankarabharanam was felt among the masses. We can cite two instances.

The first: Sankarabharanam not only suddenly reopened the eyes of Indians to the greatness of their own classical music, but there was an overnight demand for its teachers, and those like me who were attempting to learn classical music, asked our respective teachers to teach us traditional compositions used in the film - Brochevarevarura (composed by Mysore Vasudevacharya), Samaja Varagamana (by Thyagaraja), and Manasa Sancharare (by Sadasiva Brahmendra).

The second: when the film's crew toured (undivided) Andhra Pradesh after it completed the 100-day run, the protagonist played by J.V. Somayajulu had to pay special attention to his attire and demeanour among the public, who had elevated him to the status of a saint. The late lamented S.P. Balasubrahmanyam who played a central role in the film’s tremendous success narrates how, back in the day, these adoring masses looked strangely at Somayajulu wearing shirts and trousers in real life, and how it was lethal for him to take a smoke-break in public.

A Clean Break

The reason for this semi-detailed account of Sankarabharanam doesn't merely lie in the fact that it was K.Viswanath's landmark work, but also because it initiated a clean break from the sort of films he had made till then. The more important reason was how it singlehandedly inspired other filmmakers to venture into this territory regarded till then as commercially unsafe.

Neither was it limited to just that. At the height of K.Viswanath's post-Sankarabharanam success, mainstream stars like Chiranjeevi et al almost vied with one another to act in his movies for a straightforward reason: acting in his films would bring them respectability, a lack of which they were keenly aware of. Telugu film stars of Chiranjeevi's generation enjoyed widespread popularity, commanded huge fan bases and demanded and got substantial remuneration. Yet, when we recall the kind of films they acted in, three words come to mind: crude, vulgar and appalling. Kasinadhuni Viswanath's movies were the waters of the Ganga that they hoped would purify this stain.

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A majority of Viswanath's movies until Sankarabharanam were mostly social dramas like Atma Gowravam, Undamma Bottu Pedata, and Nindu Hrudayalu, which had earned him acclaim as a director to reckon with. But four women-centric movies - Chelleli Kapuram, Sarada, O Seeta Katha and Jeevana Jyoti, also brought him recognition as a filmmaker embodying sensitivity, nuance and refinement, apart from being a bankable director who assured commercial success.

Generational Director

Starting his career as a sound designer in 1957 at a studio in Madras, K.Viswanath went on to become a writer and assistant director to the legendary Telugu filmmaker, Adurthi Subba Rao.

He made his directorial debut with the 1965 hit Atma Gowravam starring Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, which fetched him the Nandi Award for the year.

Viswanath also holds the distinction of having directed the leading stars of three generations of Telugu cinema - from N.T. Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageshwara Rao to Shoban Babu, Ghattamaneni Krishna, Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh, and Rajashekhar. Artists from non-Telugu cinema he has directed include Kamal Hassan, Rishi Kapoor, Rakesh Roshan, Mithun Chakbraborthy, Anil Kapoor, Girish Karnad and Mammooty.

But it was with and after Sankarabharanam that Viswanath carved out a niche for himself in Telugu cinema. This was roughly the period of vacuum after the eclipse of stars like Krishna, Shoban Babu and to an extent, Krishnamraju. Chiranjeevi and his contemporaries like Balakrishna, Nagarjuna and Venkatesh would later fill this vacuum and dominate Telugu cinema with a slew of mindless formulaic films.

Classicism on Celluloid

After Sankarabharanam, K. Viswanath focused on the themes of classical music, dance, and art set in a backdrop of fast-changing values and a rapid abandonment of ancient Indian traditions. These films reveal his deep knowledge of Indian aesthetics, classicism, and his experience and insights into Telugu culture (referred to as Telugu-tanam) all of which find their artistic expression on celluloid.

Sankarabharanam Movie Poster
Sankarabharanam Movie Poster

Pure classicism in Telugu cinema sputtered to death with the generation of actors, writers, and directors including N.T. Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, S.V. Ranga Rao, Savitri, Jamuna, Samudrala Raghavacharya (and his son), K.V. Reddy, K Kameshwara Rao, et al.

