Notes On Culture
The Musician who Cut his Tongue to Avoid Singing Before Tipu Sultan
A brief episode from a Kannada novel featuring a heroic singer who defied Tipu Sultan's authority
The Dharma Dispatch received heartening and substantial feedback for our article narrating the story of the Archaka Veeranna who was saved by Shiva himself in the form of Hidambeshwara. The feedback was a mix of genuine piety, devotion, and to say that we are touched is an understatement. Some folks also expressed interest to know more about the Kannada novel, Hamsageethe (Swan Song), the source of Veeranna’s story.
Here is a gist of the work.
Authored by T.R. Subba Rao (Ta Ra Su), Hamsageethe narrates the life and musical Sadhana of a classical singer, Venkatasubbayya who lived during the reign of Madakarinayaka, the last Palegar of Chitradurga. For our purposes, his life is distinguished chiefly by two major episodes. The first is how by the dint of sheer hard work, devotion and penance, he makes the Carnatic Ragam Bhairavi reveal itself to him. Ever since, he is known as Bhairavi Venkatasubbayya. The second is his indomitable courage to refuse to sing before Tipu Sultan, the tyrant of Mysore as a mark of defiance and rebellion.
The second episode also forms the climax of Hamsageethe.
After conquering the impregnable fort of Chitradurga through the practiced perfidy of the Islamic method of warfare, Hyder Ali leaves behind his prince, Nawab Tipu to settle postwar affairs. As is his wont, Tipu immediately begins a reign of despotism and tyranny, uprooting long-established Hindu institutions, social customs, and religious practices. As a usurper, he knows that he doesn’t enjoy the goodwill of the people of Chitradurga and does the only thing he knows: bulldozing the people into obedience through a reign of terror.
By this time, Venkatasubbayya has made a vow not to sing anywhere except before Devi Parvati. If people really wanted to listen to his music, they had to come to his house every evening during his Puja hour. Or they could listen to his music on Tuesdays and Fridays in the Devi Temple. No force on earth could change his conviction and discipline.
Quite naturally, his fame as the son of Saraswati who had made the Bhairavi Ragam obey him had spread far and wide and people would visit Chitradurga just to listen to him sing it.
Tipu’s begum too, was charmed and attracted by the legendary stories extolling Venkatasubbayya’s music. She expressed her wish to the Nawab who promised to fulfill it. But she cautioned him: “I hear that he doesn’t sing anywhere but before the Devi.” The tyrant of Mysore dismissed it as a hollow boast: “Nobody can refuse the Nawab.”
The next morning, Tipu’s Bakshi (Minister) sent for Venkatasubbayya who then arrived at Tipu’s court owing to the common courtesy of respecting the ruler. However, he did not recognize Tipu’s legitimate right to rule his ancient land. Venkatasubbayya did not follow the usual protocol of doing the Kurnisat (paying obeisance) thrice, presenting a Nazar and opening the conversation through the Bakshi. Tipu was incensed at this incredible defiance and thundered through the Bakshi:
“Tell this fellow that We are the Nawab, not an illiterate Palegar. This is a Durbar and not a gathering of hunters!”
Venkatasubbayya gave it back with a smile:
“If your so-called Nawab wants to teach us courtly manners, tell him that we don’t have time for it. But I understand that he is anxious to show off his newfound authority as a ruler. But he needs to understand that we will continue to worship our own Deities and respect the rulers who adhere to our Dharma. We can’t change any of this for any reason. Your so-called Nawab might like to flaunt the territory and wealth acquired through treachery. Please convey to him that what is acquired through treachery will be lost through treachery.”
When he heard this, Tipu gritted his teeth and had half a mind to chop off this Kaffir’s head right there. Then he remembered his promise to his Begum, swallowed his pride and said:
“Neither can We hope to teach you our manners. We have summoned you here to tell you that our Zenana has expressed her wish to listen to your supposedly divine music. If you inform our Bakshi when you can come, arrangements will be made accordingly. You don’t need to hesitate to ask for anything.”
“It is our fortune that your esteemed Rani wishes to listen to our music. If it is conveyed to me when she will grace my home, I will make the necessary arrangements.”
“The musical performance has to take place in our Zenana, nowhere else.”
“That is not possible.”
“It is impossible.”
“What is impossible? Let Us know whether it is your opinion that our Zenana is not worthy of listening to your music.”
“We know the worth of our music. But let us tell you clearly: it is not possible for me to sing in the Honourable Nawab’s Zenana.”
“Our wish is synonymous with our command. Hope you already know this.”
