Popularly known all over undivided Andhra as “Annamayya”, Annamacharya is undoubtedly one of our leading lights not only in the realm of music, for which he is best known, but in the realm of Dharma. Considered the Andhra Pada Kavita Pitamaha (the Grandsire of Telugu poem-songs), his classics such as Adivo Sri Hari Vaasamu and Kondalalo Nelakonna, strike a chord throughout South India today. For that he is called the Sankeerthanacharya (Acharya of devotional songs). Around 32,000 compositions are attributed to him–a testament to his incredible musical output.
Born to Lakkamba and Narayana Suri of Tallapaka, in Kadapa district, Annama grew up in the shade of the majestic 7 hills of Tirumala. Thus, from the beginning, the life of this saint-composer was synonymous with Lord Venkateshwara. Indeed, according to popular legend, his parents had a vision of him as the incarnation of Nandaka, the sword of Vishnu himself. Irrespective of one’s belief in the story, both the man and the musician (he also played the Tanpura) revitalized Bhakti for Balaji in the medieval period.
The general view is that Annamayya lived from 1408 to 1503. Fittingly, this surprisingly lengthy lifespan for the era was highly productive, not only in compositional output, but in societal activities. While considered an exceedingly bright boy who took easily to his studies, his early years were marked by devotional caprice. He is reputed to have run away to Tirumala to sing the praises of Venkateshwara.
Later he studied at the Ahobilam matha and became an authority on Dharma in his own right. As a young man, his years were said to have been spent in the full immersion of Sringara (romance), which incidentally shaped his compositional use of Madura Bhakti (romance of Venkateshwara and his consort to symbolize union of the jivatma with the paramatma). Married to Akkalamma and Tirumalamma (popularly known as Timmakka), he was reputed to have been distracted by their beauty and only after what was considered divine intervention did he resume his duties and stated mission on Earth. Interestingly, Timmakka was herself an accomplished poetess, and is credited with being the first major female writer in Telugu, having written the Subhadra Kalyanamu. In fact, Annamayya’s descendants are replete with a number of poets, most famously his grandson via Timmakka, Narasimhacharya. One of them, Tallapaka, Chinna Tiruvengalanathudu wrote his ancestor’s life history, Annamacharya Jeevitha Charitra.
In a famous interaction between Annamacharya and Saluva, Narasimha, who later became Emperor of the Vijayanagara empire, he was asked by the latter to compose a song in praise of him. Annamayya declined saying his songs were only for God and not for a mere man. As a result, he was imprisoned. He was later released when the Saluva dynast realized his folly, and they became friends.
The jewel of the illustrious line of Tallapaka composers traveled the length of the southern Indian peninsula. He even went on pilgrimage to Puri in Odisha. He revived the spirit of Bhakti in the masses and focused on the true message of religion:
“Brahmaṃ Okkatē Paraḥbrahmamokkatē“
God is One. We are one with God.
What does it matter what caste or background [All are equal in the eyes of God].
Coinciding with the energetic rule of future Vijayanagara Emperor Narasimha of the Saluva Dynasty (aka Saluva, Narasimha), Annamayya’s life complemented this political revival with a cultural and religious one. The name Annamayya is synonymous with Telugu language devotionals.
- Wrote 32, 000 compositions, 14,000 Sankeerthanas of which 2,178 were devotional and 11,526 romantic.
- Composed 12 Satakas (100 stanza poems), though only 1 has been traced.
- Produced a version of the Ramayana in Dwipada metre and a treatise on Musicology called Sankeerthana Lakshana. This Sanskrit work advises on how to compose Padas, Keerthanas, and Kritis. Another called, Sringara Manjari, is a poem on romance.
- At one point in his life, he was composing a song a day.
- In sankeerthanas accessible to the common man, he conveyed the timeless wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Puranas in the common tongue of Telugu and folk metres.
- Actively campaigned for Temple entry to lower castes and education for women
While he is best remembered today as the great carnatic composer Annamayya, his impact as Annamacharya, exponent of Dharma, is most relevant in our era.
From his efforts to restore education rights to women to his campaign to re-open temples to dalits, he understood that the essence and spirit of Dharma mattered more than the letter (which varies in time and place). Though from an orthodox Brahmin family himself, he fought prideful casteists and chauvinists tooth and nail and attempted to propound the true message of Dharma which had been lost in this Kali Yuga.
Ironically, this first of the great Telugu vaggeyakaras (composers), and one of the three greatest (along with Bhadrachalam Ramadas and Thyagaraja) had his compositions burnt, reputedly due to opposition from his rivals for his progressive views. Nevertheless, his devoted son etched them again in tamra patras (copper plates). While these were lost for 400 years, Annamayya’s popularity was restored with their discovery. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam has worked hard at reviving his legacy and commissioned none other than Balamurali Krishna to oversee it. Other great carnatic singers such as Shobha Raju and the late Nedunuri, Krishnamurthy have worked tirelessly to renew his work in the popular consciousness.
More recently, the 1997 classic film Annamayya, starring Nagarjuna, Suman, and Ramya Krishnan, revitalized his legacy for the present generation. His biopic is proof that moksha is possible for those who lead a full and fulfilling life even in this worldly and material era. Rather than obstacles for their beauty, women are partners on the path to liberation as the celebrated saint’s own life and words proved.
Perhaps nothing better represents Annamayya’s influence on the Telugu people in particular than popular jholas (lullabies) that are attributed to him. Jo Achutananda below shows how his life and legacy has touched grownup and child alike.
Sri Annamacharya remains one of our most beloved and honoured saint-singers whether for Sangeeta or Dharma.