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tenAli rAma kRShNuDu


tenAli rAma kRShNuDu


tenAli rAma kRShNuDu is traditionally counted among the eight great aShTadiggaja poets in the court of Emperor of Vijayanagara, Sri Krishna Deva Raya (reign: 1509-30). However, it is likely that he was only a boy when Krishna Deva Raya was on the throne. He might even be younger than another great poet raamaraaja bhUshaNa. He belonged to a Saiva smaarta family and lived during the late 1500s. His family had originally hailed from tenAli in Guntur District. He was perhaps settled in the raayalaseema region during later life. This association with southern Telugu region seems to have influenced his decision to compose GhaTikAcala mAhAtmyamu (about the narasimha kshEtram in ShOlingaram near Chittoor). This work set the tone for his other famous Vaishnava works. He appears to have received an agrahaaraM from the imperial court. He mentions his mother as lakshmamma.


He wrote pAnDuranga mAhAtmyamu (on viThThala of panDaripuram -a story from skAnda puprANam). It is counted as among the five great books of Telugu Literature (panca kaavya). He also composed udBhatArAdhya caritramu (on the life of a monk, udBhata) in addition to the GhTikAcala mAhAtmyamu as well as a great many cATu verses. One of the most celebrated characters in all Telugu literature, "nigama Sarma akka," was his creation (pAnDuranga mAhAtmyamu).

It is said that rAma kRShNa's given name was rAma lingaDu and that he was a Saiva in his youth (hence the ArAdhya caritram). He changed his name to suite the vaiShNava patronage at the imperial court. There is a debate that the two names Ramakrishna and Ramalinga denote two separate individuals. Ramalinga might have been senior to the other by several decades. But the the discussion is inclonclusive -for now.

Stories, mostly a result of popular imagination, about rAmakRShNuDu and his practical jokes on every one around him including distinguished fellow poets, the vaiShNava guru tAtAcAri and even the emperor himself abound in south India. He has been a popular character even in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. He was known as a vikaTa kavi -clown-jester-poet! He was considered by his peers as a junior (and hence tolerable) member of the famous group of poets of this time. There was a Doordarshan series on "Tenali Ram." Although the oral tradition portrays him as a clever jester, he was a great scholar of several languages (including marAThi, tamiL, kannaDa, etc.) and wrote one of the greatest poetic works in telugu. He described himself as one who can make Sanskrit look like Telugu and vice versa. He also declared that he has no equal in "Andhra kavitA vidyA bala prauDhi." His kalpanA Sakti and UhA saundaryam can be seen from the famous poem below telling us that tungaBhadra river is only a tributary (to Krishna river) and does not directly join the sea:

gaMgA saMgama miccagiMcune, madin^ gAvEri dEvErigA
naMgeekAramonarcunE, yamunatO nAnaMdamuM boMdunE,
raMgattuMga taraMga hastamula nA ratnAkarEMdruMDu nee
yaMgaMbaMTi suKhiMcunEni, guNaBhadrA ! tuMgaBhadrAnadee
! | SA | [pA. 1-139]


His cATu (extempore) verses are about as legendary as they get, e.g.,

narasiMha kRShNarAyani
karamarudagu keerti yoppe garibhi dgiribhi
tkari karibhidgiri giribhi
tkaribhi dgiribhi tturaMga kamaneeyaMbai
| ka |


Many stories are told about his great poetic brilliance and wit. Rama Krishna was also known for famously mocking fellow poets and other important personalities. It is said that Allasani Peddana composed an extempore poem:

kalanATi dhanamu lakkara@m
galanATiki dAca@m gamalagarBhuni vaSamA,
nelanaDimi nATi ven&nela
yalavaDunE gAde bOya amavasa niSikin

{Not even God can save the money
you have when you are rich
for the moment you might need it.

If you pour light
from the moon
into a safe, can you take it out
on a moonless night?}*

In the poem above, the last phrase amavasa niSi should have properly contained amaavaasya. Although Peddana's usage is acceptable, it is looked down upon as a word used by illiterate folk. Peddana obviously used the truncated word since the fuller version would not fit the prescribed meter. Rama Krishna got wind of the poem and immediately composed a mocking poem full of irreverence for the senior poet.

emi dini sepitivi kapitamu?
brama vaDi veri puccakAya vaDi dini sepitO?
umetakkaya dini sepitO?
yamavasa niSi yanina mATa yalasani pedanA?

{What did you have for breakfast,
Alasani Pedana,
before you made this verse?
Probably the squash
that makes poetry
into mush.}*

Rama Krishna's poem mercilessly illustrates the ridiculousness of cutting short syllables in order to make them fit a given meter. He does not spare even the name of Allasani Peddana from such surgical alteration!


In another episode, a Scholar of Sanskrit is said to have visited the imperial court at Vijayanagara. This scholar was of the opinion that much of the Telugu poetry is of low quality compared to that in Sanskrit and retorted:

aaMdhra bhaashaa mayaM kaavyaM ayO maya vibhUshaNaM
{A poem made out of Telugu
is like a necklace made of iron-}*

Before he could finish the verse, Rama Krishna got up and finished it for him thus:

saMskRtaaraNya saMcaari vidvan&mttEbha SRMkhalaM
{a perfect chain to restrain
pandits prowling like wild elephants
through the Sanskrit jungle trails.}*


Rama Krishna's younger brother tenAli annayya was a poet in his own right and wrote sudakshiNA pariNayam.



Seshu Madhava Rao Adluri
First posted: June 1999.
*Acknowledgement: The translation of the cATu verses was due to Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, 1998. "A Poem at the Right Moment," Univ. of California Press.
Corrections including typos, suggestions, and additions will be gratefully appreciated.
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