Traditionally, a suprabhatam is supposed to have four sections. This book too has been organised into four sub-divisions. The first section traces the evolution of the worship of Lord Vishnu and sets the context for the composition of the prayer. The second section includes the life of the composer Prativadi Bhayankara Anna himself, and attempts to estimate the date of composition and the early history of its recitations. The third section covers the period from the sixteenth century to Independence. The fourth section traces the recitational history of the prayer since 1947. Woven through the story of the prayer are stories of the region, the system of worship, the teachers, the composers, and those who recited it.
This work is for the lay reader. Anything new that I may have stumbled upon is accidental and needs further validation. While I have tried my best to keep the spirit behind the work intact, the narrative faces the challenge of 'translation'-in several instances, literal meanings were not adequate and it was difficult to articulate relevant concepts in English. Since this is an 'external' biography of the prayer, metaphysical and philosophical digressions are outside the scope of this book-that is for the religious teachers to expound. There are few direct evidences relating to the recitation of the prayer prior to the twentieth century and hence much of the story has been inferred.
Exegesis for each verse has been offered in keeping with the 'external' nature of this work. This is based on my reading of various secondary sources. I could not find any older traditional commentary on the prayer and have relied on two recent commentaries that are in the public domain-one is a recent one in Telugu by Professor Raghavacharya and the second includes English notes of Professor Venkatacharya's translation published by the Adyar Library.
The limited goal of this work is to evoke curiosity and enjoyment about this part of our heritage.
My school-level study of Sanskrit ended in Class VIII in school. But there remained a nagging sense of a path abandoned. This lack led me to many sporadic starts in various classical languages, till I finally enrolled in Samskrita Bharati's two-year correspondence course in Sanskrit. I completed the course and was motivated to study more.
Then I enrolled for the exams conducted by the Samskrita Bhasha Pracharini Sabha, Chitoor in Andhra Pradesh-the once legendary Chitoor Board. The Chitoor Board was constituted in 1948 by a group of Sanskrit teachers and well-wishers close to the town whose name the board now bears. It seems that the founding group, in a moment of collective prescience, concluded that the standards of teaching in general, and of Sanskrit in particular, will decline sharply in modern India. They then set to define (and it seems cast in stone) a scheme of study upto the equivalent of a post graduate level which they believed would ensure continued rigour. The syllabus has not changed since then, nor has the cost of material or the course fees. Ten rupees for a textbook may have been a lot of money in 1948, but by the early twenty-first century such a fee structure is sure recipe for extinction.
The board is housed in an old building in a narrow back lane in Chitoor, Andhra Pradesh. There was a government grant at some point, but that seems to be in abeyance now. Every exam seems to be the last one the board will conduct. It is kept alive as a tribute to those who are no more, by a group of teachers whose average age is now in the mid-sixties. Of late, the board seems to have got some impetus thanks to the efforts of enthusiastic admirers but it is still a long way from recovering its old glory. Ironically, in the midst of the general resurgence in interest in the language in many parts of the country, one of the best Sanskrit courses in modern times survives largely on love and thin air. I am currently a student of this tenuous scheme of study.
This situation may be true of most classical languages in India. Sanskrit is lucky that, of late, there are many who have taken up the cudgels on its behalf, but I wonder how many folks are still left in India who can read, write, or teach one of the more obscure languages-Avestan, for example. Even within Sanskrit, knowledge of different scripts is vanishing rapidly. Almost the entire corpus of Sanskrit manuscripts in peninsular India is not in the Devanagari script. Grantha, which was widely used in South India for Sanskrit till a century ago, still has enough scholars who can read the script fluently but their numbers decrease by the day.
We don't even know the status of the lesser known scripts-many may already be extinct. In a decade or two, when the older scholars and the last of the dedicated epigraphists pass away, a massive proportion of the manuscript corpus available in India will become incomprehensible to Indians. The consequence of not studying our own heritage is that we will have to rely on the interpretations of others.
If one works diligently, the Chitoor Board curriculum is so thorough that by the time one reaches the equivalent of the Class XII (which is where I am) one can approach many original texts and their commentaries without breaking a sweat. You may struggle with a Bana Bhatta or a Dandi, but Bhartrihari and Kalidasa are accessible, and the Itihasas and the Puranas more so (though it is best to keep a copy of the Apte dictionary, the definitive Sanskrit-English dictionary, and a magnifying glass close by).
For most of its history, the Venkatesa Suprabhatam poem was a quiet semi-private recitation by a few in the sanctum at Tirumala. Its popularity in the twentieth century has ensured that it eclipses nearly all other devotional prayers-many with arguably greater devotional fervour or literary merit. MS's rendition-the obvious cause of such popularity-alone cannot explain its continuing appeal. It needed a deeper dive into the prayer's story; and that has made this journey personally satisfying.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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