PuTiNa and many of his contemporaries wrote lyrical poems (ballads) that followed the traditions of classical music (vaaggEyakaara tradition). Those poems were intended to be sung and sung in a prescribed raaga (set of musical notations). PuTiNa was the most successful of his contemporaries who attempted to compose musical ballads that had a base in carnatic classical tradition. He used to say that when he was composing a poem he used to often think in abstract root forms of sound (ಧಾತು, dhaatu) which would gradually take the shape of words (ಮಾತು, maatu). He dreamt of those abstract musical forms oscillating in symphony. He would wake up startled and try to describe what he saw in words, as if trying to catch a mystical ephemeral fish with a tardy verbal net. He may catch it or he may fail. All in all, his poems had their origin in abstract forms of musical sound.
Something similar could be said about the poetry of Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre (ದ ರಾ ಬೇಂದ್ರೆ; 1896-1981). However, there are important differences between the musical vision of PuTiNa and that of Bendre. For Bendre musical sounds were symbols. They had no meaning. If you try to find meaning in some of Bendre’s words (from his poems), you wouldn’t find any. He rejected meaning. It seemed as though he was describing something through a poem but at the end, he would say it was something else. After a lengthy and beautifully engaging narrative, Bendre would point towards something that is beyond what he described until then. His description of an event, a thing, a thought would culminate in not perceiving it as just that event or a thing or a thought. Meaning manifested itself beyond his descriptions. Bendre’s was a distinguished musical wizardry. PuTiNa was not like Bendre. PuTiNa was more of a devotee, a devotee of musical worship. He was very good at it. Doreswamy Iyengar (ದೊರೆಸ್ವಾಮಿ ಅಯ್ಯಂಗಾರ್; 1920-1997; a colossus of Mysore veena tradition), a friend of PuTiNa, used to examine PuTiNa’s compositions. Doreswamy Iyengar would remark “how did you come up with this unique movement? So far, no one has attempted such a thing in this raaga” (check: foot note). PuTiNa used to explain his attempts to catch the musical movements of his dreams. Unfortunately, limitations in his singing abilities would obstruct his enthusiasm. We had to imagine his imaginations through his bodily mannerisms as he tried to explain his dreams. How could we, mere laymen, understand what he meant?
PuTiNa had a special longing for Carnatic music. As I said earlier, he was a devotee of musical worship. Not any music…it had to be in pure classical tradition. You might be surprised to know that PuTiNa had no particular liking for folk music. He had once said that folk music could not create something of the highest order……”one that repeated itself could not accomplish recreation”. As we know, repetitions are typical of folk music. PuTiNa’s stand on folk music could create a dangerous controversy in today’s musical discourse. PuTiNa did not like other forms of music such as light-music (cinema) and music linked to dancing. When accomplished theater-director B V Karanth (ಬಿ ವಿ ಕಾರಂತ; 1929-2002) produced and directed PuTiNa’s master piece ‘Gokula Nirgamana’ (ಗೋಕುಲ ನಿರ್ಗಮನ), the whole state of Karnataka was singing BVK’s praises. All of us were so happy that a difficult ballad had been so successfully adapted for a stage performance that too under the guidance of B V Karanth. However, PuTiNa was the sole person left unhappy in the end. I remember the day I watched the theater performance. It was in Suchitra Kala Kendra in Banashankari (Bangalore). I had to stand behind the back row to watch the play as the theater was jam-packed. There were two important personalities sitting next to each other in the front row. One of course was PuTiNa and the other was Doreswamy Iyengar. They were chatting, making some gestures to each other continuously through the play and that was enough to make me doubt their verdict. I met PuTiNa the morning after and remarked how wonderful the play was. He lamented that the play won but his music had lost. He was deeply pained by the fact that B V Karanth had not retained the musical score set by him in its original classical form.
