How did an unusual morning greeting by a teacher to his pupil become one of the most popular prayer songs in India?
Venkatesa Suprabhatam – The Story of India’s Most Popular Prayer (Westland publications) is a recent book that tells the curious story of how a prayer song, whose origins date back to sometime in the 5th century, found a new form at one of India's prominent temples and which we listen to even in the 21st century in our homes. The Suprabhatam continues to be a marvel in its modern recorded audio form, thanks to its radio broadcast first, then audio cassettes, CDs and now downloadable apps.
The author Venkatesh Parthasarathy traces the tale of how a “prayer song became a way of life”, as millions of Indians, especially in south India, wake up to a recorded version of the Suprabhatam sung by the Carnatic doyenne MS Subbulakshmi in their homes even today.
It all began as a short verse in the Balakanda canto of Valmiki’s epic Ramayana. The prince’s guru, sage Vishwamitra awakened his pupil Rama with the verse, ‘Kaushalya supraja Rama purva sandhya pravartate’ or ‘Awaken Rama, Kaushalya’s son, as the world lights up with the sun’s rays and your duties for the wellbeing of the Earth beckon’.
Much later, around 1420, a poet in Andhra Pradesh called Prativadi Bhayankar Anna composed the stanzas that followed Valmiki’s opening verse that came to be sung as the Suprabhatam. As Anna was closely associated with the Tirumala Sri Venkateshwara Temple in Tirupati, this prayer song was rendered by the temple singers as part of the early morning prayers before the sanctum of the presiding deity.
The prayer song, the author reveals, remained an almost “semi-private recitation” before the shrine of Balaji for long until audio recordings and the broadcast of the Suprabhatam on radio, as part of AIR’s morning programmes, changed the nature of this song. According to Parthasarathy, it could have been the brainwave of an intrepid employee of HMV, the gramophone company, who was perhaps a devotee and frequent visitor to the Tirupati temple who thought of the bright idea of recording the song.
The earliest known recording of this song was rendered by PV Ananthasayanam Iyengar who was a singer at the temple. He was deputed by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam office to teach the song to MS Subbulakshmi.
It was the time when many female singers took to recording songs for the AIR stations. As Kushal Gopalka, Mumbai-based musicologist says, “Most of the female singers then were devadasis attached to temples who traditionally sung praises to the deity like Thiruchendur Shunmuga Vadivoo, Coimbatore Thayi among others”.
The Suprabhatam acquired its devotional anthemnal quality by the sheer magic of its lyrical beauty and the singing splendour of MS Subbulakshmi, points out Parthasarathy.
MS Subbulakshmi’s recitation of the Suprabhatam was recorded and broadcast in 1958 on AIR and it changed the prayer and made it one of the “best loved prayers in India”. The 20-minute Suprabhatam recording also went on to become one of the highest selling non-film songs in the history of Indian recorded music. It would not be wrong to say that MS Subbulakshmi’s musical personality as a devotional singer flourished across the country with a growing celebrity fandom from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan joining in.
Gopalka points out that “If we put the other highly popular LPs recordings by MS like Bhaja Govindam, Vishnu Sahasranamam, Meera Bhajans alongside the Suprabhatam, it would make her one of the highest LP record artists pertaining to devotional music”.
Devotional music recordings of all faiths are a huge enterprise in India. Sahasra Namam, readings from the Koran, kirtans of Guru Nanak have all been recorded since the 1900s until 1970s on gramophone discs and on vinyls until the 1990s. Juthika Roy was hailed as the “Aadhunik Meera” due to her popularity as a bhajan artist with over 200 gramophone disc recordings to her credit, says Gopalka. The Gayatri mantra by Anuradha Paudwal, Radhe Krishna Bol by Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas, Hair Om Sharan, Meera bhajans, Tulsi Ramayan by Mukesh were all chartbusters.
“By the first decade of the 21st century MS Subbulakshmi’s recording of the Suprabhatam has become one of the largest selling records of all time in Indian history”, writes Parthasarathy. The legend of Vishnu at Tirumala, the heritage and history surrounding the Tirupati temple, the gramophone and radio boom in India and the magic of one woman’s voice all combined to yield the unusual phenomenon of the Suprabhatam.
In the land where epics continue to rouse passions, the Suprabhatam prayer song continues to heal and awaken millions each morning.
(The author is a Delhi-based journalist)