Adorned with the jewel called Sankarabharanam

Classical music has been used quite often as a leitmotif in Indian cinema. But there were reasons why Dr. K.Vishwanath’s Sankarabharanam was a class apart. It was the year 1979. Classical music was down on the popularity charts. With an imitated hippie culture seeping in, pop and rock had become the new wave with few takers for Carnatic music. It was in this milieu that Sankarabharanam was released.
The movie, which mainly delves on the guru-shishya parampara and the divinity of classical music, has Somayajulu playing Shankara Shastri, a classical vocalist and a living legend, who is revered by all as Saraswati putra. 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. Shastri takes Tulasi to his home, earning defamy and ostracization in his village. Tulasi leaves him, not wanting to be the cause of his defamy.
Years roll by. Classical music is no more popular and Shastri has lost his concert 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 Shastri no more commands wealth as he did in the days of yore and is deep under debt. Unknown to Shastri, Tulasi helps him by repaying his dues to the money-lender. The day of marriage marks a new beginning for Shastri. He finds his long-lost audience, who return to him and he performs after many years. But he is unable to sing and is overcome by a fit of cough. Tulasi’s son starts from where his guru ends and completes the song. Shastri annoints him his successor and falls dead after passing on the legacy. Tulsi too collapses then and there at his feet. But her son is alive, to carry forward the parampara of music to yet another age.

The movie is believed to be loosely based on the life of `Gayaka Sarvabhauma’ 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 classcial music at the age of eight. Today he is the living legend of Carnatic music Padmabhushan Dr. Balamurali Krishna.
Sankarabharam did to Carnatic music what Baiju Bawra did to Hindustani music in the north. In 1952, Prakash Pictures’ Baiju Bawra took classical music to the homes of the common man. K.Vishwanath got musical maestro K.V.Mahadevan to score the music of Sankarabharanam. It would be an understantement to say that the movie stood largely on the gigantic pillar called Mahadevan, who was also the first music director to win a National Award for Best Music Direction in 1967 for Kandan Karunai. Casting the songs in the melliflous mould of Carnatic music, Mahadevan 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 S.P who gave a soul and voice to it.

Somayajulu made his debut with Sankarabharanam, after a successful stint in theatre. Manju Bhargavi, a classical dancer by profession, was chosen by Vishwanath after he saw a few of her photos without make-up. While Somayajulu carries himself impeccably, throwing life into the character of Sahstri, 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 his own masterpiece.
Vishwanath does not devalue western music to elevate Carnatic classical in his work. He respects all traditions, even the western ones in the movie. It would be a misnomer to say that Sankarabharanam owes its cult status to its songs alone. Sankarabharam had a story which was unconventional and difficult to sell. It was quite a bold attempt to portray a love-story, bordering around 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 illegetimate 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. Sankara Shastri’s legacy would end with him if he does not annoint 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 leagcy, which he proves in the cimax song where he takes sover his guru. The scenes where he bathes Shastri and presses his feet while he goes to sleep are heartening. It is a poignant reminder to the fact that the parampara as we see in the movie is almost dead. Times have changed and so have traditions.

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 (S.P.Balasubramanian) and Best Female Playback Singer (Vani Jairam).
In times such as these when the debate on popular versus classical rages on, Sankarabharanam continues to be relevant. In the past twenty years, it has endured and does not fail to enthrall the viewers. It can be gauged from the fact that the DVD sales of Sankarabharanam in Malayalam (dubbed version) is still going strong! Like the jeeva-dhaara of classical music, Sankarabharanam too will continue to flow in the consciouness of the movie-viewers of this country for a long time to come.

(This article was published in the Sunday Magazine of The New Sunday Express)

7 thoughts on “Adorned with the jewel called Sankarabharanam

Add yours

  1. You are the best. I have become a fan for the subjects you choose and the way you write.
    I have seen this film a number of times simply for its music,balu & K.Vishwanath, but didn't know about it so much. Thanks.


  2. Sir,
    Though I entirely agree with the contents of the article, I would like to point out one mistake. This film has not been awarded for 'best music direction' as mentioned by you. It was for best direction. Sri Veenai S.Balachander was responsible for this film not getting best music direction award. He has stated that Sri K.V.Mahadevan, a profound carnatic musician himself, has not composed a single song for just one minute in the pure carnatic tradition, that is why I have not awarded him with best music direction. The south Indian Film artistes opposed to this move. But in no vain.


  3. Remember this movie.. Saw it when I was young or rather made to see it by my dad who loves carnatic music.
    South Indians and lovers of carnatic music will never forget this movie.. A delightful experience.

    Sagara Sangamam was good maybe not as good as sankarabaranam…. and there are some little gems in malayalam and kannada with carnatic music as its theme like His Highness Abdulla and Malaya Marutha with some superb songs by K J Yesudas…


  4. You write beautifully. Thanks for providing a context to the movie. I didnot know that this movie was loosely based on Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu garu.
    Information & reviews about older telugu cinema very hard to come by on the internet. Please write more about the other Viswanath movies & b/w movies too.


  5. This is an excellent post on this film! You've succinctly explained the point and appeal of this film and given some excellent insights which is invaluable for someone like me who hasn't been able to find a copy of this film with subtitles. I'm especially interested in looking more into the Baiju Bawra film you mentioned. Just wanted to say thanks for an excellent read. 🙂


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