Depiction of Bharatavarsha’s Sacred Geography in K. Viswanath's Movies

K. Viswanath’s acclaimed cinematic corpus exquisitely reflects the timeless conception of Bharatavarsha's sacred geography.
Depiction of Bharatavarsha’s Sacred Geography in K. Viswanath's Movies

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Depiction of Bharatavarsha’s Sacred Geography in K. Viswanath's Movies
Sanctifying Cinema: An Appreciation of K. Viswanath’s Artistry

A DEFINING FEATURE OF ALL ARTISTS rooted in the Indian classical artistic milieu is the striking and natural manner in which they display their love and reverence for the sacred geography of Bharatavarsha.

Whether or not they are consciously aware of it, these artists follow the unbroken aesthetic tradition laid down and immortalized by say, Kalidasa, most notably in his Meghadootam. The towering scholar of Indian history Dr. S Srikanta Sastri, poignantly describes the nature of this sacred geography:

The culture of India, like the country itself, is indivisible and timeless. Just like its indivisible geography that stretches from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Visveshwara to Rameshwara, from Bindu Madhava to Sethu Madhava, Indian culture too, represents this indivisible continuum from the Rishis of the Vedas all the way up to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa… The ancients were unanimous in the view that this region was sacred and that its dharma, language, and culture was a unified whole . They held that one had to accumulate virtues in past births to be born in such a land.

Thus, the term “Bharata” resonating with poignant meaning, is indicative of Bharata-Mata’s Vedas, Bharatamuni’s treatise on performing arts, Rishi Jada-Bharata’s spiritual tenets, Chakravarti Bharata-Sarvadamana’s empire, the abundance of wealth and natural resources, and the inexhaustible nourishing strength of Bharata-Mata.

It is to constantly remind the people of Bharata of this conception of Bharata as a unified whole that Indian culture provides a spiritual dimension to the physical and geographical features of India.

This unified wholeness is also discernible when one performs the Sankalpa.  During Sankalpa, one invokes the current time in the endless cycle of time and the names of various sacred places in India.

Similarly, this unified wholeness can be experienced by visiting the various pilgrimage spots that Indians regard as sacred. This wholeness is further evident when we examine Tantrashastra where the body is regarded as the country and Tantric yogic practices are performed according to the rules laid down in Tantra-sastra.

In the Yoga of Mantra, we worship the Parashakti   by recalling all the Yogini Peethas (or Shakti Peethas) located in different parts of India… This resonates with Adi Sankara’s saying that there’s no difference between one’s mother and one’s motherland. Every place of pilgrimage and Yogini Peetha in India reflects the awareness of this spiritual energy. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of Bharata is the body, which enables the realization of both material and spiritual goals.

All the major works of Dr. S. L. Bhyrappa, another eminent Bharatiya artist of our time, exude the selfsame conception of India’s spiritual geography. His musings on the role that the Himalayas, Kailasa Manasa-Sarovara, Varanasi, and Ganga have played in chiseling his literature are evocative, illuminative, and insightful.

Likewise, K. Viswanath’s acclaimed cinematic corpus exquisitely reflects this same conception of Bharata’s sacred geography. This is predominantly portrayed in numerous song sequences and scenes shot in the sacred cultural sites spread across Bharatavarsha.

His 1988 blockbuster Swarnakamalam features song and dance sequences shot at Vishakhapatanam, Puri, the Dhauli stupa (Odisha) and the verdant Valley of Flowers resting in the lap of the Himalayan ranges in Uttarakhand. Similarly, the lilting romantic melody Mounamelanoyi, in Sagara Sangamam features the magnificent and sacred architecture of Valluvar Kottam near Chennai. In Swati Muthyam, the full gamut of the spiritual beauty of the Melukote hill-ranges and the watery environs of Gosai Ghatta come alive.

Barring perhaps V. Shantaram, few Indian filmmakers have paid such minute attention to showcasing India’s spiritual geography as Viswanath. But compared to Shantaram, Viswanath’s approach is subtler and more nuanced. This becomes evident when we examine two primary factors.

Two Factors

The first is rooted in the era and the clime starting with and following Sankarabharanam. This era in Telugu cinema witnessed a slew of expensive and mindless “dream songs” shot abroad even when there was no requirement for such songs. But it was also the era of Chiranjeevi’s unstoppable ascent to superstardom, accompanied by all the attendant vulgarities. An element of crudity in dialogue made its appearance perhaps for the first time in Telugu cinema. Its handmaiden was an obscene camerawork that deliberately focused on the various body parts of female characters. It is still hard to watch these movies with a straight face but they amassed huge box office collections.