“And you still refuse?”
“And you know the consequences of disobeying me? Your head won’t remain on your shoulders. I can make your life miserable, you understand that, right?”
“The Honourable Nawab must not get angry. Please listen to my words patiently. The Honourable Nawab might have listened to or he can command hundreds of musicians like me to sing before him and they all might obey His Highness. That is left to their wisdom. You said you can make my life miserable. True. It is only out of the misfortune of destiny that this body is, unwillingly, under your command. That really is a trifling matter as far as I am concerned. But my music and my knowledge is not the subject, servant or slave of any ruler or anybody for that matter. My music is dedicated only to my Devi. In the Honourable Nawab’s eyes, I am a commoner whose music can be summoned anywhere, at any time like a street harlot. However, in my eyes, my music is my Mother, my Devi. Just like how the Nawab visits the mosque to pray for Allah, he must visit our temple or my home as a devotee to have her Darshan through our music. If the Honourable Nawab thinks that he can threaten us or allure us with position and wealth, he is sadly mistaken. Your Zenana is a den of vice and debauchery in which I cannot arrange a dance performance of my Mother Saraswati. Forget me agreeing for something like that, the very fact that you asked it is deeply insulting to the dignity of your Highness.”
Tipu instantly stood up, his face boiling with rage.
“Your goddamn defiance is a direct affront to our Nawabgiri! We will slice off your bloody tongue!”
“Of course, you will. You might also kill us but you can’t do anything beyond that. But as far as music is concerned, I have only one tongue. Your Highness might do as he pleases.”
Tipu said to the Bakshi in a tone of finality:
“Tell this fool that he has exactly time till tomorrow…the same hour…to revise his decision. If he persists in his foolishness, give orders to cut off his tongue.”
To which Venkatasubbayya said:
“I don’t need time. The order might be carried out right now. If there’s nothing else, shall I take your leave?” He spun around and walked away showing his back to Tipu.
When he reached home, he stood before the Devi, closed his eyes. She was testing him with that ultimate test: his music, dearer to him than life itself. But the alternative was unimaginable: he would have to parade her in the Nawab’s vile Zenana. Which son would do this to his own Mother?
After a long time, he summoned his family members and said: “There is a grand Puja at home this evening. Do tell everyone in town. Mangalarati will be performed at nine.”
In the evening, Venkatasubbayya took a long bath, wore sanctified clothes, entered the Puja room and sat before the Devi. It was indeed an extraordinarily grand Puja. He had spared no effort. The Puja room and his entire home radiated divinity, and the euphoric fragrance of incense, camphor, fruit, and a hundred different flowers wafted throughout his street. Inside, his favourite Devi looked resplendent. Meanwhile, citizens thronged outside his home by the hundreds. News of his fearless scorn in the Nawab’s court had shaken the city like a storm.
Exactly at nine, Venkatasubbayya’s son and other family members gave the Arati and distributed Prasadam to the people. As the crowd thinned, he once again entered the Puja room, closed the door behind him, took the Tanpura in his hand and began gently strumming it. As the Shruti tuned itself, he closed his eyes and began to sing. Time lost itself. He sang the entire night, his music now soaring majestically like Garuda, now like the gentle waves of Ganga, now like the climactic Tandava of Shiva, and at last, like the molten prayer of an ardent devotee seeking the final answer.
A girl’s shriek pierced from Venkatasubbayya’s home almost coinciding with the rooster’s crow in the morning.
The scene in Venkatasubbayya’s Puja room was surreal. Divine. Brutal. The thick fragrance of flowers and the girded scent of sandalwood incense. The light of a hundred lamps within rivalled the brilliance of sunlight. The life-size Murti of Devi made of gold dazzled like an enormous, luminous ball of divinity. She had taken the ultimate test from her devotee and he had passed it and her face reflected the smile of his victory. At her feet lay an unconscious Venkatasubbayya. Blood was gushing from his mouth like a fountain. The dagger was clasped tightly in his right hand. About a foot from his head was a large golden plate meant for Puja. The plate filled with various flowers. Venkatasubbayya’s bloody tongue jutted out from the middle of the plate.
No defeat on the battlefield was as devastating to Nawab Tipu as this one.
Hamsageethe was made into a singularly unwatchable movie in Kannada starring the talented Anant Nag in a wasted role. If the brutal truth is told brutally, it is a cinematic mockery of a novel written with great feeling on a truly elevating subject.
The episode of Venktasubbayya’s defiance of Tipu was straight-off adapted in the blockbuster Telugu movie, Annamayya.
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