Let me tell you another incident that shows how PuTiNa did not like non-classical music. C Ashwath (ಸಿ. ಅಶ್ವತ್ಥ; 1936-2009), a famous voice in Kannada folk music, once came to me and asked whether I could arrange a meeting between PuTiNa and him. It was Ashwath’s wish to sing and produce recordings of some of the more famous ballads composed by PuTiNa and he wanted to obtain the poet’s permission. Ashwath and I went to meet PuTiNa. PuTiNa welcomed Ashwath and asked him to sing one of his trademark versions of a folk song and patted him saying it was very good. Ashwath came to the point. He requested PuTiNa’s permission to produce recordings of his compositions. PuTiNa agreed straight away and told him to sing some of his early poems (poems that were inspired by PuTiNa’s stint in the Indian army). Ashwath was taken aback. He was asking permission to sing lyrical ballads and PuTiNa had songs for cadet march-past to offer. Ashwath was deeply disappointed.
After PuTiNa’s passing away (in the year 1998), a trust was formed in his name. The PuTiNa trust wanted to preserve and promote PuTiNa’s classical compositions in their original form. They commissioned a recording of selected works of PuTiNa and the responsibility was given to D Balakrishna (the son of Doreswamy Iyengar), an accomplished veena artiste himself. His team came out with an outstanding collection called Raaga RaagiNi. It was a special tribute to PuTiNa, a tribute that he would have loved. But, no one knows today that a recording by the name Raaga RaagiNi ever existed. What do people know? People know that there was a CD named Honala HaaDu, comprising some of the same compositions, produced by C Ashwath! After PuTiNa’s demise, the PuTiNa trust did not stop with Raaga RaagiNi. It also approached Ashwath and requested him to produce Honala HaaDu, a proposal PuTiNa had not liked. Ashwath’s recordings became very popular and to his credit he reconnected the poet with the masses. Ashwath was satisfied and felt that if PuTiNa were to listen to Honala HaaDu, he might have changed his original stance. However, I have my doubts. If I know PuTiNa, I could say that he couldn’t be satisfied with anything other than Carnatic classical music.
I wish to conclude with one final anecdote. One day I had been to PuTiNa’s home. I announced that it was me, Venkatesha Murthy, who had come to see him (PuTiNa’s eye sight was not good in his late years). He was pleased. He asked me to sit down. He told me that he had not slept for the whole of previous night. I asked him why. He showed his helplessness regarding his dreams. He said “that woman…that woman had come again to disturb my sleep”. What? A woman disturbing PuTiNa’s sleep in his ripe old age? I asked him rather mischievously “sir, who is that gorgeous lady? Give her address to me”. He declared that she was not in the reach of people like him and me. It was Urvashi, a mythological figure, one of the most beautiful women from the heavens. She would come to him every night in his dream to remind him to complete an incomplete work about her. At the time, PuTiNa was writing a play titled as Urvashi and she was dragging her feet. She was pushing him to complete the play. This was PuTiNa. To him, everything in this world was natural and real. Every imagination was real. Everything about him was pure. He once lived amongst us. We were fortunate to spend some time with him. It has been a pleasure to remember him today.
This is the second and final part of an English translation of a speech in Kannada delivered by poet H S Venkatesha Murthy during a PuTiNa memorial function held in Bangalore in the year 2011. I was lucky to be there in the audience.
you can read the first part here Pu Ti Narasimhachar (PuTiNa): a tribute by his pupil H S Venkatesha Murthy (Part 1)
Foot note: It is useful here to remind the reader that Carnatic music is as much extemporaneous as it is set in stone by the great composers. An accomplished musician might seem as though s/he is exploring a raaga with their innate imagination. There is a lot of personal tuning that goes into it. However, in reality, their imagination is fueled by the established musical movements already experimented in some form in some composition by some composer in the history of Carnatic music. It takes a special talent to better something that is already improved close to perfection. Of course there is scope, because being very close to perfection is not equivalent to being perfect.