Some films rank high not necessarily for their quality aesthetics or technical finesse, but because they could impact society at a particular point in time. When Sankarabharanam released 30 years ago, the Deccan — much like the rest of India — was undergoing a transition in the artistic tastes of its people. Music wasn’t unaffected by this phenomenon. Traditional tunes went almost mute as Western pop and rock were fast becoming the new wave, thanks to an imitative hippie culture that was driving the youths crazy. Classical music, even in the best of times, had no takers at a massive level, but its existence was particularly pathetic in the 1970s. The Carnatic idiom was ridiculed as outdated, its masters were portrayed as virtual jokers and its rasikas were dubbed obscurantist.
It was against this backdrop that Dr K Vishwanath came up with his musical film in Telugu. It released in just one theatre and opened to an empty hall. But it eventually turned out be one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of Indian cinema. So, what was special about this 143-minute movie that was dubbed into other southern languages and later remade in Hindi as Sur Sangam?
Surely, it wasn’t that classical music was used for the first time as a leitmotif in Indian cinema. In fact, one can say Sankarabharam did to Carnatic music what Baiju Bawra did to Hindustani music — more than a quarter century before. In 1952, Prakash Pictures’ Baiju Bawra took classical music to the homes of the common man upcountry.
Sankarabharanam, which mainly delves on the ‘sanctity’ of guru-shishya parampara and the ‘divinity’ of classical music, has J V Somayajulu playing Shankara Shastri, a classical vocalist and a living legend. He is worshipped and adored by the daughter of a prostitute Tulasi, who seeks liberation through his music and learns music from him by observing him. One day, Tulasi kills a
Zamindar who rapes her and seeks refuge under Shastri. He takes Tulasi to his home, which leads to his ostracisation in the village. Tulasi leaves him, not wanting to hurt him.
Years roll by. Classical music is no more popular and Shastri has lost his concerts and audience. Tulasi sends her 12-year-old son to learn classical music from Shastri, but tells him not to reveal his identity. Shastri takes the boy under his tutelage, and thus begins a wonderful journey of the teacher and student. He washes his clothes, helps him bathe, presses his feet and cooks for him. Shastri’s daughter gets a marriage proposal. But he no more commands wealth as he did in the days of yore and is deeply in debt. Unknown to Shastri, Tulasi helps him paying off all his dues. On the day of wedding, Shastri finds his long-lost audience, and he performs after many years. But he is unable to sing and is overcome by a fit of coughs. Tulasi’s son picks up from where his guru stops and completes the song. Shastri anoints him his successor and falls dead. Tulsi too collapses then and there at his feet.
The movie is believed to be loosely based on the life of Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu, who was fourth in the lineage of Saint Thyagaraja. A young student of his, Murali Krishna attained fame in the world of classical music at the age of eight. Today, he is the acclaimed vocalist M Balamurali Krishna.
K Vishwanath got musical maestro K V Mahadevan to score Sankarabharanam’s music. It would be an understatement to say that the movie stood largely on the gigantic pillar called Mahadevan, the first music director to win a National Award for Best Music Direction in 1967 for Kandan Karunai.
He scored hit after hit, bringing popular Carnatic compositions like Manasa Sanchara re and Brocheva revarura closer to the masses. But the surprise in the pack was S P Balasubramanian, who, without any formal training in classical music, sang one kirtanam after another to thunderous applause. If
Somayajulu gave a face to Shankara Shastri, it was SPB who gave a soul and voice to him. Vishwanath does not devalue Western music to elevate Carnatic classical in his work. He respects all traditions in the movie.
Somayajulu (1928-2004) made his debut with Sankarabharanam, after a successful stint in theatre. Vishwanath chose Manju Bhargavi, a classical dancer by profession, after he saw a few of her photos without make-up. While Somayajulu carries himself impeccably, throwing life into the character of Shastri, Manju strikes a contrast in
the movie. In the dance sequences, she transforms into a figurine from a Chola Temple while in others she carries the calm composure of Tulasi.
A flurry of movies in the South Indian film industry followed Sankarabharanam, most being cheap imitations of the classic, though none could match its glory or popularity. It was also released in Malayalam with the songs in Telugu. Vishwanath himself tried to replicate the success with movies like Saptapadi, Swarna Kamalam and Sagara Sangamam, but he could not better the work that brought him fame.
It would be a misnomer to say that Sankarabharanam owes its cult status to its songs alone. Sankarabharam had a story that was unconventional and difficult to sell. It was quite a bold attempt to portray a love-story, bordering on devotion, between a classical maestro and a prostitute. Vishwanath was passing a social comment through the higher love of Shastri and Tulasi. Tulasi is a metaphor for the inner purity that is found wanting in the society and hence is left misunderstood by it. Her desire to get salvation for the poison in her womb (the illegitimate child) through his tutelage under Shastri is compared to the salvation that Vasuki, the serpent, seeks through his union with Shiva. Incidentally, Sankarabharanam literally means a snake!
But the most touching aspect of the movie is the focus on the guru-shishya parampara. Shastri’s legacy would end with him if he did not anoint a successor to his musical tradition. Every maestro worth his music knows that it is a game of providence which brings a great guru and a great shishya
together. If it does not happen, the tradition dies with him. Tulasi’s son is that link for Shastri to further his legacy, which he proves in the climax song where he takes over from his guru. It is a poignant reminder to the fact that the parampara is almost dead.
Sankarabharanam received a dull response on its release but went on to become one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of Telugu cinema, with film historians comparing its success with Maya Bazaar. In 1980, Sankarabharanam swept the National Awards, winning the award for Best Popular Film Proving Wholesome Entertainment, Best Music Direction, Best Male Playback Singer (SPB) and Best Female Playback Singer (Vani Jayaram).
In times such as these when the debate of popular versus classical goes on, Sankarabharanam continues to be relevant. The DVD sales of Sankarabharanam in Malayalam (the dubbed version) is still going strong!
— The writer blogs at http://visionsofcinema.blogspot.com