Jayasri

Chamanna’s 125 birthday

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2021 at 10:37 am

Mamidipudi Ramakrishnaiah, our Ramayana writing grandfather would have been 125 today. I was only four when he died, and barely remember Chamanna Tatha., though he was a great, benign presence in my life thanks to Amma (Chamanna’s 9th child Thulasi) who was the most amazing raconteur of stories about her large ,wonderful family- Chamanna and his wife Indira had 16 children, and Amma’s little anecdotes and memories of her maternal home in Nellore .

Our seven Mamas, and six aunts with whom many glorious summers were spent in Nellore, Madras and Bangalore, added to the treasury of tales about their own childhood and how they walked in awe (actally terror!) of their father, whose tall and imposing figure brooked no nonsense. My Big Brothers Subri, and Bunty (who is no longer with us) who were born in Nellore and spent many summer vacations at Tatha’s home in Dandayudhapuram , were lucky enough to have sat at Chamanna Tatha’s knee, and heard the wonderful tale of Ramayana and later the Mahabharata from the great man himself.

Chamanna was born on July 26, 1896 in a village named Purini, Kovoor taluk, Nellore zilla. His father was Venkateshaiah and mother was Narasamma. His elder brother was the illustrious educationist, Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah, who raised Chamanna after they lost their parents.

Chamanna married Indira the daughter of Alladi Mahadeva Sastry, a vedic scholar, who became the first curator of the Oriental Research Insitute set up by the Maharaja Chamarajendar Wadiyar of Mysore, and later worked at the Adyar Library. Chamanna who was a lawyer by profession, settled in Nellore and grew his vast family.

He was passionately interested in the Ramayana, and often regaled his friends and colleagues at the Advocates’ Association, and the clubs where he went to play bridge and billiards with stories from the epic. His annual Rama Navami celebrations and parayanam were legend.. Soon his friends and colleagues encouraged him to write the story of Ramayana in Telugu so that everyone could read the wonderful Adikavya. Chamanna set to work and the Srimad Valmikar Ramayana Kathamruthamu , The Essence of Valmiki Ramayana , in Telugu, was finished in August 1959.. He wrote in his Preface, ” This translation has faithfully followed the Valmiki Ramayana . Wherever I felt it neccesary or appropriate, I have added my own observations and learnings as I went along with the narration. My intention in doing so was to merely emphasize the significance of the sloka, or the importance of a particular character, or incident in the Ramayana.”

When Chamanna was ready with the manuscript,, he wanted more than anything to present it to the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, known as Mahaperiyava, and receive his blessings. On August 9, 1959, he set out with three friends Mocharla Ramakrishna Kavi, Kota Srinivasa Rao and Nelanuthula Sri Krishnamurthy to Kanchi. When they reached Noombal on the outskirts o Madras, they learnt that Mahaperiava was staying there. They happily rushed to where he was staying, and had his darsan.

Ramakrishna Kavi presented a prayer he had composed after which the Mahaperiyava graciously listened to readingis from Chamanna’s Ramayana, and blessed all of them. They returned to Nellore, and from August 16, 1959, the story was read to the people of Nellore over several evenings, and on September 12, 1959, Srimad Valmiki Ramayana Kathamruthamu was released.. Chamanna dedicated his work to his brother Venkatarangaiah, whom he referred to as Guruvarya. Chamanna regarded his brother and sister-in-law Venkamma as his parents who raised him with great affection and educated him.

Chamanna’s Ramayana has since traveled the world, gone into several reprints and transformed in apearance into fine volumes. Six decades since he wrote it, there are very many people who seek copies and read it with devotion.

Amma had a copy and read it regularly at Rama Navami or whenever she felt like it. I too read the Ramayana, first in Amar Chitra Katha, and fell in love with Sita . Amma and I had a tradition- I was a quiet somewhat self-effacing child, blending into the environment , quiet as a mouse, curled up in corner with an Amar Chitra Katha, and wouldn’t care much if Amma went on her jaunts with her friends or sister. When she came back she would tell me all about her outing and if she went to a movie, she would summarize it for me. Sometimes she would tell me a bit of the Ramayana. Once we had a grand afternoon counting how many times poor Dasaratha “murchillinadu” (-fainted) , starting from the time Vishwamitra arrived and Rama left for Dandakaranya. I think it was around 17 times!

Thanks to Amma, i grew up hardly feeling the absence of Chamanna Tatha in my life. For all the greatness of the Ramayana, Rama himself never saw his grandfather, Aja, let alone be dandled on a grandfatherly knee!

Though I understand and speak Telugu, i never read Chamanna’s Ramayana because i couldnt read Telugu. Until one day in 2011, I decided to read the book – a tedious task, made a bit easy by the fact that i could read Kannada very well, and the two languages have very similar script.

And, that is how I met Chamanna and got to know him. I plodded on the reading over three months, and loved Tatha’s little interjections and observations, a note here and a suggestion there, pointing out the significance of one sloka or the importance of another. The lessons to learn from Trisanku’s tale, or take note of the fact that Valmiki never passes judgment on anyone, not even Ravana. Valmiki’s description of Ravana when Surpanakha comes calling is so magnificent and Chamanna conveys it just as grandly, that it is easy to believe Valmiki was more partial to Ravana ! My favorite is Chamanna’s comment on Ravana’s description of Rama whom he has not seen, when he comes to Mareecha with his plans for abducting Sita. “Our Khara, Dushana, Trishiras, and everyone has perished. Rama was banished from his kingdom by his father , and he came to this forest. Rama is most cruel. He is a slave to sensuous pleasures. He is also unrighteous. He is only interested in doing evil to all creatures.” Ravana informs Mareecha.

Chamanna’observation: Ravana is attributing to Rama his own negative traits and the wickedness which is second nature to him. If one were to describe Ravana, this sloka which emerged from his own lips is very apt!]

When Hanuman gets his first glimpse of Sita, forlorn under the Sinsupa tree in Asokavana, Chamanna taught me a bit of Tyagarajja, referencing his compostion “Maa Janaki Chattabattaga, Maharaju vaithivi” in which Tyagaraja is chastising Rama, his aradhya daivam, for ignoring him. “Dont’think you are so great, you could become the king only when you married Sita!” Hanuman thinks, on seeing Sita, that Rama and Sita are perfectly matched, and they truly live in each other’s hearts.

Chamanna’s vast family has always been a family that laughs, loves, lives, and argues in the Ramayana, and it wasn’t long before i felt I should translate Chamanna’ s Ramayana into English. I have completed the translation and cannot begin to describe the immeasurable joy it has brought me- the story which is read for the first time every time, the story that reveals new truths every time.

Before I translated Chamanna’s Ramayana, I often wondered if he knew of my existence, let alone my name.This was because i was born in Bangalore, not Nellore. Amma would say, “don’t be silly! of course he knew!” While reading his Ramayana, I got an answer to this question, andd many many more questions. Every reading is a conversation with Chamanna Tatha, and though I envy Subri and all the older cousins who grew up with his presence in their lives. I do not feel cheated anymore, for he speaks to me through the Ramayana!

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