Superstars like N.T. Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageshwara Rao eventually moved away from films based on our epics and Puranas, and concentrated more on contemporary themes that were thoroughly devoid of classicism. At the time, classical poetry, music, dance, and dialogue were some of the inseparable features that characterised movies with epic and Puranic themes such as Maya Bazaar, Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam, Nartanashala, Lava Kusha, Pandava Vanavasam and Satya Harishchandra.

And so, when K.Viswanath made Sankarabharanam, the audience profile was vastly-changed. It could no longer understand or appreciate this native classicism in cinema. The breed of actors who could match the stature of say N.T. Rama Rao and SV Ranga Rao were fast vanishing. In fact, N.T. Rama Rao was himself thriving when Viswanath made Sankarabharanam. Except that this titanic actor who once played Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, and Duryodhana with such aplomb had now chosen to downgrade his talent with all that acrobatic and cheap rain dances with heroines young enough to be his granddaughter.

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This backdrop is an essential part to understand the real success that K.Viswanath accomplished beginning with Sankarabharanam. It is in this backdrop that Viswanath distilled the essence of the various aspects of the aforementioned cinematic classicism and served it in compelling onscreen narratives that the contemporary audience could appreciate. Most of his acclaimed classics have that vital quality to them: they linger long after the cinematic experience is over.

A superb example of this narrative style is a poignant scene in Sagara Sangamam. A drunk and hungry Kamal Hassan, defeated by life's circumstances, refuses to enter the house of his close friend Sarath Babu because it is the occasion of Sri Krishna Janmashtami. At the gate, he tells Sarath Babu, "Sister-in-law has decorated the house with the footsteps of Bala (Baby) Krishna with great devotion. How can I enter this home in this condition?" The background music to the scene is set to a flute rendition of the Kannada devotional lyric "Krishna nee begane baaro (Krishna my child, come soon)" while the name of Hassan's character is Balakrishna. The use of the flute completes the unity of this magnificent scene.

This elevating subtlety of Viswanath’s cinematic excellence is also heightened by his depictions of rural life in the Telugu region- the tradition of Rama Katha in Swati Muthyam, the musical and lyrical beauty showcased in the Harikatha exponents in Sutradharulu, and the scene towards the climax in Swarna Kamalam, where the film's protagonist Bhanupriya, realises the true value of art through direct, immersive experience as a classical danseuse.

Interwoven with all this is also the manner in which Viswanath delineates the profundity of the timeless Sanatana ethical and moral values of the "simple, common" rural folk. For instance, in a scene from his film, Sutradharulu (Puppeteers), the Harikatha exponent, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao tells his partner:

Like a doctor who doesn't kill even an evil patient because it is his professional Dharma to give treatment, we have accepted this gift from the evil Zamindar as a recognition for our traditional music. Now, throw this gift in the Godavari.

This is art.

Such nuance, subtlety and a high sense of refinement and culture characterise almost all his films. All the other elements like dialogue, lyric, music, performance and scene composition are mere worker-bees that produce this Vishwanathan honey. His movies also don't allow aesthetics to descend to that crucial step that separates it from obscenity.

Team Viswanath

K. Viswanath had a formidable team without which he wouldn’t be able to translate his artistic and narrative vision into this sort of exalted cinematic reality. Some of the talent he unearthed on his own and then nurtured and gifted them to Telugu cinema. Doubtless, he was gifted with the ability to spot and discern excellence in new and existing talent.

Viswanath's lifelong association with the iconic music director K.V. Mahadevan also gave us the immortal music of Siri Siri Muvva, Sankarabharanam, and Swati Kiranam among others. His memorable collaborations with Ilaiyaraaja gave Indian cinema the gems in Sagara Sangamam, Swati Muthyam, and Swarna Kamalam. To this medley was added the voice of Viswanath’s cousin, the legendary playback singer, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam.

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On a personal note, even if K.Viswanath had made no other movie but Sankarabharanam or Sagara Sangamam, he would've still occupied the same eminent spot in our cinematic annals.

To borrow a line from Sankarabharanam, his contribution to Indian cinema is akin to the Shankaragala nigalamu—The glowing necklace called the Raga Shankarabharana around Lord Shiva's neck.

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