Four ancient poets of different south Indian languages who immortalised Lord Krishna

Across the states in South, scores of poets have written some of the greatest works of literature over the centuries.
Four ancient poets of different south Indian languages who immortalised Lord Krishna
Four ancient poets of different south Indian languages who immortalised Lord Krishna
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Krishna Janmashtami is here, and it is common to find mainstream news of how Mathura and Vrindvan in North India are the ultimate destinations to go to for anyone captivated by Lord Krishna. Songs of Surdas and Mirabai are sung in great abandon to express Krishna Bhakthi. But across the states in South, scores of poets have written some of the greatest works of literature over the centuries.  From the exquisite sculptures of Krishna in the ancient temples of Hoyasalas in Karnataka to the caves of Mahabalipuram, it is impossible to miss how Hindu mythology’s most romantic god has enchanted the South.

One must not forget the roots of the Bhakthi Movement are in the Tamil speaking regions of India. It was here that the famous Shrimad Bhagawatam was composed. India’s greatest philosophers like Shankaracharya, Ramanujachara and Madhwacharya hailed from South as well. The Alwar saints wrote some of the finest verses in praise of Krishna. Andal’s ‘Thiruppavai’ is sung till date in every Vaishnava temple. Thanks to the vibrant performing arts practitioners, many other later poets and their works have been kept alive through music, dance and drama cultures across south India.  Several noted poets and philosophers from south, particularly Telugu origin like Vallabhacharya, Rupa Goswami, Sanathana Goswami, Gopal Bhatta migrated to north and spread Pushti Margi and Vaishnava teachings across the region. Many later poets who wrote on the themes of Krishna continue to ‘live’ in Carnatic music and the many classical dance forms in South India.

Krishna lifting Govardhana Mahabalipuram Caves

In Karnataka, the spread of Vaishnavism was responsible for a whole lot of communities of poets and writers. Followers of Madhwacharya, who propounded the Dvaita school of Vedanta, established a series of monasteries across the region. It was into this school of thought that Vyasatheertha, the Guru of King Krishnadeva Raya of the Vijayanagara Empire, initiated Srinivasa Nayaka(1484- 1564). He was rechristened Purandara Dasa according to the monastic tradition he followed. In his devotion for Krishna, he composed over four lakh seventy five thousand poems and songs! Seems almost impossible to imagine how he went about doing that! But a few hundreds of them written in Kannada and Sanskrit survive to this day and are sung in concerts. He is hailed as the ‘Pitamaha’ of Carnatic music. Swami Haridas, the teacher of Miyan Tansen was supposed to be a student of Purandhara Dasa and hence he is revered across North India as well. In the 20th century, his songs acquired equal popularity both in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. Hindustani legends like Pt Bhimsen Joshi sang him and Carnatic musicians like M S Subbulakshmi popularized his songs in their respective genres.

Purandara Dasa on a stamp

In Kerala, the most famous Guruvayur temple of Krishna is connected to the poet Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri (1558 – 1643) who wrote the famous epic poem ‘Narayaneeyam’. Born into a family of Namboodri Brahmins, Bhattathiri was an expert in mathematics and logic, and the Tarka and Vyakarana Schools of philosophy. However his devotion to Krishna led him to write the 1036 Sanskrit verses of the ‘Narayaneeyam’. He was not even thirty years of age when he completed composing this marathon poem. Such was the genius of his scholarship. However he was not the first poet from Kerala to take to Krishna Bhakthi in such a passionate way. Many centuries before him, the 12th century poet Bilva Mangala penned ‘Sri Krishna Karnamritam’. He too migrated to the North and spent the rest of his life in and around Vrindavan. The songs of the ‘Narayaneeyam’ were popularized in Carnatic music by legends like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavataar and his students in the 20th century.

Melapathur Narayana Bhattathri

In coastal Andhra region of Krishna district is the little known village of Movva, known for the ancient temple of Krishna worshipped as lord Venugopala. Born as Varadayya in this village, he attained popularity by the name ‘Kshetrayya’. He wrote love poetry in Telugu in a genre that gained popularity as ‘Padam’. He traveled extensively across south India in his lifetime and his poems won him high merit and recognition from various royal courts. In his own time, the dancers of nearby Kuchipudi village adapted his poems to dance. Kshetrayya Padams became an integral part of the Carnatic music repertoire. These Padams, filled with erotic-devotion towards lord Krishna also became a litmus test of sorts in Bharatanatyam performances in the 20th century. The long list of illustrious artistes from the famous Dhanammal family became the greatest ambassadors of Kshetrayya Padams.

Ilustration of Kshetrayya

Venkata Subramanian (1700- 1765) was born into a Smartha Brahmin family in the Papanasam Taluk of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. The place is famous for a thriving Bhagawata Mela dance-drama tradition and more importantly the ancient temple of Krishna worshipped as ‘Kalinga Nartana’. The temple history states the idol worshipped inside is a ‘Svayambhu’ or self-manifest from the earth. Surrounded by ancient temple towns, musicians and great scholars, it was not too difficult for Venkata Subramanian to take to music at an early age. He got attracted towards lord Krishna and in his devotion composed numerous songs. Various sources mention he composed over five hundred songs both in Tamil and Sanskrit of which a few remain. After settling down in the Oothukadu village, he became popular as Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer and Oothukadu VenkataKavi. In addition to poems and songs, he composed operas, Bhajans and so forth. In the 20th century, Needamangalam Krishnamoorthy Bhagavataar revived him in modern day Carnatic music. In the recent times Chitraveena and Gotuvadyam artiste Ravi Kiran has done a tremendous job in creating awareness about OothukaduKavi’s works. Carnatic vocalist ArunaSairam has popularized his most famous ‘Kalinga Nartana Thillana’.

Oothukadu Venkata Kavi

In addition to these are several others like Narayana Teertha (1650- 1745), Sarangapani (17th century) of Karverinagaram from Andhra, Kanakadasa (1509-1609) from Karnataka and many more who have penned some moving poetry and songs in their Bhakthi for Krishna. A large part of them exist as a ‘living tradition’ thanks to the proliferation of Carnatic music and dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Yakshagana. Though most of these songs are in the local languages and regional dialects, not accessible to a large part of India that has been hijacked by the dominance of Hindi, South India’s love for Krishna might out-do North India’s in many aspects! 

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at

Images courtesy: Krishnamurthy

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