Swimming against this Tartarian deluge and emerging repeatedly victorious is what marks Viswanath’s triumph. Because his conviction was rooted in the Bharatiya ethos, he never felt the need to step out of Bharatavarsha. And because conviction also births contentment, Viswanath concentrated his artistic energy in trying to harness the accumulated inward wealth of Bharatavarsha rather than chasing an elusive mirage that could be found outside this sacred geography. The Alps for example, might be breathtaking for their natural beauty. But no Rishi or Tapasvi has made it his abode. We can trace the fount of Viswanath’s creative inspiration and success to this temperament. Among other things, contentment — which cannot be bought or taught – is a quality that makes for both beautiful and enduring art. In this context, Sri Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma offers invaluable guidance in a tangential fashion:

A person who wishes to touch the depths in any profession or art should develop an attitude of contentment and should not chase excessive material wealth. The person who has acquired a taste of that depth will systematically reduce his material wants. History shows that anyone who has attained great heights in science or art has always placed material fruits in a secondary place.

In our present age dominated by all-consuming materialism, it is common to see YouTube videos on such earth-shattering topics as “what is the net worth of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mukesh Ambani, Nagarjuna, Chiranjeevi, etc?” The same question doesn’t arise in the context of K. Viswanath. 

But Viswanath’s greater triumph is how most of the commercial stars of Telugu cinema vied with one another to work under his direction, especially after the magnificent box office success of Sankarabharanam. The reason: this movie had no “star,” it openly flouted all the known “rules” for making a commercially viable film. But there was a more profound reason. The Chiranjeevi brand of stars intuitively understood that starring in Viswanath’s movies would add that elusive virtue to their otherwise soaring careers built on catering to the lowest common denominator.

THE SECOND FACTOR related to Viswanath’s depiction of Bharatavarsha’s sacred geography is the manner in which he blends these locales. These are integral parts of his movies, a feat he accomplishes in an organic fashion. The viewer doesn’t feel that these are forced or artificially imposed on the film. In no movie does he miss the inseparable connection between Bharatavarsha’s scenic beauty and its spiritual content.

This connection becomes most pronounced in his touching and realistic depictions of the social and family life set in the Godavari region, the artistic life-blood and hub of classical Telugu culture for centuries. The Godavari region in Viswanath’s cinema is also a miniature of the cultural life of Bharatavarsha. His portrayals of this country’s cultural unity and continuity is conveyed through its art forms, traditions, and beliefs of community and village life. In terms of artistic elements, craft, and technique, we experience this pristine Godavari cultural environs in Sankarabharanam, Swati Muthyam, Sootradharulu, Saptapadi, Shrutilayalu and Swarna Kamalam.

In this, we are reminded of Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s works like Grihabhanga, Daatu, and Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane in which geography becomes a slice of life and culture: a nondescript village typically in the Old Mysore region becomes both a metaphor for and a physical space that represents and radiates the cultural life of all of Bharata.  

Viswanath’s movies, renowned for their elevating quality of dialogue and lyric, contain sumptuous references invoking Bharatavarsha’s venerated geography. In fact, a long form essay is waiting to be written capturing all of these references. Words like “Ganga,” “Gangajala,” “Kashi,” “Himalaya,” “Manasa Sarovara,” “Godavari,” “Tirumala,” etc., occur even in casual conversations in his movies. Like the visuals of these sacred locales, the words too, are organically blended into the movie itself. Viswanath also invokes these sacred sites using another technique: by paying reverential homage to poetic and musical giants like Potana, Annamacharya, Tyagaraja, Narayana Teertha, Kshetrayya, etc. His command over the classical lore enabled him to fuse the compositions of these greats into his movies, and by invoking their work and legacy, he simultaneously evoked the geography that they had sanctified. Thus, you can’t take Kshetrayya’s name and not be reminded of the Muvva village in the Krishna district.

On a more pensive note, these geographical references are also reflections of a cultural world that Hindus have lost. Even thirty years ago, it was common to refer to Bharatavarsha’s sacred spots in everyday conversation — as similes and idioms and proverbs.  

Which brings us to an examination of the aforementioned element of the slice of life reflected in the treatment of the society and community in K. Viswanath’s movies.

To be Continued

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